We take a Greyhound from Vancouver, B.C. to Washington State because although it's easy to catch a freight from a small to big city, it's thorny to catch out of a metropolis.
Border immigration is a cinch, and afterward the Seattle Greyhound and downtown are shameful. The regular citizens are arrogant zombies for the most part, while the homeless look dangerous and use poor grammar. Diesel glances at the midnight Greyhound station and declares it a "butt-hole", and strolls out for a vegetarian restaurant. Trash climbs the terminal walls, only sleeping drunks smile, and my Louis L'Amour western begins to smell. Thirty minutes before the final bus departure - ours - an Amazonian guard yips, "Everyone up against the wall for the next bus. All others out. I'm locking up!" I ignore her, so after lockup she draws near with a compliance to chat. She - "You'll miss the bus.'' Me - "It doesn't leave for 20 minutes." She - "You must line up for a seat." Me - "The bus hasn't arrived." She - "What if everybody acted like you?" Me - "Would you be out a job?" She - "Are you giving me a hard time?" Me - "My partner isn't back yet." She - "How does he expect to ride the bus?"
I switch on the walkie-talkie but get static. Diesel's vegan grin shows at the terminal window five minutes before departure, and he sneaks in the back bus entry. A stupefied waitress had tried to double-charge him for supper, delaying him. In a jiff, we're eastbound with all but one seat filled. Nobody reads, babies cry, teens curse, students scream into cell phones... This is excitement?
"I got an hour sleep last night. What about you?" Diesel asks as we step off the bus into a Spokane, Wa. sunrise. "I could say the same thing. You talked all night behind me," I retort. "The dude next to me just got out of Washington State Pen. His jacket hatched a genius business plan." We saunter along empty sidewalks as he shares the idea.
"It's a counterfeit jail garment business! The jacket with the "WSP" red embroidery sells for $300 in good condition - $500 new - on the street. The buyers are gang members who wear them for prestige. The outfit includes pants, shirts and shorts each with the "WSP". Men are allowed to take one set of clothes on release, and many sell right away to get a stake on a new life. The market is there, so here's my idea. I take a sample set - plus one from the major "stirs" across the country - to China. They duplicate them to the thread for $5 each. The key the smart buyer looks for is the prisoner's ID number stitched inside each article. A list is available on the net. I sell the counterfeit jail wear on eBay for three-quarter the street price. A tidy import business, indeed!"
That's what I mean about Canada vs. USA demographics. Canada has "doughnut philosophers", the stiff who's satisfied with the price of a coffee and feed. USA boasts the variation who doesn't object to the doughnut hole getting bigger because it takes more dough to go around it. Only in USA would a counterfeit jail clothes business crop us. Then, it takes someone like Diesel from London to implement it. "What's the downside?" I lead him. "I get whacked by a gang," he replies. "When do leave for China?" I say.
Spokane is no more to us than another knot in a string of catchout towns. Diesel is forthcoming in all. He strolls into the Spokane Holiday Inn and asks the concierge to use the guest computer to locate the freight yard. He rushes out with a print of the East Spokane Yardley Yard. We take local transit there and scope it from an overpass. According to the printout, BNSF operates fifty freights per day through this behemoth facility. It's active, but where do the trains go?
Our quandary is that eastbound trains take either the "High Line" northern route via Havre, Mt. while the more southern "Low Line" goes via Billings, Mt. The High Line is denser with freight and hobos and takes a day, while the more scenic Low Line at twice the length takes three days due extra train changes.
The Yardley hard-hats buzz too fast on ATV's to flag for questions. Diesel is atypically sluggish in hiding from "hogs" or yard engines. "We'll be tossed out on our ears," I admonish. "They're robots!", he exclaims. Sure enough, I've been ducking unmanned yard engines for a week. Radio controlled locomotives for switching in yards initiated, I'm told, in the early 1990's to reduce the staff. One worker with an electronic gadget strapped to his belt can start, stop and accelerate diesel engines up to a mile away. Live engineers must still run the point-to-point trains between cities.
We study the yard in a growing heat for a couple hours and retire to a little grocery store. It isn't hard to finger a train rider. I tell Diesel about my Them-Us hypothesis under the cashier's haughty stare. "Trampdom has customs, a sub-culture that is grasped only by riding freights. This collides head-on when we step outside the world. Look at us - filthy, happy with homes on our backs." The grocery clerk, though living next to a yard, has never held down a freight and gives us the pariahs' service.
When in doubt, walk to the departure yard where newly assembled trains leave. I gaze at the track spread until something clicks. "And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world..." I think of Gatsby's wonder at the finish of Scott Fitzgerald's novel when the protagonist picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. "He had come a long way this blue dawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther, and one fine morning... So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
We lock onto the ladder of a lumber car of a moving freight and climb to nest 20' atop a stack of plywood. "Good sign," I yell over the rail noise. "Wood from the west's forests bound for the cities east." The train, a mile long and powered by two units, is a "rattler" or fast mixed-freight though not as speedy as intermodals or piggie-backs. We memorize the lead engine #5498 in case it leaves the train en route to shuffle cars or refuel.
The view is first-rate up on the lumber where we're sitting ducks for "town clowns" or town constables. At the first siding, we hop down and walk the train back to an "empty" boxcar with one "window" or open door. Shorter hobos and ones with gimps whom you see waving at crossings from boxcars faced chin-high floors on the entry, and here Diesel boosts me from the gravel before himself hurdling in. Once inside, I'm transformed: This is the most ancient boxcar I've ever seen. The corners lean from 90-degrees, the floor is 1" hardwood slats, and the open door isn't on a track but hangs from the roof. Normally the door is "staked" with a railroad spike to prevent it from vibrating shut on hills, but this door is rusted open. The ghosts of hundreds of hobos linger. Cotton bounces and blows as the train picks up speed. "We're bound for the Chicago Cotton Exchange," quips Diesel, reading the freight.
The question of High or Low Line became moot the moment we boarded the lumber car since the main track forks east of Spokane. High Line is jargon for a mainline and fast freight, whereas the Low Line carries milk-runs that is this morning's destiny. A sign flashes by the rail: "The Last Spike of the Great Northern". In 1893, amid gunshots and cheers, the final spike into the Great Northern track was driven to open the Pacific Northwest to settlement and trade.
A tramp doesn't defecate where he lives, but anything more is acrobatic. Then again, a freight sides for an indeterminate time that challenges analysis. Diesel steps down in the Great Plains to void but the train starts instantly and he staggers after the boxcar with pants-at-the-knees. I pull up my partner who mutters, "I'm finished", and he retires to a corner, "Now I'll wipe."
Any empty car is a bumpy ride, but tramps seek wood boxcar floors for a quiet ride. The track under us is "continuous" or welded without joints that lulls us to sleep. He chooses the front end where there's more cotton but the danger of being thrown into the wall in an emergency stop, while I take the rear end where the bouncing is horrific. We're like cats in a spin cycle. I grow chilled through the American Rockies and scoop cotton from the corners to make a bed. His boots vibrate past the door and to my nose in the rear corner, and I vow he'll hear about it later. In the morning, our "side-door Pullman" rocks into the historic railroad town of Laurel, Mt.
The train dynamites and kicks apart in Laurel. We sit a few calm minutes until the morning chess game opens. Is our train adding or setting off cars, or are the units simply refueling. These and other possibilities in each of our minds are assigned probabilities, and we play one card at a time until there's a winner. His yard strategy is to stick to a train on a main line, whereas my style is to throttle the yard for information or other freights. At loggerheads, we compromise with a 30 minute hiatus before jumping off to explore. We're chagrinned in walking past our train's last car for breakfast to discover FRED is gone.
This Flashing Rear End Device that bos call the Fuc____ Rear End Device replaced cabooses in the 1980's. The one-foot flashing red light hung on the last train couple radios telemetry including brake pressure and motion to the engineer in the lead unit. A freight without a FRED goes nowhere.
We hike E. Main St. with the yard at our right elbows and dingy establishments on the left. This is East Laurel, once called Railroad Town. A slimy Mexican Café catches my colleague's eye. I've stretched a gallon of milk for the last two days. He orders fluently having minored in Spanish at University and later worked a year with Mexican peons. I don't know what I eat for breakfast, but it's delicious and meatless.
Rail towns are never uninteresting to anyone with the slightest taste for history, and Laurel illustrates this. These days, it's a main entry to Yellowstone Park for millions of tourists who drone I-90 a mile south of the café. It's the present BNSF crew change, and earlier was one of many RR towns that grew like weeds along the line to supply the workers and trains. During WWII, German prisoners of war constructed buildings in the town park where we can camp in the event there's no train. Chief Joseph led the famous Nez Perce flight of his people through Yellowstone and beat back the U.S. cavalry nearby. Right now, Diesel and I sit on the "main stem" in the weeds debating whether to wait outside the east yard or to penetrate for information.
"Life is a puzzle," he avers. "Let's kill two birds by watching for an hour and then explore." Nothing shakes in that time so, radios on, I stick with the packs while he hoofs into the yard. Minutes later I hear, "Bo, they're making up an eastbound freight that isn't called yet; a brakie says an intermodal train should pass and change crew soon; plus I'm monitoring our original units that are refueling." We again sit together in the weeds keen that hoboing equals inactive hours chopped by frenzied seconds. He picks a fingernail file from his jeans and carefully cleans his nails. Then a toothbrush. Perhaps the only full towel hauled by a tramp in history scrubs off his soot. "Now I feel like a civvie!" he jabs.
This yard is grand, miles long with about thirty tracks side-to-side packed with car strings either sitting, inbound or outbound for various destinations. Restless, we walk in the direction of travel to the workers' shack at the yard's end where brakies and switchies chat and read between jobs. A Call Board there lists the eastbound trains with their "call times." Freights are assigned call instead of departure times that is when the crew is notified in their rooms that the train is on mainline and ready to man. A crew van picks and drops them at the head locomotive. By watching the van movement, an educated tramp knows when to board a train. The actual departure time after the call varies from a few minutes to an hour or more. The yard workers give the inside story after one tosses out a polysyllable word that doesn't stink of alcohol. The crew - engineer and conductor - are tighter lipped but typically don't mind if you climb into an empty boxcar, gondola or grain car.
The shack confirms Diesel's report without spilling guts to the bull, so we slither between car strings to position between our original sided-freight and the mainline where the intermodal is due. The mountain air is pure except for train diesel. Suddenly Boom - our previous units hook to the freight. We board two grain cars with facing platforms to lay in wait. We are found in the same position an hour later when the intermodal chugs up a few lines over. We transfer to it, but the original mixed-freight sudden starts out of the yard first. Ten minutes later, the intermodal dynamites, so we sit at point zero.
On a good day a tramp steps into a yard and right onto his train. On another day, such as this pretty morn in Laurel, he porks fruitlessly about missing trains and dodging the bull until sunset. At that point, I've never had a poor night in a rail yard. It's a time of sneaky rats under the rustler's moon when the deck is stacked for the tramp. In early evening, a worker suggests to wait under an overpass where eastbound locos "head up" before backing into a train, and he points toward I-90 a half-mile east. The classic hobo lair is under a bridge where the wide stage of the yard is previewed, the multiple lines converge to two outbound mains, and the train theoretically rolls by slowly to step onto. The bridge provides shelter from sun or rain, booze drinking is hidden as well, and town clowns don't molest the goddamn tramp because the space appears to be railroad property, while rail workers tell you it's town property free of the bull. I once invited a Supreme court judge to speak at my sociology class on hobo legalities and, though he spoke eloquently on miscellaneous laws, when it came to bridges he said, "My researcher turned up that the jurisdiction of the property under highway bridges is confusing. I'm sorry." If for no other reason, we hike to the Laurel overpass.
"I don't like this tactic," I notify Diesel under the bridge. "For these reasons: It's better to walk a train or at least scope it before trying to board to know which cars are ridable. It's a quarter-mile dash for the initial cars from under here, and we'll be seen by the engineer. Usually it must be taken on the fly, and sometimes it's too fast for that." He grunts, and I conclude. "However, the cheery fact is just knowing where the units head up in front of us." A plan brews to wait for the power and then sprint obliquely into the yard, snake between strings, and board the slow roller. He urges, "Let's do it."
A strapping Irish tramp under a tall frame-pack and chugging a Bud-Light invades our shade. He paws another can, hands it over, and plops to the dirt. "You're not going to believe it, but I just came down from I-90 trying to hitch a ride. Nobody so much as looked at me for two hours. The hitchhiker's day is over. Fu__ em! I'll stick to the rails." His merry eyes scan us and, satisfied, he relaxes with the beer. He's surprised that we came in on the same early morning train. He'd nailed a grain car on it in Helena, Mt.
"My name's Long-Haul Tramp," and his big mitt engulfs first Diesel's and then my hand. Slowly, his life unwinds. He left home after a standard childhood at age seventeen with itchy feet. "An they still itch!" he bellows, kicking himself. Now he's thirty-four and forever on the road, often by freight. "There aren't many of us long-haul tramps left," he claims. "We're a dying breed." He's clean, ruddy, ready and slowly getting drunk. "I know it," he picks up. "I'm half-exhausted and half-drunk, a combination for an accident. But hell, I work so I can drink, and when I drink I get itchy feet." He chuckles and pulls a fistful of pay stubs from the pack. Diesel flips through them and whistles. This fellow has worked minimum wage at dozens of job types in a hundred places across the nation. "Look. I'm ridin' the fast freight to Fargo, N.D. to get on with the "Temp". It's a working town where any stiff with an SS card and picture ID willing to show up at 5:30 a.m. at the "slave market" gets a job. You never know the work - digging ditches to washing dishes - that can last one day or a month." We're grateful, but are riding beyond to Chicago.
"FTRA" is spray-painted in black on the concrete above our heads. The Freight Train Riders of America is a purported gang of men who move about the country by rail, particularly in the Northwest. The grapevine has that it was founded by homeless Vietnam Vets in a Montana bar in the 1980's, and spread. If you believe bulls - which I don't suggest - the FTRA is responsible for numerous murders of transients and freight hoppers, brutal assaults, drugs, theft, and food stamp fraud. If you have railroad tracks running through your town, the dicks avow, you already have FTRA members nearby. Yet these sordid activities have occurred in poor areas near the rails for centuries. The gang of a loose 5,000 and is encountered mostly along the 1,500-mile BNSF High Line from Seattle to Minneapolis where allegedly their faction color-coded bandanas are seen in RR yards, boxcars-in-transit and under bridges - the hobo realm. I personally see more bandanas in an hour on the California school outskirts where I sub-teach than I have in years on the rails. So whom do you believe? We live amid misinformation and my resolution is to leap with common sense into the jaws with fast shoes. I think the FTRA is urban legend.
I probe the tramp about an earlier conversation with the waitress. "Be careful on the road," she warned. "This is Montana, home of wheels and guns!" The tramp looks up thoughtfully and says, "I'll leave you with a story. Once I pulled off the road into a little town to look for work. Someone sent me to the church, so I went in and pretended to pray. In came the parson with a .357 Magnum strapped to his hip. He asked what I wanted and I told him work. He got me a job. That's Montana for you: It doesn't need security or policemen."
At dusk, loco lights approach the bridge, stop, and back up. "Just like the worker told us", testifies Diesel. "Ok, troops, let's move!" I cry. Quickly we hump the packs along E. Main St. parallel with the tracks until we pass the double-header engines that clack into a car set. I lead around another sidetrack string shielded from the units, and we climb up-and-down four more strings toward the catchout train. Diesel ails from freight elbow after having climbed many ladders in a week, I gimp on the right leg, and Long-Haul negotiates with a beer in hand. We reach the target train and clamber aboard three sequential grain cars and wait, panting. Abruptly, a through freight pulls to the adjacent line sending the tramp scrambling perhaps knowing something we don't of freight chess. Our freight highballs first, and we roll at 8 mph under the bridge. A branch rail just beyond it forks south to Kansas City, and only after that do we celebrate with salutes across the facing grain cars that this rattler is bound for Fargo.
Our efficient transport is the BNSF, a single colossus born of some 400 different lines that merged in the last 150 years. I knew the parent lines as Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, and used bookstores shelve hundreds of volumes chronicling the colorful history of their ancestors. Each opened a bit of the American West over which we rattle honored. Peculiarly, BN was known for its leniency with riders while SF was full of "hot" spots before the final merger. I'm curious to find how the extremes homogenized.
Dawn cuts the night. The wide sky of Montana I've tried to figure. The visible atmosphere holds a curvature like a high blue bowl under which the train crawls green foothills that abruptly rear to the North Dakota Badlands. Valleys, narrow and wide, snake between rock buttes and domes that were formed during cloudbursts following droughts. Then the land spreads out clean to Fargo.
After the boxcar, the grain car is the King of the Road's throne. Whereas the former is roomier - large enough for handball - the fact that it's empty signifies it may be peeled from the mainline before the goal. There are important clues in selecting a grain car: Look at the springs or kick the sides to ensure a load for a soft ride. Only half of those curved-side hoppers have solid 6'x12' platforms - front and back porches - at either end. Pick one with a cubbyhole within the framework, a 3' steel teepee. I enjoyed the Irish tramp's company, but wished him away because his lanky frame and pack wouldn't squeeze into a cubbyhole and we'd be spotted in light.
I decide to flatten some rail coins after daybreak. The freight sides in the countryside for a priority train, so I bum pennies from Diesel to augment my own change and leap down. The wheel tread is smooth, polished steel about 4'' wide - like the rail. "The art of coin squashing has nuances," I yell up. "First, ensure the engineer can't see you. Work on the side away from the empty rail. Walk, as I'm doing, to the forward set of wheels so when the train starts your ladder comes to you. Place the coins on the rail a few inches ahead of the lead wheel, but put the softer nickels ahead of the second wheel of the set. Loaded cars flatten best. Keep your head from protruding parts in case the car punches." He hollers from the back porch, "Make some "fried eggs" from pennies on dimes!" I never thought of that, and put them on. Unexpectedly, our brakeline clicks and in seconds an Amtrak zips up the other side. "Pick a spot where your train pauses on an incline," I continue the instruction, "So the train doesn't leave without you." I move deftly now. The coins were laid on the outer rail edge to snatch without "greasing the track". I scoop them and climb onto the passing ladder. We examine the collection: The nickels, flat and double in size, will become fine earrings. The dimes and quarters squash less but retain the impressions for gift souvenirs. The fried eggs didn't get enough bond pressure and we decide next time a locomotive is needed.
The name "Hobo" started before the Civil War as some men took to the rails as a way of life. Around wartime, railroads were built at a rapid rate and many veterans became hobos. By then the first transcontinental rail stretched to the Pacific. Before the century turn, a depressed economy sent numbers of men and families to the rails looking for something on the horizon. The Great Depression saw the rails blackened by train tramps, and tracks ran to all the bustling markets and industrial cities across the nation. Some commended hobos as the working backbone of the economy, and others said they were a bad lot. I think they'e both, and a brand of compassion was born. A true hobo had a thing he did well: Repair umbrellas, sole shoes, build, or hoe gardens. Literature says that the term Hobo is a compound of hoe and boy, "Hello, boy", or of homo and bonus meaning good fellow. After WWII, the riders declined. Diesel replaced steam during the 1950's shutting the water tanks, so the trains stopped less frequently. Nonetheless, thousands ride the rails across America during the sunny months as I write these words. The types include Vietnam vets, divorcees, teen runaways, circle tramps who collect food stamps in different towns, nut-house releases, recreational tramps like us, and bona fide hobos in transit from job-to-job like Long-Haul Tramp.
There is a confusion of terms among the hobo ranks, but my use is: Hobo - An itinerant usually unskilled worker who is self-reliant along the rails. Tramp - Whereas a hobo rides to work, a tramp is a migratory non-worker. Long-Haul tramp was an exception by name. A cute differentiation is that hobos and tramps use newspapers for insulation but a hobo reads them first. Bums - They neither ride trains nor work but are the low echelon homeguard surviving on handouts and missions. Diesel and I are just hobby hobos or weekend tramps in quest.
An individual's most vital need is freedom. Many, as we've observed on this trip, don't realize it and stagnate. With freedom comes the ability to explore one's extremes, find self-identity and contribute freely to society. Books or travel tickle free men into the libraries, byways and, especially, railways where they touch others with an infectious spirit.
Diesel slips out his member and pees over the side as we slide into Fargo. "Piss out a boxcar once, you're hooked!"
On the other hand, there's much down time. God knows I've tried to make a life on the rails, to rove or even to live on the streets, but always was tricked back into society's nest by ennui. Fargo, N.D. develops into another muck night: We squat in a weed patch under the moonlight next to a small yard where our freight has terminated to resolve things. It's a quiet place with no workers and the city skyline is nowhere in view. We walk - a tramp's key gear is his boots - for hours.
Travel is a companion's hard test, and both of us feel an edge. He's conservative in the yards; I'm gung-ho. I'm safety conscious; he's impetuous. He'd starve before eating meat from a dumpster. After 5,000 rough miles in ten days, each of us is bushed and bruised. Somewhere in crossing a string in the Fargo yard, he follows too closely and I slip on a ladder. "City boys always walk a body length behind me, and country boys two body lengths!" I screech. "You've barked orders and I've followed you like a lackey for days," he screams. "Maybe it's time to split," I say. "Fine," he agrees.
Split is clear, and I make for a smoking intermodal train on a westbound line. Diesel apparently interprets split as distancing from each other while continuing eastbound. The train is about to slide away when destiny in the form of a RR bull stands arms folded and frowning in the headlight. I angle mutely from him out the yard. Diesel follows at a distance, but the bull stays put. I pause under a city street lamp and glance at my clock: Midnight.
"You were actually going to get on that westbound," he carps in the light circle. "That's right," I say. "We split." "No, we only "split" within the yard." "Look," I continue. "My California desert is as close as your Baltimore home, and my freight stands ready. This trip has become a financial burden, but I'll continue if you provide $150 now for Amtrak fare home from the east coast." He responds, "Will you become more conversational?" "Yes, it's back to square one." "What if I only have $100?" "Then we walk the streets of Fargo to an ATM machine." He fishes bills from the money belt and hands them over with, "I may have shorted you $10." I tuck them in my pocket without counting. A good tramp can turn on a dime, and certainly we're that. Immediately we plot the next move.
After retreating from the yard bull, we certainly erred out of exhaustion by arguing under a street lamp instead of seeking cover. A lone car cruises, stops under the streetlamp and the cop steps out and greets, "Good morning, fellows." The bull called the local police.
Police, for the most part, like to get the big picture of the "perp" and take it apart piece by piece, jamming down the throat the ones that don't make sense. "We're on a two week tour of the North American Rockies," I say honestly, warming up. "Our bus passes ran out after Canada, so we hitchhiked I-90 here, and thought to catch a freight to Minneapolis. We just want to get out of town." Even as I deny that we got off a freight, I feel like a dolt in grubby skin with my pant cuffs tucked in white socks. The officer, a delightful typecast exception, beams, "Guys, freight hopping is illegal, but I hope you catch a train out of town." He ID's us and solicits Diesel in finding a DOB on the British Passport with South African birthplace. Second and third patrol cars arrive and he easily remarks, "Don't worry about the other squad cars unless you have warrants." A behemoth blonde in blue stands guard behind us. We're clean, so they let us go.
We wash and supply at a 24-hour store where I chew the fat with the clerk. "The girls in the parking lot just tried to get free booze. You can't sell alcohol in this state after midnight and, besides, they're underage. They said they'd pay me in the morning." Everywhere across North America - from the Yukon to USA - we've found the youth in mass drinking and doing drugs as if life is a dress rehearsal. Illegalization of drugs clearly doesn't work. The clerk states, "Meth manufacture is popular because the ingredients are available - Fertilizer's anhydrous ammonia from the farms, ephedrine from the drugstores, etc". This young man is clean-cut and determined. "The girls and drugs aren't worth losing a job. I'd be homeless."
Back in the shadows on the yard outskirts, we watch the bull van with the yellow shield patrol the yard for thirty minutes. "It's a game to him now," whispers Diesel. " He wants us."
Our first ploy is to divide to investigate opposite yard ends while keeping in radio contact. We hope the bull doesn't tune to our frequency. The radio range is 3-km and we check in every ten minutes. I hear his voice, "The bull circles and I'm nervous being with a pack. Let's..." I cut out as headlights advance and squat above a rail at an out-building. A peeling sign reads, "Weigh station. Danger: Live rail". I've never encountered a live rail and am three inches from an electric chair, though it can't be certain it was turned on. We guide each other with the walkie-talkies to a rendezvous at a closed boxcar.
It sits alone with graffiti on a still sidetrack: "We are cowboys of steel riding high on boxcars looking for Mr. Quest." A hog yard engine chugs a half-mile away under the harsh yellow lights. Speedy Diesel volunteers for scout detail mentioning it could be a robot engine. Yet before he knows, bull headlights show and our cover is just the little boxcar. A tango begins behind the eight ball. We dart behind the wheels of the far side before the lights hit. The road curves around the boxcar, and we dance 360-degrees around to the start point. The dick doesn't see us.
There's a valid reason for railroad police. 19th century armed holdups and hijackings gave birth to the yard bull. Today their concerns are safety through prevention of trespassing and breaking into containers and piggy-backs. They use security cameras, motion sensors and night vision goggles. Secondarily, they provide community education including an anti-hobo smokescreen that has dramatically cut North America freight hopping. Hobos find bulls face-to-face to be fair, outdoorsy types who give a shrug the first time and a ride to jail if caught a second. If the dick doesn't write a ticket, road wisdom directs one to reenter after his shift to try again. Earlier tonight, however, the BNSF bull indirectly cancelled our gimmie via the Fargo city police who no doubt bounced our names to him. We must stay vigilant in this yard till catchout.
Dawn tips the odds. We view a billboard at an entrance showing a yard map. It's decided to walk east along the mainline into a glen. Mosquitoes bite hundreds of times and poison ivy nips at our cuffs. The zippers on my duffle, sleeping bag and jacket are broken and held together with string. and safety pins. But the fact is an intermodal train decelerates before us, and we board the moving ladders of facing cars. Hallelujah! I'm a bo.
This is the slowest hotshot I've ever held down. In late afternoon, after multiple trips to the hole, the train enters a bewildering gridiron of rails and yards known as the Minneapolis trampdom. I want to pause to visit former road partners Iowa Blackie, once national hobo king, and Ad-Man, an advertising executive who rides the rails to national business meetings and jets home, but time is short. We ride on without food or water.
Minneapolis to Chicago is one of the prettiest runs in USA. The rail kisses the Mississippi River and slugs through the bayous for a hundred miles. In the Wisconsin dells, the train goes in the hole in the wee hours so I hit the ballast to walk our car length fifty times for exercise. I rub my eyes on seeing auto headlights bear down along the parallel rail. It's a service truck mounted on flanged wheels using the tires for traction - the modern handcar. It speeds to the head end where there's an apparent crisis. Without warning, a retort sounds at a close farmhouse that ignites in light a chicken pen. A light also switches on top a radio tower above the woodland. The electrical problem solved, the service truck skates north and our freight lugs south.
The sun rises yellow in our faces near Chicago. "Where's the Sears Tower?" Diesel wonders aloud, and sticks his nose into the railroad atlas. "I can't figure it, unless a new line or yard was thrown down since the book publication in '01. The compass and map have us coursing southwest around Chicago."
A giant horseshoe track appears on the industrial horizon leading into the narrowed entrance of a tremendous intermodal yard hemmed by 10' hurricane fence topped by razor wire. A head-high camera floats by our car signifying a secured area. We gulp with one minute to choose before the yard swallows us. Semi-trucks pull in and out the yard at the rate of one-a-minute to drop or pick up containers, while agriculture land extends in all directions outside the fence. We can enter the gate and the let the cards fall, or bail prior. "Your call," I bawl. He drops his pack overboard without a word, descends to the bottom rung, and drops one foot to the grit. The funny thing about the first step from a 10 mph train is that the ground seems to moves toward the rider for an impulse to lean backward, but then the freight's true forward momentum plants his nose in dirt. However, Diesel strides gigantically with the train inertia. I toss my pack out from the cutting wheels and likewise land. Heat beats off the dirt service road and insects buzz. "Let's get out of here!" I plead.
"Joliet Munitions Factory" an old sign reads on the road. Great humps of earth for ammo storage like dozens of loaves of bread salt the land everywhere. After forty minutes hike, another sign informs this is the new 2002 CenterPoint Yard, the largest intermodal facility in the world. The four-mile perimeter fence protects thousands of boxes stacked like child's blocks. A security truck pulls up that I ignore since we're on a public road, but Diesel strides to the driver's window. He rejoins me, grumbling, "I admitted we just got off the freight. The guard asked, "Please tell me you didn't steal anything." I said we weren't vandals, just riders. I asked for a lift to a main road but he scoffed, "Hell no! Freight hopping is illegal." So I thanked him and stalked off." I tell Diesel it was a jolly try, and we hotfoot trying to fish rides. It's a surprise fifteen minutes later when the security pickup reappears and the guard smiles, "I had a change of heart. I'll take you to a highway four miles from I-55 where you can hitch to Joliet that is 30-miles southwest of Chicago.
After that lift, we walk-thumb the busy route for an hour until a battered pickup slows, stops and out steps a bulky driver in coveralls. He applauds on the roadside to our approach. "Bravo! boys. The spirit of adventure is alive!" He offers doughnuts and warm sodas. After a life chapter as a vagabond about America, he became a bricklayer. "Now I work, even on Sundays." He cell phones a "limo" - "Hello, Jose. Drive over to Barton Rd. near I-55. I have a gift for you." I spout, "If you got us a ride, we'll gratefully pay $5 for gas." Diesel joins, "Each!"
The bricklayer surveys us, and begins a story. "Once I picked up an old hitchhiker in the Nebraska plains. "This is your lucky day!" the old fellow claimed. I replied that it was his lucky day, not mine. "Why, sir, is that?" he asked. "A few miles down the road you're going to bum me for a meal. I'm buying gas and food and getting nothing in return." The old hitchhiker smiled, "I am a bit hungry."
Jose, from the bricklayer's crew, arrives in a bashed Lincoln. "These are my cousins - except the old man. Will you give them a ride to Joliet?" Wordlessly, the Mexican unstraps the askew trunk for our packs, and drives us off with the bricklayer applauding through the rear window.
The sun sinks red on Sunday night over Joliet. Everyone we talk to gets jazzed that we just got off a freight train. "What's it like? Where'd you come from? What about the bulls?" I continue my interviews in quest of North America's heartbeat with a machinist recently thrown out of work. Highly skilled and employable, he was let go when USA began buying steel from China. "The jobs are where the steel originates. Thousands like me are out of work. But the steel industry will bounce back - it always has," he opines. He peels from the sidewalk to a park to sleep the night. Diesel exudes, "Steel will bounce back! "That's the insight." He will research it to tout in the "Bull Hunter".
Hobos are the submerged one-millionth but the unemployed like the machinist make up the one-hundredth. It was wisely suggested that the decline of skid row "flophouses" is the basis for laid-off laborers being thrown into the streets. Rent is the monster paycheck eater. Diesel and I try the Joliet Plato Hotel that's full, so the clerk sends us to the Metro Hotel that's closed. A homosexual offers to put us up for 10 bucks each but we're not that desperate. We "carry the banner" like bos of old hiking the main stem all night for want of shelter. We stay awake as long as we walk, having had little more than cat naps for 6,000 miles by freight, bus and thumb in two weeks.
"Guys, you'll get jack rolled tonight if you go on!" calls a shirtless, drinking man from a porch chair to the sidewalk. "Once I thumbed tired and penniless into "Hades", Texas," he states. "A man appeared out of nowhere and gave me $50, so I walked across the street and got a hotel room. I never forgot or figured out why. For that reason, you're welcome to sleep in my backyard." We spread a tarp on the 8'x8' square of thin grass and mud, and fall asleep under a 4' hand-carved eagle on the back steps.
In the early morning, before our host awakens into a hangover and wonders about the strange tramps in the back yard, I nudge Diesel. "Time to move on." He falls back asleep, so I stare a while at the wood eagle. The man had invited us to wash up in a kid's wading pool as the water company just shut his faucets for missing a payment. "Them that has keeps, and them that hasn't give," Woody Guthrie preached. I've been walking on fish for days, and go into the pool first. I exit, dress, grab a disposable camera and reawaken Diesel to tell him to dunk his head and wait for my three-beat cue on the poolside, then throw out in the sunlight for a "Playgirl" shot. Lean and unshaven, he ducks his head and I tap the poolside twice and wait... In a minute he tosses his head back with droplets flying, and the shutter snaps.
We ride the Amtrak "varnish" into Chicago. It's poignant that the journey ends in the hobo capital of the world. This was the rail gate between the East and West. Hobos and tramps in tens-of-thousands came to Chi-Town to layover, buy a barber college shave, blow their stake at a Madison St. saloon or bordello, take refuge in a flophouse or mission, take a job on the slave market, and attend Ben Reitman's Hobo College eighty years ago. Then those "lost souls" struck out for something they could neither define nor chase down. Hobos were and are the highest appreciated form of the genus vagrant.
We clean and dine with Wiley Books V.P. Pam VanGeesen, Chicago pork belly king John Chikos, and legendary writer-photographer Arthur Shay. The time comes for Diesel and me to part company: he for work in Baltimore and I in California.
With enough Chicago track to equal the entire railroad mileage in one-eighth of Europe, Diesel butts his head against that for hours on the computer. He discovers a CSX railyard that sends one nightly intermodal hotshot to Baltimore. What time? He phones CSX customer service masquerading as a trucker with a container to drop, and gets the nightly express time at 9 pm. "I'm out, partner," I bow. He takes one radio and leaves me the other. He enters that South Chicago yard alone at dusk. I get an email in hours: "Didn't get the intermodal train. Scared of the neighborhood I found myself in. Would have been chicken feed after dark, so got the Amtrak."
We're hobby hobos with a railroad fever that still has no remedy. People with the hobo heart share core beliefs on the rails or open road. Out there we're free as eagles.