On the rails with the new freedom riders
by Ben Ehrenreich
| Catching Out
I WON'T TELL YOU EXACTLY WHERE WE ARE, LEST UNION PACIFIC get wise and
throw up another security camera, a few more reels of razor wire or some
of those infrared sensors I keep hearing about. Suffice it to say that
we're east of the river, not too far from downtown, and that there are a
lot of train tracks around -- which is the point, really, since we're
here to catch a train, but not Amtrak or Metrolink or anything so banal.
We want a northbound freight, with luck one that will take us all the
way up to Dunsmuir, just 50 or 60 miles below the Oregon line, in time
for the annual hobo gathering there.
Crazy Angel and Meathead (Photos
by Virginia Lee Hunter A.K.A. West Coast Virginia Slim)
We heave our packs onto our shoulders and trek over mounds of concrete
and twisted rebar. We settle in a clearing surrounded by rusted truck
cadavers, their doors hanging open like broken wings, and listen to the
hissing of air brakes in the yard behind us, to the hum of the electric
wires, crickets chirping, and garbled orders from the Men's Central Jail
PA system echoing across the river. What we don't hear is trains. Forty
minutes go by, and not one has passed. "This is the waiting part," says
Clare. Virginia, who has four years of sporadic train-hopping under her
belt, nods in agreement. "This is what it's mainly like."
On the way to the Dunsmuir Hobo Gathering,
hobo songs on her ukulele.
Virginia, Clare and I spend the night curled in our sleeping bags amid
the chaparral and rubbish. Only two trains pass -- one heading south,
and a northbound that could've been ours had a crew of workers not been
laboring a few yards away. With dawn our camp is revealed in all its
postnuclear glory. I find an empty backpack, a handmade shank with its
blade snapped off, a spool of surgical tape and a Bible, one of its
pages penciled full with Spanish scribblings. I can make out only one
sentence: "Love is extinguishing itself."
We return at night and are almost ready to give up when four locomotives
roll slowly out of the yard, towing a northbound freight. They're
gorgeous, sleek and huge and gleaming, all power and promise in the
yellow lithium light. We jog through the gravel, lugging our packs and,
running now, grab the ladder to a piggyback, leap up and pull ourselves
A piggyback is a flat car that carries the ass end of a semi truck, just
the cargo box and the rear axles. We jam our packs into the narrow
spaces above the axles and hide behind the wheels. I curl myself as
small as possible, dreading the beam of a spotlight, the bark of a cop.
The train stops for five minutes and I do my best not to move. It picks
up again, slowly, and the river snakes by to my right. The towers on
Bunker Hill loom bright in the distance, looking sillier than they ever
have before. We pass Main Street and are out of the yard, picking up
speed. Sitting there, wedged in among brake hoses, fluid reservoirs and
spiny metal things, with dozens of identical cars ahead of me and more
than I can count behind, I panic for a second and ask myself, "Just
where in fuck's name am I going?" Then a smile spreads itself across my
face, and I don't care at all.
Tehachapi Pass at dawn.
WE'RE HEADING TO DUNSMUIR TO EXplore this curiously American phenomenon,
which, despite rumors of its death dating back at least a half-century,
seems to be catching on again. Men (and until recently, it has been
largely men) began riding freight trains after the Civil War, when
enough track had been laid to make it worthwhile, and enough dislocated
veterans had become averse to staying still. Since then every major war
and economic downturn has seen a return to the rails, providing a sort
of shadow history of America, a constantly mobile underground of migrant
workers, radicals, dreamers and thieves, misfits of all kinds who didn't
mesh with the societal weave. During the depressions of the 1890s and
1930s, it was a common if not entirely acceptable way for working-class
men to get around in search of wages. In the '30s, Frank Czerwanka, one
of Studs Terkel's sources in Hard Times, recalled, "When a train would
stop in a small town and the bums got off, the population tripled."
The hobo's death knells began tolling shortly thereafter, and have been
ringing ever since. Prosperity and the automobile kept people in houses
and on the road, and by 1960, Jack Kerouac was blaming the hobo's death
on the still-fledgling rise of the security state: "Today the hobo
made to slink -- everybody's watching the cop heroes on TV." Though
nearly every book written about hobos since then has mourned them as a
dying breed, and despite all the cameras and infrared gadgets, thousands
still manage to slip through Kerouac's "cop-avoiding night" to steal a
little fast freedom from a shrink-wrapped world.
From the sublime . . .
Today, except for immigrant workers eager to stay invisible, few ride
the rails just to get from place to place. With all the risk and
potential for mishaps, comic and tragic both, walking is almost more
efficient. But since the early '90s, train-hopping has been gaining
ground among a new generation of tramps. The grizzled old hobos may be
dying off, but they're being replaced in boxcars and on the porches of
grain cars by street kids, gutter punks, dreamy anarchists and
eco-warriors, train-obsessed professionals, all held loosely together by
a vision of freedom as old as the nation itself, an America of movement
and self-reliance, of mythic vastness and silence, of discovery, escape,
rebellion. It's an America that was offered long ago and never
delivered, that we're all supposed to love but not allowed to look for,
that's just around the corner and always out of reach.
. . . to the mundane - either way, no
THE WORLD LOOK
S DIFFERENT FROM A freight train. There's no heat and no
a/c. No meals are served. The restroom is wherever you find it. There
are no buttons to push or cords to pull when you want off. The train
goes where it wants when it wants to, and sometimes doesn't go at all.
It doesn't care about your wishes. It doesn't like or want you, doesn't
even know you're there. It can kill you without a thought, can leave you
behind, maimed and bleeding, without a moment of remorse. There's no
getting around it -- it's ridiculously romantic.
Ben, a crusty punk, tagging the Black Butte
built in 1926
We stay hidden as the train makes its way out of Los Angeles. Virginia's
at the other end of the car, and I'm crouched beneath the axle beside
Clare, a Web editor and sometime hobo who flew down from Berkeley to
join us for the ride. We pass a Burbank strip mall, Krispy Kreme,
Staples, Target, Best Buy, and I can't help but laugh out loud. All
those packaged comforts, the shadowless, dust-free expanses of American
convenience, exist now in another world completely. We thump off through
ey, past auto-parts stores, taquer?s, the leering pink neon of
motels and topless bars. The L.A. night slides by -- a different
country, already far away.
We leave the city and
chug up through the mountains
It's too loud to
talk. The train shakes out a cacophony that seems intentionally musical:
a high-pitched squeal that varies from hiss to yawn with the steady bass
rumble of the turning wheels, in turns cruel and joyful and terrifically
sad, layered with the backbeat of the shaking steel car. I hold my ears
as we echo through a tunnel and the high notes break toward painful.
Tags of yesteryear's hobos
At around 3:30, the train shudders to a halt somewhere in the Antelope
Valley. Bats flutter in the streetlights. After 10 minutes another train
passes us, and we lurch on forward into the desert. We sleep for two or
three hours, waking cramped under the axle, a cold wind blowing, our
faces blackened with diesel smoke and dust. The sun rises and the air
warms quickly. The Tehachapis roll by, golden on all sides, dotted with
oaks and the occasional horse farm. We pack our gear and keep low behind
the wheels until we've cleared the Bakersfield yards.
After Bakersfield we fly, maybe 70 miles an hour, past rusting factories
corrugated metal, pink trailer homes, a man watering his lawn,
sunflowers as big as your head. We speed through miles of vineyards and
citrus groves, along Highway 99, past sprinklers irrigating green fields
white arcs, past three men trying to free a forklift stuck in
dried mud. It smells of fertilizer, cow shit, diesel. We do our best to
sleep through the morning, chasing the sun across the floor for the
heat. I wake and see a world that is green forever in every direction
but up. Later, I open my eyes to a huge white silo, filling the sky like
a spaceship. This is the West as hallucination, as fever dream -- as
strange and beautiful as you always knew it was. Cows loiter in a
flooded field. We pass a bowling alley, a truck stop, a burned-out
nightclub, a street called Temperance Avenue, swallows diving over a
field of corn, a Costco, a man standing alone beside the track, looking
right at me but not seeing me at all.
New York Slim with Babys, a Chinese pug he
AFTER 13 HOURS, THE PIGGYBACK IS just starting to feel like home when
we're spotted by Union Pacific police in a small train yard in the town
of Lathrop, just outside of Stockton. The train has come to a stop, and
as a whi
te Ford Explorer pulls up in the gravel at the far end of the
car, Clare begins to laugh. "Please step off the train," someone says,
and Clare's shoulders start shaking. Funny time to laugh, I think. She
covers her mouth to try and hold it in. "
What?" I say.
It seems Virginia had taken advantage of the train's stillness to heed
nature's call, and was squatting over the edge of the car when the bull
drove up. A stocky, pink man, he seems a little embarrassed -- pinker
than usual perhaps -- but mainly pleased, like he's already looking
forward to chuckling about it over a quiet beer after work. Clare
doesn't have to wait, and is laughing openly when another Explorer stops
beside us and we climb off too.
Tex leads the Hobo Marching Band in
Dunsmuir's Railroad Days parade.
The second bull, a compact Latino man in a blue uniform, asks Clare and
me if we are associated with "the FRA." (He's talking about the FTRA,
which stands for either Fuck the Reagan Administration or Freight Train
Riders of America, and is alleged by everyone from Fox News to The Times
of London to be a "gang of killers who prey on the weak" -- more on that
later.) We are not. He asks me if I'm armed, asks where we're coming
from, where we're going and if we've done this
before, and seems as much
motivated by curiosity as any putative intelligence-gathering. He takes
our IDs, but doesn't bother to check them for warrants. He's almost
apologetic when he finally hands us our tickets, citations for
misdemeanor trespassing, and tries to make
up for it by giving us
directions to a homeless mission five miles off in Stockton, and
offering a little advice: "Now you never heard this from me, but if
you're going to ride freight trains, be careful, and I'd prefer you do
it after dark."
It won't be dark for seven hours, so we hitch a ride to a bus stop and
two buses later are in Roseville. We hike from the station to the
freight yards, and by midnight have found an open boxcar on a northbound
train. (On the West Coast, northbounds generally carry empty lumber
cars, which come back south piled high with fresh-sawed timber.) We
climb in, spread our bedrolls in a corner and fall asleep to the sound
of hammers clanking far off in the yard, and to the steady click and
kiss of the idling engines, like someone spitting on a white-hot stone.
Three hours later the car rolls out of the yard, and within a few
minutes is speeding along, singing and pounding, its floor vibrating at
a frequency that could iron out your elbows and turn your spine to
For all that, a boxcar is
a great ride. You have shelter from sun, wind,
rain and the prying eyes of cops. If you're lucky and both doors are
open, you have two huge bay windows and a choice of views. It's roomy,
with a high vaulted ceiling, perhaps indifferently furnished -- some
broken two-by-fours, stray cardboard -- b
ut still bigger than a lot of
apartments I've rented. Until last year, a boxcar could easily have
fetched two grand or more a month on the Manhattan real estate market.
I lie awake until the boxcar's groans and belches begin to sound like
voices. "Shhh!" they say. "Last! Phhhh. Eat 'em! Pht! Eat 'em! Tsph. Get
'em out!" I drift off and wake in the mountains, in a forest of high
firs. The earth is red here. We pass fingers of Lake Shasta, dotted with
fishermen and kids on boats, the water clear and green. Purple
wildflowers line the tracks; the Sacramento River flows fast and white
beside us. Finally Mount Shasta appears, a giant ice-cream sundae of a
hill, alone on the horizon, snow-topped and startling. We've arrived.
DUNSMUIR IS A PRETTY LITTLE TOWN, nestled beside the river in evergreen
hills, with a population (1,923) slightly lower than its altitude. It's
been a railroad town for more than a century, a crew-change spot for the
c. It became briefly famous in 1991, when a train derailed
and emptied a tank car filled with herbicide into the Sacramento,
killing every bug, bird and fish for miles. It's been tidied up, I'm
told. Today, railroad kitsch and fly-fishing are the staples of the
local tourist industry, and this weekend, the trout are biting
obediently and the Dunsmuir Railroad Days festival is under way.
Heading Home: Crazy Angel, Ben, Longhaired
On a wooded strip of land between the tracks and the river a 10-minute
walk from town, the 2002 Dunsmuir Hobo Gathering has already begun. Only
the old-timers have arrived, sitting in a clearing drinking beer until
we trudge in and they all rise to greet us. North Bank Fred is here, an
amiable local train-hopper and railroad nut who organized the Gathering,
and who looks like a phys. ed. teacher gone slightly to seed -- always
in red track shorts and sneakers, usually shirtless with a liter of
Gallo white port in one fist. We meet a quiet silver-bearded man named
Buzz Blur, who turns out to be a legendary boxcar graffiti artist, and
the intensely friendly New York Ron, who speaks in a mile-a-minute
upstate accent of a variety you don't hear much anymore. "I just got
outta jail!" he says by way of gree
ting, vigorously pumping my hand.
"Congratulations," I say, unsure if that's the appropriate response. He
tells me he got nabbed by the bull up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, after
riding in all the way from Albany, and that he just finished an
eight-year stint in a Montana prison (for what, exactly, I never learn).
We meet a tall, slender m
an with an easy smile who combs his long,
ir with o
bsessive regularity ("I'm a platinum blond," he
laughs) and looks a bit like Donald Sutherland left out in the sun. He
sticks out his hand and says his name with a grin: "No-Nuts." Later,
we'll argue about who gets to ask him how he came to be called that, but
it turns out it's no secret: He earned his name the hard way in Vietnam.
We meet a bearish fellow named Tennessee, and the voluble Silver Miner
Larry, a fast-talking tramp with short gray hair, his eyes a little
loose in their sockets. He introduces his old lady, whose name is either
Kimberly or Bert or Whistle Britches, depending on whom you ask, and
who, before the weekend is over, will somehow manage to break her leg in
three places while squatting to pee.
The trading blanket: Hoppers negotiate for
old railroad dated nails, hand warmers, etc.
That night we bring
a pint of whiskey over to the clearing, expecting to
find a crew of beer-happy tramps to share it with. Instead there's just
Tennessee, sitting alone in the dark, working on one last 12-pack of
Natural Ice. Over the next few days I will never see Tennessee sober,
neither at 9 a.m. nor midnight. Nor will I ever witness him being
anything but gentlemanly, regardless of his c
ondition -- he will one
afternoon rouse himself unsolicited from what looks like a near-comatose
state to help me lug a couple bulky 25-pound packs a quarter-mile down
the tracks. He's bearded and a little shaggy, like Santa's wayward
younger brother, with fists large enough to make the beer cans they
continually clutch look like they belong in a dollhouse, and a North
Florida drawl as thick as his forearms.
He complains of a Siskiyou County sheriff's deputy named Stuart, who
lives around the bend and will prove to be no end of trouble. "Excuse my
language," Tennessee says, "but he's a real fuckin' prick." Just the
other day, he says, he was walking over the bridge to the Texaco on a
beer run, when Stuart stopped him. He ran his ID for warrants and found
none. ("I'm unwanted," Tennessee says.) "He said, 'Why don't you get out
of here?' I said, 'Where you want me to go?' He said, 'Just go. I don't
care where. Go to Roseville, Klamath Falls
, Eugene, Reno, Elko, I don't
care, just get outta here.' I said, 'I been to those places, and they
all told me the same thing. Except they said come here.'"
Tennessee sips the whiskey gratefully, chases it with beer, then holds
forth on the nemesis of West Coast tramps, the bull in Klamath Falls, a
certain Roger the Dodger.
Roger the Dodger
EVERY WORLD AND EVERY ERA NEEDS its myths, its saints and its demons,
and this one is no exception. Meet Roger the Dodger, a trickster-devil
for the epoch of the corporatized rails. Not that he's not real -- even
those who doubt his omnipresence and scoff at his legendary powers
affirm that Roger does exist. Like Lucifer, he stood among the angels
once. Back before Union Pacific bought out Southern Pacific, Roger was a
friend to the tramp. He was hard but kind, and made only two demands:
"Stay off of my money, stay off of my power." So long as he didn't catch
you riding a hotshot (a high-priority train towing particularly valuable
freight) or stowing away in one of the rear locomotives, you could count
on a smooth ride through K-Falls. If you abided by his rules, he'd let
you be, and might even tell you when your train was leaving, and on
But after the buyout, legend has it, the corpora
te powers put the screws
on -- if Roger wanted his job and his pension, he'd have to bust some
tramps. He took to his task with all the zeal of the converted. If you
can believe the stories, Roger the Dodger never sleeps. He works no
fixed hours and knows the tracks like the veins in his arms. You've got
a slim chance passing through K-Falls under cover of night, but in
daylight it's near impossible, says Tennessee: "He'll
get you, Roger
will." It was Roger who got New York Ron, fresh from the Montana pen,
and kept him in the tank for two days with the snoring drunks and, Ron
says scornfully, "no shitter, just a piss hole." Roger keeps a book two
inches thick containing the name of every tramp he's ever come across,
says Ron. Their only other encounter was 10 years ago, but Roger
remembered the name and flipped straight to the tattered page. So if you
choose to ride the rails, take Tennessee's advice, and "Watch out for
old Roger" -- no matter where you are. "I've even seen him right here,"
Tennessee swears, "under that bridge."
Tennessee is not joking, but Roger's not there now, and won't be
tomorrow either, though a steady stream of tramps will be coming up the
tracks all day long. Save for a few stragglers, everyone will be here by
afternoon, and before they all arrive, some introductions are in order.
TODAY'S OLD-TIMERS, OF COURSE, ARE not the old-timers of yesteryear.
Even a decade ago, there were still a few left who'd been tramping since
the hobo glory days of the Depression. Most of them are now dead or
indoors, and a generational shift has occurred. The romantic hobo of
kitsch and legend can be safely buried.
The old-timers of today hit the rails in the '60s and ear
ly '70s, most
after coming back from Vietnam to a country into which they no longer
quite fit. Others were casualties of the '60s drug culture who either
lost everything or decided after some consideration that Main Street
America was worth avoiding. As harmless as most of them now seem --
usually blind drunk, and pretty damned rickety even when they're not --
they're a gristly bunch. More than a couple of those present are members
of the aforementioned organization, the FTRA, the object of a storm of
media hype in the 1990s, when they were blamed for a string of murders.
Most of these turned out to be committed by one man, Robert "Sidetrack"
Silveria, who confessed in 1996 to killing 28 tramps. It's not even
clear that Silveria ever claimed to be in the FTRA, but the reputation
stuck, and whenever a newspaper or tabloid-news show wants to warn kids
to stay in their cars
and in their bedrooms, they trot out "the killers
of the rails."
SocX and Ultra Heather trade while New
York Slim offers
up a Leatherman tool.
You've met a few of the old tramps already. There's also New York Slim,
a 6-and-a-half-foot black man with an enormous laugh and a tiny,
cockeyed dog. Only the white hairs in his beard give away his age --
without them he could pass for 40. He survived a POW cam
p, but stays
sober and radiates calm. Slim's generosity and easy regality win him the
instant loyalty of almost all the younger tramps. He complicates the
common assertion that the FTRA is a white-supremacist group: A couple of
members do have swastikas tattooed on their arms, but Slim is not only
accepted, he's treated with more respect and deference than anyone else
around. These days he's rubber-tramping, getting around in an old blue
pickup rather than by rail.
Then there's Magoo, who, like Tennessee, is never without a beer in one
hand, sometimes with a pint of whiskey in the other -- even shortly
after sunrise, still sitting on his bedroll. "They call me Magoo," he
tells me, "because I can't see past . . ." he pauses for a good 10
seconds before coming up with ". . . dusk." It's often hard to figure
out what Magoo is saying, n
ot only because of the drunken circuitousness
of his conversation, but because he laughs his way through most
everything he says. There's also Longhaired Donnie, not a vet ("I got a
wing-nut pass," he explains, "but I can't get a wing-nut check. Figure
that out.") and not an FTRA member, "just an old hippie." With his long
brown beard and crumpled face, he looks like a wrinkled elf, though his
eyes don't start twinkling until he's had a few beers.
Finally, Crazy Angel is only 29, and thus
hardly an old-timer. But he's
been riding the rails since he was 14 ("I don't kno
w," he shrugs wh
ask him why he started, "I got tired of all the bullshit"), and mainly
hangs with the older tramps. When I first see him it's like a vision out
of The Road Warrior -- he's tall, lanky and long-limbed, and walks down
the tracks a stride behind his pit bull, Meathead. The dog wears a
collar studded with 2-inch steel spikes, carries his own food and water
in woven-leather saddle bags, and is so well-trained he might as well
speak English. Crazy Angel's muscled arms are tattooed with grinning
skulls, the letters FTRA, and a big red swastika. His nose and lip are
pierced with hoops, a metal spike protrudes from his brow, and he has
puzzle pieces tattooed on his shaved skull. Behind his glasses, though,
Crazy Angel's eyes are s
hy and questioning. He speaks in soft, gentle
tones, and laughs a goofy stoner's giggle. When asked how he got his
name, he blushes a little and says sincerely, "I guess it's 'cause I'm a
nice guy." And he is.
IF THE OLD-TIME TRAMPS ARE THE PAST, fading as fast as their overworked
livers, train-hopping's future likely lies with crusty punks -- street
kids so named for both a frequent disregard for hygiene and a bristly
punk-rock attitude. There are plenty of ot
hers taking to the rails these
days, but most of them do it part-time. The crusties, who at this
particular gathering are rather slimly represented, are more often
homeless, and if they can get as romantic about trains as anyone else,
they also ride them out of sheer practicality.
Take Rocco and Ben, who've been traveling together for more than two
years. Rocco, 23 and the more voluble of the two, hails originally from
Virginia and most recently from San Diego. He's got short black hair,
hated is tattooed on his neck (it was hate originally, before he added
the d), and he dresses in standard crusty fashion: faded black Slayer
T-shirt, cut-off Carharts patched and repatched, so well-worn they look
like leather. "Wh
y I started," he says, "is because I got kicked out of
my house." He was 17, using a lot of crystal, living on Ocean Beach and
looking to get straight. "I never thought about being on the streets,"
he says. "I was like, 'What the fuck? How do you sustain? How do you
eat? What do you do?'" He met a kid who told him he'd just come in on a
freight train. "It was like Ding! -- the light bulb -- 'Why did I not
think of this?'"
Rocco in his winter riding gear
He left with no goal in mind except "to get the hell out of there." His
first ride took him to Mexico by mistake, the next one to Barstow, where
he stayed in a mission for a while. "I don't do homeless missions
anymore," he says. "I can depend on myself more." He Dumpster-dives for
food, panhandles, works when he can. "If you're starving in America,
you're a fool."
Despite the anarchist tattoo on Rocco's arm, he doesn't see
train-hopping in any explicitly political context, except as rejection
and flight. "The way we live is not acceptable to society." The distaste
is mutual: "I don't care for greed," he says. "That's why society's so
filthy and shitlike."
co tries to downplay his love of trains -- he rides because, he says,
"I don't want to be bound by anything. I don't want to be tied down."
But he has a boyish enthusiasm for big machines, and a hard time keeping
it from showing. "For me it's to escape. And it is my transportation,
like people use their cars. I really love it," he concludes, waving his
hands in frustration, unable to express the depth of his feeling.
His partner, Ben, taller and more reserved, will later open up over a
few beers and put it like this: "Sometimes I feel like I'm the richest
guy in the world. I could've
set out to make a million dollars and never
seen the things I've seen. But I didn't. I decided to be poor."
THEY ARRIVE IN GROUPS OF 10 OR 12 at a time, around 40 of them
altogether. Most are in their early 20s and look a lot more prosperous
and middle-class than the crusties: Their faces are rounder; they wear
Tevas rather than combat boots and carry expensive camping gear instead
of battered army-surplus packs. Despite the road dirt and the long trip,
they glow with youthful exuberance and hardly rest before they begin
sorting lentils and chopping potatoes for a big vegan mulligan stew.
Enough came from Santa Cruz that they had to meet before they left and
divide into three shifts to preven
t dozens from descending on the train
yards all at once. Many of them haven't hopped before, or have done so
only rarely, and most, when asked what got them interested in hopping,
say the same thing: "Lee."
Banjo Fred performs at Black Butte
Lee Desaux, 47, is a sort of Pied Piper of Santa Cruz, where he's been
living in well-appointed squats in the woods for more than a decade.
Invariably dressed in torn cutoff black sweatpants and boots, his neck
and arms bejeweled with aluminum hose clamps, Lee's been riding since
1986, and introducing the barefoot
and besandaled, eco-radical,
neo-hippie set to the rails for almost as long. For Lee, and most of the
Santa Cruz crew, train-hopping is a beautiful way to see the country, a
source of community and, he says, with trademark squinty smile, "a
natural extension of our visions and lifestyles." It's a way to get
around without buying into the money economy, a way of consuming without
waste, of living off the leftovers of American abundance in the same
spirit as squatting unused land and subsisting on food that grocery
stores and restaurants discard. Freight trains are like a communal
garden that moves.
LAST COME THE YUPPIE HOBOS, IN wh
ich category I include not just the
ones whose cell phones wake them up on boxcars, but all those folks with
homes and jobs somewhere who could afford Amtrak but ride the rails
because they love it. Some make occasional long-weekend excursions,
others organize their lives around trains. Take Clare, who rode with
Virginia and me up from L.A., but fell ill shortly after arriving in
Dunsmuir and left for home. She does freelance work in what's left of
the Bay Area's e-economy and has taken a handful of freight journeys
over the last few years, once as far as Iowa. She likes the adventure,
she tells me on the phone a couple of weeks later, and the fact that
"When you're traveling by freight train there's no advertising pointing
at you. You go through the back yard of America" without a billboard in
Longhaired Donnie and his new girlfriends
from Santa Cruz
Or take a hobo couple, one member of which will later e-mail me to ask
that their names not be printed here. He lives in the Midwest and
reviews grant proposals for a living; she's an ornithologist based in
California. They met in a rail yard three years ago. Both work
freelance, and work just enough to be able to devote about half of their
time to train-hopping, riding back and forth across th
e West to see each
Or take SocX, pronounced socks -- it's a complicated pun decipherable
only by train freaks, but yes, it does refer to his hosiery, which is
enviably colorful. The 25-year-old sound engineer with an apartment and
a girlfriend back in Nashville took two weeks to get here. He started
riding short hops with a friend when he was 17 and was thrilled to learn
later that "This isn't just a mode of transportation, there's a culture
here." He rides as often as he can and absorbs the minutiae of railroad
history and lore like a sponge soaking up diesel. "I'm one of the
complete nutcases," he says. "If you would take a microscope to me,
you'd see there'
s trains running in my veins."
Train-hopping is uncomfortable and dangerous enough that it's rare
just a recreational
activity: Most of the yuppie hobos are seriously
obsessed. They can talk trains for hours, which is good, because the
tramps and the more experienced crusties and hippies can as well, so
everyone gets along, more or less. And the yuppie hobos often carry
espresso pots, which everyone appreciates.
OUR FIRST MORNING IN DUNSMUIR, the espresso pots have not yet emerged
from the rucksacks, so we head into town for eggs and bacon. On our way
back, a mope
y young man who calls himself Papa Dalek tells us that
Siskiyou County sheriff's deputies have shown up at the campsite and,
with shaky legal reasoning, ordered everyone to clear out. People were
trespassing on private land, they were drinking in public, it didn't
matter what they were doing, they had to leave.
At a bend in the tracks, we meet Rocco and Ben, who are waiting there to
give new arrivals the options. The old-timers are heading off to a place
called Black Butte, they tell us, about a 15-minute drive away. The rest
are camping at another site downriver, a little farther from town and,
we hope, from the consciousness of the sheriffs.
We head for the latter, a high, sloping fie
ld on the other side of the
tracks, thick with poison oak. It's not long before Ben and Rocco turn
up -- they were just chased off by four sheriffs toting shotguns and a
dog. Eight kids from Santa Cruz, their faces still blackened with
freight-train grit, arrive looking shaken -- they too were greeted by
the sheriff's impromptu welcoming committee. Later, another group of
Santa Cruzians who left their packs at the original camp and hiked off
to the waterfall upstream to frolic and bathe will return and find the
site abandoned, their packs emptied and the contents strewn about the
woods. They will find their sle
eping bags hanging from trees, bags of
food and spices emptied in the dirt, $20 of food stamps torn apart. A
tall, skinny 21-year-old with short blond hair who goes by Buffalo Alice
will find "all my personal possessions -- passport, pictures, letters,
everything -- scattered and in the bushes." An earnest, bearded
substitute teacher named Doug (hobo name: D-Rail) will search for one of
his boots but never find it. Though no one will have seen the culprits,
no one will doubt their identities.
NOR DOES ANYONE WANT TO LET THE police spoil a good time, so once the
sun goes down and the lentils are gone, the beer starts flowing. A few
Santa Cruz kids break out guitar
s and begin singing songs about
friendship, multinational corporations and pollution. Rocco tells me
about his father, who was once in the military, assigned to some highly
secret unit trained to kill people quietly in foreign lands. Now he's a
cop, and sounds like a real piece of work. Rocco's clearly pretty broken
up over the guy. He's also concerned about my motivations, concerned
I'll write something sensationalistic and exploitative. He says he
doesn't think society deserves to know about this world, that people
haven't earned it. Maybe he's an elitist asshole to think that, he says
but that's how he feels.
Some kids from Portland start playing old bluegrassy hobo favorites on
fiddle and guitar, and as I retreat to my sleeping bag I hear the whoops
and stomping feet of the dancing pixies drifting up through the trees.
Lying there in the dark, I consider what Rocco has said, what everyone
else has told me, and I understand that this is about community, about
finding a group of like-minded folks outside the usual channels, but
also about creating a realm of skill, of secret knowledge, virtue and
style, that the scared and intolerant residents of comfortable straight
society cannot touch or understand. And Rocco does not want them to
understand. They have their own culture, and it's because that culture
is so insipid and co
rrupt that he sleeps out of doors. Hobohemia, to
borrow a term coined by the anarchist Ben Reitman in the '30s, is a
separate world, and defiantly so. It has its own rules and rewards, even
if the rules are rarely followed and the rewards frequently fail to
materialize. It's a secondary track off the American mainline in which
courage and independence still matter, in which freedom is not abstract
but palpable, and easily distinguishable from its opposites -- work,
This is true for the idealistic Santa Cruz kids as much as it is for
less punks like Rocco, though for many of the former the risks are
smaller. And it's certainly true for the old tramps. All share a
disappointment, to varying degrees and in divergent ways, a nostalgia
for an America that's failed to become, the one we were promised in
grade school, allegedly passed down to us by vision-rattled heretics and
daring claustrophobes, an America already lost by the time Whitman and
Thoreau claimed to have found it, still a sustaining memory for the
Beats and the hippies and even the fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone punk
Turning on my side, I can see Rocco standing by the fire looking glum
while the Santa Cruz kids go on singing about being free, treading
softly on the earth and loving one another. Then a train goes by on the
and silences them with its wails, and the train's song
seems to have lyrics this time, to sing of all that yearning, all the
failed dreams left to hang immaterial on the edges of cities, beneath
cement overpasses, in riverside jungles and hard urban squats, all that
space and longing squeezed into this rhythmic yowl and clang. Everyone
falls silent. The guitar and the fiddles stop, and maybe I'm drunk and
sentimental and imagining things, maybe it's just late and everyone is
tired, but it seems the train sang for them better than they knew
and when it passed there was nothing left to do but stumble off into the
woods and search out a piece of ground flat enough to sleep on.
IT'S A HOT AND CLOUDLESS DAY. TOURists and locals line the street in
lawn chairs to wait for the Railroad Days parade. First come the VFW,
old men marching stiffly in uniform, guns and flags on their shoulders.
They're followed by a little girl dressed as the Statue of Liberty; some
Boy Scouts; two kids cruelly encumbered with sandwich boards advertising
Better Home Realty; seven vintage Corvettes; a few shiny fire trucks; a
grinning boy in a go-cart labeled the "Osama yo mama Payback mobile"; a
truck painted camouflage topped with waving children and a banner
advertising Bullseye Tactical Firearms
Training ("Protect Your Family
and Yourself"). An old Ford tows a covered wagon, manned by a family in
pioneer drag. The wagon is sponsored by the Dunsmuir Church of Christ,
emblazoned with flags and painted "All Aboard America, One Nation Under
Finally, amid this panoply of patriotism, claiming another branch of
Americana, the Hobo Marching Band arrives -- though this year their
sign, in honor of the sheriff's shenanigans, reads "Hobo Marching
Banned." An old tramp named Tex, who lives in a munit
ions dump outside
of town, heads the group, hobbling along with a cane. Beside him is
Banjo Fred, a ghostly codger who leads the ragtag, sunburned group in a
rousing version of "This Land Is Your Land." Barefoot, dreadlocked kids
skip and dance and beat away at frying pans, empty water bottles and
upturned buckets. The onlookers seem torn: Some laugh and cheer, others
watch silently, sullen and suspicious. "Well," says Banjo Fred when it's
all over, addressing no one in particular, "if we didn't make an
impression, I don't know what would."
There's a stage set up on a side street, nestled among crowded booths
selling tri-tip sandwiches and "Protected by Smith & Wesson" T-shirts.
The kids from Portland who played at the camp last night take their
seats. They're the Old Timey String Band, and they play their old-timey
usic to appreciative hobos, who dance and stomp and whoop it up in the
hot sun without any sign of tiring. No locals join in. Rocco an
look on in baffled silen
ce. Half an hour goes by, and Rocco shakes his
head: "Man, these kids must eat better than I do." Another hour passes.
It only gets hotter, but the kids are still clapping and twirling,
dousing themselves with water to keep cool. "We need to have a country
all our own," Rocco decides. "It would be like this, all the time."
THE BAND'S SET ENDS AT LAST. A COUPLE of hours later, to avoid further
run-ins with the sheriff, everyone packs up and moves out to Black
Butte, an idyllic meadow of wildflowers and fragrant grasses a few miles
up the tracks, between Mount Shasta and the tower of rock that gives it
its name. For two days, train talk echoes around that meadow, pausing
only when a train goes by. Debates rage over which is the longest tunnel
in the country, which the highest pass. Most of the stories are tales of
hardship, told now with a laugh, of frigid nights going through the
Donner Pass by mistake without even cardboard to keep you warm, or of
trains that stop and sit for days in the Mojave in midsummer. Ben tells
of being so cold one Wyoming winter he had to stand all night because
the soles of his shoes were
the only part of him that wouldn't freeze
instantly to the boxcar's steel floor. New York Slim tells about the guy
whose face froze to just such a boxcar floor, and how they had to heat
the metal with torches from beneath to melt him free. The stories
dissolve into a sea of place names -- Marysville, Eugene, Pocatello,
Livingston, Ogden, Evanston, Sparks, Colton, Whitefish, Green River, La
Crosse -- an atlas of laughter and survival.
Crazy Angel keeps an e
ye on Meathead to make sure he doesn't get too
close to New York Slim's dog Babys, a snaggle-toothed little puff of
white and brown fur that Meathead would barely have to open his jaws to
swallow. Meathead's fine with people, Crazy Angel tells me, but he's
"kind of antisocial" when it comes to animals. In other words, "he likes
to kill them." Meathead would prefer a world stripped of all non-human
fauna, and does what he can to push things in that direction. So
whenever he gets within 10 yards of Slim's pet, Crazy Angel issues a
string of commands, each one more or less instantly obeyed: "Meathead,
go over there. By the gear. Not there. Over on the other side. A little
farther. To the right a little. Farther. Now lie down. Good dog."
Sitting on his bedroll, old Magoo calls Meathead over. He hugs him and
kisses his brindled nose. No-Nuts laughs and suggests that the
alike. "Only difference is Meathead combs his hair better," he says.
Later, Magoo sits perched on an overturned bucket with a couple of
drunken crusty punks and a pensive-looking Ben. He talks about Vietnam.
He was there early on, from '61 to '63, sent not to fight but to
"teach." He gestures with his beer can, marveling at the word. "They
killed a lot of my friends," Magoo says. "And I got good at killing
them. And I got to like it." His eyes are wide with residual wonder,
still shocked by this strange fact: "I got to like it a lot." Ben is
silent. The drunk punks talk about hitching into town to do some
panhandling. "I was there two years without even getting athlete's
foot," Magoo goes on. "I wanted to get shot, I just wanted to get out of
there, but I couldn't."
Magoo starts in on a story about a reconnaissance mission. It's a bit
hard to follow. "They told me to find 'em. 'Find 'em or kill 'em?' I
said. 'Find 'em,' they said. 'Okay,' I said. And I found 'em." Ben gazes
sadly at the ground; the punks aren't listening at all. Magoo is "four
clicks up the crik" when he loses track of the story entirely and gives
Catching Out (2)
AFTER TWO DAYS OF LAZING ABOUT AT Black Butte, eating pancakes cooked
over a barrel fire on a greased-up sheet of scrap metal
, drinking around
that same fire beneath a sky perilously heavy with stars, we say our
goodbyes. New York Slim gives us a lift back to Dunsmuir in the back of
his truck, a tarp pulled over our heads so the police won't have cause
to stop him. Seven of us are heading south: Virginia, myself and a
schoolteacher from Topanga named Jacob; Steve and Jodie, recently
arrived from Portland; Longhaired Donnie and Crazy Angel. Meathead the
Dog makes eight.
We miss one train just as we get into the yard, and run up to the Texaco
to buy food and water for ourselves and beer for Donnie. This will be,
he tells us, his last ride. He's got an appointment in Roseville for an
operation on his eye ("a floater"). His liver is bad, and he has a hard
time keeping up. "I'm just an old sore, I guess you could call me, one
that never healed," Donnie smiles sadly. He started riding in the early
'60s, and has done so ever since, sometimes staying put for a while,
working, even owning a business, losing everything to drugs and prison.
Riding the rails is the only thing he ever found that could keep him off
heroin, he says, and thereby out of trouble. "I called my grandma before
she died. I said I finally found my niche."
Walking along the tracks through the town with Crazy Angel, I note how
quiet it is. "It's nice," he says. "There's no people
around. I hope
they stay in their houses." He tells me he travels to keep sane, that he
doesn't like being around people too often and never learned the skills
necessary to rent an apartment, pay the bills and get by in one place.
He refers to the house-bound populace as "citizens," and regards them
not with hatred ("Hate's a bad thing") but with the mistrust one
reserves for unfamiliar be
asts, as if they belong to a different species
entirely, one possessed of wood and drywall exoskeletons, which they
shed occasionally to crawl out and make trouble for tramps. With a
sheepish smile he tells me his name for the scent a tramp develops after
a few weeks on the road without bathing: "citizen repellent."
Donnie and Crazy Angel reminisce about the old days, before intense
corporate security made tramping so difficult, when you could ride from
New York to California without a hassle, when you could hop into any
town in the country and find 15 of your friends. Even a decade ago,
Angel says, you could camp in the yards without trouble from the bull.
You could leave all your gear in the jungle without fearing it would be
stolen, says Donnie, and you didn't have to worry about young punks
wanting to fight you to give themselves a name. They talk about old
friends who've died, others locked away for good. Donnie shakes his
head. "It ain'
t nothin' like it used to be. Nothin' at all."
No trains come through that night, and we sleep in a clearing beneath
the tracks. Meathead has his own sleep sack, and a hooded sweat shirt
for the cold. I wake at dawn to the sound of a whistle blowing. Crazy
Angel is up and out of his bag, and by the time he says, "Wake up,
Donnie -- southbound's coming!" e
veryone else is awake too. We pack
hastily, and climb the embankment to the tracks. Angel spots an open
boxcar, and we all hoist ourselves up and in. "Jump, dog," orders Angel,
and Meathead jumps in too.
The train sits. After an hour the sun rises over the hills, the light
angling softly into the car. Donnie rolls a cigarette, and the smoke
rises in the sunlight in little curling dragons. Another hour passes.
Jodie reads a book. Steve stands on the track and juggles stones. Angel
sews a leather pouch. Donnie tags the wall of the car with a Sharpie. He
writes his name, and then "To Love/Is to Sacrifice/To be Loved/Is to
Cherish!" After another hour a southbound hotshot speeds past. The air
brakes on our train hiss, then click and squeak. The boxcar shivers. Its
walls moan, and the green world glides slowly by outside the door.
Note to the curious: Like driving automobiles, falling in love, and
speaking your mind in public, train-hopping is dangerous. Reall
To view more of West Coast Virginia Slim's train-hopping images, visit