As I got used to my hiding spot and the uneasiness of being in the middle of a marsh on a pitch black moonless night became an afterthought, I stretched out and relaxed a bit. The bugs and mosquitoes weren’t too bad, especially considering I was surrounded by water on both sides.
I was actually almost comfortable, at least, on the scale of what’s comfortable at midnight or so in the middle of a marsh next to a railroad bridge laying on mostly ballast that slants fairly steeply to the water. The good news about my situation was that it was a mile back to the bridge I started from and probably a mile into the yard, so nobody was going to accidentally happen on to me. Plus, I was in a much better spot because the trains were stopping right along here,
Probably around one AM as I was wondering what my prospects were going to be, I was startled by a huge splash under the bridge. It was like somebody jumped or fell in. Or maybe somebody threw a big rock in. It certainly freaked me out for a bit, but I didn’t hear anything like footsteps or voices and there wasn’t anyone I could make out in the darkness. I could just picture being unlucky enough to be hiding next to the spot the local mob uses for disposing of bodies. Funny what pops into hour head when you’re in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
Then kabooosh, there it went again. This time I shown my small flashlight down towards the water, and there I saw the culprit, a big ass beaver was swimming back and forth under the bridge. It was slapping its tail on the water, but instead of the typical warning smack I’m familiar with, this was much more like it was just trying to make the kabooosh sound like somebody doing a jack knife dive for the splash effect.
It wasn’t too long until I could see the light of a train rolling my way and I began to perk up. I stayed hidden as the million or so candle power locomotive headlight lit the area up like daytime. I was just below track height as the four engines coasted past overhead. Being that close, even as the engines idle while the train is coasting to a stop, is humbling. If you haven’t thought about the mismatch of the power and weight of a train versus the skin and bones of a human body, now is a good time to remember that every part of a train is capable of crushing or dismembering you without so much as a noticeable bump on the train.
The train was a unit grain train and judging by what I heard on the scanner, was headed to Portland. As the train came to a stop, I was at about the midpoint of a mile long train. I climbed up to track level and checked out a few cars and found one that was rideable. It wasn’t perfect, but it could certainly get me out of Wisconsin and into Minneapolis.
I decided to take my chances, and climb aboard. It’s a surprisingly strenuous first step onto the ladder. The tracks are raised up a foot or two because of the ballast, and it’s a long step up to the ladder. I tossed my pack on first which made the climb up easier. The anticipation was definitely building. I knew this train couldn’t sit on the mainline for too long. After about 20 minutes and the passing of a Canadian Pacific train, CP has the right of way at the diamond, we aired up, and with a jarring bang, started moving.
My adrenaline was flowing, this was what I came for, and now, I’m off, headed toward Glacier National Park. It was pretty cold and damp after the rain, but I was protected on the porch of the grainer. It was uncomfortable, but would serve to start the journey.
That’s the way it is riding trains, you sometimes settle for any ride, just to make sure you’ve got one. The thought is always, you can improve your ride down the line. Fortunately, that usually is the case, if you can survive your first choice!
I was afraid if I didn’t take this train, I would end up in the marsh after the sun came up and there would be no escaping without the risk of being seen walking along the tracks. The water prevented any quick exit and I could picture having to hide for eighteen hours. Not a pleasant thought, at least not in a marsh.
The train went maybe a quarter of a mile and we stopped again as the engines rolled over the diamond on into the yard, I figured this was the actual crew change, and ten minutes later, after another jolting start, we were moving. This time, we eased on through La Crosse and started picking up speed. We were rolling for real!