The Summer of Train Hopping! Part III

So the June day finally came to actually catch out. I rode the bus over to La Crosse, WI where I was pretty sure that I could catch out undetected. My plan was to hike  a mile or two from the bus drop off point on the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse campus to a secluded spot along the BNSF mainline where I would wait for dark and a suitable train.

As luck would have it, it was a rainy day. I had looked at the weather forecast and determined that the front triggering the rain would be past La Crosse by early evening leaving me decent weather to catch out in. I arrived in La Crosse to a moderate and steady rainfall. I was well prepared, I had a rain cover for my giant pack as well as rain gear for myself. I bought a cheep rain suit from Walmart that consisted of waterproof pants and jacket.

My first mistake was to only put on the jacket. I thought that my pants wouldn’t really get wet walking to my catch out spot. I was wrong, the wind started picking up and it blew rain onto my jeans. I wasn’t completely soaked, but my legs and shoes were definitely wet. I started walking according to my plans, the hiking path that would take me to the tracks was dead north about half a mile or so.

I reached the terminus of the hiking path, and dammit, it was closed! This had been a very wet year and the Mississippi had been flooded for much of the Spring and was still quite high at La Crosse. This meant that water had backed up into the marsh that surrounds the BNSF mainline and flooded the path which was now closed.

Oh well, not a big deal, I could see on the maps that there was another bridge I could walk to that would be further out from the rail yard but it would provide cover from the rain and people curious about the hobo walking around with a large pack.

As I walked to the “new” bridge I realized the giant pack with all my crap in it was too heavy, and probably too unwieldy for what my needs were. I was getting worn out walking with this thing on but managed, with a few breaks, to make it under the bridge by about 3:00PM. I climbed up the 30 degree or so embankment and relaxed.

The rain came in torrents for a couple more hours, and the wind picked up as the front passed. I put my coveralls on to stay clean under the bridge. I unrolled my inflatable pad and got a nice late afternoon nap in. As the wind picked up, I began to regret not wearing my rain pants while hiking to the bridge. A definite chill set in and my wet pants made it worse. I was tempted to get inside my sleeping bag. I didn’t want to unpack though so I would be ready to go if the opportunity presented itself.

A few trains came by, a couple even stopped, but they were either going the wrong direction or they didn’t have ridable cars. It was still too light anyway to get on a train without the risk of being seen that comes with daylight visibility. As it got darker, I packed up my gear so I was ready to go.

Finally, about 10:00PM a double stack intermodal train rolled past. It was slowing down, but wasn’t ready to stop as it coasted past me. The engines were making sort of turbine sound that I think comes from using their dynamic brakes to slow down. It reminds me of a turbocharger winding down. I figured it would be doing the crew change, and I could probably catch up to it if I was quick enough. I grabbed my 50 pound or more pack and carefully went down the embankment to the roadbed and walked as quickly as I could down the tracks.

The FRED, Flashing Rear End Device, is lit up on the right and teasing me to catch it. The left hand red light is a signal on the tracks to the left side. It was definitely a dark, damp and gloomy night.

It’s double track through here, so you have to keep your head on a swivel for trains coming suddenly from behind. It’s amazing how quiet trains can be on welded rails when they are coasting. So many people, especially kids, focus on the train going past on one set of tracks that they don’t see the train approaching on the other set. I know better than that, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune from distraction. At night the sudden increasing brightness from an approaching train behind you gives you more warning, but you don’t want to be seen in the headlight.

I was running out of gas, but I was catching up to the train. It was about a half mile ahead of me when I started down the tracks, and now the FRED mechanism was more than just a flashing light, it was visible as was the rear of the train. I realized, I was going to catch up to the train!

As I got to it, I climbed the ladder of the last car and looked to see if it was ridable, it was not. Some of the intermodal cars are what we refer to as “suicide” rides because there is no floor in the well cars, and this was one of those, a bad idea to ride suicide at anytime, but a terrifyingly bad idea to try it at night.

Extremely Dangerous Ride

As I climbed down, I could hear the hiss of the air filling the brake lines, and suddenly the train started to move. Before I could make it to the next cars, it started picking up speed and left me behind. That was that, I was alone in the middle of a marsh on a very dark night.

I’m not saying you have to experience this first hand, but if you want to understand the feeling I was experiencing at this point, go for a walk, alone on a dark night where you end up a mile or two from any sources of light or signs of other people. Then do that some place where your presence is considered a minor crime and you’ll get the idea of what it feels like. You’re glad to be alone and away from people who might question your presence, but, it’s a little uncomfortable just the same.

I walked down the tracks in the direction of the yard and the crew change point looking for a good hiding spot. The roadbed supporting the tracks sloped at the angle of repose for ballast rock and basically, terminated at the water. There was no place to hide if a train came. I had room to slide down the ballast safely out of the way, but I would easily be seen in the intense light of a train engine.

After continuing another quarter of a mile or so I came to where the tracks crossed a bridge over a channel that connected the marsh together. The tracks pretty much bisected the marsh from north to south and this channel was a passageway between the halves about midway between the bridge I spent the afternoon and early evening under and the La Crosse BNSF yard. I crossed the bridge and happily shed my pack and slid down alongside the abutment. It was approaching midnight, and my chill was getting worse and I could detect the beginnings of a fever.  I can’t say I was comfortable, no way could I sleep any too well there on rocks, etc.,  but it was better than walking and I could recover from hauling that pack that I was regretting putting so much stuff into.

I was back into waiting mode. I figured I’d missed my chance at a hotshot intermodal, but there were bound to be more northbound trains shortly, and that did indeed turn out to be the case. (BTW, the trains are actually westbound, but just happen to run north and south from Savannah, IL on up to St. Cloud, MN or so before heading more westerly)


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