june 14, 1998
Americans, as a rule, don't like trains. Planes and automobiles they approve of, but trains seem to be regarded as useful only for freight and the occasional gullible tourist. Unless, that is, you are a hobo.
Hoboes are people who hitch rides on freight trains. They trace their roots back to the 1860s, when the advent of the railroads and the end of the civil war led to thousands of homeless and dispossessed men scouring the country in search of casual farmwork. They rode the trains carrying their own hoes, and became known as "hoe boys" and, later, hoboes.
As America spread westwards, a growing population of migrant workers crisscrossed the country, from the orchards of California to the Texas panhandle, many of them finding work as cowboys. Soon, a whole mythology was created - of riding the railroads and sleeping in boxcars - that seemed to evoke the pioneer spirit of the new world.
Few people these days ride trains out of economic necessity. To the modern-day hobo, hopping is a source of adventure and romance. Some describe it - rather dubiously - as a sport. As far as the railway companies are concerned, it is dangerous and irritating.
The Internet - no great respecter of the concerns of large corporations - is home to a couple of dozen websites devoted to the activities of hoboes. While no sensible person would advocate train-hopping, these sites offer a rare chance to take a virtual ride into a shadowy, illicit subculture.
Start your journey at the Train Hoppers Space (www.catalog.com/hop), a straightforward introduction to the subject that kicks off by warning first-timers of the dangers of hopping, then provides a check list of essential kit (dark clothes, earplugs, flashlight, hat, toilet paper, cellular phone). It describes the best places to "catch out", such as Portola on the Union Pacific mainline in California, and reveals where hoppers are most likely to be caught by the bulls (railroad security guards).
The site goes on to explain the differences between the various types of wagons and suggests which offer the best chance of a safe - if uncomfortable - ride. "Never sit under the hitch end of a piggyback trailer," it warns. "You can set up a hammock in a boxcar... but you should always jam something in the door to keep it from shutting."
There are links to other organisations such as the National Hobo Association (www.hobo.org), which publishes an online newspaper, the Hobo Times. This contains some excruciating poetry. There are also anti-hobo sites that aim to discourage potential hoppers, such as Dead Train Bums (www.amplifiedintelligence.com/DeadTrainBums.html), whose author sounds like a nasty piece of work: "If you have any good accounts of fatalities or pictures of dead bums or blood on the rails, please e-mail them to me."
I prefer the sound of North Bank Fred, a near-legendary California train-hopper who has his own website (www.northbankfred.com) and whose lengthy accounts of drink-soaked adventures on the railroads are vaguely reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac or even Jack London.
In an apparently aimless week-long trip to Utah and back, Fred describes with equal relish the awesome views of snow-covered deserts and the pleasantly numbing effects of White Port. Here, he meets up with an old friend known as Photo Bill on the long ride from Roseville across the Great Salt Lake to Ogden: "We found a nice boxcar and sat in the doorway watching the almost-full moon and basking in the satisfaction of knowing that nobody knew where we were and fewer cared. Around 11pm we were out of town and on our way over the Sierra."