"Inspired by True Events"
In the summer of 2002, I rode freight trains from Minneapolis out west to the annual hobo meet-up in the far-northern California small town of Dunsmuir. The long-standing event, based at a camp or "jungle" along the rushing Sacramento River near the I-5 bridge, was, as usual, held over the same weekend as the town's Railroad Days festival. After several days of socializing, music, swapping stories, minor confrontations with deputies from the Siskiyou County Sheriff Dept., a short camp out up at Black Butte, and lots of beer-drinking, it was time to head out. My plans were flexible. I want to eventually head back to Minnesota. My buddy Hobo Lee had also attended and we decide to ride together up to Portland and then east to Montana.
Lee wants to go to Whitefish. Earlier that Spring a women named Callie had picked him up hitchhiking in Utah and they'd sorta hit it off and had good conversations over the course of a few hours. She told him she was moving to Whitefish for the summer. Lee had told her about freight hopping and she was intrigued. Whitefish was on my way back home anyway so riding that far together sounded good to me. But when we get to Portland, Lee checks his messages and immediately changes his mind, saying he needs to return south to Santa Cruz right away.
I suspect he is abandoning me for a booty call and of course it is true. He'd been whining all the way up about being single. For someone who normally wears his non-monogamy on his sleeve and often seems to be balancing two, if not more, lovers at the same time, a month or two of finding himself partner-less seems to have precipitated a major psychological crisis. A for-sure romance in Santa Cruz seems, I suspect, a better bet than a theoretical possibility in Montana.
And so, I am alone heading out to the BNSF Lake Yards the next night to catch an eastbound hi-line hotshot. In the pre-dawn darkness, with me safely on board, my train creeps out of Portland, crosses the Columbia River and turns east - towards Montana and Minnesota. A little over 24 hours later it is morning and my train is rolling into Whitefish where it stops for a crew change.
When we parted Lee had given me Callie's voicemail number saying he wanted me to look her up and give her his regrets for not coming by himself. I need to get off to resupply anyways and Whitefish is always a good place to break-up a hi-line trip.
I leave a message. Callie quickly responds and I'm a bit taken aback about how enthusiastic she is to have a friend of Lee's, someone she doesn't know at all, show up in town. She swoops me up in her car and we head out to the camp where Callie and her friends are all staying. It's 10 or 15 miles outside town and I'm beginning to wonder what I'm getting myself into. I've barely had time to check Whitefish out after not being there for several years. What I have seen, I don't like. The old rough-around-the-edges railroad town has rapidly been transformed into a yuppie playground for the rich. Solid downtown businesses like hardware stores replaced by trendy boutiques and gift shops. I haven't even had a chance to poke my nose into the old Great Northern Bar where I'd spent many an evening in my early train riding days. Now I was on my way well out of town, dependent on someone I barely knew to get back.
Callie and her friends have discovered the possibilities of using and abusing the 14-day camping limit on Forest Service land to basically live all summer outside of Whitefish, moving only when told to. It is hard to figure out exactly what they are doing. They aren't exactly punks, nor hippies, but they aren't mainstream normies either. They are definitely scroungers, hitting up social services, the food bank, and dumpster diving from time to time. Rubber tramps of a sort, just trying to have a fun relaxing adventurous summer in the mountains while working as little as possible, I guess. Jonny seems to be the leader and is the least likeable of the crew - sort of an alpha-oogle type, loud and domineering, then louder again when drinking. Which is much of the time. He talks a lot about fishing and primitive skills but I never see him fish or craft anything. Still, he's good for the occasional laugh and pulls his share of cooking and other camp duties. He also had an old Ford Ranger truck. He can haul things.
Callie's friend Jenna is quiet and seems straighter, maybe a bit out of her element. But she also has a sarcastic and humorous side. She has a car and a part-time job working at a store in town. I can't quite figure out if there is something romantic going on (or that had gone on) between Jonny and Jenna. Or Jonny and Callie. Or all three of them. It is all very vague. And, really, I don't care. Then there is the younger couple, Cloe and Erik. Nineteen-year-old alcoholics-in-training without much interesting to say. Their conversations seemed to predictably revolve around drinking, obtaining booze while under the legal age and hometown bands I've never heard of. They look up to Jonny, their booze supplier. Mostly I just talk with Callie, who is lively and fun.
But really, they are all friendly and welcoming to me as a newcomer in their camp. We get the barbecue grill going (they all have food stamps and are well-stocked) and just kick back, a nice day and evening in the mountains. None of them had ever hopped trains but they are close enough to the periphery of the culture to be at least somewhat familiar with the concept, with vague aspirations of trying it sometime. I point out that, living in Whitefish, they couldn't really be in a better place to go for an amazing ride, right up over the Rockies through Glacier Park, it is right at their doorstep. We tell stories late into the evening.
When I detrained, I hadn't thought I'd be in Whitefish even overnight but... being up in the mountains, swimming in the lake every day, enjoying not doing all that much at all, the life sorta takes ahold of me and one day drifts into the next. Everyone seems fine with me sticking around but I can't shake the feeling that something else was going on that I didn't quite get.
The third morning I hear Jenna asking Jonny and Callie, "Should we tell him?"
They tell me. On his way to Whitefish, Jonny had acquired a full-on bear suit, stolen from a costume shop where a friend of his worked. An inside job you could say. It is very realistic and fits Jonny's six-foot plus frame perfectly.
It started as a one-time practical joke. They were at a US Forest Service picnic site along Highway 2 west of Whitefish, near the big lake. At this spot the individual picnic sites were semi-remote and not visible from one to the next, making the place perfect for their plan. They pulled into one site, near where a family was having an afternoon barbecue. Jonny put on his bear suit while everyone else crept into the woods to watch the fun. Jonny approached the picnickers, semi-crawling on all fours. Once they saw him, he raised up into a standing position and let out what was later described as a very poor imitation of a bear growl. Nevertheless, it did the trick. The parents freaked out, yelling, grabbing their kids, diving into their car. Jonny kept approaching and they sped out of the parking spot right down Highway 2.
The plan had worked beyond anyone's expectation. Callie tells me they all first thought people would just be momentarily startled and then realize it was a gag. The others would come out of the woods and everyone would have a good laugh. They hadn't counted on the fact, however, that there were signs all over Whitefish, at every campsite and recreational area, warning of the acute danger of grizzly bears. It hadn't taken much to scare the tourists from Iowa out of their gourds.
The group was falling over themselves laughing, expecting the tourists to drive right back in, realizing they had been had. Then Jonny looked around and realized that, in their haste, the tourists had left a ton of food behind. Even better, he spotted a cooler and, sure enough, it was filled with beer. Cloe and Alex's eyes widened. It was like a scene out of a Yogi Bear cartoon. They quickly scooped up the food and beer, hightailed it back to their truck and peeled out of there, Jonny driving, still in his bear suit.
Back at their own camp a few miles away they tore into the food and beers. And an idea was born. "Could we do this again?" It turned out they could. A couple days later they returned to the same picnic area. They made sure to pick a group with a big spread already laid out. It again worked like a charm, there was even a barely opened bottle of wine in addition to more beer as well as burgers ready to go on the grill. Again, they quickly gathered everything up, scattered stuff around to make it look like a bear rampage, and got the hell out of there. I don't know how they expected anybody to believe a bear carried off beer and a bottle of wine but... that's what they did.
After that it was Game On. The group was savvy enough to realize they needed to mix-up their spots so they started going to other campgrounds, RV parks and picnic areas around Whitefish, of which there were many. They also didn't go every day. But they went a lot of days. Beer. Wine. Big handles of liquor. It was the gift that just kept giving...
By the time I showed up they had been working the scam for almost three weeks but were taking a break. The last attempted heist hadn't gone well. They had miscalculated and picked a group of rednecks to surprise rather than midwestern suburban tourists. Instead of running off, one of the guys started pulling a shotgun from his truck. Luckily for Jonny, it wasn't yet loaded and he had time to run off into the woods before getting a load of birdshot in the ass. In addition, new, even more strident, warning signs had gone up around town and there had even been an article in the local newspaper about the recent plague of aggressive bears in the area. The Chamber of Commerce was starting to take notice, the last thing they wanted was for tourists to be scared away from the area during the prime summer season.
But, the draw to continue the scam was too compelling. At this point Cloe and Erik had no money of their own and so helping out with Jonny's bear scam was the only way to keep the beer supply going. They invited me to join in their next caper and I couldn't say no.
They're Minnesotans, I spot their license plate right away. The barbecue is already going, the beer flowing. To up the drama, Cloe runs through their camp first screaming, "Bear! Bear!" Jonny, all suited-up, follows. It once again works perfectly, the tourists beeline for their two cars. Jonny has to start beating on the window of one car for them to leave but then they sure do in a hurry. We load up the spoils and head back to our camp.
Later, drinking a cold Miller scammed from the Minnesotans, Callie and the others ask what I think about the ethics of their scam. They been debating whether what they were doing was "wrong" or not.
"Well," I start off, "it is technically stealing. But, really, all in all, it's pretty much harmless fun. The tourists get to go back home with an exciting story to tell their friends and neighbors, maybe even a rushed photo. Their kids have exciting memories to savor (and hopefully aren't scarred for the rest of their lives, haha). A few beers, some wine, grilled chicken and brats is a small price to pay for such an experience. It just seems like a win-win for everyone."
The group seems relieved by my ethical endorsement of their nefarious activities.
It is tempting to stay longer. But the trains are calling, I need to get back to Minneapolis, it is time to move on. Stood up by Lee, Callie still really wanted to try riding trains so we hatch a plan: She will accompany me through Glacier Park on to the next crew change point at Havre. We'll both get off; I'll make sure she gets safely back on a westbound and then I can continue on east to Minnesota on a later train. We park near the eastbound hop-out and I see two figures up under the bridge. Tramps. Sure enough, I know them, sorta. RC and Josie had both been at the recent party in Dunsmuir although in all the chaos I hadn't talked much with them. But they know my friends - New York Slim, Dogman Tony, Tuck, etc. - in the "Tramp Family" crew of full-time rail riders. We all talk for a while. They convince Callie to drive them for a beer run while I watch everyone's gear. Soon they are back, we have some beers and then, a couple hours later, Callie and I are eastbound, in a nice 48 bucket on a double stack container train. We just get to see the crossing through Glacier Park before it gets dark.
It's the wee pre-dawn hours when we roll into Havre. Sleepy, cozy and enjoying the ride, Callie does not want to get off. I should perhaps insist... but I don't want to get off either. I mumble that we could do it at the next crew change, Glasgow, Montana. As a bonus this will allow us to stop at the "Montana Bar," one of my favorite dive bars along the rails. We have a nice morning riding the 250 miles on to Glasgow. But then, somehow, Glasgow comes and goes and Callie is still on the train. I don't really have a good explanation for how that happens, it just happens. She's enjoying herself and just doesn't want to get off. So, on we roll into North Dakota - through Williston and towards the next crew change stop of Minot. It really needs to happen here. The next stop after Minot, Dilworth, Minnesota, has been red-hot with bull (rail cop) activity lately plus, this time of year, is a mosquito hellhole of almost unimaginable proportions. I certainly don't want to get off there. Beyond that is Minneapolis and... I'm home. And I just can't take the responsibility for getting Callie all the way back to Whitefish from Minneapolis. Minot for the turnaround it must be.
As we slow for Minot, Callie insists she is confident she can make it back on her own without me getting off to help her find a westbound. I'm a little concerned but... I'd been giving her pointers on rideable buckets, safety basics, etc. and she seemed to have the hang of it. She's certainly had a lot more formal instruction than I ever had before I started riding. So, we do our good byes, she jumps off and I nestle back down in my bucket for the night. By the next morning I'm off the train, walking to my place in Minneapolis.
It is a couple days later, when the voice mails started coming in, that I realize there are problems out west, problems that keep getting worse, problems for which I bear (haha) at least some peripheral level of responsibility.
The first call is from Lee. It turned out that his anticipated romance back in Santa Cruz went south almost immediately upon his return. In frustration, he turned around, left town, decided to hit the rails and visit Callie after all. And he, so it happened, had arrived in Whitefish just a few hours after Callie and I left town! Whoops. Unknowingly, right before his arrival I had taken his romantic interest off on her first train ride, the ride that was to be the whole justification for Lee's own visit. On the face of it, it could be seen as a dick move on my part. But... really, it was all just a lack of communications. In these connected days of everyone having cell phones and constantly texting and messaging back and forth, it may be difficult to conceive of such misunderstandings. But Lee didn't have a cell phone at the time and he hadn't stopped to make a pay phone call to my voicemail. Neither Callie nor I had any idea Lee was on his way.
The second bad thing was that Callie's return trip did not go well. Not well at all. After having some fun meeting locals in a couple of Minot bars, she had successfully gotten on a westbound back towards Whitefish. But in Havre she had been seen and busted by the BNSF bull and been thrown in jail. The next day Jenna, accompanied by Lee, drove over to rescue her and bring her back to Whitefish. But when they got back to town, Callie's car was nowhere to be found. It had vanished. Not towed so seemingly stolen. Gone.
Eventually I have a phone call with Callie and put two and two together. The fucking tramps! Yep, after the beer run with RC and Josie, Callie had parked, leaving the keys in her unlocked car. Something you can maybe do in some small towns. But not when you have two conniving tramps in your car who can see exactly where you are stashing your keys. It took weeks for the car to be found, more than a little worse for wear. It was eventually discovered in Helena, suspiciously close to God's Love mission (a popular tramp meeting spot), further confirming who had taken it. On one hand I could almost admire the theft, it was such a classic tramp move, right out of the movie Rail Kings. But the damage done was real, Callie doesn't have any money and losing her car is super stressful and difficult. I tell my Tramp Family buddies about what happened. Many weeks later Slim tells me that they tracked down RC and Josie who admitted what they did. Slim says they were given a "tune-up." I didn't ask what that meant exactly.
Anyway, if she had ever had any interest, the combination of her arrest and having her car stolen by our tramp "friends" didn't exactly put Callie in a romantic mood in relation to Lee. Having struck out, Lee heads back west, in pursuit of love elsewhere. The sad life of a (temporarily) lonesome non-monogamous hobo...
It turned out Lee left town right before the most dramatic event of all was about to occur. On our later phone call Callie is very vague, understandably it turns out, regarding the circumstances of Jonny's strange disappearance. I only hear the full story the next year, when Callie happens to visit Minneapolis. By then it is far too late to try to do anything. This is what I eventually found out:
After the stress caused by Callie's arrest and the theft of her car, the group needed some diversion. They returned to the grizzly bear suit scam with a vengeance. While the group has been trying to vary their routine, they always came back to that Highway 2 picnic spot. It was just so easy - close to their camp, close to the lake for swimming and the perfect set up to stay undetected, given the fact that each picnic area was out of site of the next. One day, even though they had just hit it two days earlier, Jonny, Cloe and Erik return to the same spot again. It was too tempting.
On that fateful afternoon the picnic area is unusually quiet but there is one likely prospect - two couples who have unpacked a cooler and some bags and seem ready to start their picnic. Jonny comes in hot, running and growling. Over the course of the summer his bear growl has improved considerably.
But this picnic is not what it seemed from a distance. As Jonny closes in, he sees that all four people are wearing similarly colored green-brown clothing - the uniforms of the US Fish and Wildlife Service! All on a stakeout for the "problem bear." Why hadn't he realized this earlier? Now it is too late. One of the game wardens is ready with a tranquilizer gun and, as Jonny turns away to run, shoots a dart right into his ass. He goes woozy for a split-second then drops like a rock.
Cloe and Erik are watching in horror from the bushes. The game wardens barely examine Jonny before snapping a radio collar around his neck, picking him up and throwing him into a large cage in the back of one of their trucks. Cloe and Erik know they should say something but feel paralyzed. Only after the wardens drive off do they emerge from the bushes, get their stuff out of Jonny's truck (they can't drive stick) and hitchhike back into town to find Callie and Jenna.
That evening the four of them sit around camp trying to figure out what to do, expecting Jonny to show up any minute, laughing it all off. It can only be so long before the tranquilizer drugs wear off and Jonny comes to. Right? But he never shows. In the morning there is still no sign of Jonny. Something must be done. Callie and Jenna drive into town to the Fish and Wildlife office. There they innocently ask about the "problem bear" captured the day before, saying they were curious and worried about its welfare.
"Oh, don't worry, the bear is fine" says the woman at the front counter. "Yesterday afternoon the rangers brought it right to our base, loaded it into a Forest Service helicopter and relocated it. They like to do the whole operation really fast, before the bear wakes up."
"Relocated it! Where?" cry Jenna and Carrie, almost in unison.
"We dropped it in a remote roadless area of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, about 50 miles from here," said the woman. "But don't worry, the bear won't be lonely. We dropped it right in the same place we recently released a number of other aggressive problem grizzlies. So, this one will have lots of company."
Callie and Jenna leave the office in shock. "Should we say something?" asks Jenna. "Maybe he'll be OK and make friends with the other bears? Or not?"
"It's too late," replies Callie. "I bet the other "problem bears" ate him within the first half hour after the helicopter flew away. That bear costume might fool tourists and a couple of clueless park rangers but not a group of real bears. If we say something now, we'll just get in trouble. Cloe and Erik will really get in trouble since they saw it all happen. And Jonny will be gone either way."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. And, you know? I don't think I'll actually miss him that much," said Jenna.
They turn to each other, smiling.
"He's been kind of a dick lately."
"Yeah, maybe it's for the better."