Their intelligence surpasses any in 150 years of hobo history. Arthur "The Wiz" Tyde shoots aerial photos of the catch-out yard from his Cherokee Piper, Omid "Big Apple" Malekan downloads train data from the Pacific to Rockies, Biran "Pronto" Molver personally reconnoiters the first jungle, and Lisa "Clown" Bradley shapes the group as a professional humorist. They call me Doc Bo, a hobo college professor and alpha of this brainy pack of business executives. We're outward bound by freight train for 2500 miles that, strangely enough, will end with 9/11.
Follow any hobo on a California railroad track far enough and you penetrate the sprawling Davis Yard in Roseville, Ca. sixteen miles northeast of Sacramento. This is the Pacific junction, the largest rail yard on the west coast, with coastal Canadian northbounds and Mexican southbounds, and daily hotshots east to all points on the USA track gridiron. The Davis Yard, once in the heart of the gold rush, historically smothers America with freight traffic, and hobos.
It is sunset on July 25, 2001 as four business executives creep waist-deep the golden grass where nineteenth century tramps ducked bulls to grab the same "Dirty Face" freight on to better fortunes. We enter our hobo jungle, a spare opening in a Live Oaks copse littered with bottles, cardboard that train tramps call "thousand-mile paper", and a ring of seat-less chairs. We sit on the frames and evoke the first fast freights, their rolling steel wheels called cookie-cutters, and the joys of escape into a gritty, strange world.
Soon, we walk 100-yards through a red dusk to the Davis perimeter fence and part the barb-wire strands for each other to insert. Beyond lays our iron road, the original 1865 Transcontinental RR. It still runs east up the Pacific lowland, over the coastal Sierra, a flash through the Great Basin, along a steel ribbon above the Great Salt Lake, out the Rockies, and down beyond to the executives" Denver destination. This rail is also the executives-to-hobos birth canal.
Hobo numbers swell and fall with the financial times. The rails blackened with men and families during the Great Depression. They slackened in the 1950's with the loss of steam engines as the new diesels started faster and, with no need to take on water, there are fewer cross-country pauses. In 2001, I estimate there are 20,000 train tramps but only a few hundred out tonight on the rails and, certainly, we are the only executives.
Look at us, interchangeable with the overall tramps we'll face during the journey. Each thought to grow a week's beard in his respective workplace before the shove-off. Everyone's outer clothing is dark as the night, boots are steel-toed, and each sports a baseball cap with a tether string against the freight wind. The rest is in their noggins... or deep in their packs: we carry clip-on ties for eventual business meetings, tablecloths for storm tarps, sleeping bags, gallon water jugs, two-days food ration, short libraries, and individual kits of high-tech instruments.
I feel like a Mensa scout leader. Meet Arthur Tyde III (The Wiz), the founder and CEO of Linux-Care computer systems; Brian Molver (Pronto), the Bay Area Chief of Disaster Response; Omid (Big Apple) Malekan, a New York computer programmer for high-roll investors; and Bryce Bradley (Clown), a Toronto stockbroker and professional comedian who'll board in Colorado for the return to the Pacific.
"Men with packs are sneaking into the yard!" comes a muffled voice inside Wiz's pack. Another responds, "I'm on them!" The Wiz, grinning, pulls a police scanner from the pack and adjusts the volume. He has pre-programmed the device for every yard frequency from Davis to Denver. He reaches deeper and comes up with "Brownie anyone? My wife makes double-chocolate so I'll come home faster after business trips." "Later! Let's exit the yard," orders the disaster expert, Pronto. Big Apple, silently calculating probabilities, motions me, and I lead the team out the barb wire just in time.
Car lights crack the night 400-yards away pursuing two other unlucky tramps. We're safe. The bulls - railroad police - are the hobo nemesis cruising the tracks in white Broncos with phallic CB antennas. Hobos use various evasion tactics: hide in the weeds next to the rail to board a freight "on the fly", secret inside a train car before it rolls, or use hobo interference as we do tonight. With the bulls busy in a snarl of headlights and shouting tramps, we boldly retrace a short distance to the mainline and continue deeper into the yard to ask yard workers for train info.
"Tonight's puzzle is peculiar to the Davis yard", I brief the squad inside the yard. I point at starlight running along the main south, swing a finger to dozens of darker parallel tracks coursing into the stockpile area, up the yardmaster tower rising like the dollar's eye a quarter-mile to the north, and finally rest it on a narrow bridge a quarter-mile beyond the tower. "The north mainline that we'll ride tonight branches just after the bridge to send a track north and another track east. We want the latter, but without foreknowledge or at least "reading" a train before its departure, there's no way to tell if the next rolling freight will go straight after the bridge to Seattle or bend west to our Salt Lake, our wish."
Apple scuffs the grit and nods south without looking up, and says, "For example, that approaching dot could be the headlight of our ride, or not." Pronto murmurs, "We're exposed!" Wiz poohs, "What the hell, the bulls are busy." The bright dot enlarges, engines thunder, the ground trembles and the locomotives trudge ten feet from us and stop.
Before us sits a mixed freight that we read car-by-car, salivating. I urge the others, "Speed-read it in five minutes before the crew changes and it changes out." Pronto evaluates, "There are three locomotives pulling mostly empty lumber flatcars. I bet it's going north, not our way." "However," inserts Apple, "We can board now and connect east later, according to the maps I've memorized..." "Hey guys," injects Wiz. "Let's just listen in." In seconds, "Highball!" screams the scanner as the truth-or-consequences freight pitches north. We miss it, and stand stupidly in the track watching the red taillight wink and disappear under the bridge.
I clarify at trackside to the execs that the train indeed changed crew on the fly, in minutes, which is standard in a lively yard. Ready as the wheels quit turning, the old crew - engineer, conductor and maybe a brakeman - squeezed out the lead unit and the new crew in. They tested the brakes and bolted like a race car from the pit. That leaves us standing with a midnight lesson learned the hard way inside the Davis Yard.
"In smaller yards," I pacify, "It's less hectic." Trains are more leisurely "called". This term is vital anywhere. The call time is the moment a new crew is notified at their homes or motel an hour prior to the approximate arrival of a freight into the yard. The call time give the crew an hour to clean up and drive or get picked up by a company van for the yard. The call time in a small yard is often premature so the train sits unmanned on a track for up to a couple hours, and the savvy tramp sashays the drag to pick the finest ride before it pulls out.
We look both ways along the Davis long mainline and seeing no action, just hundreds of dormant cars on the bowl of 50 tracks, head back to the Live Oak jungle. As we hike, I reconstruct the common techniques hobos use to board a freight in a yard. "We just tried the most popular method of waiting at rail-side until a freight materializes and then boarding as the crew changes. We have also tried to solicit information or a call time from yard workers who seem nonexistent at this hour. Shortly, we'll try the third method from the jungle of sending an advance team to scout the "building yard". Big RR spreads like Davis have a makeup yard at either end where car strings are connected to build trains to which units are added, and then the whole shebang pulls onto the main, the crew boards, and they sally day and night."
We know from the aerial photos that the Davis Union Pacific Yard sprawls for five-miles with 60-miles of inside track and a half-mile makeup yard bracing each end that lead to two arrival and departure mainlines. The north makeup yard is identified by a "hump" and the snort and crash we hear every few minutes from the jungle of freight cars being pushed up a 30" hill and released at the top to glide by gravity onto assorted destination tracks.
Wiz volunteers to take Apple from the jungle into the north building yard to solicit information from a worker. In forty-five minutes, the pair returns through the tall grass with Wiz strutting up front like a super-hero. Dressed in black from boot to cap with night-vision goggles, he exclaims, "The night goggles work well outside the yard but within the sodium lights flood them out." Apple then reports that a worker informed there are no eastbounds being built tonight, however the sure bet is to secret along the mainline where there's frequent traffic.
Accordingly, we rap and nap under the oak overhangs for another hour until a through freight puffs to rest 100-yards from us on the main. I stalk out the jungle and up to the units throwing quakes in a fifty yard radius. The engineer in the head loco calls down a warning that's lost in the clamor. "I can't hear," I yell up. Instantly a lower voice sounds behind my back, "He said, "Watch out for the bull'. Please don't move!" A black man with a silver star "Special Detective"steps around into the train headlight and grins sphinx-like at me. I ask, "How does a tramp know if this freight goes north or east?" The bull snorts, "You don't, and I can't tell you. Exit the yard now or I'll arrest you." He is a polite but firm railroad policeman. "Thanks," I reply brightly and walk away. In a few seconds he yells after me, less harshly, "Wait safely under the bridge like everyone else."
I take an indirect path in case the bull follows back to the jungle where a debate sparks. Freight hopping is like chess; now the team faces three possible moves. I notify them, "The first option is to go wait a half-mile away under the bridge as the bull suggested. "I really don't think the new talent is equipped to board a moving freight," vetoes Pronto. The second choice is to keep to this jungle to monitor in-coming trains by sight and scanner. "That has a strong chance of getting the prevalent eastbound weighed against the slight chance of ending up north off-track," regards Apple. The third is for one or two of us to probe even deeper into the yard for info, but I tell them that I'm against the group splitting for such a long interlude. "There"s a fourth option... that I'm not going to tell yet," brain-teases Wiz. "Just remember," I close tonight's game, "At sunrise we become sitting ducks for the bull."
Four men slumber in cold fits on thousand-mile paper in a century-old jungle near the mainline awaiting a train. On my advice, they catnap ready in boots with strapped packs. Stars prick the sky and move as the creator intended. I crack an eye sometime in the night and note that only Wiz refuses to sleep - wearing five layers of T-shirts for warmth and with one ear to the scanner. He sees me and mumbles, "I like to work nights."
Dawn first touches the control tower north of the jungle. This white obelisk is the Yardmaster's crow's nest with an internal function like a central nervous system. Here the master oversees and controls arrivals and departures, yard workers, crews, and bulls. Hidden in our oak and willow jungle, we awaken with the early light and circle Wiz for the promised final option. He summarily grasps Apple by the elbow, wheezing oddly, "You are my ten-year old grandson. "Then he plucks a cell phone from his pocket and dials. "Hallo," he gasps like a codger. "Is this the Yardmaster?" Apple on cue anxiously blurts, "Grandpa! When is the big train coming?" Pronto squeals like a background infant, so the whole family is on line. The Yardmaster happily divulges our train time, track number and destination to us under the branches two-hundred yards away. After fond goodbyes, Wiz hangs up and rasps, "Our train leaves in fifteen minutes, folks."
We move speedily out of the jungle and through the barb wire. The forecast freight slides to our feet. Four behemoth units growl and shake the earth like dinosaurs. Some greenhorns'legs turn Jello and others faint at this initial encounter; nonetheless the execs gawk but a second, pivot and crunch along the trailing string to spot rides. We shall pair in twos on separate cars and remain in radio contact.
This short, mixed freight offers empty flatcars, closed boxcars, shoebox gondolas, and - at the tail - a couplet of grain hoppers linked like fat sausages. We hike to these last two cars where I glimpse the front and back "porches" for clean rides, and kick the sides to assure loads for smooth travel. "All aboard!" I sanction via the radio, and the team in pairs piles on. Instantly, an electric click sings along the brakeline that keys the charge, the units rev, smoke blows high, and the train tugs heavily with the drumbeat of advancing couplers. Our final cars leap, and the freight reaches speed under the bridge.
"Yeahhh!" the execs scream like newborns toward sunrise.