Mountains loom to the icy left, snowy foothills to the right, and dead ahead an appointment with cold doom. If the conductor doesn´t let me board the caboose this may be my ´last southbound´.
´It ain’t the cushions!´ he shouts thrusting a fist off the caboose back porch that instantly covers with snowflakes. ´Ye should have thought twice before boarding.´ He shakes it, yanks a timepiece from his heart watch fob, and adds more kindly, ´Get back on your car or you´ll miss the train.´
I did think three times back in Denver before boarding, you fool. My sleeping bag was stolen from under a pile of ties. I scavenged a black garbage bag, hunkered under a RR bridge, and looked two directions. The downtown lights beckoned, while the rails sliding out and up the Rockies forbade. When the first snow flies each year I inch south with the other hobo snowbirds, but unless the first storm hits Colorado tonight it should be safe enough to catch to Pueblo, warm in the morning sunshine, closer mile by mile to the sun, and pull a chair up in Dallas to Thanksgiving supper with my folks.
Yonder comes a freight, pausing in mid-train at my feet for a switchman to throw a switch frog, and I’m stuck on the spot to make a decision. “Frisking a drag”, or choosing a car by walking through the train before it pulls away has a pitch of excitement as it may jump at any moment. This one does. I pat the garbage bag lovingly in my Pendleton pocket and grab iron. Three locomotives huff and the rung jerks one speculating hobo sixty cars back clinging the ladder and then ducking under the belly of a semi-van on a flatcar to the rubber tires for a wind shield.
Denver´s a memory, and an airstream whistles around the fat tires per Bernoulli´s principal. It´s a fast freeze in a 40mph rail gale on the Beaufort scale that strikes the nervous system with shivering and fuzzy thoughts. I was born in Buffalo, grew up in Idaho and northern Michigan, and know the cold. The firm upper lip icicles will melt if I exercise. So I stoop walk under the four-foot belly of the piggyback van to the rear and slap jumping jacks and run in place until the marrows warm, and then sit and lean against the tires unbuttoning the Pendleton pocket. Slit arm and neck holes in the garbage bag make a poor man´s windbreaker, but it is weather weakened, rips into tatters and blows overboard.
If the first snowstorm of the season hits the mountains tonight, I´ll deal with it. Called to bluff, the air thickens with cold and in two hours the initial big flakes float in and swirl around the tires. Small patches of snow begin to quilt the right-of-way and a blizzard engulfs the mechanical snake winding through Colorado.
I grow drowsy but to sleep is to die. The train stops perhaps to turn on the locomotive sanders to add friction to the track. I think of the caboose, rise stiffly, work down the ladder with popsicle fingers, and stagger the line of cars back to the caboose for a devil of a conversation, am refused entry, and lurch back to the flatcar just before the train pulls away.
In an indeterminate time the freight goes ´in the hole´ siding for an Amtrak of passengers with pleasantly warm brains whooshing by and rocking the stationary flatcar. I elbow crawl to the lip of the flatcar as the Amtrak clears and with nonworking hands and legs roll and drop five feet onto the ballast like a sack of potatoes. The freight jerks forward with three-foot steel wheels rolling inches from my neck, the lighted square of the conductor´s window, and the red taillight wobbles and becomes a pinpoint in the night. ´You devil! ´ I whisper into a mouthful of cinders, and the trundle reflects about the valley for five minutes.
Now there is total silence. I look up and about at a pastoral scene like the glass snow spheres shaken upside down and turned upright. A six-inch white carpet undulates along the ground onto pine boughs and up mountainsides to the stars. I kick the rail, feel nothing, and scrape with forearms along the cinders for ten yards, pause, another twenty yards, rest, and fifty more until blood surges the frozen limbs. Then a hands and knees crawl for ten minutes to bring circulation to the fingers, toes and nose. I snort fresh air, use a RR switch to stand upright, and teeter from the right-of-way toward a mountain pass.
Hours later a white manger of hay crystallizes on a snowy meadow. I´m a little surprised to awaken the next morning with straw in the mouth and sunshine on my face, and walk out the Rockies laughing at the conductor.