The road begins and ends in McMinnville
On a summer night in 1989, the freight-riding careers of Spider Rider and Iron Legs Burk came to an end in McMinnville, Oregon. We were two Michigan kids who lived near the tracks and fell in love with trains in the early ‘70s. We both ended up – or ended up so far – in Oregon.
Nights and weekends, when we were young – when we should have been chasing girls, drinking beer, or stealing cars – we’d steal away to the railroad tracks instead and grab ladder rides. One day, we got in a boxcar and rode a couple hundred miles down to Elkhart, Indiana and back. When I got home, and my parents asked what I'd been up to, I answered, "Hangin' out with Deeg." That was his nickname. Freight stories were shared on a need-to-know basis back then, and our parents didn't need to know. They certainly didn't need to know our freight-hopping names.
After that, we were hooked, and we rode everywhere. Durand, Owosso, St. Paul, East Dubuque, Minot, Havre, Yakima, Spokane, Eureka, Petaluma, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Barstow, Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, Denver, Grand Junction, Omaha – more towns than I can remember, though they're written in our journals. And all across Canada: Kamloops and Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat and…well, the unit trains, the one-a-days, the slugs, and the hotshots. Any train with fresh orders and hoses hooked, we rode.
By 1989, things had changed. We both had jobs. Jesse was married and I was about to be. Boxcars were in short supply, replaced by container trains, and empties were rarer still. And we had lost a step or two, or at least I had.
But one day, Jesse – Iron Legs – put out the call, as he always did. One more trip. Portland to McMinnville. Leave work early. Meet me on the bridge. I said yes, as I usually did.
We rode south and west all afternoon and into the evening, and when we jumped out in McMinnville, we might have said something like, "Maybe that’ll be the last time ever." If that's what we said, we probably didn’t really believe it. But here it is, twenty-plus years later, and our freight-riding days seem to be done. You never know, though – we’ll both be in Michigan this summer, and if Jesse sees a slow-moving freight, well...I'll keep you posted. As things stand now, though, McMinnville was the end of the road.
So perhaps it's fitting that on June 16, at Third Street Books, McMinnville will be the beginning of the road for the Wire to Wire bookstore tour. Sure, there were a couple of warm-up dates out east last month. I read with a group of terrific Tin House writers at WORD in Brooklyn and the KGB Bar in Manhattan. Good places to loosen up and test things out.
But McMinnville will be the first Oregon date, and the first time I read solo. Not even Iron Legs Burk will be there.
It’s being billed as a workshop/reading, where I’ll tell you everything I know about crime novels, which won’t take long. So if you’re anywhere near Third Street Books in McMinnville, Oregon on June 16, stop in and say hello.
When it’s done, I’m taking a walk down to the freight yard for old time’s sake, and you’re welcome to come along.
Iron Legs Burk in Oregon: Wanting things that can only be found in the Darkness on the Edge of Town.