Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hobo Stew

(Brian Hartenstein trekking the Rub Al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia.  The world's most desolate area)

There are no safe men.  I’ve always know this.  When I was young and my legs could still fly, my college friends and I used to gather outside the city of Newberg to wait for the midnight freight train to pass.  We always heard it, rumbling and roaring in the distance.  That beckoning whistle, we felt it in our blood.
Those were brave boys, my college running buddies, stout and wise for such young years.  Jeff the Looker who made girls swoon with just the raise of an eyebrow, and Randy the Hick who kept loaded guns in a gym bag in his truck.  Steve in a red bandanna lifting a boulder above his head for kicks and Lorin towering above us with those monstrous strides.
We’d all gather to race the train.  That explosive steaming freight train that rumbled outside the city a couple hundred yards toward this black trellis at the precipice of a vast ravine, running like the devil was at your heals, leaping for that last ladder wrung before the edge and riding into oblivion.
Thing was, you could never gauge how fast the train was rolling.  Standing there in the dark by the tracks watching this little circle of trembling light.  Hands sweaty.  Legs shaking.  The train’s whistle gaining speed and size and the pumping wheels pounding in rhythm to the beating in your chest.
And then suddenly it was upon us, this great pounding beast.  The force so strong it almost knocks you over but it doesn’t because your legs are sprinting and arms pumping and you're gasping for air and flying headlong into the dark as if you and the train were both riding the same forceful wave.
The other boys stopped and cheered after a hundred meters or so.  They threw their bodies down in the dirt and collapsed hands on knees.  But not me.  I never stopped.  I was racing.  Of all those brave boys, only I could keep up with the train.  Racing.  Racing toward the ravine. Racing toward that last wrung on the ladder before the fall into the abyss.
It was a few years later when we actually rode the rails for real.  Rolf and I hopping freighter box cars out of Portland and Vancouver up toward Tacoma and others east along the Columbia to Spokane and Idaho.  We were novice travelers then, carrying a couple of tins of sardines and a block of cheese in my old army knapsack.  A filled up gallon of river water and Swiss army knife for protection.  But what we learned stayed with us forever.
Talking to Hobos, knowing that speak, has saved me many times since.  Kept me out of jams and made other men, stronger men than I, back into a corner.
Funny things stay with you too.  How to hide from John Q. Law and what morticians use to identify a mangled body.  What a “snipe” is… a discarded cigar butt dropped in warm water and sucked down as coffee, and how a Mulligan (another word for an Irishman) is also a stew you make by slicing up potatoes and carrots and wrapping them in foil and sticking in an old tin coffee can full of lit up kindling.  Butter and salt are luxuries, aren’t they? 
They also call it a Hobo Stew.
Well, I made that tonight, out in the desert, in this place so far away from home.  Wrapped it up tight and dropped it on the coals and then blew them to flame.  Listening to it sizzle, thinking back over the years, I know.  There are no safe men.

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