There is a book you cannot purchase in any store, on any website, or from any person. It circulates freely from hand to hand, xeroxed in copy shops or on home scanners, and is disguised behind a false cover and a title that nobody uses. It is a “rail-enthusiasts” guide compiled and rewritten every few years by a cadre of dedicated freight-train hoppers who pool their knowledge of all the routes and rail yards across America, designed to assist modern-day vagabonds in their journeys upon the rails. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a treasure map.
On a blazing hot day near the end of August 2011, in the tiny eastern-Montana town of Glendive, I stared down into its pages, trying to decode a dense passage:
Glendive (BNSF*) YD is right DT between Merrill Ave. on W and Sargent on E. EBD c-c is at YD office on N side of tracks towards E end of YD. WBDs tend to pull on down into YD so that Freddie is near YD office. YD office: 406-359-4265.
It was mildly helpful, containing enough information to start looking around for the rail yard and a rideable train. But, as I’d discovered after three months on the road hitchhiking the perimeter of the United States, information is never enough. It is precisely what the word implies: in formation. That means spreadsheets, catalogues, phonebooks, itineraries, maps—anything organized, ready for use. When you’re hitching and train-hopping you pick up vague tips and clues, which either expand into real structures or fall away into the realm of useless data. Every new place you go and every person you meet expands the possibilities for travel until you can’t contain a clear view of the world. The image we all hold of Frost and his two diverging roads never seemed to represent my situation while wandering: simple forking possibilities are almost nonexistent in the rhizomatic landscape of choice that is the American road and rail system.
I never meant to end up standing outside the public library in Glendive with a backpack, mandolin, torn shirt, and broken phone, trying desperately to avoid playing songs for passersby who thought I might be up to entertain. I wasn’t. My nerves were shot from the past few days of heat, loneliness, and lack of sleep. I’d just traveled 8,000 miles through 23 states and my feet were really hot. Black leather boots had been a bad idea. I looked down and my guide and up at the dusty yellow street. I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or how I was getting there. I put on my backpack. It was time to figure some stuff out.
I had no idea Glendive existed until the day I arrived. Three months ago when I’d left New York with the idea to circumnavigate the United States by hitchhiking, I’d imagined that situations like this would occur, but at this point the reality of being lost and alone was beginning to empty my spirit.
I’d gotten the idea for this trip from my best friend Grace, a seasoned traveler who had invited me on a short hitchhiking jaunt from Boston to Montreal the previous summer. In that single week we hitched, drank, busked, scrounged, slept under the stars, and hopped a freight train. I know that when I die there will be entire years of my life which contain fewer memories than those seven days. Since then I’d wanted to dig deeper into the transient lifestyle, so I took a calendar-year and labeled it NOTHING, then hit the pavement, determined not to stop until I’d seen this country front and back. I didn’t give myself any specific rules or routes, but freedom (as both an existential state and a projected budget) was the unspoken goal.
I knew from my highway maps that Glendive had a railroad running through it, and I’d decided before I set foot in town that I would try and hop a train again, for the first time on my own. I longed for the feeling, the sensations still present in my body from over a year ago: the preliminary sequence of scrambling over gravel in search of a rideable car, the distant clank-clank-clanking when the engine starts and the cars take up their slack, the eventual earthquake-like jolt when your car joins the line and starts to pick up speed, then the unceasing noise, like standing inside a kick-drum. Once moving, the wind becomes constant and the trees along the tracks form an ever-changing tapestry of green. I stared at it for hours as the understanding slowly dawned that we were fleas on an ancient mythical beast, a beast that didn’t know and didn’t care that we’d hopped on.
But there was something else. When you’re hitchhiking you’re constantly surrounded by the lives and whims of other people. Introspection, desire, sense of self: all go out the window as soon as you open the car door. Even when you’re sleeping—in a stranger’s house, or in a downtown doorway—you’re filled with a visceral awareness of the lives of others. Train hopping is a more solitary affair, and those who pursue its pleasures are connoisseurs of isolation and self-reliance. I was about through with the stresses of hitchhiking, and needed another way to get around.
Despite various attempts, I hadn’t managed to catch a single train during my sweep across the country, but I knew that when it comes to free travel, perfect situations don’t just appear. Opportunities are given to those who break conventions, both social and legal, in the name of chance—rewards for risks. And on this day in Glendive the sun was shining, the coast was clear; I was all alone and ready.
I arrived in Glendive after crossing the great plains of Montana with a short balding man named Ross. We’d met at a rickety sidewalk table outside a coffee shop in Bozeman as I was writing a letter home. I found many times over on my travels that most people are willing to divulge reckless amounts of information to a traveling stranger, if you just sit there and smile. It’s then that you find out how kind, and yet, sometimes, how frighteningly bigoted people can be. While I finished eating a half-priced day-old sandwich, Ross hooked me into a conversation about his wife’s suicide a few years prior and questioned me on my sexual orientation (“Whatever you’re into, it’s all good”). He even invited me to stay with him at his vacation home in Manila where I could indulge in one of his favorite pastimes: oriental prostitutes or, as he called them, Yellow Girls.
Our conversation paused as a thunderstorm passed through, and we watched the other traveling kids and home bums along the street hide under the awnings of fancy clothing stores and college outfitters. I’d only been in town a few hours but the characters and locations were already too familiar and the conversation far too intimate, so I decided to go.
“If you were staying the night I could give you a ride out of here tomorrow,” Ross offered as he gave me his phone number and I prepared to go.
“Thanks, but I think I’m leaving right now.” I hadn’t fully decided if that was true, but now that I’d said it, it sounded as good as any other plan. I took Ross’s phone number anyway and walked out to the highway, hoping for a quick ride out of town. I was happy to stick my thumb out that afternoon since I had nowhere to sleep, the sky was looking temperamental again, and I could indulge in one of my favorite traveling pastimes: trying to outrun the weather.
I caught a ride and camped that night about 25 miles east of Bozeman, huddled in my sleeping bag atop a berm beside the Yellowstone River, on what was clearly somebody’s property. Waking up the next morning I collected my empty soup can, packed my bag, and hopped a few fences back into a town whose name I’ve forgotten.
Towns and cities are like planets; they have gravitational pulls relative to their size. But some towns are so small that they act more like space dust, and getting out of towns like those can be nearly impossible. I kicked gravel on that ramp for three hours and nobody slowed down, smiled back, or gave a shit, so I slumped into a nearby McDonald’s and, for the price of a coffee, plugged in my batteryless phone and called the only person in the world who could help me. Ross pulled up an hour later.
“Good to see you again, I guess we’re headed the same way after all!” he called to me out the window of his red Kia Soul. As we drove along he pointed out the river that wound like a shedding snake to our left, the same river I’d slept by last night. He said it had almost been his grave ten years earlier when he and a friend simultaneously crashed their rafts in an unexpected rapid while duck hunting during the severe part of autumn. Thrown into the icy water, they barely managed to pull themselves out and hike to the highway with their wet clothes freezing into their skin. They were picked up before dying of hypothermia on the gravel shoulder.
A few hours later Ross dropped me off in Glendive, concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing.
“I made it this far and I intend to just keep on going,” I replied. “No worries.”
Glendive was meant to be just a waypoint, but I still had to find a way out, so I picked a street and started walking. My natural sense of direction seemed thwarted by this town, though it was a grid of only ten or twenty streets. I later learned that Glendive is laid out on a westward slant, cardinal directions blending into doubled-lettered conjunctions, like the town is bending over to smell North Dakota. But I soon found the rail yard, barred by a chain-link fence and “No Trespassing” signs. I spotted a pedestrian underpass and soon came up on the other side, in a residential neighborhood with a small, dry park. I started to walk northish, cutting close to the tracks while not crossing the invisible boundary of trespass.
As I reached the other side of the park I heard a call from behind. Two Glendivians, young but bedraggled, were walking down the sidewalk. They looked unstable, marked by slack jaws and blurry eyes.
“That’s a mighty big bag!” the guy called.
“Yeah,” I yelled back, “I’m just traveling through.”
I let them catch up and we walked together. They introduced themselves but I quickly lost their offered names. I could feel the sweat on my back soaking through my shirt, my pack, dampening the highway map in my bag. The girl looked pregnant and I subconsciously qualified it as accidental. Maybe unfairly. I couldn’t quite discern their relationship to one another, but it didn’t seem romantic.
The girl carried her belly like a piece of luggage. “You must be tired and hawt! It’s HAWT!” she complained in a thick Midwestern accent.
“Yep,” I said. “Are you both from here? I mean, you live here?”
“Yeah, born and raised, both of us. Not a bad place to be from,” he said. We walked and bantered a bit, politely, though I started to feel the same social anxiety that had driven me out of Bozeman creeping up. Even in the middle of nowhere, too many people.
“By the way are you looking for a job?” he asked abruptly.
“No,” I replied. “I’m just passing through. Heading east.”
“Damn it’s hawt!” she said again, falling behind.
“You know where the workforce center is?” he drawled.
“I know where the library is.”
“Well it’s over by there. If you go in there you can be working by tomorrow. They need people building roads and drilling and all that.”
I tried to explain that I didn’t want a job here, but he kept on it. This was to be the first of many job offers (or rather encouragements) I would receive as I traveled from Montana to Minneapolis. Nearly every person I met rhapsodized about the oil boom that was going on in North Dakota. “There’s as much oil in the ground as they’ve got under Saudi Arabia,” proclaimed a gravel-truck driver who was recently back at work after a long and difficult unemployment. “It’s a real boom! People are moving here from all over, even a bunch of people from as far away as Texas. Everybody is here for the jobs,” an elderly couple informed me as their dogs licked my face in the back seat. Later I got a ride from a member of the North Dakota legislature who tried to set me straight. After ranting for an hour about the controversy over the Fighting Sioux Mascot (apparently some fools think it’s racist), he got around to oil. “I wouldn’t get excited about it,” he said. “People like to exaggerate things and they’re doing the same with this oil boom. If they aren’t careful we’re going to have a bust just like last time.”
He was referring to the North Dakota oil boom of the early 1980’s when oil prices were high and rampant speculation brought thousands of people and massive increases in infrastructure to the Williston Basin, but a few years later the bottom dropped out and many people who had moved there were left without jobs. The oil industry slowly recovered, leading to a new boom around the start of 2010. When I happened to roll through, the evidence of growth was everywhere. After being dropped off on the outskirts of Dickinson late one night I walked through dozens of blocks of graded soil gridded with roads, sidewalks, and street lamps: a future suburb, though no houses had gone up yet. Heavy machinery slept on each corner, ready to resume work in the morning.
But I turned down each encouragement I received, telling everyone the same thing I told my acquaintances in Glendive as we parted ways:
“Look, thanks for the advice but I’m not really looking for a job and besides, I’m leaving here today. I’m just on my way out.”
“Oh, well, okay good luck to you!” the guy said, looking slightly puzzled. We may or may not have shaken hands in some way. Doubtful because of the heat.
They veered off to the right and I continued straight. Before I lost their voices to the breeze I heard the girl confide:
“Damn, hei was HAWT! I mean, but no, nonono. I cain’t get involved with any more guys. I cain’t! I cain’t! But hei was really hawt…”
I was, indeed, hot. Even in tan Carhartt shorts and a light grey t-shirt (one of two sets of clothing I’d brought), the sun soaked into my body and cast my surroundings in a white glimmer. I continued to follow the railroad tracks, separated from them by a row of houses until the street hooked left and crossed the tracks. A couple engines stood quietly in a line, the cars they pulled cutting the town straight in half. In the middle of the intersection stood a rail-yard worker wearing a bright orange vest and doing something near the front of a train. I’d heard from other train-hoppers that yard workers can be very friendly and helpful, and that if you ask where a train is headed or when the next one is pulling out (even with the obvious intention of hopping), often these guys will give you sound advice. I walked toward him, pretending I was just strolling by.
I was elated at this opportunity and yet, as I approached this man, I started to slow down. My mind started sputtering and reared like a spooked horse. Fear. Unreasonable, unexpected, unsettling fear overcame me in an instant. This worker was just some guy—medium height, brown hair, late thirties, doing his job—but in a moment the confidence flooded out of my body and the task of speaking to him seemed impossible. It was neither shame at asking for help nor the idea that I would be punished that made me stop. Rather, it was a new sense of my aloneness, culminating after weeks and months on the road—the feeling that I had no backup, nobody and nothing to commend me to this man’s care. In his town I was nothing but a bloodsucking flea, and I couldn’t stand the idea of being seen in that way. Unknown autopilots led my body into an abrupt right-hand turn along a further expanse of chain-link fence, away from this man before he even noticed me.
Seconds later my mind flickered back on and my pulse slowed down, but I kept on walking. What the hell had just happened? I cursed my cowardice but I couldn’t turn around. A few SUVs drove by, seeming to stare even though their drivers weren’t looking towards me. Though I’d avoided what my body thought was dangerous (the possible scorn of a complete stranger), the after-effects of fear lingered in everything around me. The sun was hotter, the dust thicker, the windows of houses more like eyes. I’d failed and the world knew.
At the end of the street, on the left-hand side, I noticed a scrubby and pebble-filled ditch with two wide cement pipes that passed underneath the train tracks. It had a sheltering air and I wanted more than anything to get off the road. I slid down the embankment with burrs and sharp grasses clutching my socks and sand filling the space between my boots and ankles. Deep, damp, sliding footsteps brought me to the bottom of the ditch where small trees and bushes had taken advantage of the water flow that was nonexistent at this time of year. I kept my eyes to the ground to keep from tumbling on the steep incline and didn’t notice the deer until I was right in front of her face.
She looked up at me and we locked eyes for a minute, a minute that wiped me clean. Then she fled slowly, unconcerned. I followed her with gentle steps and focused on her movements, anything to keep my mind off of what had just happened. I took the path she took, toward the shade and the dark pipes, and I wanted more than anything to be like she was, actualized in just being a deer, in standing in this ditch and seeking the shade. She didn’t have to go out looking for new terrain because the world around her was changing all the time, what with railroads and streets and buildings popping up. And when she fled it was with purpose, not because she feared the scorn of strangers, or because she was worried about the future and needed a year to press “pause” on her life.
She meandered away from me, flicked her ears, and entered the long cement drainage-pipe, disappearing from view. I tiptoed over and looked in where she stood silhouetted against the bright circle of the other end. Not wanting to spook her, I slid over to the pipe on the left and entered its cool, musty curve. I walked its length, hands on the rough walls, and when I reached the end I snuck my way around to the other opening, and jumped out in front of it…but she was gone. Disappeared.
I pulled myself up the bank and back onto the road, now on the opposite side of the tracks, and kept walking in the same direction, though something had changed. My intentions were not the same, nor the road in front of me, nor the heat of the sun. I walked on and soon realized that I wanted to be done. I was done. And though I’d still hitchhike another 2,000 miles, sleep on sidewalks and rooftops and in hotel rooms with strangers, see the Great Lakes and an abandoned city, hear punk shows and the crash of Niagara Falls, and meet a dozen beautiful and interesting people, it was all just a long haul back home. My trip, as I’d conceived it, ended in Glendive.
I heard a deep horn from behind. One of the trains I’d seen in the yard had started moving slowly, inching its way along the track to my right. My heart fluttered. I picked up my pace and thought for a minute about trying to run over and catch it on the fly, but there was a field of ditches and tall sharp grasses in the way, and I hadn’t the motivations of before.
I just kept walking along, and eventually the train was moving faster than I could walk, and I hadn’t made a move yet, and I knew I wouldn’t make one either. Soon the train was too fast to even think of running after it. Its headveered off to the east, where I was headed. It probably went all the way to Minneapolis, where I wanted to be. I walked and the train rolled—a man and an object, headed the same way but unable to cooperate. I gazed after its tail as it turned to parallel the interstate. Then I climbed up to the onramp to find the next ride.
Jesse Bradford’s last email to his editor about this essay closed with, “Thanks so much, I’m going out of the country now!” And that’s what he’s doing, until he comes back. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.