Young hobos said to be seeking escape

by daniel jackson for the scripps howard news service
april 18, 2004

A bony young man sporting a bleached-blond Mohawk and dirty denim jacket sat Indian-style on a bed of pine straw sharing a can of cold beef tamales with his friends.

Monte Meyers, 21, was hiding in the woods last month near an Alabama train yard. With him were five friends and two dogs.

All were waiting for a train, but not the Amtrak. This was a freight train, and there was no charge - unless they were caught.

Freight train hopping has a long tradition in America.

Fran DeLorenzo, a 75-year-old hobo and author of "The American Hoboes (Riders of the Rails)" said in an interview that most hobos today are military veterans who love to travel. The first hobos, he said, were Civil War veterans who saw the country during the war and didn't want to return to the small towns where they grew up.

Hundreds of thousands rode the rails during the Great Depression looking for work, DeLorenzo said. Some migrant workers still hop trains, he said, but most hobos throughout history have sought adventure, not work.

"Those poor fellows during the Depression had to do it because they couldn't find work," DeLorenzo said. "The true hobo is out there because they want to be. They don't want to tie themselves down, and they don't have to. It's hard for people who don't have that mentality to understand."

Hobos are homeless, but not destitute, DeLorenzo said. Most work odd jobs and carry everything that an experienced camper would have. Some even carry cell phones and have e-mail accounts. Meyers and his friends have their own e-mail accounts.

Meyers said most young hobos are runaways, escaping abusive homes or looking for adventure. Like older riders, it's a lifestyle they embrace, he said. Meyers said he occasionally gets a job and an apartment, but he easily gets bored. Travel, he said, is too alluring for him.

"I started traveling when I was barely 15 for legal reasons and some family reasons. Now I can't stop," Meyers said. "I can't stay in one place for more than a few months."

Meyers, from Los Angeles, stopped in Alabama, he was traveling with his girlfriend, Sarah, 26, of Roseville, Calif., and their dogs, Saiyeh and Christ. Sarah would not provide her last name.

Meyers and his group had come from New Orleans, where they met up with two other couples, Matt Peterson 21, his girlfriend Sarah Mae Livingston 19, both of Fort Collins, Colo.; and Arin, 18, of Palmetto, Fla., and her new husband, Johnee, 34, of Richmond, Va. The riders arrived in Birmingham, Ala., at the CSX Boyles Terminal at 2:30 a.m. on their way to Savannah, Ga.

The group, resting for a few hours in Birmingham, ate burgers and snack mix at a church and checked their e-mail at the public library. When the sun set, they found a place in the woods near the tracks to wait for a train going east.

Hobos are rarely welcomed home for food and board these days, Johnee said. They sleep on the train, break into abandoned buildings with bolt cutters or camp in the woods. They feed on the bounty of America's waste, diving into garbage bins for food, members of the group said.

Like any transient person, hobos can get a hot meal, shower and a cot at local homeless shelters and church missions, but these places have strict rules and procedures. Most of the time it's not worth the hassle, Johnee said.

Livingston said the best place to get free food is in the garbage at gas stations and restaurants that rotate their stock every few hours, like Arin's favorite, Krispy Kreme.

"The government says food is bad after 12 hours - no, it's not," Johnee said. "I see the chicken nuggets, and I jump right in there."

Johnee and others said they keep only what they can tote in their pockets and backpacks: sleeping bags, flashlights, can openers, a warm shirt, a few pictures of friends, a journal or sketch book, food, cigarettes and a thermos full of water. Meyers carries a portable radio/cassette player and his favorite cassettes for singing and dancing around the campfire.

Peterson, who said he didn't fit into a small town, jumped a train to Denver when he was 14. Arin, who said she had been in and out of juvenile hall for drugs and fighting, was 13 when her parents kicked her out of the house. By the time she was 16, she was riding freight trains all across Florida.

"You see scenery you couldn't touch from the highways. I saw the Northern Lights laying on the floor of a boxcar. It was amazing," Peterson said. "Most people are just surviving to live. I've got to live to survive."

The group eventually hopped on a boxcar in Birmingham, traveled through Macon, Ga., and arrived in Savannah, where they attended the annual St. Patrick's Day parade and festival, Monte wrote in a short e-mail sent from another public library.

In the train yard, Johnee said, they stay close to the woods, hiding from railroad police, who patrol in white trucks. Local police watch them closely as well, Johnee said.

There are a few rules of thumb when jumping a moving train, Meyers said. A train is moving too fast or you are too drunk if you can't count three lug nuts on the wheel. And if you've never jumped, don't do it without someone who has.

In 2003, 507 people died and 391 people were injured while trespassing on railroad property in the United States, the Federal Railroad Administration reported.

People trespassing on railroad property or equipment often get off with a ticket or a warning, but sometimes they end up in jail, said Livingston, the only one in her crew that has no criminal record. Most criminal violations involve trespassing, but some have worse offenses, Livingston and others said.

A force of 300 licensed police officers is employed by Virginia-based Norfolk Southern Railroad. The first time a person is caught trespassing, a warning is issued, the second time the person is arrested, spokeswoman Susan Terpay said.

The crew probably will go their separate ways, but in October, they might meet again for the annual cranberry harvest in Massachusetts, where migrant workers are paid good wages, Johnee said. Otherwise, their plans are cloudy.

Livingston said she can see herself settling down, working for a day care and taking care of her parents - maybe in some tropical paradise.

"I'm pretty sure the road can't handle someone forever and vice versa, so I say draw your own conclusions," she said.