Sebastian Junge on Walking America’s Railroads

The change was immediate. The land opened up west of Harrisburg and suddenly we could drink from streams and make fires without getting caught and sleep pretty much anywhere we wanted. We’d walked the railroad tracks from Washington to Baltimore to Philly, then turned west on the main line and reached Amish lands in the winter. The fields in Pennsylvania were bare and harsh in the cold, but there were seams and folds in this land – strips of forest along the creek floor, shelter between the cornfields, wild ridges for hunting – where a man could easily pass the night unnoticed. Once we cooked dinner on a steep hill above the town of Christiana and fell asleep in a blizzard and listened to the clatter of carriage horses in the street below. At dawn we went into town for pancakes and coffee and then walked up the railroad tracks before anyone whose job it was to stop us even knew we had been there.

But outside of Harrisburg, where the Juniata River flows into the Susquehanna on its great breakthrough of Blue Mountain, we just seemed to have been released into the wild. Early settlers tended to push up the great rivers until they encountered the first waterfalls – the “fall line” – and these spots became the starting point for people who were even more desperate or adventurous. At Blue Mountain, the Susquehanna falls down a series of rocky outcrops and deepens into the alluvial floor of the coastal plain. There a Welsh emigrant named John Harris started a business that pounded rafts across the river in the 1730s. What was then called “Indian Land” effectively began on the other side, and when Harris’ passengers disembarked, they found themselves in a forest of huge hardwoods that stretched almost unbroken for the next thousand miles into the Great Plains extended.

(Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Three hundred years later, we would walk through a cluster of RV trailers between the river and a standard-gauge railway, and then get onto the tracks ourselves. We could hear trucks downshifting on the last hill before Harrisburg on Route 22 across the river. It was late April and the Juniata was running fast and full in the spring flood, an occasional tree rolling in its current that had been undercut and overthrown on the banks. It flowed between ridges that looked too steep to climb and ran straight for miles. There were streams for fresh water and flood water for firewood, and the woods were so dense that you could sleep practically within sight of a church tower or a police station and nobody would know about it.

It struck us as a serious country where you kept an eye on the weather and slept next to the gun you had. All we had was a machete, but after dark we all knew where it was – usually chopped into a tree somewhere in the middle. Occasional shots ricocheted off the shelf rocks and debris from the top ridges, and one morning an A-10 thundered so deep that we could almost make out the pilot in the cockpit. Less than a day’s walk from Harrisburg, we passed a sign nailed to a tree warning the federal government that the property “would be defended by whatever means necessary.” There were meth addicts in the towns and black bears on the ridges and the remains of old locks and canals along the river that seemed almost ready to be reused if history ever required.

“The trains were so heavy and fast that they seemed to set the whole world in motion, the air vibrated and a strange pitch lifted off the rail that fell on the edge of the human ear.” (Photo: Guillermo Cervera)

We walked a single file on the ash maintenance road that ran between the track bed and the river. Creeks raced down from the ridges as if fleeing something. Swarms of mosquitoes worked in the sunlight and bass boats whirled past the current below us. Where the tracks were running we saw trains of a mile or more, headlights boring towards us like wild little suns, but even in the bends we often had the feeling that a great force was coming towards us. The trains were so heavy and fast that they seemed to set the whole world in motion, the air vibrating and raising a strange pitch from the rail that fell on the edge of human hearing. But we set ourselves out there in such a way that we knew a train was coming without knowing how we knew it – but we knew it. We went into the underbrush and sat on our backpacks and some of us rolled a cigarette or drank water and we waited for the animal to come through. The cargo was moving at a familiar speed and took a full minute to pass, but the passenger trains could reach 140 and pass by so suddenly that they simply left you in a vortex of dead leaves and trash.

We took a ten minute break every hour and walked all afternoon. Occasionally we saw a pickup truck in the distance that sped onto the tracks on an ungated farm road and then hopped over the tracks. When we saw a car stop in the middle of a bridge about a mile ahead of us, we put our binoculars on them to make sure it wasn’t a cop. (It is illegal to enter rail freight, and it is even considered a national security issue on high-speed lines.) At the end of the day we came to an old quarry furnace at a place called Bailey Run, where a stream sawed through a ridge and ran under the rails into the Juniata. The water was ice cold and filtered through the chert and limestone of the land and tasted like civilization was something else in the future. We went up the stream and encamped in a small stock of sycamore maple and hemlock that snuggled into the curve of a ridge. The only way to see our cooking fire was to come down on us silently through the woods at night, but we had a dog and that wasn’t going to happen either.

Junge and his group continue their journey along the American railroad tracks.Junge and his group continue their journey along the American railroad tracks. (Photo: Guillermo Cervera)

The routes had all the dangers of heavy industry, but also ran right through nature. However, the trains were so heavy and noisy that it was easy to forget that they weren’t the only danger out there. In central Pennsylvania, we got caught in a summer thunderstorm that immediately soaked us, boiling drains from culverts and running down the hills. It was almost dark and there wasn’t a place to sleep that wasn’t badly angled or completely underwater. One of the men finally looked at me and said, “You know I really want to be out here because I have much better options than this.”

We’d all been in some struggle, and there was something about our pursuit – the simplicity, the hardship, the nearness of death – that reminded us of those days. Most of the trip was done in segments over the course of a year. Halfway through, one man got out and others filled in later; One section was just two of us. We called our trip “the last patrol,” and it seemed like a long, strange thing before we were actually out there when it suddenly became so obvious that we rarely caught ourselves why we were doing it. The things that had to happen out there were so clear and simple – eat, go, hide, sleep – that it felt like writing through the day: a true and honest representation of all that the hectic performance of the Underlies life.

On the night of the downpour, we slept under a hardware store tarpaulin in a piece of skunk weed near the river, and I stayed up listening to the wind in case it rose to that high-pitched scream, which means tree tops are starting to crack. I had decided that if this happened, we would wade into the current and expose the storm on a small, brush-covered island that I had discovered. No falling trees could reach us there, and I doubted the river would go beyond what we could handle.

In the morning the river was at our toes and the island was gone. If we went out there we would probably be dead. That was the script. That was the world that let you know where you were.

From freedom, by Sebastian Junge. Copyright © 2021 by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Main photo: Guillermo Cervera

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