Hot, humid, Oklahoma air slows the cottonwood seeds mid descent, their fall hindered 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 gently falling around my feet, the white in stark contrast against the red clay.
It’s early September and summer is stubbornly refusing to capitulate to the inevitable changing of the guards. Now low in the sky, the Sun’s rays glint from the crowns of railroad tracks and slam into my eyes like ricocheting bullets.
A cave of twisted Johnson grass, kudzu vines and chokeberry bushes create an undergrowth of hellish, almost impenetrable jungle reaching out to grab my ankles and threatens to devour me, but it hides me from view of the beast’s masters, until the time is right.
In my temporary home, the heat, the constant drone of the cicadas, and the endless parade of parachutes all weigh heavily on my eyelids until my body jerks me back to semi-consciousness again. I’m but a few nods from an involuntary nap when in the distance its tell tale sound finds my ears; a wailing mourn, like a siren from the deep luring a sailor into the black abyss beneath his ship, is at first, faint, even soothing.
Just past the edge of the forest it draws nearer, the sorrowful whine now dislodging a cacophony of bellicose screams, the harsh shrill of steel wheels on steel tracks, and the low, throbbing rumble from within the heart of the tireless, determined beast.
Filling the air with the smell of diesel, even Mother Earth trembles beneath my feet at its arrival.
Three gorgeous Rock Island engines pass me by, then fifteen or twenty freight cars; GO!
I leap from my green cave and run alongside a freight car, arms stretched and hands reaching. 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, handles made blistering hot by the sun, but I dare not let go lest I become a tasty meal for the demons residing below, the screeching, clicking, hissing, and gnashing teeth reminding me of pending doom awaiting any miscue.
Quickly making my way to the top of the boxcar, I sit with my face in the wind, leaning back on my hands and arms while the ride washes over me like a tangible dream. Atop the car, the breeze created by the motion displaces the hot, humid air, turning my clothes into a makeshift swamp cooler, cooling my skin instantly.
The rhythmic clacking of the wheels against the track’s expansion joints, the swaying from side to side of the car and the sheer freedom of the ride contain all the elements of riding the high seas in a landlocked world.
Farms, forests and prairies pass by in a multi-dimensional panoramic video as the animals in the pastures, oblivious to the events around them, 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, 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.