Train Gang

at the jungle in the desert, combat railfans have one-track minds
by dave irwin for the tucson weekly
feb. 5-11, 1998

You have to seriously love trains to party with the Combat Railfans.

Not an "I-rode-a-train-once" affection. No, for the Combat Railfans, you need a deeply obsessive love that can result in legal action and bodily injury. Then they'll let you hang out in their world.

Railfans, or trainspotters, look for, photograph, discuss and generally fixate on anything related to trains. The Combat Railfans are the bad boys of Arizona trainspotters. Most railfans are as exciting as bird watchers. The very name, "Railway Historical Society," tells you how much fun it would be to party with them. But the Combat Railfans have managed to combine trains, pyrotechnics, camaraderie and beer into something unique.

Since 1989, the Combat Railfans have gathered to celebrate the New Year on an isolated patch of desert along a curve of the Union Pacific tracks. They call it "Jungle In The Desert," after the old hobo jungles. It started with four fanatics. This year, some 65 people, ranging from freight hopping punks to Depression hoboes to families with dogs and kids in RVs, gathered to share a beer, watch trains with something approaching mysticism and set off fireworks for themselves and the train crews.

Following vague directions, we arrive after dark Friday night. On a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, we find a group of people gathered around two cars. "Spark Plug" one of the original fanatics, welcomes us. He and others are on a mercy mission: a local woman, her mother and three kids, with a flat tire. "Iron Cowboy," a skinny kid from Oklahoma who hopped freight trains from California to get here, offers to ride us in since he knows the way.

At one time, as many as 3 million Americans were riding the rails illegally. Today, the number of freight hoppers is estimated to be around 3,000.

The camp is at the base of a small hill. Hidden from the road, tents, RVs and cars are scattered among the saguaros and palo verde. A bonfire blazes, a bluegrass trio is playing old songs by a tree, kids and dogs wander through the night and a group of people sit on lounge chairs. A kitchen is set up on the rise, complete with gas lighting, to feed the multitudes. The fence paralleling the track is decorated with some 30 colored kerosene lanterns, adding a surreal element of glowing green, red and yellow. "Trainman," another original and a Department of Transportation computer analyst, busies himself in the kitchen. "We just want people who love trains like we do to come here and have fun," he says, dicing vegetables.

"Westbound," the shout goes up. In the distance, the sound of tons of steel moving on the rails can be heard. People line the fence. As the train nears, fireworks are launched, filling the darkness with exploding light. As it thunders by, everyone waves, some take flash photos and others launch more fireworks. Shouting over the noise, the Railfans discuss the train, the number of units (engines) and types of cars (a high balling piggyback with some tankers), speculating about the destination. The engineer, high atop the lead unit, waves and blows the horn long and lonesome. All weekend, every train that goes by acknowledges the Combat Railfans.

The original group was born on a railfan quest near San Manuel, as they discovered that quietly trespassing on company property yielded better photos of trains. They wore camouflage and struck guerrilla-like. They were immediately ostracized by the staid, traditional railfan community.

"That's just not the way we do our railfanning in this country," Spark Plug intones in a solemn satirical voice, taking another sip. During the week, Spark Plug designs and constructs model train installations.

The event has evolved over the years, as have the pyrotechnics. At one point they were launching 55 gallon drums, and once even launched a 19-inch televison. Now with more of a family element, it's settled down to batteries of illegal rockets, and occasionally, strips of firecrackers tossed into the fire, though always with fair warning of "fire in the hole!" to allow those sitting nearest time to tumble backwards.

Lee, a 43-year-old anarchist/squatter from California who also rode freight to attend, calls the gathering "a temporary autonomous zone," a place outside the law. He's been riding the rails for a dozen years and publishes a fanzine of rail stories called, "There's Something About A Train." "I love riding freight," he says. "You're seeing the backside of America." It's his first Jungle in the Desert. "This is great," he says with a grin. Before heading in, he partied with some crustypunks in Tucson, drinking under a bridge. His traveling companions are Chris, a 6-foot-5 college student majoring in opera, and Ariel, a silent Israeli waif traveling the States. To facilitate their quest, the Railfans set up a train detector on the hill, monitoring the rail frequencies, complete with amplifier and loudspeakers. Whenever a train trips the switch on the tracks, a voice wails into the night: "SP Detector. Eastbound, milepost eight-six-four, no defects, no defects," and the pyrotechnics crew heads for their stations.

Saturday, Trainman makes chicken noodle soup in a 10-gallon vat, using his own handmade noodles. "The Unaplumber," a Phoenix plumber who laid the gas lines, begins preparing the fire pit for Sunday's feast, burying pounds and pounds of meat. Since the bluegrass trio has not returned, Chris sings operatic excerpts around the campfire.

In the hours between trains, beer flows, tales both true and tall are told, friendships made. Talk includes freight hopping, rare locomotives, merits of various routes, "bulls (railroad security) I have known," and the coldest night spent on the rails.

"Ad Man" a former advertising executive in from Minnesota, waxes poetic. "You're riding up on the deck of a flatcar and it's getting colder," he says. "You've got that cold steel, so you roll out your sleeping bag and you climb in. And it's the harshest of environments to be in, and you snuggle down into your sleeping bag and you just kind of look up and you feel safe, cozy and happy. And you say to yourself, 'Well, I can't think of any place I'd rather be.' "

Late that night, while Ad Man sleeps peacefully by the fire, Trainman slips a raw beef hoof found among the meat scraps into Ad Man's sleeping bag, while a dozen of us make bizarre mooing sounds around him. Sunday morning and Ad Man thinks he had a really strange dream, until he finds the hoof.

Everyone helps with the final feast. The atmosphere is mellow and relaxed, like the preparation of a family dinner after church. Around 2:00 in the afternoon, we fill our plates with tender beef, beans, salads, vegetables and desserts. Now things get a little sad: everyone can see the end, though no one says anything, except how good the food is.

"This is about as ugly as we get now," Spark Plug concedes. "We cook for a bunch of folks. Once in awhile, we ride freight. We drink beer. We have the fireworks. But this is the worst we do."

"We don't want regular people around us," he continues. "If you're a little off the wall, if you're a little twirly, that's the kind of people we want to hang with, 'cause they're more fun. If you sit and talk to anybody here, they're not going to tell you about their 9-to-5 job, they're not going to complain about their wife and kids and house and mortgage and we really ought to do something about that Clinton thing. You're not going to hear that here. You're going to hear, 'Westbound! Let's go!' "

As we drive out in the late afternoon, we find Iron Cowboy hitching near I-10. We drive him to Tucson and drop him off near the UP yard. Thanking us, he disappears, looking for a freight train to carry him home.