Hot, humid, Oklahoma air slows the cottonwood seeds mid descent, their fall hindered by the thick air until they very nearly hover in place. Lazily drifting past me, hundreds of white gossamer umbrellas tumble lazily to the ground like a mid-summer snow flurry.
Sitting on exposed roots of a blackjack oak poking out from under the rust-red clay that stretches for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles in the southern plains, I’m utterly mesmerized by the white, cotton-like seeds from cottonwood trees gently floating to the ground, the white in stark contrast against the red clay.
It’s now early September and summer is stubbornly refusing to capitulate to the inevitable changing of the guards. With the Sun now low in the sky, the muscles in my face are beginning to throb from constant squinting, the light glinting from broken glass, crystals, and even from the crowns of railroad tracks, slamming onto the retinas of my eyes like ricocheting bullets.
I’m hiding in vegetation so thick it creates a cave of twisted Johnson grass, kudzu vines and chokeberry bushes; a green cave created by the undergrowth of a hellish and almost impenetrable fortress. And there’s good reason to hide until the time is right.
The cave is not the most comfortable of “homes”, but the heat, the constant drone of the cicadas and watching the endless parade of parachutes falling from the cottonwood trees begins to take a toll on on my eyelids. I can’t focus and my body jerks each time I realize I’m falling asleep. I’m but a few seconds away from an involuntary nap when suddenly it arrives.
I’ve been waiting patiently for it and it didn’t disappoint. It edges its way towards me, closing the distance between the gnashing teeth and the wailing mourn. Like a siren luring a sailor into the black depths beneath his ship, the sound is faint, even soothing and caressing. At first. But then; as it draws nearer, the sorrowful, whine bellows out, loudly!
As it approaches, the sorrowful whine is replaced by the harsh shrill of steel wheels on steel tracks and a low throbbing rumble from the . It’s just past the edge of the forest now and I can feel the huge beast as it shakes the earth beneath my feet.
It’s in front of me now and the thick, humid air is laden with the smell of diesel. After three gorgeous Rock Island engines and ten or fifteen freight cars pass me by I leap from my green cave and run alongside the freight car. The handles of the ladders were made blistering hot by the sun, but I dare not let go lest I become a tasty meal for the demons residing below and the screeching, clicking, hissing and gnashing from those demons are constant reminders of the pending doom, the horrendously painful death that awaits any miscue on my part.
With a leap, a quick grab of the ladder, and a pull, I’m safely on the first rung on one of hundreds of ladders, on hundreds of railcars. Quickly making my way to the top of the boxcar, I sit facing the direction of travel and lean back on my hands and arms while the ride washes over me like a tangible dream from which I never want to wake; the cooling wind created by the motion of the train displaces the hot, still, humid summer air.
The rhythmic clacking of the wheels on the track’s expansion joints, the swaying from side to side of the car and most of all, the sheer freedom of the ride contain all elements of riding the high seas in a landlocked world.
The farms, forests and prairies pass by in a multi-dimensional panoramic video. The animals in the pastures, oblivious to the events around, continue their routines. The people, mouths agape, frantically point fingers and I know they’re all, children and adults alike, wishing like hell they could enjoy the freedom too.
As I look back on these rides, they were dangerous as hell, but I never felt danger, from either the train, or the “career train-hoppers”. The rides, from Shawnee to Earlsboro, Oklahoma, just short of nine miles, were never long enough and they sometimes resulted in a bit of a hike home, or, if I was lucky, a train-hop in the opposite direction, but one thing’s for certain; I always detested the end of the ride.