The long train glides weightlessly through the heat. Wiz dabs his brow over the glorified cell phone near occasional towns that collects the Internet. "I'm not going to hide that I'm hot under the collar," he swears. "But the consolation is that we certainly are the first hobos to use the railroad's own website to consult a RR system map while on the road. I'm checking the bigger towns ahead in hope that we can get off this miserable "dog" and onto a hotshot." In minutes he answers himself, "It's dismal. There's no big yard for 150 miles until Salt Lake City."
He expounds further while typing little buttons as the freight trudges through the Wasatch Range on the eastern hot lip of the Great Basin. "It's clear that the rails run through the "Global Village". Technology contracts the world into a tiny village where remote events are instantly communicated and experienced by everyone, and the gridiron becomes a basement toy train set."
It's a powerful image, one most hobos wouldn't care for, but thumbs up to Wiz Kid. Years ago, he was the first 'bo on the block to take a scanner onto the freights. Then, in the nineties, he was among the vanguard of "hi-tech hobos" with state-of-art electronics who revolutionized freight hopping. We now have aboard: Cell phone, walkie-talkies, police scanner, infra-red goggles, global positioning system, and satellite connection to the Internet. We also carry Rand McNally's Handy Railroad Atlas and The Automated Timetables.
The irony is that technology in agriculture knocked off the greatest waves of freight riders in history. By the start of WWII, one after another innovation each replaced a dozen straining backs in the fields across the nation. Mechanization all but killed the working American hobo.
Now, high-tech hobos, though not the rule on the rails, crop up often enough. They are usually boxcar tourists, like us, rather than bona fide long-haul train tramps. Their instruments take a little magic out of the freight riding experience, but they get us on more trains easier, faster, and safer. Wiz concludes, "I wouldn't leave home without at minimum a cell phone and two-way radio."
Wiz irritably snatches the scanner after our freight stops a third time within one track mile with nothing passing us by. "Let's investigate this holdup," he gripes. He selects the next yard's frequency and we listen in to discover that many trains are "staged" or stacked in line because the entry rail to the yard is blocked with a building freight. It's going to be thirty minutes before the track clears.
"Let's go on a hobo Easter Egg hunt." I suggest from the platform. "Are you daft?" Wiz pleads, "It's not Easter." Clown adds, "What's up, Doc?" I propose, having noticed periodic dry, cracked ties in the roadbed that cue valuable hobo date nails, that we walk the rail to search for them. Wiz opts to remain with the gear, so she and I drop and amble toward the train rear while peering under cars at older ties. We're searching for 3" nails with thick, flat heads stamped with the year the tie was laid. Theoretically, 20-30 years after a tie is laid - its lifespan - the date nail is noticed by a worker and the tie is replaced. Hobos collect loosened or pulled nails to trade or make lucky charms (with the wearer's birth date) by silver-plating the dated head. The hobo nails are often found in older sidetracks out west in "veins" of years, but today Clown and I discover a sole '58 date nail that remains stuck tight in the long tie and between our birthdays.
Further back along the train, a red-faced tramp and his long-tongue dog stand on a hopper platform and, at our approach, a gnarled hand reaches out with an upside-down canteen. "Sorry, buddy, we're out too," Clown replies honestly. "Trains are stacked on the main," I inform, "And they won't release for thirty minutes." He rubs a scraggly chin, looks up and fixates on an object across the way. "Ya know, I figured as much."
I follow his gaze. "It's a water spigot," he finally says. "I've been staring at it on the outside of that white building for ten minutes. That's a bramble patch between the rail and house." I read his thoughts and roll my own dry tongue. "It's five minutes each way through the thorns, a minute to fill your jug... You can be back in eleven minutes, with luck and by leaving the dog."
He, followed closely by the dog, bounds down to the roadbed rising with heat waves. He is sinewy, tattooed and dehydrated; the pet is a Heinz variety with a long pink tongue. "I'll watch him till you get back," I offer, but he gently declines, "Naw. He knows his business." The mutt rests a chin on the old army pack and the tramp nods quietly at us before turning to face the patch. "Here goes nothin'" he yells, and scampers down the bank.
The water will taste better for the thorns," I call, and the dog's concerned gaze follows him.
We watch until he wanes in the patch. "Love it!" I exclaim. The major types of riders are boxcar vacationers like myself, the homeless or those too poor to afford bus fare (though the freight is usually faster and more comfortable than Greyhound), migrant workers, the unemployed looking for work, immigrants, loony bin rejects, anti-socials and outcasts, men on the lam, marriage fall-outs, runaway teens, veterans, the curious, and now executives and pet owners.
Clown and I continue to walk the train identifying the different cars: gondolas, tankers, other hoppers, flatcars and, at the very end, a solitary boxcar. The dog grows smaller in the distance even as the tramp has disappeared in the briars. "I can't let go the feeling of freedom of the man and dog," declares Clown. "Yes," I agree. "They are a living example of hobo life and of the American pursuit of happiness. It's what this one country on the big globe stands for. The collective doesn't decide the purpose of the individual. Every person, hobo and dog has a right to try different paths, pick one, and live it for himself."
"A boy and his dog on the open road makes me want to click my heels," pulses Clown. "Meanwhile," I remind her, "Free clicks demand vigil. This freight may pull away any second." "Doc," she warms. "Give me the benefit of the doubt of knowing exactly where our next ride is if this train pulls out." I clam up. We round the last boxcar with FRED blinking red over and over, and beyond a sweeping view of the empty back track for miles.
Hiss. Click. Bang. The freight suddenly hiccups forward.
"For Pete's sake!" cries Clown, sprinting around FRED. "How do we know if the door on the other side of this boxcar is open?" "It's high on the springs - an empty," I spur. (Railroads often leave one sidedoor open for the next load that may be hobos.) "It's open!" she soon verifies.
We race to overtake the door, then slow to match pace at a walk. Now the hardest part is getting up and on. The boxcar floor is five feet off the cinders - at Clowns nose. The ballast is angled and slippery, plus the freight gains speed each tick. "Follow my lead", I instruct, and trot to the moving ledge, bend swiftly and slap my thigh. She steps on and vaults into the car. The door passes but I regain it and belly flop in myself, scratching nails on the hardwood to keep from sliding out. She yelps and grabs my shirt to tug me through the opening. Safe and panting, we retire to opposite ends of the boxcar.
Remembering the tramp, I peek through a wall crack on the closed side. "I guess the timing was off," I report. "The dog is sitting with its back to the freight watching the master with a jug of water stuck in the patch." She antes, "That's the American way."
The world changes once you enter a boxcar door. The outside and your past are left behind with the gentle shake and roll. Though the "window" (open door) provides light and a god-like imperviousness it takes a good minute for your eyes to adjust to the dim. It's a rare old boxcar with a wood floor that cushions and muffles the rail travel to make conversation possible. Locked boxcars, like some lives, are sealed shut until the right moment when a worker breaks the seal to admit light and unload them into a yard. Empties, like this one, are seal-less with one "window" left open after the last cargo was off-loaded. That door becomes a wide-screen TV featuring the local nature channel. It measures 15' wide and 9' tall and slides on a horizontal floor track that I "stake" with an 8" railroad spike to prevent it from vibrating shut on rough track. We sit in opposite ends of the "side-door Pullman" chewing fingernails over the next move.
Clown stands, prances the shaky floor, and sits close by me. The boxcar reaches speed and the inside movement progresses from jiggle to sway to rock-and-roll all the way. "I feel like a hoboette for the first time," she murmurs snuggling closer. "Are there many girl riders?" I answer, "Hoboettes are the rarest, about 2%, and almost always with a man in tow."
"My breast pocket jumps. "You're morons! If you hear me, I assume no responsibility for you." I key my radio and she answers in it, "Morons must be the last hobo type. Thanks for your concern. We're on the last boxcar: Doc, me and FRED!" He roars back, "Wave through the door so I know you're alive." She warily rises and reaches out the door. "Rock on Wilma Flintstone!" fires Wiz. "What's your plan?"
That plan takes action in thirty minutes as the train slows and parks on the mainline. We leap out the door and gallop the ½-mile toward Wiz waiving at us off the hopper. "The trick here," I puff behind the lady, "Is to look ahead for the next possible ride while recalling the last nearest one in case the freight starts." She tugs my hand hard as I continue, "Give greater weight to the one behind because if the train starts that car will catch us while the one ahead will..." At this instant the freight lurches and we are caught in a no-man's land between no real cars to ride. She drops my hand, screams "Goddamn baggage!" and sprints to the first oil tanker car ahead. I dash and grab the same moving ladder in the nick of time.
An oil car is black bottle with a two-foot thin grate at the end called a bumper that rides over the wheels. They twirl faster and faster below our bird perch. "Where the Hades are you?" sounds Wiz on the radios. "On an oil tanker," I shout with one hand on the grate and the other the receiver. "What!" he gasps. "I'll phone the next yard and tell them to radio this train to make an emergency stop." However, I urge patience that an emergency stop might throw us off.
"Give me a minute to think," and he signs off. Momentarily, the walkie-talkie blurts, "The mileposts cross-reference the railroad map to show the freight seventy miles outside Salt Lake City. We'll arrive in a smaller yard sooner, but the scanner reports that the mainline is clear so we'll sail through. If you can hold on, there are many small towns in the next two hours before Salt Lake, so just..." I complete the sentence, "...Work forward whenever the train stops." He requests, "I can still radio the next yard to contact the engineer." "No," I answer, "The danger doesn't equal the embarrassment."
We fasten like ivy to the mesh platform. "You stepped out of the Eris crowd, the only person willing to ride a freight. Why?" I ask close to her face. "It's another lifestyle sampler to figure out myself," she replies, and scoots closer on the bumper. "I'm hard to get to know."
I coax her, "We're sitting on a narrow mesh inches above racing wheels and can't get off. If the train emergency stops we fall. If the local police see us, we're nabbed. In an hour our fingers will cramp like sticks. After sundown it gets nippy. Are you nervous, Clown? She retorts, "Not unless I should be."
"Why are you on this trip?" she counters. I am instantly carried away from the tiny stage to the mightiest autobiography. "Did you ever read John Griffin's Black like Me?" I ask. She twinkles, "One of my favorites. What happens, it begins, if a white man becomes a Negro in the deep South? What adjustments must he make, what changes occur within him, and what are the sensations of being different. How else would he know except by becoming a Negro?" "Exactly," I echo, appending, "The story haunted me for years until I became a hobo. Unlike Griffin's transformation to a black using dyes, oral chemicals and shoe polish, I only avoided shaving three days, donned old clothes with empty pockets, and walked into a railroad yard."
We ramble at 40mph down the rail over bumpy crossings and through little burgs where passersby wave incredulously, but we can't let go the bumper to wave back. I glance at Clown, as a teacher to a student, proud that she doesn't quiver or puke. "This," I tell her, "Is your moment in the sun. You are a hoboette!" After twenty minutes ride on the dodgy tanker, the freight pauses on the main, we jump down and race to our hopper before it trundles.
Wiz pulls his hair and stamps his feet on the steel porch. "Don't do that again at the risk of death!" he screams. "You needn't have worried," I console him, "We had you watching over us."
Wise tramps slow down - slower than the train go their minds. In jail this is called doing "easy time", and doing train time is the same to make long hours pass easier. Spread ideas out, taste one at a time, and let conclusions arrive like maestro piano keys. I pull out and read L'Amour upside-down to decelerate after the tanker. "Doc Bo," quips Wiz. "You're the Zen master of the 21st century, with an upside-down book in one hand and a thumb up your ass with the other."
Later, a sky of lights ahead. The freight train, truly the greatest technological wonder of time, pulls into the Mormon capitol after dark with three heathen hobos.