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On the run from everything but each other

by Christopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2009

 

On freight trains, Adam and Ashley found a gritty hide-out from adulthood. Only one thing could separate the young lovers as the crossed the country.

Before dawn that morning, they clambered onto an empty boxcar at the Union Pacific yard and rode it out of Bakersfield into the Tehachapi Mountains. There were six of them, a pack of drifters and runaways taking snapshots of one another and sharing bottles of McCormick vodka as the train climbed the chaparral slopes in the summer dark.

Traveling kids, they called themselves, a makeshift, ever-changing family that shared the hard floor of an empty junk train or the windy porch of a grain car before their journeys forked.

Adam Kuntz and Ashley Hughes, however, were inseparable. They had been riding together for eight months. He was 22, tall and rangy, with a goatee, wild black hair and a disarming smile. She was 18, with blue eyes and dishwater-blond hair. Crudely inked across her fingers was the word "sourpuss," advertising the side she liked to show people: the rebel and sometime dope fiend who bristled with free-floating anger.

But he saw another side of her too: the frightened runaway who, like him, found a tramp's dangerous, hand-to-mouth life less terrifying than the adult world.

They were curving through the Tehachapi Pass, seriously drunk, when a feeling overcame him. The words were unplanned, like everything else in their life.

Hey, you should be my wife, he said.

OK, she replied.

They slept through the night, curled side by side in their sleeping bags, and awoke about noon as the boxcar was slowing into the West Colton train yard. Everyone was thirsty and hung over. There was a Wal-Mart nearby where they could fill their jugs. They huddled along the edge of the boxcar, full of nervous excitement, the gravel moving slowly underneath. The train wasn't stopping. To get off, they'd have to jump while it rolled.

Naturally, it was Ashley who suggested they try it.

Trains run right through the heart of the American story, a symbol of industrial prowess and physical vastness and unfettered movement. For the broke and the discontent and the wanted, they are also a place to disappear, a mobile refuge where nobody cares where you're going or what your real name is.

Adam was a straight-F student at Ridgeview High School in Bakersfield whose stepmother suspected he had a learning disability. In his junior year, he was kicked out after downloading pages from "The Anarchist Cookbook" about making bombs. Soon he was hitchhiking across the country. In Denver, he worked up the courage to hop a freight.

"The first time I ever got on a train - it's unexplainable," he says. "It's a feeling of, like, where I belong. You know how when you walk into a house where you're really comfortable?"

He came to relish the cat-and-mouse with the "bulls," or railroad cops. His gear was a backpack, sleeping bag, socks, a jug of water, Ramen noodles and a bandanna that he dampened and wrapped around his face through the long tunnels for protection against the trains' exhaust. The fastest ride, he discovered, was a cargo container, and the best hiding place was a crawl space in the front of a Canadian grain car.

Everywhere, he found kids like himself. In a new town, they could point out the best trash bins and missions. "You don't need money out there," he says. "You don't need anything. You have the greatest time in the world, but when it gets down there, it's really down there."

Boarding the wrong train in winter might take you into cold that went on forever. To prevent frostbite, you warmed your fingers over a piece of lighted cardboard curled inside a soup can. Squatter camps in cities like New York and Seattle were littered with junkies' castoff needles, so you always wore your shoes. Tramps without backpacks were best avoided, because they would hurt you to get yours. A last-resort ride was called a "suicide" - the metal crossbeams of a freight car floor that put you so close to the rushing tracks you could reach down and touch them.

Snapshots of Ashley's childhood are drenched with sunshine. There she is, a smiling girl with blond bangs. Hugging Pluto. Kissing the family dog. Blowing bubbles in the backyard in Eugene, Ore.

By her early teens, she was shuttling between divorced parents. She told outrageous lies. She cut her wrists with pens and picture frames. "She was not able to make friends," says her mother, Diane.

She kept slipping out her bedroom window. She'd be gone for weeks at a time. In her journals, she repeatedly wrote out the lyrics to "Nowhere Kids" by the band Smile Empty Soul, an anthem of family alienation. She longed for love and seethed with rage and thought of suicide. "I just get up and put a smile on my face every morning and pretend to be okay," she wrote.

In the summer of 2004, after taking an overdose of antidepressants, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She dropped out of school and jumped freights. She left her antipsychotic pills behind. She shot heroin.

In the company of ragged runaways, she found a surrogate family. At 17, she e-mailed home to say that she was the youngest in her pack of traveling kids. Many of the others, she acknowledged, had no homes to return to.

"There are some like me that are only out on the streets because they are rebellious and don't want to follow rules (me)," she wrote. "I hate sleeping outside. I hate sitting on the corner of the street begging for food every day. I hate not having anything productive to do with my time. I want to come home so I can graduate and take my time being a teenager."

Her dad brought her home with a Greyhound ticket, but her new focus was short-lived. Police picked her up for trespassing at a train station in Santa Maria, Calif.; for hitchhiking in Redwood City, Calif.; and for hitting a man - she claimed he was harassing her - back in Eugene.

She pleaded guilty to assault and received a 30-day sentence. Soon, police booked her for heroin possession and for failing to check in with her probation officer. Letters from jail reflected an aching for innocence. She wrote that she missed her grandmother's blueberry pancakes.

"I thought I was invincible out there on the road," she wrote. "I was happy. But I know now that it wasn't a lasting happiness, only temporary." When she got out, she said, she wanted to stay sober and find a job. "I've thrown quite a few years down the drain."

Once released, she skipped town, blowing off a court-ordered drug program. When she could find a computer, she reached out to traveling friends and plotted meeting points. On her MySpace page, she rhapsodized about tramps and trains and said her religion had become "the countryside, the outdoors, the dirty folk."

In the grip of that vision, they weren't just lost, hungry kids but a band of noble outlaws rolling through a heartland that law-abiding Americans never saw.

"I don't want my life to go to hell," she wrote, "but the place I once called home is no more than a ghost and I have nowhere else to go."

Their tracks converged in the fall of 2006. Adam was walking with a buddy through the San Jose train yard. Ashley was sitting with a girlfriend.

"We'll trade you whiskey for water," she said.

"We don't have water, but we'll drink your whiskey," he said.

Two days later, Adam recalls, he got drunk and put his fist through a restaurant window. As the cops hauled him away, he handed her the leash attached to his puppy, Bumjug, an Australian shepherd mix.

When he got out a week later, she was waiting for him with the dog.

He called her Smashley. She called him Stogie.

He got her off heroin, he says, telling her he wouldn't lose her the way he'd lost so many other friends to the needle. Asked what he loved about her, Adam wouldn't hesitate: "Her wildness."

They tramped up the Pacific, hitched down to the Florida Keys and rode the rails across the Southwestern deserts. Against everything the world demanded, they found a hide-out in the sooty cubbyholes of diesel-electric behemoths.

Freedom to roam the country's 140,000 miles of freight track meant being at the mercy of a fixed grid. Once, they gambled on the wrong boxcar and found themselves stuck in Wichita, Kan., in winter, a place so miserably cold they risked escape in a locomotive engine.

They ate from trash bins and begged on street corners. For shelter, they threw their sleeping bags under bridges and pried the plywood from the windows of abandoned houses. They shared three bottles of cheap whiskey a day. They found a stray husky they named Captain Morgan and a rabbit they called Dinner.

He says he didn't ask her about her family life or about the slash marks on her wrist. He figured it was her business.

"She was more scared than angry about life. She wanted someone there to tell her it was OK. She needed someone that told her they loved her," he says. "She hid it a lot, but she had a pretty big sweet side. She liked to cuddle and watch the scenery."

They were in Montgomery, Ala., when he called his dad and learned that his biological mom had died. His father sent him a Greyhound ticket home to Bakersfield. Ashley made her way to California by herself, hoisting their two dogs onto freights state after state.

In Bakersfield, they stayed with Adam's folks. The house had tasteful wall fixtures, a handsome brick fireplace and a big TV. This was the place where he grew up, the place he'd always felt the urge to flee.His dad offered him jobs repairing exercise machines. His stepmother, a manager at a Johnny Rockets, offered to get her work busing tables. The house felt claustrophobic and the city crushing, full of strip malls. Within months they were crazy to get out.

"Being in this house has really taken a toll on Stogie and I's relationship. Not saying that we're 'falling apart' or whatever but we do argue a lot more frequently. I'm so happy to be hitting the road again. Then things will go back to how they used to be," she wrote on MySpace. "It's almost intoxicatingly gross how in love we are."

June 3, 2007. After the nine-hour trip from Bakersfield - after the sloppy-drunk marriage proposal and the climb over the Tehachapi Pass - their boxcar was rolling west on the northern tracks of the West Colton yard, close to Interstate 10.

On a parallel track, the Amtrak Sunset Limited, carrying passengers on a three-day trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles, was barreling quietly around a blind corner at 60 mph.

The traveling kids were hung over and thirsty. Wal-Mart had water.

They lowered their dogs to the gravel.

Adam jumped and scrambled to safety across the tracks.

Ashley jumped. She seemed to hesitate as she glimpsed the Amtrak, then tried to beat it across the tracks.

Adam heard her yell "Train!" and saw her body fly through the air into a ditch.

He found her on her back, her eyes open but cloudy. She was bleeding from a gash on her head, a bone protruding from her right arm.

Paramedics rushed her to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. She had no ID. She died in the emergency room, with a wristband that said "Nomdeplume, Nancy 2316."

Adam felt numb on the long Greyhound ride to central Oregon, where he stood at her grave with a handful of street kids in T-shirts, studded leather belts and bandannas. Ashley's mother asked church friends not to bring flowers but rather socks and sleeping bags to hand out. Ashley's grandparents ordered a red granite gravestone etched with a train. Adam had a railroad crossing and the word "Smashley" inked on his arm. Within weeks he was riding again with his dogs. He thought it might be the only way to get her dying expression out of his mind.

"I would have lost two things that I love that day if I never got back on a train," he said.

Steven Kuntz, 46, reaches for a stack of envelopes piled on his desk: his son's citations, unpaid fines and outstanding warrants stretching from San Luis Obispo to Liberal, Kan. He's been making calls, trying to take care of them.

For years he felt guilty about Adam, wondering if he should have been less tolerant of bad grades, less a pal, more a parent. But he says Adam's younger siblings, raised under the same roof, loved just the same, are out earning paychecks and starting families.

Steven used to blow right past panhandling kids on the street. These days, he looks for signs they are travelers - filthy clothes, dogs and backpacks - and stops to give them food. He admires his son's ability to get across the country with a smile and $2 in his pocket, but is pained at the thought of him begging.

After Ashley's death, Steven told Adam not to come home if he got on the rails again. Adam cried and said, "I can't have you not like me." Steven figured he would have to make peace with what his son did. He suspects that roaming the rails might be his son's way of coping with "tucked away" emotions.

When Adam is home a few months a year, as he is now, Steven, who repairs photocopiers, throws some work his way. He encourages him to look for jobs.

Adam, with no degree and little experience, is quickly frustrated. He loves his parents, but home feels like a cage. He hears the train whistling by the house, hears it before others do. "It's like it's calling."

His new girlfriend, Kaley Chapin, is a 22-year-old video store clerk, sweet-faced, eager to see things. Adam has been telling her stories of the rails, and she can't stop talking about it, even though she knows what happened to Ashley.

"In June, me and him are gonna take off," she tells Steven on a recent evening. They'll hop trains and scrounge change all the way to New York.

"You know how many people die on trains?" Steven says. "They're just as smart as you."

"You only live once," she says. "I think Adam will take care of me."

Adam isn't sure Kaley knows what's in store. How incredibly dirty she'll get. How it feels in a winter boxcar.

"It's so cold you can't even touch the metal," Adam says.

"That's a fun way to live?" Steven says.

"At least I can say that I've done that," Adam says.

"Believe it or not, life is pretty much the same everywhere you go," Steven says. "You get up and go to work and come home."

He keeps telling his son to think about the day when he can no longer drift on a young man's charm, when his dad's no longer around to bail him out.

But Steven Kuntz has given the lecture before. He knows that life in a squalid boxcar strikes his son as less intimidating than an adult existence of obligations and bills. He knows that nothing he can say will prevent his son from vanishing again soon, leaving home for the tracks that lead anywhere else.