Hard travellin'

Hopping freight trains, whether to see the world or to flee from it, did not disappear with Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation of 40 years ago. As many as 50,000 `hoboes' still ride the rails every year in America. Jan Hertoghs rode in boxcars through the Northwest with photographe r Stephan Vanfleteren
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A Friday night in Eugene, Oregon. The streets are deserted, the traffic lights blazing for no one at all, and in that empty city we suddenly hear the Train. A slight whizzing in the night, a singing and soughing in the rails that grows into a growling and thundering, and then it's rounding the bend, howling and whistling, the huge white glare of the headlight upfront. The noise in its wake envelopes the street, screeching iron on iron. Then, with more whistling and rattling, 10, 20... 80, 90 boxcars go clattering past, until suddenly the train is gone and the sound is drifting off like a passing thunderstorm.

Stephan and I stood right by the tracks and, just like children, looked up at those towering boxcars that always fill the screen in Hollywood Westerns, with outlaws crouching over high roofs and fearless heroes dangling from wobbly sideladders. In the world of train hoboes, however, this boxcar is a safe roof, a reliable shelter, the chosen means of transport.

"North Bank" Fred, a 48-year-old, part-time train-hopper and construction worker from California, is our "mentor". We met him near the Eugene railyard and he gave us a crash course in hopping into boxcars. Jumping onto the rusty wagon floor that reaches up to your chest, sometimes from a running start, does require a special technique. Fred stands in front of a shunted- out boxcar, grabs the loose latch handle on the side of the door, and lifts his left foot onto the boxcar floor with a wide swing. Then, still hanging from the latch, he pulls his other leg and the rest of his body inside.

We practise our swing on stationary wagons. Only after 10 days of travelling did we venture to jump onto a moving train. It was in Tacoma. We'd seen that train leave, jerking and juddering, and we knew we had just one minute left to jump onto it; after that, freight trains are moving too fast. We ran the rocks along the rails, pitched our backpacks inside, grabbed the door latch, and hoisted ourselves inside.

They call the boxcar "your personal Pullman", and that's exactly what it is. For the long, travelling hours, the wagon is its stowaways' domain. There is loads of space in a boxcar more than three by 14 metres in which to sleep, eat and gaze at the rolling film of the landscape, with the open doors as two giant screens, four metres high. You get the smell of pine resin and prairie grass, and the dizziness when the train crosses a bridge and you look right through the sleepers into the foaming river a hundred metres below.

You never close the door of this iron house; you "spike" it by jamming a few large, railroad spikes in the groove so it can't slam shut in an emergency stop. Closed doors can mean death, because there are no handles on the inside, and these doors each weigh a ton. Even the train loaders use a forklift to open and close them.

We took rides in all kinds of wagons: in open-top gondolas, the floors covered with scrap and iron slag; in container-carrying forty-eighters, on which the hefty, 40-foot container barely left a well free for our sleeping bags; and on top of the Garbage Express, the regular train that carries tons of household refuse from Seattle to Vancouver - the Skunk Ride!

But the rocker we caught from Klamath Falls to Bend gave us our hardest ride. That boxcar shook and shuddered violently, as if it wanted to drag the whole train from the tracks. Trying to brace ourselves or relax didn't make any difference - we kept on being spun around, just another part of the freight that had been sloppily latched down.

You catch a passenger train in the station, but you hop on - "catch out" - a freight train in the switching yard. Switching yards are labyrinths of 10 or more tracks on which up to 12 trains may sit waiting. And nowhere does it say where they're headed or when they'll be leaving. There are brakemen and yard workers willing to help you, but the "bulls", the railroad police, will want to order you out of the yard and/or fine you $325, because train-hopping remains illegal.

In the yards, there are no tunnels leading from one track to the others: you simply clamber over the couplings between wagons to get from one train to the next. During this slow steeplechase over the iron buffers, you have to hold on tight because the train can be jolted any second when additional boxcars are coupled on. And North Bank Fred warned us against "the midnight creeps", the wagons that are switched to other tracks by rolling them down a hill or hump. They glide by silently on their own, and "even at 2mph, their 50 tons can mash you up, boy!"

But the yard at night can also be sheer magic: the throbbing shadows of the locomotives are caught in the floodlights of the control tower, and, in the light of the full moon, we see the silhouettes of the train- riders waiting for their ride, kneeling in the grass, one hand on their pack, ready to run for it.

There are thought to be between 30,000 and 50,000 train-riders left in North America. Only 5,000 to 10,000 are full-timers; they're the (sometimes illegal) immigrant workers who travel from one harvest to another and the great crowd of drifters who refuse to beg in the streets. They prefer to "commute" between two or three states to collect food stamps, government- issued vouchers to be exchanged for food, and welfare cheques. The others are adventurers, train-hoppers or "rec" (recreation) riders who do it for kicks. These last few years have seen the appearance of the "yuppie hoboes" - from physicians to advertising executives - who use a VHF scanner to find out from which track their train will be leaving.

There are trains for all seasons and for all ages. Robert Bryant, a long- serving railroad policeman in Klamath Falls, counts among his "customers" a 90-year-old grandfather, a 12-year-old runaway boy, and a woman who left her husband. ("With her two kids in tow, she'd already done 3,000 miles.")

The Americans have been travelling the iron tracks for more than a century. After the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the number of hoboes was estimated at three million. Most of them were men in search of work, but there were also families trying to find a way to escape from poverty, with all their belongings bundled into a gunnysack.

Ed Sluder, who is 70, and Dick Lane, 81, hopped onto the trains when they were only 13, just taking a blanket and the clothes on their backs. They slept in boxcars, under bridges and in barns.

Dick: "I wasn't running away from home - I just left for a while to make it easier on my folks, so they only had 11 mouths to feed instead of 12. Along the way, I knocked on farmers' doors to ask for a bite to eat. Nobody thought it strange that a 13-year-old kid came begging at the door. They'd already seen such a lot of them.

"We climbed on the tenders and got filthy from the coal, but it was nice and warm there, right behind the hot locomotive breath. Sometimes, though, the engineers got real mean and they ran us under the hose of the water tower. That was terrible in winter."

Ed: "In winter, I did what all hoboes did - I lifted clothes and blankets from clotheslines. It isn't stealing when you're almost freezing to death."

Dick: "Winter or summer, the bulls were always mean. They hit you with baseball bats or with their blackjacks, and they kicked you off the train."

Ed: "The apples were the only ones who got warm in winter - they were put in heated boxcars.

The bulls may have become softer, but, in the Nineties, life on the trains has got harder, according to Floppy Bob, a man in his fifties with an I-have-to-go-attitude. "Engineers sometimes speed up when you come running - they've seen too much: drunken old geezers who tumble under the wheels, youngsters on drugs who force open the boxcars along the way. I never used to carry a weapon, but now I always have my club handy. It started the night I saw this guy with a bottle standing over me. Before he could hit me, I socked him one with an iron bar - wham! Half his skull gone. Dead as a doornail. I was put in the right by the judge - it was self-defence - but that bastard keeps on appearing in my dreams. So, whenever someone you don't know wants to get into your boxcar, just kick his teeth out."

Bob tells us about Sidetrack, the serial killer among the tramps. In the space of 10 years, he killed 16 hoboes; he was only arrested last May, in California. Today, all railway bridges in the Northwest still bear his chilling tag. Then there are the train gangs who, just as their urban counterparts divide up cities, claim railway lines as their own. The FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America), which has about a thousand members left, started with the noble goal of providing "legal aid" for all hoboes, for example, by punishing theft among train-riders. Whenever one of them was accused of stealing, an FTRA squad would give chase and force the culprit to put his hands on the rails; then they proceeded to beat them with a club until his fingers broke.

"The freight train still holds a great attraction," says Twilly Cannon, a 40-year-old environmentalist who's been riding the tracks on and off for 21 years. "The railroad is the only road where you're still free. Americans have a special thing about the freedom of being `on the road'. If they don't have a job or don't like their job, if they're in trouble with the police or justice, there's always that instinctive reflex: going on the road."

"Eight out of 10 train-hoppers over 45 were in Vietnam," says Hawkshadow, a veteran himself and a train-rider for the past 28 years. "We `Nam vets started to travel on the trains because we didn't feel at home anymore in this society. We're still alive but we're socially dead, because society made us sick with that war, because it spat us out after that war. And we've given ourselves up as `missing' from this society. We cannot come back. We're alive, man, but we're shot down."

We met train-riders in almost every town and city that had a rail yard. Tall Man was at Lookout Reservoir; he was sitting on the rails brewing a pot of coffee by heating water in a Coca-Cola can over a red flare. Tall Man carried only a bundle consisting of a sleeping bag and a sheet of tarpaulin: a nomad ready to pack and leave at a minute's notice. He called himself a "Tramp Royal". "Name any fuckin' railroad in the United States and I fuckin' jumped it," he says.

Sixpack and Good Time Charlie we came across in Portland. Sixpack had been on the run for a year. As an ex-Bandido biker, he knew all the motor gangs in the USA. Charlie, a former paratrooper, was extremely drunk, too drunk to stand, so Sixpack - the tattooed heavy - carried his junk luggage. This was the "brotherhood of the road", a friendship that might last two weeks or two days.

Harold was in Klamath Falls. He had never ridden on a freight train before, but he was travelling from Houston to Alaska, some 8,300 kilometres, to work on the salmon fishing boats he'd read about it in a magazine: apparently, you could make $5,000 a month. Harold had just a coat and two blankets. Watching him asleep on the hard floor of the boxcar, I couldn't help thinking of The Hobo Lullaby: "Go to sleep you weary hobo/ let the town drift slowly by/ Let tomorrow come and go/ Tonight you have a warm boxcar/ Free from all the ice and snow!"

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