I crouch in the dark railcar, gripping a plastic tarp around me. The cold wind beats at my face. Beyond the metal lip of the car is the black fir forest of Oregon's Cascade Mountains, the trees silhouettes against the bright, moonlit snow. These trees bear witness to my train rushing past, train cars rocking and groaning as we hurtle along the track at sixty miles an hour. I press my numb fingers into my palm, counting off the hours until dawn. One, two, three, four. I pull the water bottle from my pack and shake it—empty. When did I drink the last of it? I can't remember. All night I've been drifting in and out of a dim, strange place without time, too cold to really sleep. I remember the moment, earlier today, when I lost my sleeping bag to the train. I'd just woken from a nap. The thundering of the train was ceaseless, the slice of sky visible above the lip of our railcar empty of trees. I looked over at my friend Sami, curled in her sleeping bag on the other side of the car, and I figured I'd cross the railcar to talk to her, since there was too much noise for us to shout. For stability, I gripped the underside of the semi-truck trailer that sat in the railcar as I worked my way along the narrow ledge between the two large holes in the floor of the car, over to Sami's side. I sat next to her on her sleeping pad and we shouted about our wonder and shared a bag of dried mango. The train slowed and then lurched, picking up speed again. This turned the four-foot-wide hole in the floor into a vacuum of strong, sucking wind, and my zero-degree sleeping bag, which I'd just shoplifted the day before for this trip, rose from the foam pad onto which I'd unstuffed it, tumbled a bit, and was slurped into the hole as if into a hell-mouth, gone forever.
I started laughing, dried mango stuck to my teeth, too shocked to do anything else. Sami stared at the hole, horrified. It was February, and the low farmlands of the Willamette Valley were dark with gray clouds that never left, resulting in a persistent cold drizzle that stung your cheeks. I might be okay without a sleeping bag here. But in a matter of hours our train would climb into the Cascades, and we weren't entirely sure, but we figured it would be colder up there. Maybe there would even be snow.
'F*** f*** f***!' I yelled, into the wind.
'I have a tarp you can use,' Sami shouted at me. She pulled a folded blue bundle from the top of her pack. I took it gratefully. It would be dark soon, and there wouldn't be anything to do but bed down in the rumble and the wind and wait for dawn. I crossed back to my side of the car and sat on my foam pad, taking stock of my things. I had a wool sweater, a flannel shirt, a hat, a pair of gloves, a rain jacket. I was wearing heavy, double-knee Carhartts and leather hiking boots, both of which I'd shoplifted. I'd be warm enough tonight with these things, wouldn't I? How cold did it get in the Cascade Mountains in February, anyway? I had a few days' worth of nuts, dried fruit, and canned beans, and one liter of water. We'd arrived at the trainyard with two liters each, and I'd drunk one of mine while waiting for our train. I was pretty sure my remaining liter wasn't enough to get me the rest of the way to Los Angeles—why hadn't I brought more? Well, there was nothing to be done now.
Now, in this late hour, I know the answer to my earlier question: it is very cold in the Cascade Mountains in February, especially when you are hurtling along at breakneck speed and you have no real protection from the wind. I pull the blue tarp tighter around me, strain to see shapes in the glittering dark. How long until we cross from Oregon into California, and then drop down into the warm desert? And how long until we reach L.A., our destination? One more day? Three? The fir forest blurs past, its hollows piled with snow. The trees observe without judgment, as they have for my entire life.
I think back to two days ago when Sami and I were sitting on the lip of this railcar, having just climbed onto the train.
'It's okay,' she said. 'This car is safe.'
The railcar was shaped like a shoebox with no top, and we were looking down inside it. The car didn't look rideable. It looked dangerous. Instead of a solid metal floor, there were two large holes, each four feet across, through which we could see the train tracks. On either side of each of these holes was just a scrap of floor, about twelve inches wide. This ledge was where we would sleep, eat, and hang out until our train reached L.A. To complicate things further, the back half of a semi-truck was sitting in this railcar. We would have to crawl between the huge truck tires to get to the little ledges where we could rest, each of us on one side of one of the large holes. Our view would be the hoses and grimy pipes of the underside of the truck. The truck's mud flaps would be our only protection from the wind.
'See,' said Sami as she jumped down into the car. 'Perfectly safe.' She pulled off her large canvas military backpack and pushed it in front of her, under the axle of the truck. She reached a ledge and clipped the straps of her pack around a metal pipe that ran the length of the railcar. 'You attach your pack to the car so it doesn't fall in the hole when the train is moving. Then you just make sure that you don't fall in the hole.'
I followed on my hands and knees, gripping the edge of the railcar. A hiss, like a bike tire deflating, ran the length of the train, from one car to the next—the brakes releasing. I had been told to listen for this sound. The train lurched, there was a scream of twisting metal, and the tracks below us began to move. The train was moving. I had climbed onto a freight train and now it was moving!
'Shit!' said Sami. 'Get under here, quick! We don't want the bull to see us!'
'Bull,' I had recently learned, was what the rail cop was called. We were in Portland, Oregon, on the southern edge of the city, where the tidy grid of houses turned to suburbs and sprawl. We'd caught the train where our friend Andrew, who had ridden so many trains his Carhartt pants shone like waxed canvas on account of all the diesel grease, had told us to catch it—he'd told us which city bus to take south, which stop to get off at, to look for the Burger King and the underpass and the blackberry brambles, to arrive in the morning and wait under a tree out of the rain, that eventually our train would come. He told us what to look for—not grainers with no place to ride, not boxcars like in the movies, not oil tankers. Intermodal trains, that's what you wanted. Double stacks. Two colorful freight containers in a car like an open shoebox. He'd said that most of the double stacks on the train, which might be up to two miles long, would not be rideable. But one or two of them would be. We'd know by the numbers on the side of the car, and whether or not they were ridged or smooth. The train to L.A., when it arrived (it came every day but Sunday, Andrew had said), would stop for fifteen minutes, max. That's all the time that we would have.
Our train had come, it had slowed, it had stilled. We'd run along it on the slanted ballast, lungs burning, tripping over the railroad ties. Our packs jostled against our backs and the resting cars ticked, ticked, as though alive. The units—that's what the engines are called and there were four of them on this train, enough to pull it up and over the Cascades—were far ahead, so far we couldn't see them, nor could we be seen by the engineers that manned them. We'd found this car that was, according to Sami, perfectly safe, we'd climbed inside it, and now the train had begun to move again, toward a road crossing where the bull, Andrew had said, would be parked in an unmarked white SUV. The bull would watch the train go by and look for signs that there were riders. If he saw us, he would stop the train, pull us off, and we'd get a ticket for criminal trespassing. It would be a fine, maybe some community service. Our trip would be over. If we could just make it past that road crossing, though, we'd be safe, free.
As I scrambled into the car, I could already hear the dinging of the metal arms that blocked traffic at the crossing—the sound was growing louder, closer. Blood rushed to my face. If I could just get to the small metal ledge, I could lie down, and the lip of the railcar would hide me. But as I wiggled under the axle of the semi-truck, I was exposed, alarmingly so. What if I was caught by the bull, and arrested? What if he'd already seen us?
I got myself under the truck and turned around, yanking my pack after me. It wouldn't budge. Oh shit! Oh shit, oh shit! A stronger pull and the fabric made an awful tearing sound as, at last, I freed it. I scurried onto the ledge, unrolled my foam sleeping pad, and flattened myself onto it, barely breathing, just as we pulled slowly through the road crossing. I clenched my eyes shut, wishing for invisibility. The dinging of the metal arms was all around me now—the sound felt as though it was coming from inside my skull. Why were we moving so slowly through this crossing? Was the train stopping? Were we about to get busted? Finally, the clanging receded and then, after a time, it was gone. I lifted my face and looked at Sami, whose mouth was slack with relief.
'Holy shit,' she said. The sound of her words was lost to the rumble of the train, which had picked up speed, but I could see her lips move. I laughed, and my laughter was carried away on the wind.