The summer after graduating college I jumped freight trains for a couple of weeks through Oregon and Washington to the Idaho border. There were these tracks outside Newberg that ran all the way north through Portland and every night across the George Fox campus for four years I listened to the train whistles blow like lonesome coyotes on a faraway hill taunting me to come out and play. Groups of us boys used to gather along the tracks out past the apple orchards along a deserted stretch of wheatfields and race the train to the wooden trellis, stopping just short of the canyon below with its dark pitch black hole dropping off the face of the world with nothing but the city lights flickering in the distance to lead us home.
These were stout, hardy boys. Good Christian God fearing boys who came to this religious campus and were scorned because we didn’t speak in tongues or carry our Bibles to Biology class or lift up hands in praise when the chapel lights dimmed for the Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith songs and then began weeping on cue for the climatic playing of “As the Deer Panteth for the Water,” and the alter call, when the virginal boys and girls couldn’t wait to rush the stage and lay hands on one another and cast out devils and save souls.
No. We were not those boys, standing in the back row gulping hard and sneaking out the fire escapes as student after student would cry out very publically, red faced, and re-dedicate their life back to God. Rather, we would meet at night crouching in the bushes along the train tracks, waiting for the oncoming engine while the cop cars rolled by, then standing tall on the hard rocks and waiting for the light. Dropping into runners stances, taking off just as the engine approached so that we could reach top speed when the explosion of heat and roaring, blasting locomotion powered past by us. Breathing down our necks and legs, we pounded our bodies against the hard stones surging forward, sprinting and flying down the tracks toward the abyss and giving up because the train was just moving too fast. Other nights we would hang from the trellis and wait. Screaming at the tops of our lungs as the train careened overhead, kicking and howling and shaking all over, holding on for dear life. These were our defining moments as Christian boys. These were the moments we knew that God was real, because only God would give man moments of such exhilaration and couple them with doubt and awe. We tested it, and it became true.
These were friends like the Nienaber brothers, Brian and Jeff. Two blue-bloods with chips on their shoulders from Bellevue Washington, the Kennedys of my youth with their million dollar Lake Washington properties we would lounge on in the summer times and talk philosophy. I’ve never seen them back down from a fight. They taught me to not scare easy. Hutch was another buddy. Older. Wiser than us. He’d come back to school to find solace but gave us credibility instead. Ron was another. A mid-distance runner and future church pastor, Ron could quote scripture inside and out, but had his demons too. I remember him hanging from the trellis with that goofy grin, this boy that would grow up and counsel hundreds of people through divorce, bankruptcy, suicide, death, prison, and all the way making his relationship to Christ seem as believable and real as wood and steel you grasp on to that saves your life and not an infinite blackness dangling beneath.
Later those nights, back at my campus apartment, I was approaching God the same way, as if I could just catch him as he passed. I would lay my Bible on the desk and hold it in my hands very tightly. I kept an old worn version then, salvaged from a thrift store, and suddenly I would open it and point to a verse as if this was somehow what God wanted me to hear and read at that precise moment. I believed I was being illuminated by the spirit. I believed with all my heart God was talking straight to me. Sometimes the verse next to my finger was about encouragement. “For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” - Romans 14:9. But other times I would become wrapped up in amazing imagery. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” - John 15:5. I would lay the Bible down and imagine myself as a tree soaking into the ground with God's love pouring out of me. The intensity would exhaust me into delirium and I would fall into deep sleep, awaken only at dawn, with the last engine whistles of a train that was passing through the outside of the city, bound for someplace faraway.
My buddy Rolf was a kindred spirit. Tough, insightful, and interested in Kerouac as a post-modern St. Paul. We talked many times about jumping trains, and then one day we caught a break. It was discovered that a sociology professor at George Fox had lived as a hobo in the years following World War II. We looked him up and sat at his feet while he gave us the rules for jumping trains:
1. Never jump on a moving train. (Obvious, yes. Try sprinting twenty-five miles per hour next to a sedan and leaping on the roof.)
2. Never ride with your legs outside an open box car door. (Doors close suddenly. Could snap them off at the knees.)
3. Never stand up in a box car when you are going through a tunnel. (Gas and heat rise, could cause you to pass out.)
4. Never drink anything you find in a bottle. (Good way to wake up robbed or raped.)
5. Never talk to any of the other hobos. (Bad criminals ride the rails. Stay safe.)
We never looked back.
Our first attempt to board a train was at the Portland shipyards. Rolf and I traveled light: block of cheese, couple tins of sardines, gallon of water. We scoped it pretty good and waited in the bushes. In front of us lay a long train full of empty box cars, lumber and grain, and black septic tanks strapped to steel poles. It must have been one hundred cars long and when it suddenly began moving, the air was filled with a series of Crank! Crank! Cranks! As the train bolted together and jolted forward.
In an instant we were gone, tearing off after her, sprinting with our packs toward the first empty box car we could see. Legs throbbing, arms reaching, straining, I rose up on the high surface next to the train. I had never gotten this close before. The powerful wheels were a spinning, churling death, like rapid fists being punched into an open palm. Bam! Bam! Bam! I looked up and threw my pack inside, then braced my shoulders, legs still pumping, and leapt inside. I had made it. Covered in sweat, Rolf was right behind me. I pulled him inside and we lay in a heap on the dusty, wooden floor, laughing to the verge of tears. We had made it. We had broken Rule Number One of Train Jumping, but we had made it.
Almost instantly we broke Rule Number Two, riding for over an hour with our legs swinging out the empty box car door kicking and hollering like Huck and Tom. I pulled out my harmonica and Rolf slapped his leg to the clicking of the tracks, and we sang a bluesy version of Amazing Grace, and looked away and dried our eyes at the chorus.
The adventure lasted for days. Through Pasco, Walla Walla, Pullman and Spokane. We were run off by sheriffs, scalded by sun, and frozen by chilled mountain passes curled up in potato sacks cuddling on cold metal floors. The trains would stop suddenly in grass fields for ten hours at a time with nothing around for miles to see or race through tunnels at night with jagged cliffs and jutting rocks close enough to cut our whiskers. We broke every rule: drinking tea over tin can stoves with hobos who told us their life story, sharing gulps of water drafted straight from the Columbia, slam dancing in the darkness of tunnels without light or safety to whatever was around us. We lived. Yet the whole while, each night before I laid down to sleep, I would randomly open my Bible and read the verse God wanted me to hear. On the last night, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” – Philippians 3-12.
We arrived back in Portland changed men. We would never look at the world the same way again. Life was not about cramming yourself inside an idea that didn’t always fit, but about stepping outside it, and making it real.
I was thinking about riding trains this past week when I ran into former student Simon Simoncinni. Yes, that Simon. The kid with all the hair. The one bouncing off the walls. The one who almost choked another student to death in my classroom because he didn’t know when to quit. The one his senior year all the freshman girls would beg me to introduce them to. That Simon. About half a year ago Simon did the unthinkable. He dropped out of school and flew to Japan without telling anyone. He just arrived, couple of bucks in his jeans, and began to make his way in the world.
People thought he was crazy. They thought he was off his rocker, his meds, that he was suicidal. I admit, when he first contacted me I told him to call his parents immediately, but Simon had different plans, or so he explained to me as we sat down for tea just off Alberta last week, recounting how he basically went penniless, needed a job, and for the past seven months had been living in a hostel, traveling all over Japan, learning language and culture, barely making ends meet, but finding his way, his true path in life.
It was amazing to hear. That this kid, who I know on so many levels, some good and some bad, some actually very scary, could pull off something like this. I was proud. As Simon rambled on in Japanese, telling funny story after story, I just smiled to myself. It’s possible, isn’t it? To randomly put a finger on a spinning globe, to open up a book by chance and just believe something is leading you. This is the very nature of faith in God, isn’t it, to guide us in these moments? Moments of exhilaration and doubt that take us to awe?
I was thinking even more about Simon as I boarded an airplane and left America yesterday. The flight was delayed and so I ended up in Tokyo for the night before being connected again to Taiwan the next day. All alone in the cramped room of the Hotel Nikko Narita, I walk out into the night at 3 a.m. with jet lag and stumbled miles out along the highway on the cusp of Tokyo. Here tourist buses collect drunken salary men, middle aged and bloated, with their baseball caps turned around backwards and ridiculous spandex cycling shirts glistening in the headlamps. Perfectly manicured sidewalks. Crickets. Humidity. A white horned goat tied to a Volkswagen bumper. A man in a silver Prius slurps ramen with chopsticks. I take a strange turn and end up in the parking lot of a good sized church. It is white with a steeple next to a bell tower and looks very much like the mission San Juan Bautista from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I step up to the door and peer in the window. It is empty, but perfectly aligned. Pews. Aisles. Red felt seats. Red cross hanging from the ceiling. Red carpet wall to wall. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with sadness, as if I were being swallowed whole and could not escape. There are places meant for God that are just empty. Churches empty. Classrooms empty. Universities empty. But nothing is empty about a man alone in a room reading his Bible. I remember as a kid kneeling beside my bed and laying things between the pages of that book that I feared had control over me. How I'd lost my temper or said something mean to a friend. This was replaced as I got older, hiding beer labels or crushing cigarettes in the folds of scripture and closing it tight like an alter. That was how I prayed as a boy. Prayer as a plea for meaning, that whoever or whatever created all this universe around me was actually reaching back to me, singling me out. This was the meaning of everything, to reach back and take hold, no matter where it leads.
When I returned to the hotel room, I looked out the window and watched the world become light under a gray overcast sky. Doorways flooded in life, crows in the distance screamed. There was a train tunnel rolling beneath a tree covered hill, it's tracks laid so straight. My cellphone rang, surprising me. There is no reception here. Outside the window again, birds chirped, then there it was, the sun.