Rail Riding

by Dylan Angell

A leap into the unknown United States


I had been saving up money to travel, but to where I did not know. I had been washing dishes at a diner in a North Carolina ghost town and the only way I could survive each shift was by telling myself that every dollar would lead to my escape. One night out I came across two old friends. They had changed quite a bit since I last saw them, they were now bearded and lugging backpacks that matched them in size. They told me of how they had travelled most of the United States and they had done it by climbing into the empty boxcars of freight trains. I assured them that once I had enough money that I too, would go travel the world. They guaranteed that I didn't need nearly as much money as I thought and if I wanted to, I could join them and set out to New Orleans in just a few days. Later that week, we found ourselves in a baseball field that overlooked a trainyard. My friends were very focused as they consulted-the manual. The manual is pieced together from a forum that is made for and by train hoppers. The information ranges from the obvious: train schedules to safety tips, to the small: where to find a hole in a fence and nearby water sources. When it appeared that the yard was clear, we quietly ran with our heads toward the ground to the open train car that we had been eyeing all afternoon. We climbed in and pressed our backs against the front wall of the car as to stay out of sight. We sat patiently, knowing that it might be hours till we took off. The engine started as the sun began to set. As we pulled out of town we took part in a victory dance that caused clouds of dust to fill the car. The light dimly flickered through the trees as we eased into our new lodging. We said nothing to each other as our voices were silenced by the train's rhythmic pulse. It took us four days to travel from Raleigh, NC to New Orleans, Louisiana. It would take about 12 hours by car but the train stops and starts and refuses to go in a straight line. Every hour of sunlight was passed by watching the ever changing scenery as it bounced like a television in between channels. Between the ambient thumping of the train and the exhaustion endured by the heat and our constant hunger we lived in a trance where the unfolding of the American landscape was all that mattered. While in that trance I realized that I was now living within the daydreams that were with me every second that I spent washing dishes and I hadn't yet paid a dime.