Wednesday, July 23rd 1:34p.m.
We were walking next to a long string of boxcars, hiding in the shadow of the train to avoid being spotted. For hours we had waited under the overpass, singing songs about fireflies and watching disappointed as trains went by, too fast. It was around 2a.m. and we were close to giving up, but in our desperation we decided to walk deeper into the yard.
Across from the yard a train hissed.
“That’s our train,” I said, pointing.
We picked up our pace. The train started to move.
“You’re right,” said Sweetheart. “Are you ready?”
We waited until the conductor pulled ahead of us and then ran out of the shadows, across the tracks to the train. I tripped on the rocks and fell, scraping my knees and dislodging my backpack. Our train was picking up speed.
“This is our car,” said Sweetheart. As it passed he started running and jumped up onto the ladder. By this time the train was starting to go pretty fast. I sprinted towards it, and reached out to grab the ladder, hauling myself up so that my knee was on the bottom rung, my banjo flailing off to the side precariously. Sweetheart grabbed it and me, and soon we were on the back of a grain car, concealed by a couple inch lip, hurtling west into the darkness.
We spent a lot of that first train ride napping, reading books, marveling at the romance of the moment. We dropped down to hide whenever we went through an intersection. Some hours later we pulled into a huge, huge trainyard. We blinked awake and peeked out over the lip of the car at large watchtowers, video cameras, and train workers. We had no idea where we were, but after about an hour of waiting, we decided our train wasn’t going anywhere.
Finally we figured out we’d made it to Chatanooga, TN. We hopped off and walked nervously along the train, looking for another ride or a way out of the yard. We quickly found another train that was hissing, about to take. We jumped into another, more discrete grain car, and pretty soon we were moving again. This time, we weren’t really sure where we were going. We might end up in Memphis, TN, as we’d hoped, or we might make it to Atlanta, GA or Birmingham, AL. Wherever we were headed, the ride was beautiful. We drove over bridges and through tunnels, by forests and small towns.
By the time we made it to our destination, we’d been on the trains for about twenty hours, and we were completely exhausted. I, also, was suffering from a yeast infection and what felt like hundreds of mosquito bites, and as we climbed out into another yard and started walking into the night, my will broke. I noticed an empty boxcar, and Sweetheart and I climbed inside, hoping it wouldn’t move, and he held me while I whimpered and fell asleep.
I awoke around 5a.m. feeling much much better, and so we headed out of the yard. We ran into several workers along the way, who helpfully let us know we’d made it to Birmingham, AL, and then told us where all the trains in the yard were going, just in case we needed another ride.
We stumbled into Waffle House around 6a.m. that morning, covered head to toe with grease stains and dirt and smelling like the dirty travelers we’ve become. I washed my face in the sink and the water running down the drain was a dark brown. We were gross but we were happy, and damn those waffles tasted good.
The week has felt like a romantic storybook account of what being a vagabond is like. Before we left Knoxville, sweetheart and I found a beautiful abandoned building and explored all of it’s locker rooms, staircases, and windows on our way to roof, where we painted “LOVE IS THE ONE TRUE ADVENTURE” on an old billboard. Now we’re couchsurfing in Birmingham with a musician and exploring the civil rights history of this incredible city.
And, we just got offered a chance to tour with another folk punk group, so now we have a bunch of shows lined up and will be gas canning around the country with them at the end of August, going going from Arizona up the west coast to Washington.
Life keeps happening.