Is it the last subversive way to travel? Train hoppers seek out la vida hobo for thrills, a change of scenery and even enlightenment. But one repeat rail rider's memories of how six Santa Cruzans hitchspiked their way through California to Mexico are a reminder that this nearly lost and fully illegal pastime is risky business.
We had left Santa Cruz in the back of a 1981 Toyota pickup. Our goal was to get to Copper Canyon in Mexico to do some backpacking and, as it was the beginning of December, to get to warmer and drier climes.
Now, the six of us waited in the winter cold in Fresno. The train that had just rolled in was a "hot shot" - a fast-moving train that carries expensive cargo like TVs and stereos and is therefore watched much more closely than a train carrying grain or coal - except it wasn't. The sunken indentations, or "wells", that the containers of merchandise fit into were empty. On some cars, there is an extra 4-foot space where hobos can ride comfortably hidden when sitting or asleep, but can also stand to get the view. That 4-foot space has a solid metal floor, but the rest of the bottom of the well is floorless, open to the tracks below.
"Get on, this is our train," Lee said.
"You cannot ride these, Lee," I argued, having never done so and up until then thinking it was impossible. Another member of our group, Heather, said, "I am not getting on that. We will die if we ride one of those."
Lee is our personal freight train guru. I have ridden freights for years across the United States and Canada, but for my tens of thousands of miles, Lee has ridden hundreds of thousands and knows the trains like only someone who has devoted his life to riding them could. Reluctantly, we got on.
We divided up into pairs. We always ride in pairs, so that no one is ever left behind - if your partner does not get on or off, you do not either. I could only think, "This is sketchy," as Amy and I huddled on a 4-foot-wide metal floor that abruptly dropped off to the tracks below. It was certain death if we should somehow trip or roll over in our sleep. In the 10 minutes we sat there, I began to feel as if perhaps it was safe enough, after all. Then we started moving and immediately I heard Heather yell, "Get off!"
After we jumped off the moving train, Heather said she just did not feel safe. Some of us were a little upset - this was our second attempt of the day already and we had covered zero miles - but we got over it.
None of our Santa Cruz crew in our years and years of freight hopping has ever gotten seriously hurt (i.e., anything permanent), but nevertheless the risk of losing a limb or worse is all too real. So one of our rules is that is if one person does not feel OK with something, we do not do it and it's OK. Nothing goes as planned on the trains, anyway. It is the journey that matters, and you go with what comes.
Turns out we barely had a chance to grumble, as another train quickly pulled into the yard. It was a carbon copy of the train that just left: a container train with no containers. "I guess we wait for another train," I thought, but then Heather said, "Lets get on, I can do it."
"Are you sure, Heather?" I asked.
"Yeah, I think it's OK. I just got freaked out."
"Is everyone else OK with this?" Amy asked.
We all said "Yeah" and jumped on in our same groups of two. I was glad - there had been three trains in a row, but who knew when the next one would be? It could be 24 hours or more - I've waited that long in freight yards before, and definitely did not want to spend that time in Fresno in the cold and drizzle.
Soon we were out of the yard and our speed was such that there was no getting off - we were finely moving. We were tired and it was late, and there was nothing to do but bed down and see what the morning would bring.
End of the Mainline
The morning brought us Bakersfield, the next crew change for the train. There was a slight rain and we were all a little wet, but the exhilaration of having actually gotten somewhere was even more dampened by the fact that our train was off the mainline.
The mainline is the set of tracks in the yard for trains that are only stopping to crew change and then moving on. Our train wasn't on them, which meant it wasn't going anywhere soon as far as we could tell, and we had to find another one.
We had to find out which train was going in our direction and when it was leaving, and the only real way to do that is to ask workers. Workers and hobos go way back, even before the Great Depression. Unlike the "bulls", the railroad police, whose job is to get you, workers seldom will turn a train hopper in. At worst they are indifferent, but often they are down right sympathetic and will go out of their way to find out information for you. Strange but true.
So we needed scouts. We sent out a pair of ninja hobos and soon they returned with the information: "The next train is leaving on track 14 in 30 minutes."
Off we went with our big backpacks, navigating our way over strings and strings of trains, following all the safety rules (because yards are mighty dangerous places) and peering around corners and bends for the dreaded white Broncos the bulls drive. We found a nice boxcar on the train we'd been directed to and settled down, made lunch and waited for our sure thing.
Which never left. Hours later, we saw another train too far away to catch move out of the yard. Damn. We sent out different scouts to talk to different workers: "Those guys said the train we are sitting on is not going to leave for days. The train we want is that one over there."
We dutifully moved to this other train, but the same thing happened again and again, and as it did the short, cold winter day slowly turned into a long, colder winter night. Were the workers messing with us? Were they just confused?
Just when we were ready to give in, a worker drove by on one of the ATVs they drive around the yards. Having thrown caution to the wind some time ago, we flagged him down.
"Hey, you know if any trains are headed south anytime soon?" Lee asked.
"Well, there is supposed to be one on the track here about to leave any minute, and I have to put this FRED on it," he said, holding up a Federal Rear End Device, the blinking light required by law on the backs of all trains.
"You mean the train that just left from that track?" Heather asked, confused.
"Just left? Shit!" the worker said, quickly getting on the radio. He told us the train was stopped at the other end of the yard waiting for him, and sped off. We were exhausted, but there was nothing else to do but throw on our big heavy packs and run like hell to try to catch the train before the worker attached the FRED. It was nearly a mile sprint, and to get to it we had to pass the yard office, home of management and bulls.
But at this point, we didn't care. "Arrest us, please", I thought, "anything to get us out of this yard."
It could have been a bad situation, but just as we entered the area visible to the yard office a short train rolled in front of the office and blocked their view of us. As soon as we were out of view, the short train was gone in the other direction. I said a short thank you to the train gods, and soon we were jumping on the already moving train and safe and secure in that luxury liner of all train cars, the boxcar.
That was how we rode over the Tehachapis, only to find ourselves in Barstow in the morning, and once again stopped in a yard going nowhere. We had tried to avoid this situation, but here we were in this notoriously "hot" - i.e., heavily patrolled - yard. We scampered out of the yard to a local diner in town to relax with a hot meal and plan for our night moves.
"Trains are one of the last real adventures left," said Lee.
It never felt truer than that night, as we made our way back into the yard under cover of darkness. We had to be gone by morning, because in sunlight hiding in the bushes would not cut it, and we were sure to get caught. So we took a chance. We jumped onto the porches of some container cars. The 2- or 3-foot porch on the end of each of these cars offered no place to hide, so if someone were watching, they would see us lying down even in our all black clothes. As the train slowly picked up speed, we tucked into each other as much as we could.
There were two of us to each porch, which seemed safe enough, but certainly not comfortable, nor protected from the elements. We pulled out our sleeping bags and tried to stay warm, but the icy wind blew them around us. Sleep seemed like a distant dream and I just focused on making it to the morning.
All at once it seemed we were stopped and Heather was sitting above Amy and me on our porch.
"Hey, we're in Needles. Everyone is off - you guys might want to get off too," she said.
"I guess I did fall asleep," I thought. The train started to move.
"Oh shit, see you later!" Heather said as she jumped off.
"Get off and I'll throw you our stuff!" I yelled to Amy. Before she was even off, I was tossing our sleeping bags and pads and backpacks over the edge, but the train was picking up speed fast. Amy got off fine, but by the time I got to the ladder to climb down the train seemed to be really moving. I was not fully awake yet and my shoes were not even tied. I couldn't tell if the train was already going too fast to get off of or not, but I had a lot of motivation to try as all my stuff and all my people were already off.
I stepped off of the ladder with both feet running before they hit the ground and then I was running as fast as I could alongside the train, still holding on to the ladder. Finally, I let go and ran from the train. When I got far enough away, I stopped - and felt an intense sense of relief at having gotten off at all.
The Perfect Ride
In the morning we were thinking of walking into town for breakfast, but a nice rideable container train pulled up just as we were getting ready to leave. The now seven of us - our friend Deb had joined us in Needles - divided up and got into a couple of container wells, and soon we were headed east toward Winslow, Ariz., with the plans to change trains there to head south into Mexico.
Finally, we had a seemingly perfect train ride. We could relax and watch the beautiful desert view blow past us as we made lunch and coffee with our camp stoves.
The view from a freight train is not really a view at all to me. You get a view from passenger trains, planes and automobiles. On a freight train, it feels like you are part of what you pass through, not passively viewing it. You also see the backs of places not meant to be seen, and often the tracks are off by themselves away from any roads. A lot of that day was like that with no cars or buildings in sight.
Before long, we were watching the deep red desert sunset and starting to bundle up against the cold. Soon we were bundling up more and then the cold pushed us all into our sleeping bags. I had every bit of clothing I had on and still it was hard to stay warm and I could not feel my toes at all. I drifted in and out of a fitful sleep and then we stopped. I poked my head out of the well and there was snow covering the ground.
We missed our stop in Arizona, and got stuck in Belen, N.M., where we had the misfortune to get the bulls after us. We considered trying to still make our train in the yard, but they were looking for us now and we could see their vehicles driving around like an angry swarm of hornets we had disturbed. There was really nothing for us to do but sit tight until dark and then make a getaway. I think we all relaxed a little bit after we were safely out of Belen, on a bus to El Paso.
Crossing the Border
From El Paso, we walked across the border to Juarez. We were all somewhat wary of hopping trains in Mexico, and in particular in Juarez. Border towns in general sketch me out, and in this one they are still unearthing bodies of women found in the desert outside the city. To top it off, we had all heard stories of the Mexican bandits robbing train riders. We were traveling well-armed, however. Not by redneck standards, perhaps, but compared to my normal weaponless existence it was something. The majority of us had a large can of bear pepper spray, plus there were knives and even one machete.
With the photocopied maps of Juarez that we had made in El Paso, and following the tracks from the border, we found the train yard pretty easily. Taking a little time to scope it out, we found what seemed to be a good catch-out spot. We were scared, but the feeling of the whole area did not really warrant it. People were poor, but everyone was nice to us and as helpful as they could be in giving us directions and answering our train questions.
What we learned is that no one seems to really care to much about hobos in Mexico. Mexican riders we saw later never seemed to even attempt to hide.
It was a cold trip to Chihuahua. I headed south from Santa Cruz because I wanted warmth and instead it had been one of the coldest trips I had ever made. Every night we battled the cold. Still, we all felt a little high from conquering our fears about riding freights in Mexico.
It was still dark when we arrived in Chihuahua, a pretty city nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madres. All seven of us got one hotel room to rest and clean up in. We spent our time trying to figure out the next train to Creel, the beginning of Copper Canyon, our ultimate destination. Amy called up the freight company and said we were rail fans wanting to take a picture of the train headed to Creel and asked when it would leaving.
In the morning, we headed back to the yard.
It was a little hard to be low-profile, our group being seven gringos all dressed in black with large backpacks. But in typical Mexican fashion, not only did no one mind, but we received a lot of help. Amy and I went up to a group of workers and started talking to one of them about which trains left for where and when. As we were talking, one of the cars that the workers were helping to direct around the yard derailed. The guy we were talking with whipped out his walkie-talkie and started yelling, "Stop, stop, stop!" over and over to the engineer. It looked like the car was about to tip over a little bridge over a creek in the yard. But it stayed upright. When the train stopped, the worker looked back over at us and said, "What were you asking me again?"
The other workers seemed equally unfazed by the derailment and stood around looking at it as Amy and I checked out the grooves dug in the ground by the wheels and posed for pictures in front of them.
Our group headed over to the train that had been pointed out to us and found the one open boxcar on it and jumped on. The train pulled out of the yard exactly on time. Soon we were riding through the city and in no time we were speeding along in the open country beginning the best by far of all our train rides this trip.
Boxcars are good rides because they're big and afford lots of space to stretch out in. This particular boxcar had doors open on both sides, so we had the two views. Best of all perhaps was that this was a warm, sunny day, something this trip had not had a surplus of. As the train climbed slowly up into the Sierra Madres, we lay out, slept, talked, read, wrote, ate and mostly just watched the stunning scenery pass by: foothills, gorges, farms, rivers and passing scenes of rural Mexican life.
By days end, we approached Creel. Then we were in Creel. Then we were going past Creel.
"I guess the train doesn't stop in Creel," Lee said, laughing.
As we rolled through the night, we passed a group of Tarahumara Indians with torches in their hands, reminding me we were now headed into their country. Only a few hours after Creel, our train finally came to a stop to crew change on the rim of Copper Canyon.
From there we hiked the canyons, soaked in hot springs and had more adventures getting home. But those are other stories.