Freight Train Ride - 1980

Pensacola to Nashville

I grew up close enough to the rail road tracks to hear the whistle of the freight trains, and often went up to watch them go by.  I dreamed of someday hopping on one to see where it would go.  It was many years later, but I finally did it.  I had dropped a vehicle off in Pensacola Florida, and needed to return to Virginia to pick up another one.  Here was my opportunity for an adventure.  I put together a pack with some items I thought would come in handy, and got a ride to a railroad crossing at the edge of town where I'd observed trains moving fairly slowly.

I kept a journal on the trip - a few excerpts follow.

Waiting for the next train.  Cat Hat was an attempt to look 'local'

"A train came by that was moving faster than I had expected for that location - I almost despaired of getting on when it slowed slightly.  A good grip came by on a flatbed trailer used to haul truck trailers - I got up between the wheels of one of the trailers. Not really concealed - but not terribly obvious either, unless you were looking for someone.  It headed right out of town, and picked up speed.  It was noisy, but neat. The trailer was rocking above ne, I was in the shade, with a strong breeze, laying on my back watching the world go by.  I checked over the truck undercarriage, and its mounting  arrangements pretty closely.  Although it was swaying a lot,  everything looked pretty secure and safe. It was a great ride - then it started raining seriously. Just as I was starting to get wet - the train stopped briefly in the yard in Flomaton.  I hopped down and walked back to an empty boxcar I'd seen earlier as the train was going around  a  bend.  The train started moving before I got to the boxcar - and the door was higher than most - so I made a real dive to be sure I got in.  I also got a few minor cuts and scrapes on my legs - but that's to be expected.  These gloves are worth their weight In gold right now!"

"Life is much nicer in a boxcar - you can walk around, and even stand or sit in the door when you're in the country.  Another train is going by, maybe we'll move again when this one's gone - it's been neat seeing the world from a train track view - it inevitably brings to mind the Arlo Guthrie lines about "clotheslines and graveyards of rusted automobiles".

"While poking my head out the boxcar door on the way into Mobile I made eye contact with several people along the tracks. It was kind of funny, because I would just see them as a flash in the doorway, and they'd see no more of me.  There was one guy on a railroad bridge where I didn't expect anyone to be - and I poked my head out for a look and we looked each other in the eye at a close distance - I saw him long enough to know it startled hell out of both of us.

The ride into Mobile was beautiful - the tracks ran over a lot of water - rivers and bayous.  A lot of the bridges were not visible from inside the train - you'd look out the door and down at the water - just like the boxcar were floating along in the air."

"I have a collection of visual and other-sense moments and images from the trains - some inspiring, some ludicrous - like answering nature's call out the doorway of a speeding boxcar, hanging on tightly and hoping no road crossings suddenly appeared. Usually, they were just strong impressions - rain whipping in thru open boxcar doors while I sat nice and dry in one end; the violent swaying of branches from the wind of the trains movement;  the sequences of rushing air, creaks, groans and bangs that came with changes in the train's movement.  Nor will I forget watching the swaying of the cars rolling down the track, or the ghostly forms of rows of tankers parked on a siding, silhouetted against the night sky."

"Sitting in freight yard waiting for train to move. A workman came down the tracks, and I managed to avoid him by always being on the other side of one of the bridge supports from where he was.  Then an eastbound train came along that I could hop - spent 20 or 30 minutes riding thru the freight yard. It's amazing how large these big city railyards are.  Now we're stopped at what appears to be the east end of the yard.  Hope we get moving soon - there are swarms of mosquitos - I've already got my long pants on.

This is really unknown territory - I don't know where, when, or if this train is going.  I would love to take a nap - but I'm in what appears to be an empty opentop garbage car -  I can't even sit down it's so dirty.  Hope to find more luxurious accommodations later.


Doesn't look too good - we've been moving thru the  yard off and on for the last hour - it's miles long.  I think we're thru Birmingham,  but it also looks like we've been  shunted off the main track.  Hope this is not the end - I'd  counted on this train continuing on to Nashville.  Sure would like to be moving again.


That's Luck!  Started walking back down the tracks when an L&N train came in the opposite direction.  The engineer was a young guy and asked me how I was doing.  I grinned and asked him if he were going to Nashville.  He said yes!  I may be pushing my luck, but I'm about 3 cars behind the locomotives now - in a coal type car sitting on top of a hard mixture of clay and gravel - will have to change accommodations at the next stop.

Much better. Saw the sky getting grey again - and train was still moving slow - so I hopped off and waited for an empty boxcar.  I think this is the cleanest one I've been in so far!

Shortly after getting in this boxcar the train stopped again.  I looked over across several sets of tracks and saw a shop where they repaired freight cars, etc.  My one container of water (warm) was nearly empty - and the way I was getting dehydrated I didn't want to worry about stretching the other container  to Nashville.  After much internal debate about getting  hassled (a sleazy guy with a pack in a freight yard - what  would you think?) and about the possibility of missing a  train I'd waited for for so long - I decided what the hell.  I walked right into the shop after climbing over a couple of  trains in between us, I asked a guy working on some wheels  where I could get water and/or a Coke.  He took great pains  to point both out to me. I refilled my Bota with COLD water first.  Several guys in the shop saw me, grinned and started  saying something.  I realized they were friendly - but I was  worried about missing my train. So I waved to them - went to  the Coke machine, got a COLD Coke and reboarded my nice clean boxcar.  It's the little luxuries in life that really mean something!  So here I sit, cold Coke in my belly,  waiting for this train to move again so I'll know that my engineer friend didn't lie to me.

The train just came to a very sudden stop - much  faster than usual.  Just  walked to the door - and ran into one of the brakemen face to face!  We said "howdy" and I asked him if we were having  trouble.  He said we were having air trouble somewhere -  which made sense - since I've been hearing air rush ever since  we stopped.

Maybe an emergency braking system stopped us.  He was  carrying an air coupler in his hand - and the air noise just stopped so I guess he's fixing it now.  He didn't seem  upset about me being on the train - but he does have his radio - so we'll  see whether or not he says anything to anyone,  I don't  think he will, but my pack is ready to go just in case.  I  would sure hate to have to get off now - in the middle of  nowhere with a thunderstorm coming. "

I spent way too much time in places that looked like this

After reaching Nashville I left the trains and hitch-hiked the rest of the way to Virginia.  The rail lines from Nashville to where I was going  did not have any direct routes, and I imagined many days of waiting, trying to pick the right train.

It was a grand adventure, but not recommended if you are trying to get somewhere in a hurry!

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(updated March 26, 2022)