The executive hobos railed across the Great Basin as best can, suffered the rest, and lost one good man to the desert. The reward for the surviving three is a whooping ride across the Great Salt Lake Causeway.
The short history of the causeway is intriguing. The 1869 first transcontinental railroad traveled north around the thirty-mile wide brine lake. At the turn of the century, embankments from the west and east shores of the lake connected at the center with a 12-mile wooden trestle. Later, in the 1950's, the unsafe timbers were replaced by the present rock and gravel causeway. We execs watch seabirds roost, preen and flick off the timber tops and early telegraph poles ¼-mile north of the present railbed.
The train trudges off the eastern causeway and soon into Ogden, Utah. We jump down on a slow, 5mph roll just outside the yard perimeter to steer clear of the reputed no-nonsense bulls. We hump the packs a mile around it for the same reason, and by luck stumble into a work train crawling the south rail toward Salt Lake City. We jump one-at-a-time as pre-rehearsed into the yawning "window" - open door - of a 2mph boxcar, boosting each other safely in. Then the train paces from the historic Promontory Point where, in 1869, the Gold Spike was pounded to celebrate the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.
The local work train threads little burgs south next to I-15 for one hour and on into Salt Lake City. This is a high desert Mormon and hobo stronghold blockaded on the west by the Great Salt Lake and on the east by the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. Dirty Face trundles through the north city industrial parks and soon alongside the square-laid city streets and avenues that in early morn bustle with the "busy bee" citizenry. "There's the gold-dome capitol atop the hill!" points Pronto.
The freight then slides past the giant Union Pacific red-and-blue badge above the old UP yard. Millions of hobos rolling through history similarly gaped at the towering marker but none were executives with gold-crowns. The freight creeps through the downtown UP yard to the smaller Roper Yard in south city, and ceases.
We jump to the dirt behind two tramps pressed against a building wall peeing. Their indifference to our intrusion suggests a long road to disaffiliation. Furthermore, they see us as peers. I wave and they nod over their shoulders and turn again to face the flat wall. Salt Lake has the stains of hobohemia for a century as a rail junction and division post. It is still called the "City of Manna" by tramps, and railroads ply the "Milk and Honey Route" through Utah. Surely the burning issues - "Do American hobos crave to live aside society", and "Is that where society wishes them?" - will be answered as we transition for a day here from the rail culture and into the city.
The brash urinaters zip and wheel to us. They wear blue-jeans and sweatshirts, baseball caps and rail grime everywhere. I open, "Must have been a long night... beer?" They grin pleasantly. Their packs are hidden at a nearby stream bank where they drank last night, but soon they'll catch a westbound to the coast. "Why do you ride?" I ask. "Hell," one replies. "I don't have anything else to do." The other sniffs, "Should we work when we don't need to?" That statement hammers the divider between tramp and society: these riders and thousands like them take occasional jobs, recycle bottles and donate blood as businesses when they want flash money, and then hardly see the next day. In contrast, regular society delays gratification and squirrels their nuts.
We separate from the pair and I advise my comrades as we walk, "It's curious that we passed as tramps. Moreover, that they place themselves at a rung above the rest of society." "Food for thought, all right, but how about breakfast?" urges Pronto. "I gotta pee but I think it can wait until the Golden Arch," cracks Apple. We spot an Interstate viaduct a half-mile to the south and strike out for McDonald's on its near side.
The first thing a smart rider does on alighting on a new town turf is to wash up. This usually occurs at a stream, filling station bathroom or fast-food joint. Very dirty tramps pay four-bits at a self-car wash. A hobo wears a grime coat of grease, earth and sweat that fills the pores and grows out only after two weeks. However, the outer layer lifts immediately with a good scrub of hot water and soap. We order a dozen Egg McMuffins - on sale for a buck each - and coffee, and take a corner table. The executives take turns washing the monkey out of the bathroom mirror until breakfast arrives. The food disappears fast, and we lean back to discuss the dichotomy of citizens and tramps: Them and Us.
"Did you see the way people stared at us on the sidewalks? It was a strange look of awe and distrust," declares Apple. "The water jugs gave us away along with freight odors. And I think everyone has a romantic notion of hobos," inspires Pronto. "Though passersby looked oddly at us," continues Apple, "When I observed you guys I found myself gawking the same way. I'm confused." I jump in, "You guys are floating between Them and Us!"
After a pause, I resume. "The prejudice ranges from mild in Mormon towns to getting chased by rednecks in Texas... Weary Willies stick out like sore thumbs." Do train tramps get a doormat treatment everywhere you go?" asks Pronto. "Yes," I answer, "Unless you take these three easy measures to blend in after you get off the freight: Wash up, do laundry, hide the pack, and walk the sidewalks like an upright citizen."
"How prevalent and how deeply do the dual societies run?" asks Apple. "Everywhere freights run through towns." I retort. "It's tough to be girdled by good citizens who believe that a fitting member has a job, bank account, home, significant other, and takes vacations. Those are their requirements for an identity. Without them, you become Us."
Apple confesses, "I find myself during this journey identifying more with the hobo ways but condescending as an executive. It's not an identity crisis, but approaches it." I respond, "That rub stops when you remain on one or the other side of the tracks for a few days to rearrange your reactions to a single environment. We just immersed abruptly into the rail world and out this morning in Salt Lake, so for the remaining day we'll be in a transition shock. Take heart: the advantage, after bouncing from easy street to the gutter and back enough times, is to render compassion at each.
"Art Linkletter was another tramp turned millionaire," I inform. He writes fondly in his memoirs Hobo on the Way to Heaven of riding the rails penniless during the depression. However, he held two aces: a YMCA card and a skill to type 100-words per minute without error. The first ace let him check into a facility after getting off a freight in any city. The next day, showered and shaved, he played the second ace where typists were needed in the work force. He spent two years hoboing the country in this fashion."
"That's what all tramps need," insists Apple: "A place to clean up, a job and a million dollars."
"For now," charges Pronto, "Let's find a motel near the tracks. Then we'll go to town." We push back from the table, rise and Apple introspects out the door, "We bounce like dry leaves, and them don't care where we land except us do."
The following thing the hobo does on stepping down in a new town, after washing up, eating and gauging the citizenry, is to stash his pack. It can be stuck in the jungle weeds, or in a Greyhound or Amtrak station locker. The execs have ridden an extreme one-thousand rail miles from the Pacific without respite, so we select a classier option, the thin Siesta Motel on 3200 St. South next to a strip mall just a few blocks from the tracks. The hot shower is a luxury, but Apple refuses to shave his fledgling beard. Next the clothes are laundered at the motel machine, lifting the lid once for a longer soak cycle. The day sparkles outside, and after cleanup we can blend with the public.
The Salt Lake Light Rail trolley conveys us for $1.50, our first paid ride, to downtown where we saunter Trolley Square, an upscale marketplace inside four historic buildings. Shoppers nod warmly, and we buy snacks at every other food shop. "A tramp is always hungry," lips Pronto. "Let's go eat at the Sally," agrees Apple. A street person provides us directions to Pioneer Park where the homeless and hungry wait for a free meal across the street at the Salvation Army. The Park loungers recognize us as kin by the laundered albeit wrinkled shirts, quick feet in heavy boots, and grime wedged in the nose pores.
The Salvation Army is the new-tramp-in-town's best friend with thousands of outposts scattered about the United States and the world. We walk from the Park a block over to the food line stretching around the block with a hundred hungry men darkened by sun and dirt, with faces creased by hard lives. A dozen women and children take priority slots up front. Throughout the queue, one-in-twenty appears to be a freight rider with boot toes scuffed, evenly flattened soles, clean clothes but grease-spotted, and those familiar noses like shields on somber faces. Pronto, the outdoorsman knows how to walk the street walk and hobnobs easily with the rest, whereas Apple's intellect broadcasts far and wide as he listens aside to the strange conversations. I spend the time in line in a personal kick quantifying types of men and their traits.
This good company closes in on the mission door for the strict reason of hunger. Once entered, seated at the large tables in the dining area, and the main course served - a thick potato soup - talk is sparse. The Salvation Army is a boon to the homeless man intent on starting from the streets up and into a productive life. Here daily he can eat, shower, get clothes vouchers for the Willie (Goodwill), and find temp work. He also may be referred to a large nearby shelter for a maximum free three-month stay as the new, productive life gels.
We egress the Sally to investigate the nearby UP railroad yard. An old codger at the end of a busy rake in a freshly mowed yard catches our eyes on the way to the yard. "Why do you do this?" I ask in earnest. "It's just going to grow back." He eyes us up-and-down before replying, "I'm Mormon, and you know what that means?" We're unsure. "Hard work over time creates discipline, and the community looks well at that, as well as the yard. Now you've looked and heard, so I'll get back to work."
Further on, we get waylaid by a quaint event: the rodeo is in Salt Lake City... Downtown jumps! Banners stretch between telephone poles encircling the midtown Delta Convention Center screaming "Days of "47 Rodeo". Horses are parallel parked on the Main Street tethered to parking meters. Yips crack the air.
Former rodeo clown Pronto assumes a bowlegged swagger down the middle of the sidewalk and slants toward a youngster in a huge cowboy hat twirling a bigger lariat. Time and again, the loop drops like a frown to the street. "Can you teach me that?" Pronto asks the boy. "I reckon if you got the time and the talent, cuz ropin" ain't easy." I got the time anyway," laughs Pronto. In the next minute the tyke runs through the steps of forming the loop, twirling it larger and larger until ultimately... it droops from gross weight. Now the adult grabs the course rope to try but seems all thumbs, and soon hands it back for more demonstrations. The kid finally shrugs in exasperation, "Sorry, mister, but I guess you ain't got what it takes tonight." Pronto smiles, takes the rope in his calloused hand and twirls an awesome loop that he jumps gracefully through. He hands the coil back to the wide-mouthed boy with, "You sure are a good teacher!"
We leave the main stem of click-heeled cowboys slaloming thousands of horse droppings for the Light Rail, and return to the Siesta Motel. Pronto phones his newly wed he actually lassoed on a San Francisco sidewalk to propose, and tonight tells his wife to go out for their anniversary dinner alone. None of us is a TV hound, so the room lights go down early in anticipation of a sunrise freight into the Rockies.
At 7am, bagpipe music erupts in my ear, and I slide my head beneath a pillow. Pronto drums with pencils the pillowcase until I throw it off. "I practice drumming each morning accompanied by my mini-recorder," he says switching off the recorder. "You're just in time; I finished practice."
As the sun peeks over the Wasatch Range, we rise with coffee, bagels and the morning edition of the Salt Lake Tribune. The trio checks out of the motel and hikes a few blocks to the Roper freight yard. It's dormant in early morn, without the regular yard hogs grunting and odor of diesel burning, and is divorce of workers. We pad a deserted service road to a small bridge and crawl beneath to discuss the day's strategy. Our timber nook is tactically located under the eastbound main in the yard center and a brook gurgles at our feet. The missing link is a freight.
Pronto schemes to parade the yard to seek a worker for train info. Today's bandana, Utah sky blue, he slides down the forehead to around his neck and fluffs it. He states, "I researched the FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America) website before we left. The group says it stands for hanging together and making sure you don't get robbed or killed by assholes, helping each other out with places to crash, and with ways to pick up some cash." I then tell the duo what I know. A seed core of thirty riders banded loosely in Montana in the 80's and spread as new geographic sets adopted trademark colors. The railroad police overplay their numbers with incredulous comments like, "If there's railroad tracks running through your town, chances are you have FTRA members nearby." Pronto informs, "A website advised not to get on a car with a group wearing bandanas unless you have one the same color. Hence my crayon selection throughout the journey - safety in camouflage."
He stands tall to the bridge rafters. "Watch my pack. I'll explore the yard for workers and if I'm not back in an hour turn on the radios." We're confident he'll get the info - train number, time, destination and track - because any bloke with coveralls and a neckerchief inside a rail yard will be mistaken not as an FTRA but as a RR employee.
In thirty minutes, he struts back like a prizefighter and exclaims, "I talked to some guys in a work truck who said the track west of Salt Lake City is blocked due to construction. It's an odd situation with trains bypassing this yard and being shuttled north through Ogden. There won't be a Denver Man until the line clears late this afternoon, but at that point they should run regularly."
Apple wonders aloud, "What took you so long?" Our exec spy continues, "The boss yelled when I started to walk away from the work truck, "Hey, where's your hardhat?" I answered, "I didn't know hobos had to wear hardhats." He glared at me for a long, hard moment and then chuckled, "Damn if you don't look like a worker!"
The bridge subsurface is idyllic: Dirt embankments, stream, and hobo pastimes. We compete skipping stones across the stream and Pronto wins with five consecutive. Apple flips a thirty second around-the-world yoyo trick. After an hour, our hobo experience depreciates to every instance I've ever known between rides on the rail: Boredom. We steel furtive looks up through the trestle slats at cotton cumulous parading the blue sky. Finally I gust, "Let's go look for the jungle."
To find a hobo jungle, follow a path beaten through the tallest grass near a major yard and listen for the trickle of a brook and voices. The latter was more common when Depression era bo's covered the cars and jumped down to fill these camps. Nowadays, one may discover a couple tramps in each camp and, if not, always their old cardboard, bottles, food wrappers, and perhaps a lawn chair frame, cutlery and a cutting board. Often you see weathered plywood over holes scooped in the dirt as shelters, and always campfire rings. Jungles are safe resting places until the catchout, plus now and then an aging tramp-in-resident keeps the spot orderly and gives transients directions and stories.
We heft the packs and follow the tall grass trails - cobweb crossed to indicate no passers-through - from the bridge to just the jungle I've described. It's vacant, but we sit and soak the ambience for a few minutes. In recent memory, twenty years ago, the big summertime jungle a few miles north of here at the red-and-blue Union Pacific sign was a large hobo haunt that has since been paved and over-passed. Spectacular in the past, across the country, there is still a little jungle at every division point.
Even so, today we prefer the cozy trestle and return under it at the main to wait out the sun and the repair of the "bad order" track. Down here, unseen, we are able to hear oncoming freights and climb out to hobnob with crews before boarding. Others have waited under here as well. There is "boxcar art" and monikers scraped or painted all around on the timbers. Pronto carves his initials and the date, and Apple, looking like one and ever the creative contrarian, uses a piece of coal to scratch a Happy Hooligan on a bridge support. I look at my bicep and draw the tattoo I see - a Road Mouse with a smile and a teardrop - signifying the sweet-sour experience of riding the rails.
We pass around books from my backpack library. Apple notices me reading upside-down and requests, "Teach me how to do that." You already know how," I reply. "Try it." He succeeds at once. I suggest the advantages of reading print right-to-left: enhanced tracking of objects such as a tennis ball, boxing glove or a freight car moving from right to left, less neck strain, and greater reading stamina. "You read one chapter one direction, and the next the other," I explain. Apple practices reading upside-down Ayn Rand's Fountainhead until distracted by flies landing right-to-left on the bridge cross-pieces. He springs and swats at least a dozen flat dead with the Morning Tribune. "Now the newspaper is black and white and red all over," I tease.
Apple this morn is a bit buggy himself. Under the bridge he switches between reading, harmonica repetitions, yoyo slaps at water-walkers, and in due course sighs, "I'm sorry, guys, but I can't take it any more." We watch stunned as he reaches into his pocket for a cigarette pack and lighter. "The roots of tobacco plants go to hell," I instantly quote Edison. Apple gazes in indecision at the stream with an unlit ciggie between his lips. "Listen to me," intrudes Pronto. He relates how his identical twin brother and he were paid $500 each a few years ago to participate in a medical experiment. They were given a short nicotine or saline drips daily for a week to monitor the comparative reactions. "One of us got the placebo; I don't remember who. But listen, brother. I was maniacal for a month after, and never will smoke."
Yet, after a pause, Apple flicks the lighter. "Throw it in the stream", I shout. He draws deeply three times, crushes it, and stuffs the long butt into his pocket. "That was lovely, but I'm cutting back."
The temperature soon climbs under the trestle to 95-degrees as registered on the thermometer leashed to Pronto's pack. Flies materialize out of thin air. We sip the last of the motel ice water and listen to our stomach cacophonies.
Tramps in camp frequently pool coins in a strange way to produce a meal. Someone drops a hat or a circle is drawn in the dirt, and everyone throws in the change he can afford. Two people are usually charged to watch each other and take the sum for the makin's, and the rest guard the camp. After the return to the jungle, customarily everything's thrown into one pot and cooked, then shared equally by each contributor. The hobo meal is called Mulligan stew.
The flush execs each toss a Hamilton into my hat, and then debate who should go to town. Everyone wants out from under the damn bridge. Apple stands feebly to argue on two heels blistered raw from new boots, but we sit him back down to take the shoes off. We see his heels could peel before he reaches a sidewalk. Pronto, the ex-EMT, unzips a First-Aid kit and cleans them with brook water, dabs antiseptic, and leaves them bare to dry. "You're not walking anywhere," orders the hobo "croaker", and his patient nods dejectedly.
So, Pronto and I walk the tracks a mile toward a 7-11 store kicking coal dribbled from cars along the ballast. I tell him that people in poorer times collected the lumps and sometimes raided stationary coal cars for fuel. We enter the store and buy the makings for cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches, plus six-packs of cold juices and sodas. We exit, check the radio at mid-return and tell Apple lunch is being delivered.
Two loaves of wheat bread and all the fixings disappear into open mouths, and the remaining drinks are dragged in the river upstream from Apple's feet. He, still hungry, determines to open a can of Pork-n-Beans with a sharp rock. "This is an added thrill to the meal," he says, but after five minutes hitting the can without success accepts a P-38 can-opener from Pronto. They share the beans and tap their feet on the stream to Persian music on Apple's Walkman. I meditate.
Soon asleep, the timbers rattle and a whistle blows high. I jump, but it's the imitator Pronto pounding the rafters while teething a perfect train whistle. I pay back with a salvo of contingency plans, my practice from years of chess playing and outdoor survival. What if... shoots tingles up-and-down my spine, but not theirs: what if the bull drives up? "What if we get separated?" The shelling irks them but I know that at one zero hour the execs will cover my ass in an emergency. Today, everyone wants to get out, but "What if..."
The earth shakes and dirt clods rain on us through the bridge cracks. A passing freight overhead brakes and parks on the main. Apples jets into his boots as Pronto leaps out the bridge and shouts back down, "It's a coal train!" He walks a quarter-mile to the head to talk to the crew, and returns to inform. "The engineer says it's a mile-long unit coal train - all coal hoppers. He begs us not to ride since it's dangerous as the bottom trapdoors can pop open on the roll. He doesn't know when the next eastbound is due." I curse the news, "Anthracite is a dirty ride anyway." We retreat under the bridge like annoyed trolls.
We fill our hats like paddlewheels with stream water and wear them for hours. The grunt of yard hogs overhead pushing strings settles into the hot culvert. Flies buzz about us like vultures. Freight hopping is long waits interrupted by flurries of activity, all part of hobo life in America.
In an hour, another train chugs overhead. Cinders drop and we pop our heads out to behold a mile-long unit train hauling an unknown substance. Gondola after gondola, I've never seen the likes of those beans. I mount a ladder for an appraisal and realize in a tick this train shall be a tough sell to the execs. "Well, I've never seen anything like it," I holler down. "It's a carload of heavy gray peas. I'll jump on..." I bounce a bit on landing. "It's elastic!" I yell fantastically over the side.
They mount ladders hesitating on the top rungs. Then, as at a pool, they gulp breaths and leap at once. Both land on the bowl of beans and bounce giggling like schoolchildren. "I don't know what these are, but if they hatch we're in trouble," warns Pronto. "Possibly they're pellets for some type of mold." offers Apple. "Look," I stop jumping to say gravely. "Normally I'd pass up this ride because it has V-bottom hatches like the coal train that can jar open and empty the contents onto the track. But that's unlikely and, besides, this gondola is piled almost to the top, so we can rope our bodies to the ladders."
"I'm in. We've been waiting a long time for this," affirms Pronto. "Count me in," weds Apple. We grab our gear, monkey up the ladders and settle on cushy top. Pronto shows us a fireman's bowline to rope our waists to the rear ladders. Far ahead, the engines growl for a new crew. They arrive, the horn blows, the couplers beat from there to our car to the tail, and, laboriously, the long heavy freight pulls away.
The train rattles south out Salt Lake City and bends on many overpasses until the straightaway on the outskirts, and five minutes later reaches 40mph cruising speed. The track slices the Salt Lake Valley nosing the eastern ranges in search of a low pass into the Rockies. Early on, the trio huddles in a back corner on the strange load to calculate the odds of a bottom-hatch of our car jarring open at 1-in-100,000; a frightfully small chance, so we break the bowlines about our waists. I tell the others our present concern is being sifted to the bottom of the tall gondola like heavy raisons in cereal. They test dance on the spongy surface for one minute springing without sinking and shout, "Amazing!"
Five units blow smoke as sol sinks to our right. City lights fade behind, farmland envelopes the train and flashlights routinely are brought out. Then a half-moon arcs from the east as we sit rocking on incalculable thousands of tons of mystery pebbles at a new running speed of 50 mph.
"Actually," challenges the lightning calculator Apple, "It is possible to roughly estimate the number of pebbles in this whole train." We challenge him, "Have at it." He rests chin on a hand, eyes shut, and in seconds asks without opening, "Can I use a slide rule?" I offer him instead a pencil. He scribbles rapidly on his cardboard seat with a penlight in his teeth mumbling, "Half-inch diameter pebble; need a cigee, a 15'x 8'x 50" car; each is 90% full; need a cigee, a one-mile train ignoring couplers..." He finally totals a line, and concludes, "About 300,000,000 pebbles." "Correct!" shouts Pronto. "The prize is a look over the side to see the city emptying."
The track shears the Valley in half paralleling a busy Interstate. Excitedly, Apple rummages his pack and pulls a one-foot wand. Presto, it flashes neon-green! He twirls the baton over the gondola side describing fantastic equations that pop into his head. "Who knows what a smart fellow thinks?" Pronto asks near me. Interstate drivers must also see the green stick dance in the black for a mile distant. The wand cuts the night for twenty minutes before fading, and he ends with a green signature: APPLE. Then the exhausted author sits and pants, "It's a chemical stick. A capsule of hydrogen peroxide broke when I bent the rod. It mixed with other chemicals that fluoresce."
Pronto elbows him and bursts, "Fantastic graffiti! Thousands from this hour forth shall call you the Green Ghost." Out of hardship and the sweetness and antics of vagabonds arise legends. Tomorrow morning, thousands of tonight's drivers will slam-dunk their alarms and climb from warm beds to hot breakfasts speaking and phoning others of what they witnessed the prior night. But what became of the execs on that fast freight?
Night falls with cold air rushing over the gondola lead lip. We unroll the sleeping bags onto the best bed money can't buy, and fall asleep under the Utah starlight and moon. Sometime in the night the track angles from the highway into darkened farmland and decelerates, alerting us. "What!" I alarm the others. "There's no reason for a unit freight to dawdle on a double-track main unless something's awry." Pronto bellows from his sleeping bag, "Not another contingency lecture!" and pretends to snore. Yet the train continues to slow until it stops smack on the main.
It jerks backward with portent. It stops again. "Peek over either side," I croak, gathering the ropes. "A switchman is throwing a switch on this side about ten cars back, but it's too dark to figure why," Apple reports. "Nothing happening on this side," replies Pronto. The horn sounds three short blasts meaning back up, odd on a mainline. Nevertheless, the freight jolts backward, gaining speed.
"We're entering some kind of fenced yard," yells Apple. Ancients warn that a smooth path leads to peril. The train backs into a lighted, fenced area. It's a dead-end siding that leaves the mainline and doesn't come back to meet it at the other end.
"Boots on! Stow your bags!" I holler. "What's happening?" questions Apple. "Get out!" I order. A pre-arranged chain of command snaps to. The freight continues to reverse too fast for novices to debark, and it carries us through a hurricane fence entry into a large yard that is not freight but a colossal industrial plant.
The pebble car passes beneath a walkway with two mounted infrared cameras pointed at our heads. Warm objects are transmitting images to some headquarters. "Everybody take a separate corner." I order. "Now swing your gaze 360-degrees for clues: where we are, where are we rolling to, and how to escape the fence."
"A highway with cars at about four miles toward the north star," yells Apple. "A foundry sign ahead," groans Pronto."Taconite!" he suddenly recalls. "The pebbles are Taconite for burning molds!"
"Smokestacks!..." I yell. "Dead ahead throwing twenty-story flames!"
The track in two minutes will empty us into the huge foundry door. A vision of the floor hatches opening and the pellets and execs dropping... "Onto the ladders!" I order.
We crouch on three separate corner ladders of the 8mph gondola. Senses heighten, the wheels spin and the flames roar closer. "Abandon ship!" I scream at the portal.