The Day My Dog Jumped Off The Train

Rocky Leplin

© Copyright 2018 by Rocky Leplin

Rocky and Elsie (way back when).

A long 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 the moon.

I’d 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.

By this 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).

I didn’t 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.

Something 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.
In 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.

Therefore, 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.

I believe 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.

Can you tell me which of the lines has a train going west?” I asked, although catching a ride in any of their trains would constitute trespassing.

One of the men consulted a schedule.

The seventh line over will be moving in ten minutes, and the next one will be moving in a half hour,” he generously confided.

What about the first six lines?”

They’re all safe for the next ten minutes.”

Unfortunately, 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
suitcase and a sleeping bag, was not easy. It was much easier for Elsie, because she could go under the couplings.

When we 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.

By the time the train reached Montana, the sky had cleared up, and the snow had disappeared. It actually got lukewarm outside.

The train 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 strum.

About 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.

The train 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.

The big, blue Montana sky had some puffy white clouds in it. The scene was altogether conducive to restful and expansive feelings.

I didn’t 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.

Elsie and 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 songs.

The little 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.

Elsie and 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.

The first 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.

Hey mister,” I said, “I just jumped off one of your trains. I hit my head.”

The man 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.

I went 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.

I walked 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.

That night 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.

I found 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 Rockies.

The driver 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 another story.

Something 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.

April 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.)

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