by Skyler Swezy
On the outskirts of downtown Albuquerque there is a series of abandoned train depots and railroad workshops built in the 1920’s.
As teenagers, my hooligan friends and I snuck into “the Old Train Station” now and then. Friday nights in Albuquerque had become a monotony of shitty house parties, restaurant loitering, Mexican-brick-weed smoke sessions, police dodging, pointless fights and aimless lady chasing.
So breaking into a dark, transient ridden, rust shell of a building to climb around on its rotting roof and smash 90-year old windows was good times. Trespassing was fun.
At night the buildings were dark and sketchy as fuck. Graffiti and empty bum nests lined the walls. It felt like anybody could be lurking inside – taggers, junkies, security guards, paint huffers, fellow juvenile delinquents – but usually it was just empty and dodgy.
The inside of the main depot was a massive room with three-story ceilings. Now they rent it out to movie studios, Beerfest and Transformers were filmed there. Rickety staircases led to the skeletons of offices on the third floor where a steel ladder provided roof access.
One fall evening around midnight, four friends and I hopped the 10ft chain-link fence and slipped into one of the old buildings. There was Jesse, Chad, Dave and Travis. Jesse was drunk, pretty sure we had picked him up from a party. Travis was a couple of years older than us and had been in the train station plenty of times. Chad and Dave were always down for illegal exploration.
We wandered around with a couple of flashlights between us. After checking out the third floor we climbed onto the roof and surveyed downtown Albuquerque’s minimal skyline. Back inside we walked across the cavernous main room, which seemed like the size of a soccer field. The floor was made of wooden blocks laid like brick and there was plenty of random shit to trip over.
Outside, a pair of active tracks ran along one side of the abandoned compound. Amtrak cars and cargo trains used them to travel north and south along the city’s spine.
A freight train slowly approached from the south and began to rumble by at 10-15mph.
Travis yelled, “Let’s hop it!”
He jogged towards the train. I didn’t think twice, don’t think any of us did, we all ran towards the train. I’d never jumped a moving train before but had fantasized about riding cross-country by rail, evading yard bulls and drinking hooch with hobos.
Everyone’s heard stories about people getting sucked under the steel wheels and sliced in half. But when you’re 19 and jogging through crunching rocks, looking for a ladder to grab, thoughts of steel discs snatching your legs are absent. Plus no one wants to be a wuss.
By the time we hopped another chain-link fence and reached the tracks, the train’s caboose was approaching. It was unlit. A ladder was mounted on the front; in the rear a couple of stairs with a handrail hovered waste high, a good car to hop. One by one we matched the train’s speed and grabbed the ladder or railing, lifting up our feet and climbing onto the car.
Once aboard, we acted like ten-year-olds zapped on Redbull, hysterical and adrenaline juiced, we clambered all over the car messing with everything. The caboose’s interior was falling apart and coated in soot. Cabinets and shelves sat empty. Old newspapers and garbage covered the floor. I figured they only used this car to end the train, because trains have to end with something. We had to yell over the rumbling and creaking of the steel to hear each other’s words.
After a couple of minutes, everyone gathered at the rear door in a line. Jesse stood outside the doorway, I was behind him and three others were inside.
I felt like it was time to get off. I shouted to Jesse, “Let’s get off!”
He nodded yes.
I turned to the other three guys and repeated, “Let’s get off!”
Travis pointed to the ground. The rocks alongside the tracks had become cement. We were approaching the next station. Travis, who had a bum ankle, shook his head and said, “Let’s wait ‘till we pass the station and it goes back to rocks.”
That seemed reasonable. I turned around to tell Jesse but he was already running behind the train. He slowed to a walk and faded into the distance.
After passing through the commuter station the train conductor gunned it and we rapidly accelerated. It hit me immediately, Oh shit, we’re trapped!
I hadn’t seen this coming. I hoped, maybe it will slow down after a minute. Instead the locomotive’s whistle blasted as we crossed street intersections with striped barricades lowered and blinking red lights. Whole city blocks whipped by as we headed north at 50 mph.
The rear of the caboose had two steps and a short railing. Travis descended to the second step and, gripping the railing, lowered one of his legs to touch the ground, trying to gauge the speed. His foot bounced back violently, kicking up rocks. He pulled his leg up and looked at us wide eyed. I thought, damn, this fucker is flying, there’s no way we can jump.
By now Jesse and the old train depot were miles behind us. We were running out of city fast, soon we’d be in the desert.
A slightly panicked discussion took place. Options were shouted back and forth over the wind and roar.
We could ride the train to the next stop, which was probably Santa Fe (50 miles north) if the train stayed course. But it was pushing 1am and if we rode to Santa Fe it would be at least 2am when we arrived. Who’d pick us up? What if it didn’t stop? Plus, the train might switch tracks and directions, taking us to a different state.
Our other choice was no better. Jumping at this speed could ruin a motherfucker.
Let’s just make a decision, I thought.
“Ride to Santa Fe or jump?” I yelled.
Travis shouted, “Jump!”
Chad and Dave nodded, both a little grim faced.
Suddenly the train began to slow. There were two sets of tracks running parallel. Another train was heading straight toward us, southbound. Our train had braked to a safer speed while the cars screamed past each other in opposite directions, separated by a few feet.
We decelerated to about 25 mph. A goddamn miracle, but it still felt way too gnarly a speed to leap at.
Dave volunteered to jump first.
He descended to the lowest caboose step. There was a four-foot drop to the ground, which was a dark blur. The rocks sloped downwards, away from the tracks, to a dirt ditch that ran behind industrial lots.
There’s two ways to jump off a speeding train. Method one is to tuck and roll, hoping you don’t land on a piece of sharp metal or tumble through a pile of broken bottles and heroin needles dripping with HIV.
Option two is the run-off: jump and start sprinting in mid-air with the belief that your legs will be able to match your body’s speed. If your feet don’t move fast enough they will stick and you’ll face slam, losing your teeth among the rocks.
Dave was a tall, skinny fella. He leapt and disappeared. Being the last in line, I couldn’t see what happened to him. I figured, well, he’s probably wrecked.
Travis was a lanky guy with a bad ankle that he’d permanently ruined kickboxing years before. He jumped and landed with his feet spinning comically, his torso pitched forward and he too vanished. That didn’t seem too bad, I thought.
Chad, also a skinny guy, crouched on the lower step, knees bent, his face concentrated. He jumped, going for the run-off but panicked in mid-air and tried to tuck and roll. He landed belly first in an explosion of jagged rocks.
Jesus, I thought, he just got fucked up!
His crash knocked my confidence. For a second, I was like, jumping is an awful idea, but I sure as hell don’t want to be alone on this train.
Chad’s biff had confirmed that running for it was the best tactic. My brain went blank and I leapt, sprinting on the way down. My feet zipped off the ground’s surface and I kicked myself in the ass with each step. After four or five cartoon-speed steps, I hit mud and Supermanned into a shallow puddle.
I stood up muddy but unscathed. No fucking way, I thought and jogged back to see what shape the others were in.
Somehow, everyone was ok. We hollered and group-hugged like a bunch of bro’s who’d just won a citywide beer-pong tournament. Chad’s stomach was wrecked. A six-inch gash ran downwards from his belt-line. Travis and Dave had made out well, only tumbling at the end of their runs.
We walked along the tracks to a gas station. It was after 1:30am and we were miles from the train station. We called our friend Maureen from a pay phone. She got out of bed and picked us up with the air of a disappointed mother.
We found Jesse waiting outside the old train station.
He said, “What happened to, ‘Let’s get off!’?”
I contacted Travis, Dave and Chad. I asked each of them a few questions about their leap from the speeding freight train. I like that Dave remembers riding in a kitchen and nobody knows how fast we were going.
WHY DID YOU SAY, “JUMP!”?
Because we didn’t know where we were going to end up, Kansas, Utah, Santa Fe?
Also, I’m pretty sure that I had a [real estate] sales meeting in the morning and had also made plans to eat breakfast with my mom.
So I was thinking how would I explain this, “Yea, I can’t make it because I’m trapped in the caboose of a train with four other guys. Please don’t be pissed off.”
That basically influenced my executive call of, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m jumping off this train.”
I SAID WE WERE GOING 25-30 MPH WHEN WE JUMPED OFF, WHAT WOULD YOU PUT THE SPEED AT?
I would estimate it was a little more, or maybe that’s just influenced by how really scary it was. I remember I was about to stick my head out of the caboose to try and look ahead when, Whoosh, a pole whipped past really close to the train. If I had looked out at that moment it would have cut my head in half.
WHAT DO YOU RECALL ABOUT THE JUMP?
I recall going back into the caboose and searching for things to pad ourselves with, I was hoping to find a life jacket or use padding from the seat.
I remember we found one dirty foam pad half-eaten by mice and it was like, nope, that’s not going to do anything.
I went for the run-off and then did a sort of a tuck and roll down the side of the dirt hill. I messed my knee up a little bit but was fine overall.
I remember Chad eating shit. He got fucked up.
WHEN DID YOU REALIZE WE MIGHT BE IN TROUBLE?
I remember being inside some kind of kitchen on the train. We were trying to see if there was any wine we could steal. Suddenly, everyone seemed nervous and was looking out a window. I looked out too and saw houses flying by. It was kind of surreal, usually when you are going that fast you’re in a car on a freeway. But going over 50 mph, right next to houses, creates a pretty intense blur.
WHAT WERE YOUR THOUGHTS BEFORE JUMPING?
I tried not to think at all.
YOUR LANDING STRATEGY?
I wanted to literally hit the ground running. I made sure to jump as far away from the train as I could so there would be no chance of getting sucked under. My plan worked, I landed on my feet and stayed upright. I lost my shoes in the mud and found them later. I was completely unharmed!
HOW FAST DO YOU THINK THE TRAIN WAS GOING WHEN WE JUMPED?
It had slowed some, but was probably going 40mph?
WHAT WAS YOUR JUMP STRATEGY AND HOW DID IT WORK OUT?
I never took a moment to decide, “Alright, Chad your gonna run it out” or “you’re gonna tuck and roll”. I figured, “I’ll just jump and know what to do.”
Well, I didn’t know what to do.
I started off with the air-run technique but mid-jump I instinctively switched to the tuck and roll.
You know when you see a little kid at the pool jump off the diving board for the first time and while in the air they panic, unable to decide whether to dive or cannonball, so they just end up belly flopping?
That’s what happened, I belly flopped at 20 mph on big, jagged rocks. I remember being pumped that I didn’t bash my face on the ground.
After standing up, I realized a rock had sliced me over my hipbone. It should have hurt a ton but I was so jacked up on adrenaline that it didn’t feel very bad. Ten years later I still have the scar. At the time, I lied to my parents and said I had slipped off a wall running from the cops at a party. Somehow, that seemed better than telling them I went train hopping.
HOW FAST WAS THE TRAIN GOING WHEN WE JUMPED?
Man I don’t know. It was probably going about 20-25 mph. But when I was leaning off the side, about to jump, it felt like it was going 50mph.