Friday, 6 December 2013

Freight



I don't go in for any of that "before you die" bullshit... fear of death as a marketing strategy, selling you something new, starting with a book, the title of which will at some point contain those very words. If you ask me, the better thing to bear in mind is that things could be over before you reach the last full stop. You could beat me to the finish. I don't go in for any of that before you die bullshit... but still... jumping down from the cab of a truck... that's one I wouldn't like to be without. You open the door, step to a griddled step, and with a hand guiding you off of the rail, you hop down. Two things really make it worthwhile, three if you count the fact that you ought really be hitching a ride with the truck in question. First off is the length of time you're dropping through the air, the height you've been up at. Best of all though, is the sound of your boot as it lands back to earth. Gravel's best, concrete's still good. You can take or leave my advice, but I'd say it's worth experiencing sometime, and probably more than once. Like anything, the first time can be a bit hit-or-miss. The first time I did it I was nineteen, and a driver named Jose burst into laughter at a roadside near Zaragoza. I went toppling, flapping, swinging with the Catalan flag from the side of his engine. It wasn't so resounding.

I've a friend with a nineteen year old son at university. Barclays Bank and PWC like to hang around the school gates, pushing free ice creams in exchange for careers information. I knew drug dealers in the Midlands who used a similar tactic. If I can get nineteen year olds to go hitchhiking instead of a graduate fare, I'll consider that half a success. The real deal will be convincing some Chinese and Indians of as much... what the world needs are BRIC beatniks, that's the only thing that can save us now. Kerouac in Mandarin... I'm just here to help the trickle-down... trickle-down Kerouac. This might sound like travel writing to you, but really it's an economic policy... shock therapy. We need more and better Kerouac. You were not born 9-5. You were not born a slave, human beings are entitled to decent wages, work and shelter. Consider this a sponsored hitchhike in the name of a living wage. You were born with rights, and the more time you spend listening to politicians and media the more likely you are to forget them, whereas the more nights people spend sleeping under stars, the harder it'll be to deny as much. At least that's how I see it... the world demands so much more of us all.

I walk the Canyon edge, it's after dark... I'm sorry... all those were just the thoughts I've kept myself company with up to now. Canyon with the clouds off and the cameras out is pretty underwhelming, but Canyon after dark, once they're all shut-up in their lodge accommodation, or once they've sped on to play blackjack at Vegas... once you've got it to yourself, it's pretty special. I feel cold air on one side of my face, which means I've come back out of the forest, means Canyon is back. I move through the darkness towards the gulf. I drop in a stone. It crackles away. I gather myself, nobody's around, and so I give it a roar... I let out a chestful of London, scream and throw it out into the Canyon, better than any North London leather sofa where getting your head straight is concerned. And then.. unexpected.. Canyon it screams right back. Perfect, word for garbled word. I go again, I shout "Hello." "Hello!Hello!Hello!" comes back to me. I whistle, Canyon whistles back. I scream again, and back it comes in high-fidelity echo. I think a moment, and then I try another. I "Bella Ciao!". I listen... "Blll OOwowow". Not quite it. I "Bella Ciao!". Still not right, but we're getting somewhere. I shout into the Grand Canyon, into the heart of America... Bella CIAO! Cup hand to hear... "CIAO! CIAO CIAO!" I step back, I smile... well blow me. The Grand Canyon it sings just like the Red Army Choir.

I walk on, another ten miles to tread, there's snow on the ground, my headtorch picks through the trees, I'm accompanied by old memories and political philosophy, between the two of them I keep pretty good company. I walk the night, beside the forest of Grand Canyon, the greatest office going, where I'm cooking-up a campaign for the 2015 UK general election. What I think we should do you see, is taking a handful of swing sea-... Eyes. Shit. Eyes. Two of them, no mistaking it... they're looking at me... green-white. Straight at me, my headtorch back at them. These eyes they're five metres from me, even the eyes are above the height of my head, I don't want to think about where the antlers finish. I freeze. And then I slow. I move, I stamp my feet, believe it or not he's more scared of me than I am of him. That creature must be petrified... it's rutting season and I'm no stag. I pray deer not elk... please deer not elk. I will the thing back into the forest and not out onto the road. I stomp. I jump. I ready to turn my backpack on it, to take the impact should it charge my way. I promise never to eat venison again... just scram will you! Inside my head I hear it... "the headtorch... they like the light... switch off the headtorch, stupid!"I turn it off. The eyes disappear. Darkness. I roar, I turn grizzly, roar again for good measure. I hear twigs snapping, hear scrambling, frantic... it's gone... it's gone but now I've been reminded of deer and moose and bears and mountain lions. I'm afraid... at last!... a bit of fear!... I'm alive again and thinking of. Bang. Bang-Thump-Crash! Du-dum-du-dum-du-dum. Louder. Closer. More lifelike than any train engine, hooves break the forest on my other side, a second deer stampedes alone across tarmac, white snow exploding at the fall of each hoof. And then it's gone. Silence. I'm alone. I think. I'm alone.

I'm alone and nobody's watching, all their backs are turned and one more comes whistling-in. Desert and blinding daylight. They've been doing it all day, the freight trains have been singing, calling me over even as one motorist after another drove right on by. This time I'm through with it, I'm done with asphalt and I want those rails. Suddenly. Shit. but suddenly I'm running, I'm making a break for fence as a line of empty cribs come rolling slow towards the turn just west of Barstow. I run the line of fence, head for where it's lowest and haul up and over. Chain link fence. Cymbals crash. I run. I've got a matter of minutes to get away from the engine, away from the crew, out of sight and stowed on a cart. I hold the straps of my pack, I head down an escarpment of sand... desert spewing mouthfuls from under each boot as I go falling, falling, reaching out for the foothold and the rail of the intermodal cart. This one ain't stopping. Jesus. I'm catching it on the fly. I heave up, I smell hot iron, I get my head down. I'm out of sight.

Only with the night does the train start rolling, and so, unfound I head into the Mojave desert. The stars. Oh hell the stars. They fly back and forth, shooting, shooting countless and each one so bright and clear so that they whisper it at me, so gently they say their sooths... be humble child... be humble... and I lie on my back, I watch the Mojave sky with the rattling of the train beneath... and for the first time ever... I realise I was born in the twentieth century.

I ride the thing all night, some four hundred desert miles with the wind pulled right through and over me. Be sure to wrap up warm, take a gallon of water too, because once they're moving, those things don't stop. Finally the sky it makes a break for blue, it lightens and up comes a curtain on the almond trees of the San Joaquin Valley. The world turns orange, the silhouetted trunks they split to branches against the dawn. The mist burns once more, and the sun it warms my face as the train clatters on for Sacramento. I look. I look. I choke. And oh hell... sweet life... just what have you gone and done to me this time?

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