Arts: Me an’ Casey, Riding the Rails

(This is a column that I wrote that was published on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times in 1981. I was living in Vermont at the time.)

WARREN, Vt. – In June 1975 I rode a freight train for the first time – the Union Pacific ‘hot shot’ nicknamed The Triple S for “SuperSonic Slingshot”. It’s well known as one of the fastest freights to roam the West, a high-priority cargo haul that runs daily from Salt Lake City to Portland, Ore., reaching speeds of more than 60 miles an hour, kind of quick for 4,000 tons of train.

My buddy Joe and I rode the Slingshot for 650 miles to LaGrande, Ore., a “division point” where a fast freight will make one of its few stops for a crew change. The yard detective there spotted us riding a flatcar and escorted us from the premises with some terse mumblings about not returning.

Since that initial baptism, I have got it in my blood and in my brain to ride the freights.

I have ridden the Burlington Northern across the North Dakota prairie and then up and over the Rockies via Marias Pass in Montana; rocketed the eerie full-moonlit Utah desert on the Denver and Rio Grande Western; traversed the Continental Divide in Colorado on its steepest rail crossing; slogged 22 hours across Nevada on a way freight – a low-priority train – in subfreezing temperatures (one old man’s legs were so stiff we had to pull him up and lower him out of the boxcar); and picked up the Southern Pacific in Louisiana and Texas on what’s known as the Sunset Route, California-bound.

The romantic “high” that I get when I submerge myself in the world of the freight train is made better by the tramps who still “ride the high iron” out West. They’re of another era, out of the mainstream and welcome young men like me whom they view as inexperienced and in need of instruction. The hobos have adopted a fatherly air, taking me under their wings to show me the ropes so that I can be a better rail rider and perhaps live a little longer in a hard world where adversity stalks.

One instructed me to “listen for the square wheel” as the train rolls into the yard when sizing up prospective cars to ride in or on. “If you hear the ka-thunk, ka-thunk,” he warned, “don’t get in that car. It’ll ride so bad you’ll never get to sit down.”

A scruffy bum with whom I caught out of Grand Junction, Colo. taught me about riding the auto racks. If you can get inside a new car you can get a comfortable ride but you might get in trouble. I did.

A dignified tramp named Merle instructed me in the fine art of making cold bean sandwiches during a trip over “the Hump” (the Continental Divide): “Take two slices of bread, a can o’ beans and a can opener.”

I’m 27 now, a little older and wiser but still one of those American men with a fascination about the trains, about moving, about escaping from time to time for a few months of rest and relaxation on the road.

As an indication of my maturing, though, I have been chosen as godfather for a six-month old named Casey, the cutest little guy I’ve ever seen. It’s a coincidence that he should be named Casey. That’s a hell of a railroading name, isn’t it?

Casey is young yet, but I’ve got plans for him.  I want to take him under my wing, show him some of the country, teach him about rail riding, let him experience the spaces of the West and the transient life that is the essence of America.

I’ll take him to New Mexico and we’ll ride the Santa Fe all the way to L.A., with a stop in Barstow, Calif., of course. We’ll listen for square wheels and have a few bean sandwiches on the route.

I’ll learn him how to pick his way around the yards, how to get the scoop on where the trains are going. I’ll let the hobos teach him some things first-hand the way they taught me.

I’ll let him sense the absolute kind of exhilaration of riding a thundering boxcar at “60 per” then savoring the silence when that train stops dead in the desert.

I’ll warn him never to get in a boxcar with men he hasn’t met yet and tell him not to get to drinking the wine like they do out there. “No Casey, That’s bad, and a good way to forget what you’re doing and fall out the door, never to be seen again.”

I’ll tell him not to get too hooked on the wandering life, but that decision will be his of course. I believe in letting a young man think for himself.

Kris Kristofferson wrote a song called “Me and Bobby McGee” and I can’t help but recall the first verse when I think about me and Casey Lamont. So here it is with a substitution:

Busted flat in Baton Rouge/ Headin’ for the trains/ Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans/ Casey thumbed a diesel down/ Just before it rained/ Took us all the way to New Orleans…

New Orleans, jus’ like we pictured it. Right, Casey? Ah, you’re so young. We’ll wait till you’re a little growed up. We’ll wait until you’re three or four. Then Casey, we’ll see it all.

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