When these teenagers decided to go on an adventure together, they never thought they’d find themselves lost, tired, and hungry in a small, unknown town. But then a little old woman told them to get in her car…
When I was a kid I was fairly obsessed with trains and train tracks, and I had several friends that shared the passion. We hung out on the tracks near where I grew up constantly as little kids, and as we got older it became the standard place to drink and smoke pot and just generally be 18-year-old hoodlums.
Eventually we got the courage to actually ride a train, so one day we went up there with a backpack full of booze, waited for a train to stop, hopped into an open coal car, and were on it for about 4 hours until it stopped in Chicago. We caught a cab home (that’s a whole story in itself) but basically it went nice and smooth and was one hell of an epic adventure. So… the stage was set for another try, we just weren’t sure when.
Well. A few months later myself, my friend Will (the same guy I went with the first time), and a girl named Coral were all up on the tracks drinking and screwing around, and a train stopped. Will and I started talking about how we rode one out from the same spot not long ago and it was fun, and Coral gets super excited and wants to try it. As in she wants to try it now. On this train.
Will was totally up for it as well, but I was not. We had been up there drinking for a while and I was hungry and thirsty, not to mention it was quite a bit colder out than it had been the last time we went. It was November 11th, 2000 at about midnight. They keep trying to convince me, I keep insisting it’s not a good idea. Well… they finally talked me into it, but under the condition that I am only willing to do it if I am able to walk to a soda machine and get us a few cans, because I did not want to be stuck on that train without anything to drink. We pooled all of our money, and between us it came to like a dollar and thirty cents. I went to get soda, and was able to afford three cans of Dr. Pepper. The whole walk back I was hoping the train would start moving so I wouldn’t have to do this.
But I was not that lucky. I made it back, and it was done. The train started moving immediately after we pried open a box car and climbed in, and we were off. We were all 19. None of us had a watch. None of us had a cell phone. None of us had money. We had no food, three cans of Dr. Pepper, and nothing else. It was maybe 50 degrees out, so we had on hoodies but that was it. Hell was about to begin.
The car we were riding in was full of giant stacks of what I think were gas tanks for cars, but I’m not really sure. They were stacked 8 or so layers deep, separated by huge sheets of rigid plastic, and broken down into 8 or so compartments, which were 8 feet deep or so and separated by metal grating.
It was loud as f*cking f*ck in there, because every time the train hit a bump all of the cargo would bounce around, all of those metal grates would rattle, and that’s all on top of the rail and wind noise. It was fun at first, but we soon sobered up and realized that it was COLD. As in f*cking freezing a** cold, and windy, and we were wearing clothes appropriate for a crisp fall day. No big deal though, because we thought we were headed to Chicago.
Wrong. We ended up being stuck in that train car for three nights and three days. There was no sleeping. There was no warmth. There was no food, and there was no water. The weather became cold as hell immediately after we got on, and the train only stopped a few times during the whole time we were on it, and that was in the middle of indistinguishable wooded areas in the middle of the night during freezing rain storms. Getting off would likely have meant death.
We were borderline hypothermic, starving, dehydrated, and f*cking exhausted on being awake for three days. I remember actually wishing for my mother like they do on television shows during terrible stuff… I didn’t know that was actually a real thing, but it was. Being in that situation, realizing that I actually may die, and not having any way to know where we were or even what time it was was maddening, especially when combined with all of the physical problems we were facing. A lot of stuff happened during the ride that isn’t important for the purposes of this topic, but basically when the third day started we all agreed that no matter what, we had to get off of the train the next time it stopped. Well, it stopped that day around what felt like 4pm or so, and we got off.
It was a corn field, with nothing in sight in any direction. Luckily it was a sunny day and not as bitter cold as it had been, and it also wasn’t raining… so already we felt like we were ahead of the game. One of us noticed a speck moving on the horizon, a car on a distant road, so we headed in that direction hoping to find civilization. The train left as we walked, and many expletives were shouted at it as it left. We eventually get to the road, and can see that in the distance, far down it, there appeared to be a town of some sort, so we headed that way.
When we finally got there it turned out to be the most backwards a** little place you can imagine. One store and a post office… well, we were literally close to dying of thirst having only had three cans of soda between us for the past three days, so that sh*tty little store may as well have been heaven itself. I walk in to buy something, anything, to eat and drink because even though we were out of money, I had a credit card that I had just gotten.
Well… the tiny little store is nothing more than a converted porch on the front of an old house, and the guy couldn’t take credit cards. I went outside and we decided that we had o just go in and steal food, regardless of the consequences, because we were in that bad of condition. None of us were criminal type people, that’s just how bad off we were. Well… just as we were about to go in and do it, an old woman that had just pulled up to the post office box station thing across the street noticed us and walked over to us.
She said something to the effect of, “You kids look terrible, are you ok? You’re not from around here are you?” Will and I are both well over 6 feet tall and were fairly punk rock/gothed out, as was Coral. Late 90s Marilyn Manson/NIN/Skinny puppy kids. We were also filthy from the train ride. We were barely conscious from no sleep or food or water, and must have looked like complete aliens in this bizarre little town.
We had to look like we were strung out on drugs, and this lady was a little tiny sweet old grandma. Well, we told her what happened to us, and asked her if she knew of anywhere we could walk that would accept credit cards for food, because we were starving, and she said that several miles down the road there was a bigger town that would be able to help. We thanked her and started walking. Well… 30 seconds later she pulls back up to us and says get in, she’ll give us a ride. Her car is nice and newer, we are the three dirtiest human beings on the planet earth. We thank her profusely and get in.
She ended up taking us into that town and when we asked her to just drop us off near someplace with a drinking fountain and a bus stop, she took us to Ponderosa and together we had a massive feast. At the end when I tried to buy the dinner for all of us including her, she would not have it, she paid for everything. We were speechless, but this is when it really gets amazing… instead of taking us to a bus stop so we could catch a Greyhound back home, she takes us to her house, gives us a tour, shows us where the towels are, how to use the shower, how to use the tv, shows us three spare bedrooms, each with a freshly made bed that she just coincidentally happened to have.
And then she said, “You guys clean yourselves up, help yourselves to anything in the fridge you want, and I’ll see you tomorrow, I have to go to work””… and she left. To work. With three complete strangers that look like street punk junkies standing in her living room. We could not believe that any human being on the planet could have possibly been so nice, but this was really happening… we all took showers, and then immediately passed out for a solid 24 hours, only waking up when she would call me on her own home phone asking if bologna sandwiches or steak or whatever were ok for dinner. This woman was incredible.
We ended up staying there for a couple days with her, she showed us around the town, took us to see the Mississippi river. My most vivid memory is of the four of us sitting around eating breakfast, watching Independence Day on VHS, and talking. She told us about how she had a son who had gotten “a wild hair” and went on strange adventures, and maybe that was why she wanted to help us. After several days she drove us to the tiny airport so we could catch a Greyhound back to Indiana. She tried to give us money but we three utterly poor teenagers flat out refused. Will and Coral had their families buy their tickets back andI was able to buy mine with the credit card, and that was that. We had a 30 hour bus ride home, which was even still a bit of an adventure, with a long layover in some mystery town waiting for a transfer, and then our last bus crashing (mildly) on the Dan Ryan passing through Chicago.
It is strange that the best story of human kindness in my life is the same story as the worst suffering I have ever experienced. That isn’t quite the end, though. A year or so passed, and then one day a letter shows up at my house. It is from that woman’s daughter. It turned out that she was dying while we were there with her. She had some form of cancer that we were completely oblivious of, and had died just a few months after we left. Her daughter found a letter that my mother wrote her when we got home after I told her the story, and the old woman’s daughter found that letter in the box of hers where she kept her important papers. She wrote us to thank us for giving her an incredible story about her mother, because apparently she hadn’t told anyone about us or what she did for us.
I tear up thinking about it now over a decade later. As far as I am concerned that woman saved all of our lives, took us in, and trusted us… three complete strangers in scary clothes, filthy, stinking, admitted hooligans off of the train, to the point that she gave us her home… and treated us like her children, and that was most likely the last big experience of her life.
I will never forget her.
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