Column: A train ride, even a very short one, was a real thrill

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 24, 2001

I had been thinking about doing some traveling.

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

I had been thinking about doing some traveling. Being 11 years old was a definite drawback when it came to doing some serious globetrotting, but I had found a way around that.

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I had been reading about Jack London and the life he had led. I loved reading London’s books and read with great interest as he wrote about riding the rails. Jack London traveled by train at a very reasonable cost: free. He would jump on a rail car and ride. Some people called it hoboing.

He wrote about his adventures and the things that he had seen. I was mesmerized by his words. I needed to see the things that Jack London had seen. Then I read in the newspaper about people who rode the rails as a hobby. One of the people written about in the story was a lawyer, who took six weeks off his job each year to be a hobo. If this type of transportation was good enough for an attorney from a big city and Jack London, why wouldn’t it be appropriate for a 5th grader from rural Hartland, Minnesota? At least that’s what I thought.

Even though I felt that the railroad tracks were the right means of travel for me, I wasn’t quite brave enough to travel alone. But who would I get to accompany me? I thought about asking my mother, but mothers can be funny about anything that is even remotely dangerous or illegal. I decided that I would give one of my best friends, Crandall, the opportunity of his young life.

I broke the plan to Crandall gently. That was a good way to break things to my friends. That way they didn’t burst out laughing and tell everyone I knew about another one of my harebrained schemes. We had just finished playing a little baseball in Hartland and Crandall and I were on our way home, pedaling our plodding bicycles in that direction. As we neared the railroad tracks, I noticed a train resting motionless on the tracks. What really attracted my attention was the open door on one of the stationary cars – a car attached to a locomotive. I told Crandall that we ought to stop and look for some flattened pennies. We had put some pennies on the tracks, in the hopes that they would become a crushed treasure. Crandall was always willing to try to find money, especially if there was no real work involved in the process.

We looked for a time and finding no coins, I asked Crandall if he had ever ridden on a train. He replied in the negative and I told him that now was his big chance. That said, I jumped into the car. Instinctively, Crandall climbed in behind me. We sat in the car for sometime before we felt the jerk that indicated that the train was about to take off. I felt a rush of adrenaline. I smiled. Crandall looked as though he had eaten something that did not agree with him.

The train gained speed as our journey progressed. I was amazed to discover how uneven the tracks were. The car rocked so that if one were prone to motion sickness, it would have been a miserable trip. I loved looking out the door at the rapidly passing scenery. We weren’t into the ride for very long when my mind shifted tracks. The joy I was feeling changed to a wonder as to where we were going. I had no idea as to where the train was destined. Then I remembered the stories about the railroad bulls. These were detectives who beat up people who were bumming rides and threw them off the trains. A railroad bull had never beaten me up and I really didn’t want the experience. My worrying was just warming up when the train began to slow down.

It stopped in Albert Lea, about 15 miles from where we had gotten on. Crandall and I quickly clambered out of the car. We had had our train ride and we had escaped the bulls. The problem was that neither of us had any relatives in Albert Lea. How were we going to get back home? Our bicycles were still by the tracks in Hartland and neither one of us was brave enough to call a parent. Finally, we called one of Crandall’s numerous aunts, one who wasn’t all that much older than we were. She thought it was funny and drove us home in an old Buick. She used her rescue trip to blackmail us for many years. I didn’t care. I had experienced the thrill that Jack London had felt.

Hartland resident Al Batt writes columns for the Wednesday and Sunday editions of the Tribune.