George Lin is a Stanford PhD student in Russian history, and weekend hobo. "Catching Out", his HotWired début, is about hopping freight trains for a ride up the spectacular Columbia River Gorge from Portland to Boise, Idaho. Recreational train hopping is an illegal, often deadly, activity, brought up to date by a new wired generation using scanners tuned to railroad frequencies. Lin is a Taiwanese American, born in New York, raised in Illinois. He graduated from Harvard in '87, studied in language programs in Russia and Poland, and worked for a US Information Agency exhibit in the former USSR. He jumped his first freight 13 years ago when he missed a school bus. Lin joined us for a special World Beat Club Wired event on Monday, November 20, 1995.
jglave says: Hello everyone, James Glave here, producer of World Beat. I'd like to introduce today's guest, George Lin, author of the current "On the Road" feature in World Beat, about train hopping. George will be happy to answer your questions about this unconventional hobby.
George Lin: Hello, here I am.
jglave asks: George, why do you hop freight trains?
George Lin: I'm a scenery tramp - Amtrak only covers a few miles; freights go places where Amtrak and the highways don't.
jglave asks: Do you ever do Amtrak?
George Lin: Sure, when I'm done with freights and need to get home in a hurry. Freights are slow!
scamp asks: Well, Amtrak is also very commercial, commuter-wise anyway. I suppose some of it's about defying the standards, right?
George Lin: Standards? Well, maybe. Amtrak's also as expensive as planes, don't want to ride it all the time.
jglave asks: I hear that freights aren't always slow - they move along at 75 mph, don't they?
George Lin: They do, but they often stop to let higher priority trains pass. Also, they make inexplicable stops for long times - no paying passengers to complain.
scamp asks: Ever thought about catching out on a plane?
George Lin: On a plane? Cargo planes aren't pressurized, are they?
popestyle comments: The cargo hold isn't heated.
scamp comments: I think the experience would be eventful but brief.
janelleb asks: How hard to you think it would be to stowaway on a plane?
George Lin: I wouldn't know, haven't considered it. I saw an award-winning photo once of a stowaway FALLING out of a plane.
jglave asks: Why are crews sympathetic to tramps?
George Lin: They're sympathetic if you 're not drunk and not a thief. Most of them. See no reason to bust an innocuous rider's butt.
jglave asks: George, you've been doing this for so long... ever been badly hurt?
George Lin: One danger among many: If you sleep with your head pointed toward the front of the train, and it suddenly stops, you'll break your neck. You can suffocate in long mountain tunnels too.
I didn't ride at all from '82 to '91 - those years I was mostly on the east coast, no scenery and too much security. My intense riding was since '91. If you stay sober, and know the dangers, you should be OK.
clabberboy asks: Do you ever feel like you're really outta place on these journeys? Like a reporter living with the homeless for a week, then returning to cotton pillows and stoves?
George Lin: Sure, I'm out of place. But I'm there just for the scenery, don't try to identify or cozy up to these characters, although sometimes I've gotten along well.
janelleb asks: Have you had many interactions with "real" hobos?
George Lin: Yes, I always run into them. Invariably. They're in every yard.
popestyle asks: George - how do you keep from suffocating in those tunnels?
George Lin: Tunnels - I rode through the Moffat in Colorado (6 miles) in a caboose with closed windows. If worse comes to worst, lie down (best air down low) and keep a wet rag over your face.
scamp asks: Seems like there are a lot of little caveats - how do you remember all of them?
George Lin: Just practice, they're all part of an unconscious protocol now. Like how to jump off.
scamp asks: What are some of the rules about jumping off?
George Lin: Jumping off - hang on from the ladder, lower one leg. If it flies up and kicks you, it's too fast. Run gripping ladder until speed is equal to train, then let go. If you just jump off, you'll fall on your face.
clabberboy asks: Have you ever had to eat a rodent?
George Lin: I always have my own food - no rodents. I got pretty worried with one Vietnam vet in the Mojave.
scamp asks: Did you think he was going to eat you?
George Lin: Naw, he wanted to pound me because I didn't want to chip in to buy liquor. I was minutes away from jumping a train, didn't have time to drink with them.
janelleb asks: Do you bring a campstove and cook on the trains?
George Lin: Campstoves are too heavy, I eat out of cans (and throw them away properly later).
janelleb asks: What are most "weekend hobos" like?
George Lin: They come from all walks of life and have nothing in common except love of freights. One ex-actor, one chip engineer whom I know.
scamp asks: How do the permanent hobos get by financially?
George Lin: Permanent boes are usually migrant workers (Mexicans) or on welfare until one jurisdiction kicks them out. Then they ride to another.
janelleb asks: So though everyone is different, do you all get along?
George Lin: For the most part, we all ignore each other diligently.
popestyle asks: Did you ever meet any hobo musicians à la Woody Guthrie?
George Lin: One guy named Clark in Oregon who played harmonica pretty well. But he wasn't going to make a career of it.
scamp comments: Bob Dylan claimed to have been a hobo! He made it up though.
George Lin: Lots of people have been, including Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum. Dylan sure looks like he still rides the trains.
scamp comments: For him, it was an image thing. About making his music more authentic.
janelleb asks: Why do you think most train-hoppers hop?
George Lin: Some have a nearly psychologically disturbed attraction to trains, most of the permanent ones like the free transport and the absence of creepy hitchhiker-befriending drivers.
scamp asks: Is there an image appeal for you, George?
George Lin: It's not so romantic for me now - cold and uncomfortable - but the scenery, whew!
janelleb asks: Why do you do it?
George Lin: As Luther the Jet once said, it's indescribable to stand atop a flatcar and look down on the rockies. also the soon-to-be abandoned Royal Gorge line in southern Colorado, where freights only - no Amtrak - run along the bottom of a 1000-foot-deep red-granite canyon.
janelleb asks: So you ride for the scenery, not for the element of danger?"
George Lin: Right - I find as I get older, the danger loses its charm.
jglave asks: George, has hopping changed since the Amtrak attack?
George Lin: It's said that the FBI is now hanging out in railroad yards, yes, since the attack. Of course, they always kept an eye on the hottest trains.
George Lin: Howdy, Mellman, you're one of the riders, right?
Mellman says: Yes
janelleb asks: What attack?
scamp comments: Fund-cutting.
clabberboy asks: Do you guys ride together?
George Lin: In my case, I'm an "airedale" (always a lone rider). Not advisable.
scamp comments: Right, and you're not supposed to learn on your own, without a guide.
janelleb asks: Is it easy to find people to ride with, though?
George Lin: I did get some advice from the tramps early on, when I was mastering the yards in Portland. Rode with them too. Don't start alone. It's tough to induce most people to ride. Also, we all got different schedules.
scamp asks: Yeah, and George, do you have a degree?
George Lin: In what?
scamp comments: Nevermind.
George Lin: The most learned book on hoboing is "Good Company," by Doug Harper, who got his PhD in sociology at Brandeis by riding for a *long time* Harper did fun things like picking apples in Wenatchee, WA, with tramps. Not for me.
Mellman asks: George, have you been caught before?
George Lin: Yes indeed, Mellman, got nailed by McCloud in Pueblo. That really is his name.
Mellman comments: Just curious if you've encountered racial problems being Taiwanese American.
George Lin: No, not yet. Blacks and whites sure seem to distrust each other, though.
janelleb asks: You know, when we started to put this piece together, we got flamed by a mailing list member, who said that by writing about hopping, we were advocating a "trendy sport" and were ruining it for people who need to hop for transportation. How do you guys feel about this?
George Lin: As others pointed out, there aren't that many of us and we haven't been covered yet like mountain biking. I don't think what we have done is enough to bring about a shutdown.
Mellman comments: I've had mixed feelings about media exposure. Yes I agree, George
janelleb comments: Well there was a big piece in Details two months ago. You know "Silicon Valley nerds go slumming!"
George Lin: There are relatively few articles. One in Time in '88, one in the Wall Street Journal in '92. I confess my ignorance. What is Details for?
janelleb comments: Details is a trendy huge men's magazine, circulation probably 200,000 hip urban type men and a shitload of horny women.
scamp asks: You mean you don't read Details on the train?
George Lin: Generally I spend my train time looking for bulls and would-be thieves.
jglave comments: There was a piece on "The Crusties" in Esquire last year, I think. They hopped in that piece.
Mellman comments: I think there's always the risk that exposure will bring about a crack down, but I think the risk is still slight.
scamp asks: Why are they called bulls? Because they're bullies?
George Lin: Never figured it out. Maybe because they chase you out of the yard. In the '30s they were known to shoot.
janelleb asks: But you've never been kicked off a train by one?
George Lin: Never been kicked off - they don't seem to have riding bulls now.
jglave asks: What's your fave ride of all time, and ever hopped outside the country (Canada has some incredible track)
George Lin: Fave ride? - probably the Royal Gorge. Haven't ridden freights in Canada.
Mellman comments: There's a looping tunnel near Lake Louise in Alberta - I REALLY want to do that some day.
jglave comments: I guess the caboose is almost an extinct species (used to be a big train geek myself).
George Lin: Right, the caboose (crummy) is a goner. They have a FRED device now.
Mellman comments: I haven't seen a caboose in years (only ridden them 2 times).
clabberboy asks: Do you carry any luggage? Maybe clothes in a handkerchief on a stick?
George Lin: Just a sleeping bag and a gym bag of necessities. Mellman, how about you? You been rousted by a bull?
Mellman says: Yes George, 'bout 6 or 7 times (once under gun point).
George Lin: As for security, bulls generally look for riders, if at all, in the yard. Some crews will stop though to get a rider evicted.
clabberboy asks: I thought you said they have a tolerance for travelers?
George Lin: Depends on the crew, on the railroad. Santa Fe doesn't let anybody ride.
janelleb asks: How do you guys learn all this stuff? Is it word of mouth or just personal experience?
Mellman comments: Yes word and experience.
George Lin: I read a couple hobo memoirs and talked to guys who'd done it, then went to the yard and talked to the tramps and workers who could stand my questions.
scamp asks: Ever seen any dead bodies or disgusting shit on the tracks?
George Lin: No human corpses. But if you ride the UP in northern Nevada, lots of train-smashed cattle beside the tracks.
Mellman comments: I saw someone throw a dead cat on a car.
janelleb asks: Do you generally find that the tracks are clean then?
George Lin: Clean because for hundreds of miles ain't nobody living there, espesially in Utah.
Mellman comments: Depends what clean is - I hear they use strong herbicides.
George Lin: So that's why I'm turning green.
jglave asks: What's the best car to ride? I understand that boxcars can be dangerous because the doors lock only from the outside...
George Lin: I prefer the back of a grain car. I can confess that I just wait dumbly for trains, having no schedule.
Mellman comments: I agree on the grain car.
George Lin: Locomotives are OK in bad weather but the penalty can be severe.
Mellman comments: Auto racks used to be great cars, but they're all completely armored now.
janelleb asks: Ever heard any horror stories? People who got locked in to New York?
George Lin: In the press, but they're usually teenage idiots.
janelleb asks: Do you come across a lot of teenage idiots?
George Lin: I was a teenage idiot once. Have met a few since my day.
matthewkl asks: Have you met Ted Conover, who wrote Rolling Nowhere about his experiences on the rails?
George Lin: No, but he had a pretty good book. So full of feeling.
matthewkl asks: He made the experience seem rather frightening. The uncertainty of it all. Conover, I mean.
George Lin: Yeah, well Conover hung with regular riders for months, so he went through a lot of harrowing stuff. I generally avoid it.
jglave comments: George when are you going to do a book? Your writing is excellent.
Mellman asks: George, how many miles have you done?
George Lin: me? Under 10,000. I find scenic routes, generally do them once. Now that BN and Santa FE are merging, that could be the end of BN's legendary friendliness. What do you think?
Mellman says: BN and SF ARE MERGING??????
George Lin: They've been talking it for a long time. You heard? How many miles you have?
Mellman comments: BN is my fave. Probably 10K-15K
janelleb asks: How often do you ride?
George Lin: 2-3 trips a year, but from 9/94 to 8/95 I was in Russia. No riding.
jglave asks: What happens when TV starts to cover hopping? Are you worried about public perceptions of the activity?
George Lin: No, public seems apathetic, so far.
Mellman comments: I've already seen a TV documentary on riding, years ago, didn't do anything then.
janelleb comments: I guess people equate hopping with dirty alcoholic hobos...
George Lin: And they all have cars! Why ride a dirty train when you can drive?
Mellman comments: I've only seen one alcoholic hobo.
George Lin: Drunk ones tend to end up under trains, so their numbers never swell.
Mellman comments: Interstates have billboards, trains don't (or at least they point the other way).
janelleb comments: Not to ask the typical feminist question... but do you see a lot of women out there? I have to say that I'm kind of tempted to do it..
George Lin: Almost no women, always with a guy.
janelleb asks: Is it unsafe? For women I mean.
Mellman comments: I've never seen women, but I know one who rides (hobo queen for '91).
George Lin: I'd think that with the absence of recreation/lives of hoboes, it'd be like entering a prison population for a female rider. Maybe exaggerated.
janelleb asks: So if I wanted to hop I'd have to find a man to "protect" me? So much for feminism.
Mellman comments: Jan I think it's better for *men* to ride together so I don't think it's exclusionary.
George Lin: I get by with a knife, but I pray I'll never be forced to see if I'm willing.
Mellman comments: Bring Mace for defense.
harryeg comments: Something tells me hoboes aren't exactly the most enlightened bunch...
George Lin: Some thieves (jackrollers) will steal your stuff on a moving train.
clabberboy comments: Must be tough to get any sleep on the trains.
George Lin: I don't sleep too good, that is true, aboard.
janelleb comments: What are the proportions of "real" hobos, which I guess are the more "dangerous" people to encounter, to recreational trainhoppers?
George Lin: Overwhelming majority are for real.
jglave asks: What else would you guys consider essential equipment?
scamp comments: Besides the laptop and cell phone, that is.
Mellman comments: Warm clothes!!! 60 mph wind is great for hypothermia.
George Lin: A jug full of water and some rail maps. I got polypropylene long undies.
Mellman comments: Me too, George, good sleeping bag too. Treat it like a camping trip in the mountains
jglave asks: Ever get frostbite - the piece you did for us was from a January ride?
George Lin: No, but I almost froze to death in June '92 in the Rockies. Had to move into a unit (a locomotive), I was starting to hallucinate.
jglave asks: Wow, even in June?
George Lin: That was Tennessee pass at 10,000 feet. The winter ride was entirely spent in locomotives.
janelleb asks: I take it you both (Lin and Mellman - are there any other real hoppers logged in?) are single men? Do you meet a lot of married men who leave their families behind to hop?
Mellman comments: I'm married, 10 years been hopping for 15
janelleb asks: How's that work? Your wife have problems with it?
Mellman says: It was a prenuptial statement of fact (my only one)
jglave asks: Your wife ever shown interest?
Mellman comments: No, my wife has shown NO interest :(
George Lin: I'm single. Some rec. Tramps are married. There are some runaways who flee their parents too. Not many, they're a hitchhiking crowd. I have a theory that if OJ had gone down to Colton, he'd have done a better job of escaping in June '94.
popestyle comments: But he wouldn't be living so well now! OJ that is.
George Lin: Right, he'd be in vagrant land.
janelleb asks: How do you usually get back? Or do you train hop back too?
George Lin: Sometimes freight, Greyhound, Amtrak, extremely discounted flights. Time is of essence.
clabberboy asks: I bet fights breakout on board. Have you ever thrown someone out the door?
jglave comments: Yikes!
George Lin: As if I'd confess.
scamp asks: What about high speed pursuits on the top of box cars?
Mellman comments: I'm sure that happens, but most people don't do that sort of thing.
George Lin: Best film on hoboing is Emperor of the North, starring Lee Marvin and Ernie Borgnine as enemies in the '30s. Never been subject to an on-board chase myself. Movie stuff.
jglave asks: What are some of the unexpected hazards - things that wouldn't occur to a newbie?
Mellman says: Silent trains! Hitting birds with your face.
George Lin: Freezing, breaking your neck on a stop, getting slammed by a boxcar door, suffocating in tunnels as said earlier. You're supposed to drive a railroad spike into the track of a boxcar door.
Mellman comments: Only one tunnel you need to worry about.
George Lin: Which? I rode west through the Cascade Tunnel. No problem. But east, watch out!
Mellman says: That's it George, Cascade east.
jglave asks: Birds in your face... that happen to you? Ugh! I thought bugs were bad.
Mellman says: 25+ stitches (remember my warning page said I was seriously injured)
janelleb asks: How'd you get medical help if you were on top of a trains.
Mellman comments: Two hours later for medical, LOTS of blood.
George Lin: Man, that's a bummer.
Mellman says: I can see fine now though.
janelleb asks: Were you still on top of the train? Or did you fall off?
George Lin: You don't do up-on-top rides, do you?
Mellman says: I'd tied myself in with climbing gear
scamp comments: Sheeit
clabberboy asks: So we should bring climbing gear on our first trip?