The Ridden Rail Train Hoppers Today by W. Anderson Lee
A calm breeze floating through my toes as I took in a book atop a blanket strewn across the grassy knoll of Moore Park in Del Rio when it happened: the Earth shattered.
Or rather, the sound of a train rocked my ear drums. Only slightly annoyed, more so at being startled than anything, I returned to my book, lighting a cigarette. Moments later a young woman appeared, her shadow cast across my blanket, asking for a light.
“Sure,” I fumbled through my pockets to find the source of flame in question. Handing it back to her, I couldn’t help but take in the sight.
She was rugged, dirty, but not particularly lean. She had the air about her of a person of the street, but her face was beautiful, smiling eyes, lips to match. She looked tired but not worn out, encumbered but not broken. A yellow pit bull sat at her dirty brown boots, panting away the afternoon. Thick socks stuck up from those worn leather clods of hers before her legs became bare, sooty and slightly unshaven. She wore overalls cut into jean shorts, pinstriped blue and white like a train conductor would wear. A knife hung at her hip. She lit her cigarette, a rollie, and the smoke danced up her face and into her dirty blonde hair.
We got to talking. She told me that she’d found her dog as a puppy abandoned in a railroad yard. What were you doing in a railroad yard, my obvious next natural question. She answered before I could mouth the words. She was a train hopper.
Inviting me to drink with her friends, who’d secured a park bench and a 30-pack of PBR, they told me of their adventures in crossing the country for free. How yes, it was dangerous, but that the danger was more about getting thrown in jail than being crushed by a train.
“If you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty safe,” one of her companions, a similarly attired man, maybe in his mid-twenties, told me. He paused, and repeated, “It’s definitely safe, if you know what you’re doing.”
I had a beer with them, and tried not to sound too new. I had never hopped a train before. One of them picked up a dead fish which had somehow made its way onto land from the creek nearby and began flinging it at another member of their tribe. I smiled a little and told the girl I had to go.
The next morning, before the sun had even risen, I slipped into the train yard they’d told me about and found a boxcar which seemed relatively free of electric wires and had a small flat bed, which was really just a flat space at the end of the car where I figured I could tuck in and find safety. The train sat still for over an hour, and though I was rich with excitement at the entire plan when I dreamed it up sometime in the middle of the previous sleepless night, I was finally growing tired.
When I woke it was moving. Slowly, just getting started, but moving. I considered jumping back off, this was crazy. I didn’t even know where it was going. I suddenly wondered if trains ever go to Mexico and what the odds might have been that I was heading exactly there.
The next day was phenomenal. I watched as the tracks followed along the highway and then quickly left it at a distance, only to narrow in again and parallel asphalt through town after town. Semaphores sang out and flashed red lights while cars stopped and waited for this massive metal caravan of mine to whizz by. Small desert towns appeared and vanished off into the horizon in moments. We would slow considerably as we reached some main thoroughfare and a few minutes of watching actual people go by, in their cars, on the sidewalks, jogging, pushing babies, riding in the backs of Greyhound buses. And then back alleys and main streets would fade into cacti and desert mountain landscapes. As the sun began to fall out of the sky I watched my shadow grow long and short as it ricocheted from the Earth’s floor to telephone poles and back again.
Finally the megaton beast I was hitching to the back of came to a halt in San Antonio, Texas. As it slowed nearly to a stop I peaked around the side of the car, looking for the “bulls”, the name the hoppers back in Del Rio had used for railroad cops. With a clear coast I hopped finally off of the train, my legs shaking, a bit wobbly as I got used to using them again, and vanished myself into the city.
In the thralls of the swelter of a May afternoon in 1865, a Union Soldier by the name of Henry Clintock hopped a train, along with dozens of his fellow comrades in arms, out of Richmond, Virginia, eventually bound for Pennsylvania. The war was over, and even with bloodstains still on his navy blue overcoat, he looked forward to home.
A few days later, former Private Douglas Johnson, a Mississippi native who fought on the side of the Rebels, found his way onto an empty cattle car headed west.
Clintock rode the rails north in search of the comfort of whatever family, whatever semblance of life he might arrive to have found spared in his home state. He rode with hope in his heart and victory on his side, but it was a heavy ride, after four years of Civil War the States were still ripped in two and he would join his teenage sons in rebuilding a nation.
Johnson’s ride was of a very different nature. He was without a specific destination. His family, his people really, had been disappeared by the war. There was nothing left in Mississippi for him. But in Colorado or Nevada or perhaps California, there was the promise of a fresh start, one where he could leave behind the pain of fighting for an outdated South. Fighting and losing. Johnson rode a train headed for redemption, and soon found himself working for the railroad to build the very tracks that would lead him to his new life.
By the time the two took their journeys, steam powered trains had already been locomoting around the Eastern United States for decades. Four years after they’d set off, the railroad would cross the continent and in the decades to follow line after line would follow suit. Johnson would not be the only rail hopper to have this idea, thousands upon thousands of others would follow the steam and tracks to new opportunities, to put their fate in the hands of travel and the unknown.
By the time the Great Depression bulldozed the 1920s, the population of “hobos”, those hopping trains to travel from place to place in search of work, had risen to an estimated 700,000. That’s comparable to the population of Detroit, Michigan today. An entire subset of the country at that time living day to day attached to trains.
In those times though, train hopping was an accepted form of transportation for the nation’s migrant workers. But just as commercial rail use has died off in favor of everyone having their own car, their own little bubble to keep them away from the rest of the world and theoretically out of harm’s way, so the hobo has faded nearly into extinction.
Today, train hopping is more of a way of life, a rebellious act of defiance and pursuit of freedom performed by punks who are neither looking for work nor interested in being a part of society. It is a subculture whose members seek anonymity and vagueness: today’s train hoppers don’t even want the rest of the world to know they even exist.
With good reason, the act of leaping onto a moving train and riding it, for free, wherever it may be bound, is highly illegal. Everything from 9/11 to the safety of our nation’s youth has been cited as the reason behind increased security, heightened scrutiny at railroad yards, and then a little more security. The truth is probably simply more economic: trains don’t want people riding for free, and they don’t want to get sued in the theoretical situation of some young kid getting his arm ripped off trying to hop a train barrelling towards its destination. At the same time, you get the idea that these modern day hobos take pride in their secrecy, their clique. They are an ever dwindling population these days and, much like punk rockers in the late 20th century, don’t want the media coming in and Green Day-ing it all up.
But not all of the members of that population are bound by secrecy. Megan Hessenthaler, train hopper and filmmaker, documented her own travels aboard freight trains and boats while living in and among the crust punkers, tramps and vagabonds. In her documentary, Freight Travels: a home movie she depicts the lifestyle as one of fancy free and whim, where life is spent in corrals of dirty youths playing music and watching the mountains pass them by as trains haul them around the country. It becomes easy to get caught up in such a romantic notion of freedom, where young people are not bound by the weight of impending adulthood, where they can escape the 9 to 5 in exchange for a few more months or years of recluse teenage abandonment.
A feeling of mystique surrounds these kids, though the more you watch documentaries like these, the more you begin to see the adverse side of things. Drugs and alcohol begin to play a larger role, quickly robbing away the freedom which was the impetus for such a lifestyle in the first place, then their teeth, leaving scabs and a certain empty sadness in eyes once lustfully brimming with optimism for making the world the way they want it.
Let’s be clear though, the majority of these “homeless” kids do not actually fall into the traditional role of the term. There are exceptions, of course, and no doubt there is still some sect of modern day tramps and hobos who are literally just doing whatever they can to get by and are closer to the homeless people you see begging for change and sleeping under bridges in your own city. On closer inspection though, these youths who seems to be covered in filth and destitution are wearing fancy boots. The torn thrift store style t-shirts they’re wearing were in Urban Outfitters fall line a few seasons ago. What, to the average American might seem like rags is actually a masterfully tailored ensemble in the new grime chic. Many of them have created this image for themselves, one of sleeveless shirts and scuffed up boots and patchwork skirts intentionally cut up for the sake of seeming poor. Faux poor is high fashion on the rails and while there are true tramps out there living for years at a time riding train due to necessity or a true desire to live outside of society, the larger chunk of these kids are simply on a “poor vacation”, taking a few weeks or months to explore before heading back to college or mom and dad’s house or wherever they may have come from.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that I suppose, it is simply a fact to be noted. This nation is made up of hundreds of subsects, mini-cultures within our own larger society which do not share the same values as the majority norm, or at least what the media would have you believe was the norm. We are simply trained to think that whatever our particular lifestyle is must be the one towards which everyone else strives.
For example, if you’re a smoker you tend to think that a lot more people smoke cigarettes than actually do, simply because you’re around those types of people more often. If you smoke marijuana, on the other hand, you probably think that you’re in a much smaller minority than you are: because the media and society and the laws of this nation tend to state that smoking pot is wrong, few people who do announce it very loudly. Atheism, homosexuality and full-time travel are just some other examples of this.
Watch Freight Travels
In another documentary, titled Modern Day Train Hoppers, creator Adam Sine interviews a pack of kids who appear to have been on the road for some time. One of the young men interviewed states his reasons for getting into catching out; the slang term for riding trains illegally.
“The Interstates, you see so much scenery from that, but riding on trains, it takes you on No Man’s Land,” a friend sitting just beside him appears to be drunk and makes various faces and hand gestures to back up the point being made, “where like nobody is supposed to be and you see so much more beautiful wildlife and so much more scenic mountains and fields and everything else. That’s one of the main things that keeps driving me to ride trains.”
He talks about how he got into riding trains. After getting kicked out of his parents house and following his girlfriend, who was with his child at the time, to Texas, one folly after another came his way. He claims the girl “intentionally miscarried my child” and took everything he had, leaving him homeless. He couldn’t find a job because, as he puts it, “I was dirty,” making air quotes with his fingers which bear grime-laden nails. One thing lead to another and while attempting to hitchhike home, he ran into some train hoppers and the rest was his particular history.
“For me it’s like fighting the system,” says another interviewee. Unlike the twenty-somethings above, he appears to be in his forties. There is nothing stylish about him, just a guy wearing a camo hat and sleeveless t-shirt. A handkerchief hangs around his neck, which is often dampened and used to cover a train hopper’s face when they go through tunnels in order to avoid asphyxiation from the fumes that can gather in long stretches underground. “I mean I also do it to eat because I can’t get a job as being a felon with no ID it’s hard.” He goes on to claim he occasionally finds some side work, cash under the table here and there, fifty bucks or so, but otherwise, “I fly sign 24/7.”
All of these people, the imagery they create, it tends to shed a negative light on them, at least when viewed through the eyes of a less extreme segment of our society. But not every train hopper is a tramp, not all of them are looking for a free ticket to the liquor store, and not all of them are just “faking” the lifestyle for a few months of adventure.
Watch Modern Day Train Hoppers
Take Lee, for example. He’s been featured in a few documentaries, such as the full length film by Sarah George, Catching Out. An occasional train hopper herself, Sarah interviewed Lee in several locations, including on trains, in his seemingly well-to-do parents home and even in his little shack up in the woods.
Lee is not a kid, though perhaps he was when he began hopping freight. He’s middle-aged in the documentary, which came out in 2003, but could fit in immediately with any 20-something vagabonds making their way across the nation. He’s dressed in all black, and throughout the film you see him climbing rocks, leaping onto trains and generally being significantly more of a bad ass than your average over the hill American. Sometimes he wears this black hat that is simultaneously wizardly and fit for a cowboy.
Lee doesn’t look overly dirty. He doesn’t sound like a crackhead when he speaks, unlike many of the other people interviewed in the film. Though he appears to ride trains quite regularly and for long distances, such as to the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa every year and to a hobo’s only New Year’s Eve celebration in the Southwest, he also maintains a small shack somewhere deep in the forests of Northern California. Unlike most hobo jungles–the term given to the tent villages where train hoppers congregate–Lee’s shack feels more like a weekend hunting cabin. He brews tea and listens to the radio. He publishes a zine called There’s Something About a Train and runs a pirate radio station which plays “hobo music”. He is formerly an activist and is involved in his community, be it Santa Cruz or the more train track oriented one. There is nothing homeless feeling about him.
Which leads us to another question, what is “homeless” and why is there such a stigma attached to that term? The Indians who lived in this country before white people ever showed up to wreck things were largely homeless, migrating throughout their territory with the seasons to follow food and habitable climates. While this writer in particular has no empathy for anyone looking for a handout, many hobos make a living on their own, doing odd jobs or permanent, less locationally fixed things like seasonal work. By definition, the word “hobo” means a traveling worker. It is because so many train hoppers tend to fall into the camp of tramps–those who travel but only work when they absolutely must–that the population as a whole gets a bad wrap.
And who am I or we as a society in general at all to say what living outside of the realms of a paycheck can be about? Digging through a garbage can literally full of untouched, discarded McDonalds’ burgers which were thrown away simply because the customer didn’t want pickles is not begging. It’s not taking away from anyone else. It’s living on the extras society has to offer. Indeed, tramps and hobos alike could easily look at the excess of our modern affinity to owning multiple pairs of shoes simply for the prestige of it, our tendency toward whatever it is that ever made us think that a garbage disposal was anything short of being spoiled. Simply existing is a beautiful thing, and doing it while latching onto a senses-numbing, steel on steel death machine bound for wherever the parallel may take you is just proof behind a life with some desire, some purpose greater than amassing wealth. It’s chasing. Whether that’s a dream or an escape, it doesn’t matter. It’s a purposeful, thought out decision to live in a particular way and then sticking with it.
That the rest of society could find such conviction would be a miraculously beautiful thing.
In the old days, train hoppers would roll into town, go down to a creek to clean themselves up a bit and put on a fresh shirt, and then otherwise be able to integrate into society easily. Modern day crust punks riding the rails are clearly different, their outward physical appearance makes them immediately recognizable. When they sit on street corners with signs asking for money, they become beggars. It is these folks who are the poster children for hobos and train hoppers, they are the billboard screaming “We’re here, we’re dirty, give us money.”
There are also “high tech” train hoppers out there today. They use cell phones and two way radios to connect with one another, to keep each other informed as to when trains are leaving, where they’re going and what the status of the bulls in the yards are. Using special maps and something called a Crew Change Guide, which via some unwritten hobo oath and perhaps US Law is forbidden to ever post online, they can cross vast distances in very little time. Trains are often less of a lifestyle and more of a travel hack: free transportation across a country.
Hobos tag trains, not to be confused with hip hop graffiti, these are often artistic marks designating which trains they’ve been on or what might lie ahead. In the old day, hobos would mark certain towns, certain places with similar marks, indicating a house was welcoming of strangers or a particular town had already been worked over heavily by tramps and should be avoided.
They gather in hobo jungles, temporary miniature towns where groups of travelers pitch tents and share food, drink and stories from the road. They have their own language, an entire set of slang meant to confuse outsiders or obscure their conversations to eavesdroppers. They are an entire people who live largely off the radar of the rest of society, save for a few cross looks from regular old townsfolk who would rather fear their presence than participate in the conversation.
Which is, often times, just the way the train hoppers want it.
On a park bench in Asheville, North Carolina sit two freighthoppers in discourse, each making it abundantly clear as to exactly how they see themselves in the world as they smoke roll your own cigarettes and gesture wildly with their hands even when they’re not talking, as though their entire lives are a play for the world to pass by.
“A couple of rubber tramps they called themselves,” the first of the two announces to the other. He’s maybe twenty nine, dirt filling the pores in his cheeks. He’s always smiling, but his eyes are thin, squinty sort of and dark, betraying his distrust in those who conform to society. A tattoo on his forearm reads, Call me Mike. Mike continues. “I mean, they seemed like okay guys and all, and I didn’t want to say anything but…rubber tramps? What’s it even mean?”
He’s referring to full-time RVers or people who ride buses to facilitate their full-time traveling lifestyles.
“They told me I should watch out, you know, ‘cause they’re older and want to give me advice?” he points his index finger at his own face and smirks. “How it was dangerous and you could go to jail.”
“Ooh,” the other guys waves his hands in a mock trembling, “Oh no.”
“The one acted like he couldn’t believe that I would ever ride a train and so I asked him how he got around,” Mike sticks his finger halfway into his mouth and imitates the act of regurgitation. “Hitching,” he reveals, as though it had actually made him sick thinking about anyone who would, in his mind, lower themselves to hitchhiking instead of strictly hopping trains. He leans back on the bench, his head arching over backwards, arms splayed out in the same fashion an eight year old might while pretending to have been shot.
The other guy is just watching him, slowly he takes a drag from his cigarette but he’s just waiting to see what will happen next. Mike launches back up into position, his legs crossed, reaching for the smoke.
The other guy hands it over, eyeing it up first wondering how much will be left on his next go ‘round.
Mike continues through his inhale. “I would never hitchhike. I would never take a bus. I’m a true hobo, I will always ride the rails. Always. Or walk at least.”
“When you hitch or freighthop,” the other interjects, “you’re doing something.” Mike looks at him through the sides of his squinty eyes, not even turning his head. “You’re going somewhere to get something done, to be a part of something.”
He reaches back to extract the ever shortening rollie from his companion, but Mike pulls the smoke back to his lips again once more before handing it over. “But what I really don’t understand are these bums, these home bums around here.
“When you’re traveling, you’re seeing it. You’re seeing it all, the world is there for you. To experience it, you know? To do more than just lay down in the ditch there in bumtown and get hammered all morning. When you’re these home bums around here you’re just…” he shakes his head as though the description is too disgusting for words.
The cherry of the rollie’s roach slips between his finger and onto his tongue. Spitting a bit to get the ash out, he wipes a yellowish grayed fingerless glove over his tongue, cleaning cigarette ash with soot.
“Last year,” his hands searching through his pockets now, “I was hitching through Montana and I stayed at this mission in Missoula for a couple of nights.” He glances at Mike, as though he’d betrayed himself too early. “I stayed there for a night and as I was leaving these two old guys were on the porch drinking coffee, hot coffee, it was winter, the middle of winter in Montana.” He produced a package of rolling papers, weathered all around the edges and, as he opened it, revealing it had no papers left inside, closed the cover and continued with his story. “They’d just rode freight from Michigan and were headed on to Oklahoma City. They were working in a cannery in the Upper Peninsula, made some dough and just hit the rails.”
Mike shook his head, and then nodded in true sincerity. “That’s the real deal, brother.”
“See I’m just not all that big on society,” he moves the conversation along. “Society thinks it’s money. Thinks it’s power. Think their way is the only way, the right way. Well look where that’s got us.” He smiles and looks into the sky, his hands now rummaging through his pockets once more.
Producing a bag of tobacco, his head kicked back, staring as high into the wild blue yonder as his eyes can manage, “I’ve got a million dollar view right now.”
Switching once again between “normal” members of society and the stationary homeless, Mike points over to a man digging through some trash, wearing a thick, worn out Carhartt jacket with a panhandling sign hanging from it. “Look at him. I bet if you ask him if he travels he just stares at you all stupid. Probably thinks riding the subway is travelin’.”
“At least when I fly sign,” he assures, “I’m on the move. I’ll do it sure, here, but then I’ll be there tomorrow.”
The other guy finally gets the bag of tobacco open, grabs a pinch and then turns back to his sleeve of rolling papers. Opening it, he remembers that it’s empty. Mike’s pocket vibrates suddenly, then his phone starts ringing. He jumps up quickly and produces the pay as you go cell phone from his jean vest pocket.
“Oh shit, it’s my mom.” He excuses himself from the bench. The other guy gets up, too, wanders off. “Hey mom, yeah, I got it.”
Disappearing down separate streets, it’s unclear if either of them will ever see one another again, or if they’d even known one another before today.
The scene is revelatory. Society by and large sees train hoppers as miscreants on the borders of society, they are shunned for who they are. And at the same time, train hoppers themselves are often elitist, playing a sort of reverse role where they look down upon other travelers who aren’t as “hardcore” as themselves.
The next morning two more travelers meet on the same bench, arriving simultaneously by chance. One, with a blue pea coat and jeans, looks the other up and down from her black boots to grey t-shirt.
“Hey,” says the kid in the blue pea coat. “I’m PA Clintock.” He nods his head and puts out his hand.
“Hey,” reaching over to meet the handshake, the girl in the grey t-shirt replies, “I’m Southern J.” She wipes some dirt from her nose, “The J is for Johnson.”