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Damn Track

by Steven Kotler for Maxim Magazine, June 1999

 

Sure, you can pay Amtrak to haul you across the country with a bunch of blue-haired old ladies. Or you can grow some balls and hop a train.

BASIC TRAINING
Follow these fundamentals and save yourself a mangling.

Train hopping sounds easy, but go about it in a half-assed manner and bad things happen. To give you some hobo tips, we talked to guys with names like North Bank Fred and New York Slim.

Something's wrong. There's light, too much light, and in the center of the light there's a strange shape, a long tube that looks like a soda straw, only thicker. Holding the straw is a thick hand. None of this is making much sense...

Until suddenly the scene snaps into focus. It's 3 a.m. I'm lying on a hard, bouncing floor somewhere in Colorado, and standing above me is a man. And that man is pointing a gun at my head.

This is not what I signed up for. Yeah, I was looking to mainline the "hobo" experience, but I'd pictured a seamless blend of hitchhiking and Huck Finn. I wanted to sit in an open boxcar, my legs dangling out the door, watching the world blur by. You know, the romance of the West and all that. So I called a guy who could put me in touch with another guy - Eddy Joe Cotton - who rides the rails pretty much full-time. Eddy Joe told me he'd help me hot-wire the train-hopping dream. He told me he'd help me feel pure freedom.

He didn't tell me that not long before I left on this trip, 20/20 aired a program about a supposed hobo serial killer. I never saw the show. I had no idea that anyone in the government actually watched TV, but someone did and freaked out, and all of a sudden, hopping trains became a federal case. The only good thing about all of this is that when I wake up to find a flashlight in my eyes and a gun in my face, the man at the other end of that gun - the man with the droopy mustache and the Broomfield Police Department uniform - well, he hasn't seen the show, either.

 

Here Come the Bulls
I meet Eddy Joe outside a grimy diner in Denver. He wears black boots and dirty chinos; it looks like someone's dragged a small fork across the whites of his eyes. Slung across his back is a bedroll. Eddy Joe Cotton isn't his real name. Just the name he uses, the name that's carried him across this long country, the name under which he writes his freight-train tales. He's a hobo, and Eddy Joe Cotton's a hobo's name. Seven years hopping freight trains, 2,556 days since the moment he decided he wanted to go to Reno though he didn't have the money.

We grab breakfast and head to the yards. When we get near the trains, we start hiding in the shadows. We spend a lot of time in the shadows, mostly near freeway underpasses and garbage-strewn fields. It quickly becomes clear to me that hopping trains isn't much more than a fairy-tale version of homelessness.

Over the years, Eddy Joe has come across all sorts of rail riders: dropouts, skate punks, runaways, slumming filmmakers, big-shot lawyers in midlife crises, Vietnam vets who never made it all the way home, real crazies willing to slash your throat for a meal, and the old men of the game - the ones who no longer remember why they started, the ones who can't remember another way.

The only folks Eddy Joe tries to steer clear of are the bulls. Bulls are train security. A while back Eddy Joe jumped a high-speed train - what hobos call a hot shot - out of Los Angeles. A bull saw him do it but didn't bust him right then; instead he followed the train in his pickup truck until it was out near Death Valley, a two-day walk from any town. Then he radioed the engineer and had Eddy Joe tossed out on his ass. The bulls are the bad men at the other end of the fairy tale.

 

Cops Everywhere
"If you fall, fall away from the wheels." This is Eddy Joe's advice to me on the mechanics of leaping aboard a moving train. He tells me this as we're about to jump our first train, out of Denver. It's well past midnight, and he's running through the dark alongside a train. I'm right behind him. Stringbean - Eddy Joe's hoboing partner, a tall stick of a man with a rough blond mane and a cherubic face - is behind me. Eddy Joe reaches out for the uppermost rung of a metal ladder at the back of the fifth car, and he glances at me sidelong as he delivers his message. He grabs and I grab, and our feet get yanked out from beneath us, and we paw and climb our way on board.

And this is where they find us, muddy, unkempt, curled up on the hard floor. We've fallen asleep, and sometime during the night the train stopped and the brakemen climbed out to uncouple cars and re-couple cars and do whatever it is that brakemen do in the middle of Colorado on a cold autumn night. On this night, whatever they're doing involves getting a radio from our car, and that's when the door opens and I wake to Eddy Joe calmly saying, "Hello, we're not violent. Just your good-luck hobos. No need to panic." He keeps up the placid patter, and for some reason it works, or at least we think it works, because the engineer says, "Fine, just shut up and keep your heads down."

So we shut up and keep our heads down and fall back to sleep. Meanwhile the engineer calls for backup because he believes Eddy Joe's gentle-hobo routine about as much as I believe the president doesn't like blow jobs. This is when the doors fly open and I am startled out of deep slumber by a cop kicking me in the chest and waving a gun in my face. If you fall, fall away from the wheels. Yeah, well, good tip, but what about the gun-in-the-face advice, when do I get that tidbit of information?

 

I Almost Lose an Arm
To their credit, the cops don't shoot us. They don't cuff us or search us or haul us in, they just throw us off the train. They don't tell us not to get back on - somehow I think that is implied. But get back on is just what we have to do. We're in the middle of nowhere with little money, and our only ride out of here leaves in a few minutes. So we walk toward the motel, and as soon as we're out of sight, we duck under a bridge and sprint up a hill and dash across two crowded freeway lanes and down another hill... but there's a cop car waiting by the train. So we crawl through a field and end up in a gravel parking lot on the other side of the train, sweating and tired and knowing that as soon as that train starts moving, we're on it or we're fucked.

From where we lie we can see that the fourth car back is a boxcar, its door wide open. Boxcars ride higher than other cars, about five feet off the ground. This coupled with the fact that train tracks are usually built atop gravel slopes means that vaulting into an open boxcar requires a serious vertical leap. Eddy Joe tells me that boxcars have no ladders or ledges, so the plan is to run alongside the car, toss our gear inside, dive headfirst onto the slick metal floor, and pull our asses in. And we've got to keep our legs out straight, board stiff, because if they dip or sag, then hello, wheels and good-bye, legs.

We crouch in a field, 200 feet from the tracks, ready to run. As the train starts pulling out, Eddy Joe and Stringbean look at each other; there's a problem. Trains normally accelerate slowly, giving you time to catch up with them, jump them, and pull yourself safely inside. Not this one. This one's going too fast. We start running hard. When we're finally in range, all hell breaks loose.

Eddy Joe tosses his bedroll inside as he leaps. His chest smashes the boxcar floor hard. He's in. I unsling my pack. But unlike Eddy Joe's five-pound bedroll, my pack has food, medical supplies, a rain poncho, and a nice new stick of deodorant because somewhere along the line I decided that smelling good was going to be an important part of my hobo experience. The whole deal weighs 40 pounds.

The train's now doing 20 mph as Stringbean and I sprint near the back of the boxcar's door. His bedroll screams over my head. I jump for the boxcar, tossing my pack toward the door. But it doesn't land inside. It bounces onto my outstretched arms, pulling them down. I've lost my footing. My body smashes into the boxcar. I somersault in the air. The wheels are directly in front of me.

I hear a voice in my head. The phrasing goes something like Wheels, motherfucker! Wheels! Somehow the message registers, and my left arm shoots out and smacks into the train and I bounce off, land face first in the gravel, then roll down the embankment into a deep, muddy ditch.

Stringbean's missed the boxcar, too. But he's managed to leap onto a ladder on the car behind the boxcar. The ladder's on the side of the car, leading neither to the roof nor to the boxcar, and all at once Stringbean realizes that the train is a hot shot. It'll soon be doing 75 mph, and he's hanging onto a thin rung. If he doesn't jump now, he's out of options. Sure, his bedroll's inside and it's 40 degrees outside and he's wearing a cheap suit with a harmonica in the breast pocket and nothing more. But what else can he do?

Stringbean leaps. So does Eddy Joe.

Somehow both men are unhurt. Scraped, bruised, shaken - but unhurt.

 

The Dead of Night
The next day is a marathon of hitchhiking, bus rides, and long walks. By the time we get to Cheyenne, Wyoming, it's cold. Stringbean hustles a blanket from the Greyhound station, and we light out for the train yard. It's a monster - 60 tracks wide. Crossing it involves climbing over and under dozens of cars; at any time they can start moving, snagging clothing or a limb. It also means the bulls have lots of room to sneak and snake. Creeping around a coal car, with my head low to avoid the headlights of a patrol car, I nearly step into a moving train and join the 514 railroad "trespassers" who the Department of Transportation reports died last year. Eddy Joe yanks me back. The voice in my head says, Go home, this is no place to die.

Eddy Joe reckons nothing will move before dawn. I collapse in a field at the edge of the yard, all broken glass and wide sky. Stringbean's too cold to sleep. This time we do make it onto the train, not into a boxcar or an engine car but a grainer, the mainstay of the hobo diet. A grainer transports grain. The floor's filthy, an inch deep in soot and putrid grease. It doesn't matter; after not sleeping for two days, we would have gone to bed in a pile of pig shit.

The next day passes at 35 mph - a long ride through "the mad expanse," which is Stringbean's term for it. The expanse is part of the picture, certainly, but the other part is cramped, dull, and generally a pain in the ass. Pissing, for instance, means hanging out over the edge, one hand on the train, the other trying to keep things heading downwind, all the while watching out for slack. Occasionally, Eddy Joe tells me, trains suddenly stretch out taut, and if at that moment you're taking a whiz and not paying attention, then without fanfare you'll find yourself sailing off that train with nothing but your dick in your hand.

Fourteen hours later we pull into Green River and hide out in the yard. By 9 p.m. the temperature's in the low 40s. Eddy Joe watches the yard, reads the signs. Stringbean and I lie hidden between two buildings. The voice in my head's saying, Oh, shit. Here we go again.

In the distance Eddy Joe stalks between cars: a flash of his hat, a fast shadow, and then nothing. Suddenly there's the thudding growl of a train starting to move, and Eddy Joe's left hand is rising in a quiet sign. It's a piggyback train. Piggyback is another hobo term, meaning heavy-freight hauler, its cars consisting of flat platform beds with big-rig trucks packed full and driven onto them. A second later we're on our feet, running hard. The platform we end up on turns out to be a pair of cold steel planks that support the trucks' tires. Each plank is less than two feet wide; a gap in the middle, train wheels below. So we lie down on planks of metal not much wider than our shoulders.

The train starts to pick up serious speed. Eddy Joe thinks we're doing 70, maybe 75. The windchill is now way below freezing, and every extra article of clothing has been passed to a nearly hypothermic Stringbean. It's too cold to keep my hands out for balance. A bad bump could toss me off and there's no way I'd survive the fall.

Sometime during the long night, we pass a refinery lit by white-hot halogen lights. Steel girders splay at odd angles; smokestacks pour white smoke into the black sky. For the first time in days, there are no voices in my head telling me what I should or should not do. There's just a deep, psychotic satisfaction, and the rhythm of the rails, and the utter completeness of hanging it all out for a ride on a train.