The Day My Dog Jumped Off The Train
Copyright 2018 by Rocky Leplin
time ago, I was traveling around the country with my dog Elsie (a
Border collie/Irish setter), my Martin guitar, my sleeping bag and a
little suitcase containing the latest book of my songs. I hitchhiked
from Venice, California, to Cambridge to Montreal to Quebec City to
Chico, via the Canadian Trans-Canadian Highway, to San Mateo (where
my family lived), to Portland to Seattle to Minneapolis to Cleveland
to Minneapolis to Nashville to Minneapolis, from where I flew to San
Mateo. Sometime between Canada and Chico, Neil Armstrong walked on
never been in a frozen city, but during my last stay in Minneapolis,
it was one great sheet of ice. I considered it time to head back to
the warmer western climes I came from. I didn’t regard myself
as a hobo; I came from a middle class family—my father was a
composer, my mother was a teacher, my brother was getting his Ph.D.
in philosophy, and not too long before I had graduated from the UCLA
Film Division, three years after Jim Morrison and one year after
Francis Ford Coppola received his MFA there. But I could not be
distinguished from a hobo: I had an Afro, was semi-unshaven, and wore
a pre-owned Salvation Army storm-coat that went down to my ankles.
time I was a pretty prolific songwriter, and when in Nashville I had
seven songs published (not knowing that publication meant nothing
until someone actually recorded them).
have a car, and depended on my thumb to catch rides. But it was so
cold out, I thought it would be better to travel by freight train. In
any case, the idea held romance for me. (Big mistake!) Someone drove
me to the rail yard, and cautioned me not to let any railroad
employees see me, so I wouldn’t get beaten up. He showed me
where I could catch a “hot line” going west.
It was a
sunny day when I found a train about ready to move. I decided that a
boxcar with open doors on both sides would be in order, so I would
get a nice view in two directions. This proved to be an error in
judgment. (Translation: I was an idiot.) Having a view in both
directions meant having the wind blow relentlessly in my face. This
greatly enhanced the chill, especially when it started snowing, which
it did within an hour of leaving Minneapolis. I should have counted
myself lucky that snow didn’t fall inside the car.
else to factor into the overall comfort level was the noise. Boxcars
are noisy because of the couplings that shake and rattle on both ends
of each car, and the rails on which they roll. Steel bouncing against
steel is exceptionally noisy; in fact it’s hard to think of
anything that would be noisier except for someone lighting a
firecracker in your ear.
addition to the temperature and noise, comfort in a boxcar is
affected by motion. Boxcars are moving up and down and side to side
at all times that the train is moving. And steel is not comfortable
to sit on in the first place.
when the train stopped in the vast, labyrinthine rail yards of Minot,
North Dakota in the early morning, Elsie and I were all too happy to
disembark, even though the only physical feature in the environment
aside from trains, rails, and the sky, was snow. The world was a
polar bear without a nose.
My aim in
leaving the train was (a) to find shelter – someplace, if
possible, to sleep – and (b) then to find another train going
west, as the one we were on had stopped, and there was no telling
when it might resume its progress. I actually did find shelter and a
place to sleep, at least for a few hours. It was in the union hall. I
was awakened just before 8:00 am by a compassionate employee who told
me I should leave, because the day man would have me arrested if he
found me there.
we caused something of a small sensation when Elsie and I entered the
station house. There were three men there in their shirtsleeves,
drinking coffee. Although they didn’t physically react to the
sight of what looked like, a hobo in a storm-coat and his dog, they
were all eyes.
you tell me which of the lines has a train going west?” I
asked, although catching a ride in any of their trains would
One of the
men consulted a schedule.
seventh line over will be moving in ten minutes, and the next one
will be moving in a half hour,” he generously confided.
about the first six lines?”
all safe for the next ten minutes.”
there were trains on two of the first six lines (railroad tracks),
and there were only two ways to get past them: over the couplings, or
under the trains. Going under the trains was not an option: the first
forward lurch of a train pushes its wheels the length of a boxcar. So
I went over the couplings, which, with a guitar in a case, a little
and a sleeping bag, was not easy. It was much easier for Elsie,
because she could go under the couplings.
reached the hot line, the train was in motion. There was no way I was
going to be able to throw my possessions in a boxcar and climb in
myself, with Elsie, so I just waited for it to go by. On the next
line I found a boxcar partially open on only one side this time, and
we got settled in before it took off.
time the train reached Montana, the sky had cleared up, and the snow
had disappeared. It actually got lukewarm outside.
stopped near the edge of an enormous lake. The hills were flaxen, and
there were horses grazing on them. Blackbirds sang in the sky. It was
blissfully quiet and supremely peaceful. I sat on the edge of the
car, took off my shoes and socks, opened my guitar case, and began to
fifteen minutes went by this way, then the train lurched forward and
started moving again. As soon as it did, Elsie jumped off.
If I ever
wanted to see Elsie again, I had no choice. Every second that went
by, the train was picking up speed. I didn’t have time to put
my expensive Martin guitar back in its case and close the lid. I had
to pitch it off the train. Then I threw off my sleeping bag. Lastly I
threw off my little suitcase containing my songbook. Then I jumped.
tracks were at the top of a low ridge, and between the ridge and a
marshy area beside the lake was a slope consisting of red rocks. I
landed on my head, did a double somersault and came to rest at the
bottom of the slope. I noticed that I was still in one piece; I
stayed there and waited for the train to go by, then I set off to
look for my dog.
blue Montana sky had some puffy white clouds in it. The scene was
altogether conducive to restful and expansive feelings.
have any idea of what might have happened to Elsie, but I wasn’t
too worried. Elsie was the magical animal who, in Nashville, got
deliberately run over by a hippy-hating driver, shook herself off,
and walked to the sidewalk without a hair out of place. More
worrisome to me was, would I find her at all? The train had traveled
quite a distance between the time she jumped off and the time I did.
In fact it took me about ten minutes of walking till I found her. She
was sitting exactly where she had jumped, with her tongue hanging out
and looking as happy as I’d ever seen her. She didn’t
look like she’d worried a bit as to whether she’d ever
see me again.
I took off back in the direction I’d come from to find my
guitar, my sleeping bag and my little suitcase. First she found my
guitar. It now had an extra hole in it, but I found out later that it
sounded just as it had before. Then she found my sleeping bag and my
little suitcase. The latter was important, because it contained my
latest songbook, in which were the typed lyrics to about forty of my
suitcase was in a pond, under a couple of inches of water. Elsie
found it anyway. My sleeping bag was also under water, a lost cause.
I walked back up the slope and over the railroad tracks, which ran
only about ten yards away from a road. There was nothing left to do
but stick out my thumb and keep heading west.
motorist who came by tried to run me over. The next car was long and
white, and had the words “Burlington Northern” written on
its side. I waved my hands, and the driver stopped.
mister,” I said, “I just jumped off one of your trains. I
hit my head.”
told me that he’d just come from the nearest town, which was
ten miles away, but that seeing that I was hurt, he told me to hop
in. He drove Elsie and me back the way he’d come, and dropped us
off at a small hospital. There I was seen by a scowling nurse. She
cleaned up my wound, deeming it superficial.
next to a general store, where I bought two pairs of socks and new
tennis shoes, which were only six dollars. It felt great to put them
on my bare feet.
to the west end of town, and stuck out my thumb. The second vehicle,
a Volkswagon van, pulled over for me. The driver was surprised by my
visage when I entered his van. He said I looked just like his
brother, and the only reason he’d stopped was that he had
thought I was his brother. However, he did not, once seeing that I
was not his brother, tell me that we couldn’t ride with him.
we pulled into a rest area. The VW driver had blankets, and an
electric heater that he plugged into a utility pole. It was warm and
cozy in the van – an extreme contrast to the conditions I had
endured in the boxcar. Elsie and I slept well that night.
out the next day what we would have been in for had Elsie not jumped
off the train. It snowed the entire time we drove through the
left me off at the apartment in Spokane where my girlfriend currently
resided. By this time she was in love with another man, but that’s
happened to Elsie when she was five years old, and she lost her life.
I went for two years without a dog. Then a friend of mine told me
that there was a litter of Australian shepherd puppies at the local
shelter. I went there and picked one up, but it was only two weeks
old young, and I felt no emotions for it. Then I saw two other dogs,
siblings, one black and one brown, in a cage. They were two months
old. I picked up the brown one. Except for being a bit smaller, she
looked identical to Elsie. She locked eyes with me, and I couldn’t
put her down.
lived to be 16, and I learned that a dog can be the light of your
life as well as any person. (But that’s another story too.)
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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