Throwback Thursday: Hitching a Ride on a Coal Train

Inklings

You know something is wrong, feel it deeply inside you, but you can’t put your finger on it. I first came to an inkling of an understanding of what burning coal did to the environment back in the early ‘60s, when I was 16. I took off on an adventure that revealed — in an opaque way, at first — the destructive nature of air pollution. Growing up, I inherently knew the soiled air was not good, but as a kid of the ‘50s I never gave it much thought. I didn’t even know about The Great Smog of London in 1952.

Away with You

There are countless ways to get up and away. You can sit down and read a book, watch the Tee Vee until you expire into the filmmaker’s imagination, taking you on a journey you’d never ordinarily take. If you need to move your limbs, you can go for a walk in the woods or strap on yourrunning shoes and take off at a run down the street. Go to a bar. Clear your head with a bowl of pot, cured to perfection. You can only slouch on the couch for so long.

Pete Seeger

I met Pete Seeger a number of times in the early ‘60s (he went to the same high school as me and would give a concert for the student body every year). I played the five-string banjo, a long neck Vega like the one he played. He told me in order to get better with music, I should go out on the road and get some experience with other people. Experience other ways of being, get yourself into a new world, he said. Understand those people who are different than you aren’t so different after all. We are all human.

He’d done the same thing early in his life. He told me to embrace the wide world. It’ll bring a new side to your life you can draw on when you need strength. I shot back that I didn’t have the money to travel anywhere, much less afford a car, which I thought he had meant. He said, you don’t need money for an adventure. There are many ways to get away. And then he told me one of the ways he escaped. Try it, he said. Take a risk.

The Forbidden Land

I wanted to do what he’d done, but I was afraid to try his radical idea. Misery loves company, so I got one of my bolder friends, Dave, to accompany me, a friend whom I could trust. Our parents would ground us for a year if they found out. I told them I was going to spend the weekend with my friend. It was the summer of 1964 (Freedom Summer) and we both had jobs on a golf course as greenskeepers. I’d been away from home before, but never like this. We were going west. The west was the forbidden land, the west was the best, the west was something your parents didn’t want you to taste. So, of course, we wanted not only to taste it, but guzzle it. We wouldn’t go far. Just a hop, skip and a jump. Into the unknown.

Throwback Thursday: Hitching a Ride on a Coal Train

Getting Ready

We hitchhiked, under a full moon, to a small town outside of Pittsburgh. In the woods beside the highway we hoisted our backpacks over our shoulders. Packed inside were a change of clothes, a few cans of beans, a flashlight and a toothbrush, along with enough rolled beauties to last us a week. In the days preceding our adventure, we asked railway workers on the tracks which trains came and went. They gladly told us; one in particular, an old man with a gleam in his eyes, resting on his shovel, said to wait for night. He knew what we were up to. They won’t git you as easily in the dark, he said. You can hop the train to Cleveland at nine, then get it back in the morning if’n yer lucky. The one after that goes all the way to Gary, Indiana. You don’t want that one.

Hopping the Train

Yes, a train. We were going to hop a train. Like the hobos did. We waited in the dark under the trees for an hour, the blast-furnace of a humid August night fading like a dying fire turning to embers. Then we heard the tracks begin to hum. We had placed ourselves on a curve just outside of town where the old man told us to wait, hoping the train would still be traveling at a slow pace, gaining speed.

A single running light appeared down the tracks around the corner, coming toward us. A coal train. Were we really going to do this? We were still standing inside the trees when the locomotive rumbled past our position. We stepped out next to the tracks and run alongside the coal cars, the moonlight illuminating our way. I reached out and grabbed hold of the steel ladder on one car, pulled myself up. My heart was pounding. Felt like my arms would give way and that I’d fall back, but I managed to overcome my panic and make my way slowly up the ladder and climb out onto a mountain of coal piled in the bed of the car.

Riding the Rails

I looked back and saw Dave in the car behind me, sitting on top of another pile, waving. He looked like a wraith straight out of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in the eerie light of the moon. We’d done it. I got up and made my way slowly back to him, stepping over pieces of coal. It was like walking over a scree slope in an earthquake, the back-and-forth motion threatening to throw me off at any moment. Instead of jumping the distance between the two cars like I’d seen in the movies, I climbed down a ladder to the platform and jumped onto another ladder, up to the next car.

Throwback Thursday: Hitching a Ride on a Coal Train

West to Cleveland

The train picked up speed. We were headed to Cleveland, traveling from one rust belt town to another. The smell of coal was thick. Coal fed America’s energy appetite in those days and, to some extent, still does. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell the sulphur stench of smog hanging low in the valleys we passed through. My eyes stung and watered. The rhythm of the train skating over the rails nearly put me to sleep, but I couldn’t very well lie back on the lumps of coal and close my eyes. I was tired and getting cranky. My butt hurt and my limbs were so stiff they felt like breaking. Time for some recreation. I opened my pack and pulled out a couple of rolled joints. We lit them and life immediately got better. The aroma of the marijuana and the effect it had on us in this otherworldly situation cancelled out the reek of the coal and the diesel and the acrid smolder leaking from the pours of the train.

A Hobo in the Making

In the early morning hours of dawn, red and hazy with smog, the speared outlines of Cleveland reared up to greet us. For the first time I realized in the light how long this coal train was. It seemed to go on forever behind me. How could a locomotive actually pull all these cars? We knew not to get off at the railyards, because we’d probably get caught if we did so. As the train approached another small town, slowing, we climbed down and jumped off without incident. We skipped into the woods and thankfully lay down next to a stream. We lit up another joint and passed it back and forth. Refuse was scattered everywhere, but we decided to stay. We were too tired and sore to move. I found a tree with gigantic roots and climbed in and fell immediately to sleep. I felt like a Hobbit on the run from the Nazgul and Lord Sauron. Dave crawled under a bush nearby. Before I dropped off I heard him singing, then breaking into intermittent snoring.

The Tracks Ahead

Our plan was to catch the returning train that night. We had passed the first test. Now, if we could get home in one piece without being caught — now that would be grand. I had gotten up off the couch, spread my wings and flown into the world like a proverbial bird. No slouching for me. No Tee Vee. Just the tracks ahead.


Up Next: The Journey Home

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