Loco Motives

by dave irwin for the phoenix new times
jan. 14, 1999

It's early morning at the "Jungle in the Desert," the Combat Railfans' annual New Year's bash, which unfolds along the track southwest of Phoenix.

Bacardi Carty, a founder of the fanatical Phoenix-based group, opens a beer for breakfast, the start of a routine day in camp for a Combat Railfan.

He shows off a recent cache, a railroad crew pack for stopping trains. It's complete with red flags, flares and railway torpedoes, explosive devices powerful enough to take off your hand. They clip to the tracks and go off as a train rolls over them, alerting a hogger (engineer) of danger ahead. Illegal train riders sometimes use them to trick a train into stopping so they can sneak onboard while the crew checks the line.

Bacardi got the pack from a passing crew in exchange for some fried-chicken wings. Not that he needs more torpedoes. The Combat Railfans have a whole box of them. They explode them for amusement during the sometimes long wait for the next highballing freight to roll by.

Rimfire, the young son of a Combat Railfan called the Unaplumber, takes an extreme interest in the explosive devices. Bacardi explains the dangers of torpedoes, which only heightens Rimfire's curiosity.

Colonel Horne, another founder, grabs a handful of them and takes Rimfire off to show him how they work.

At some point over the years, the Combat Railfans' love of explosives got out of control as they tried to launch 55-gallon drums and 19-inch TV sets. They also accidentally fired a starburst while a squadron of National Guard helicopters flew nearby, causing concern that the choppers would think they were being fired upon, and perhaps return fire.

Now the pyrotechnics are mostly illegally imported commercial stuff, firecracker strings, bottle rockets, aerial starburst mortars and the torpedoes. Concerned about people who explode things in the desert, the FBI made some inquiries, but apparently determined that the Combat Railfans posed no danger to anyone but themselves.

As fireworks explode nearby, Bacardi admits that members of his organization aren't quite right.

"We all have train on the brain," he says.

Combat Railfans are the outlaws of the normally genteel avocation of train and railroad appreciation.

For normal railfans, excitement is looking at pictures of old steam trains, collecting stock certificates of long defunct railroads and showing sequential slides of the same locomotive from different angles to a somnambulistic group of people who photograph flowers while waiting for trains.

"When it comes to typical railfans, most of them are geeks," says Trainman, another longtime Combat Railfan. "Not all, but a lot of them. They just want to sit back and look at slides, drink Diet Coke and count bolts."

The Combat Railfans have taken a traditionally staid hobby to a new, obsessive level. They frequently camp beside the tracks at a secret location along the Union Pacific Railroad line. They often entertain the passing train crews with large, illicit fireworks displays over the empty desert. They like to moon Amtrak passenger trains. Sometimes they hop freight trains, a dangerous, illegal act and an absolute no-no to the normally prim railfan community.

Bacardi notes with glee, "Most other railfans, when they hear who we are, back away from us. They never turn around and walk away, they just start backing up."

The first weekend of each new year, the Combat Railfans host their annual Jungle, so named after the old hobo camps. They invite all other rail maniacs to join them. About 60 to 70 people from around the country manage to make their ways to the remote site this New Year's weekend. Many of the guests arrive via freight trains they've hopped from Tucson, California or the Midwest.

Like the old hoboes who used nicknames to make the life of a bull (railroad security) more difficult, the Combat Railfans have their own monikers. Regulars include Bacardi, Trainman, Colonel Horne, Wormburner, FireWalker, AP and PeaVine.

The New Year's enclave is likely to include some of the punk/squatter habitués that might also be seen on Tempe's Mill Avenue; middle-aged tramps; yuppie riders; and increasingly rare Depression-era hoboes. They drink lots and lots of beer, detonate myriad pyrotechnical devices and talk about trains until dawn. If you have train on the brain and don't mind loud noises from explosives and passing trains, you're welcomed.

AP and LittleBear are college graduates who voluntarily travel the rails much of the year. AP is an accomplished photographer and LittleBear does computer work and makes jewelry. They managed to catch a train from Southern California that took them right to the Jungle.

"It dropped us off a quarter mile from the camp," AP smiles. "Pulled in the hole [a railroad siding to let other trains pass on the single line track] and we walked in. Curb to curb service."

AP became a rider in college. "This friend of mine had done it as an adventure the year before. We caught a freight from the Midwest to Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and came back. I think I only ran into one real tramp at that point. A tramp is essentially what the people who are riding today full-time, 365 days a year, call themselves. It doesn't have any negative connotations to them. So it put the hook in me because I could see a lot more people under the bridges that we just missed. I was more interested in the people.

"A year later, I took a camera. The next summer, I caught out alone. I was out for three months. I'd hook up with a group of real tramps and ride with them for a few weeks and then I'd hook up with another group if they were going in a direction I wanted to go. Panhandling or food stamps, lived as they did for three months. When I did that the photographs got a lot better."

LittleBear notes that the young punk/squatters, with their elaborately decorated bodies, sometimes get hassled by the older, more conservative tramps. They call the young riders "Flintstones."

"Typically, more conservative riders have a problem with how the young riders look," he notes, "since they have spikes in their noses and tattoos and jewelry around their necks made out of bones or plumbing parts. A lot of these kids look kind of rough with their tattoos. There's a certain percentage of us who work, like the older hoboes do, and a certain percentage hustle, like tramps. Our camps are pretty much the same. We're not that much different, we just look a little different. There's a percentage of drunks and a percentage who are working types."

Despite a degree in anthropology, LittleBear is living on the road.

"I'm doing odd jobs; I make jewelry. I do whatever I can to get by. Sometimes I have to beg when things get down and out. But I've had good times with the Flintstone kids and the squatter/punks."

Among the Combat Railfans and their guests, the talk is constant about types of locomotives, vanishing forms of rolling stock (railroad cars), changes within railroad companies, scenic routes you'd never see by car, towns like Pocatello, Idaho, or Klamath Falls, Oregon, hot railyards with mean bulls, weird behavior, legendary riders and old friends.

The Combat Railfans blossomed from their dissatisfaction with the conservative trainspotting groups, such as the National Railroad Historical Society.

Bacardi recalls, "Colonel Horne and I started talking about how we railfanned and what we did. Colonel Horne wanted to drink beer and watch trains, a real basic, simple concept. The regular railfans think when you're watching trains, you just shouldn't be drinking beer."

They began hanging around at a Mesa model-train store that increasingly did not welcome their presence. The group finally congealed on a weekend photo trip in 1989 to a workyard at a nearby mine, where they found that better pictures could be had by quickly trespassing on company property than by shooting through the fence.

"There were locomotives there and we just had to see them," Bacardi remembers. "So we drove on the property, jumped out of the van like a SWAT team, photographed everything we could and drove back off to BLM land. Within five minutes, a security car was there."

The security officer's attempt to confiscate their film failed and the Combat Railfans were both christened and emboldened. They had tee shirts and caps printed up. The group grew to about 20 regular members, plus a number of honorary fellow travelers. Of the original six on that first fateful trip, three are still partying at the camp regularly, 10 years later.

They discovered their isolated campsite on BLM land abutting a graceful curve in the tracks, surrounded by low hills and nobody within miles.

The granddaddy at this year's Jungle is Sidedoor Pullman Kid, an old hobo who started hopping trains in 1930, joining an estimated three million riders on the rails during the Depression.

Now 81, he still rides, taking short hops with his buddy, Tramp Printer, and leaving Phoenix during the summers for New York and Pennsylvania. Over the years, he's supported himself as a fruit picker, a gandy dancer (track crew) and a construction worker.

"Hoboes are the king of the road," Sidedoor says joyously. "That's a hard school of people to beat... . You couldn't buy the education I've gotten for gold."

Sidedoor was honored by his compatriots at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, as King of the Hoboes for 1994. The convention is one of a growing number that celebrate the vanishing hobo lifestyle.

Although the term is used indiscriminately, hoboes originally were migrant workers who hopped freights. In those days, temporary manual labor was easiest to find in the industrial areas near the tracks. Today's riders are more likely to be tramps than hoboes. Tramps tend to be slightly younger than the old hoboes and have a more marginal lifestyle, generally living in poverty. For tramps, money is where you find it and honest labor is merely one of several options.

Tramps have been taking heat because of the recent publicity about a segment of their population, the Freight Train Riders Association (FTRA). This has included a news segment on ABC and a July article in Spin magazine ("Attack of the Freight Train-Riding Crazed Vietnam Vet Psycho Killer Hobo Mafia -- Or Not"). Some law enforcement officials claim that the FTRA is an insidious organized-criminal gang guilty of welfare fraud, drug trafficking, robbery and murder, using the rails as a cover and transportation. Their lofty estimates of FTRA membership are dubious, considering there are only an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 active riders. Even the Union Pacific officially dismisses the FTRA.

"We don't believe such an organization truly exists," says Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furney. "We just have no evidence of anything that we've seen in the last years to suggest that that is a reality. We know bad things happen, but we don't think it's organized."

Tramp Printer agrees. Although he rides freight, he calls himself a "rubber hobo," having logged more than a million miles since 1972 on the tires of his Ford van.

"FTRA isn't as dangerous as they're made out to be," he says. "Most of them are out in Montana, riding the High Line (the northern rail line between Chicago and the West Coast). I don't think it's all as beefed up as it's made out to be."

It's a chilly Friday night, and Banjo Fred entertains with songs around the campfire about the hobo lifestyle. His rich baritone voice rings out, accompanied by banjo and 12-string guitar. It's going to be a relatively quiet night, since the Union Pacific doesn't operate on New Year's Day.

Banjo Fred has a Ph.D. in economics and teaches part-time at a community college in California. He was one of the original crew on the Hudson River sloop Clearwater with Pete Seeger in the late Sixties. His interest is in preserving traditional hobo music. He'll host a section on hobo songs with U. Utah Phillips at the national Folk Alliance convention next month in Albuquerque.

"The older guys rode the rails because they didn't have an automobile," Fred explains, "so they used it to get from job to job. The ones who survive, someone like Sidedoor, he's always worked. He's typical of that type, they get this wanderlust in them, but they've always supported themselves. It's really part of their work requirement. They're here to share their experiences, get notes on where they've been, who's been able to get where."

When the jug of whiskey runs out, a bottle of Night Train fortified wine is passed, another log is thrown on the fire to fight the cold.

Trainman leads the kitchen crew in making a 10-gallon batch of Mulligan stew. Everyone is waiting for a train.

Finally, a little after 6 a.m. Saturday, the low rumble of the first train of 1999 carries for miles on the crisp desert air. It's a hotshot Amtrak passenger train with hardly anyone visible through its windows. Most everyone in camp is still or finally asleep, except for Bacardi, who waves a green lantern of welcome in the early morning light, then goes back to bed.

Incongruous as it may seem, the Internet has become a mainstay of the train-hopping communication network.

(The Combat Railfans' Web address is members.home.com/claygill/index.html; Their invitation has also been posted on the National Hobo Association Web site, www.hobo.org)

The Internet is a significant resource for new riders. At this year's Jungle, several people, Wes, Mark, Frank and San Luis Sarah, who had communicated electronically over the Internet, finally met.

Wes notes that a Web search on train hopping a few years ago yielded only Mark's site (catalog.com/hop). Train hopping now has its own Yahoo category under recreational travel, as well as several news groups. Wes hosts his own Web site (www.thespoon.com/trainhop).

Mark explains, "The reason I did this Web site back in '94 was I always wanted to hop trains and I didn't know anyone actually did it. I put up information for other people."

Frank is a rider from Nevada who is surprised and pleased to finally meet people he has communicated with for years.

"I got a computer and I looked up the only thing I was interested in, freight hopping," he explains.

He's been hopping freight since 1978, and has taken his son and daughter out with him. Having recently quit his mining job after 14 years, he hopes to attend a school this summer to qualify for a railroad job. He and Wes, on learning each other's identity, begin planning to hop out of the Jungle together westbound to California.

"In Roseville [California], " Frank explains, "you just go to where it comes out of the yard and you get up along the trees. When you hear that horn, it's time to roll up."

They talk, watching the sunset from a small hill overlooking the camp until someone comes up with a eight-inch pipe bomb that immediately clears the area.

"Fire in the hole," they shout just before the explosion punctuates the twilight.

At the kitchen, Trainman is making a batch of menudo for the morning.

Coal Train Gem, another old-timer, entertains outside his motor home, performing humorous poems and telling stories about the little green men who make him write.

That night a crew stops a train on the tracks to visit. Everyone gathers around to talk, necks craning. Later, a crew in the hole near camp allows Bacardi onboard the lead unit to visit. From every train that passes by, the engineer blows the whistle in recognition and waves.

On Sunday, San Luis Sarah arrives. She has bad news. Lee, a 43-year-old anarchist who edits a fanzine dedicated to hopping, There's Something About a Train, is stuck in Oakland, California. Both Wes and Frank know Lee. He had attended last year's Jungle where his raising of a black anarchist flag created a minor stir among the more patriotic Railfans, who viewed it as un-American. The flap was quickly resolved with characteristic Combat Railfan compromise and camaraderie.

So, instead of hopping, Sarah flew into Phoenix and took a bus until she was within easy hitchhiking distance of the Jungle.

Sarah, a bright-eyed college graduate with a nose ring, who has logged 5,000 to 10,000 miles on trains, explains, "A boyfriend in college had ridden, so I knew people did it. As for being on the Internet, I'm super happy that there's information out there. I've met a lot of people in the hobo community through the Internet. I was a better, safer rider than I would have been if I hadn't gotten really good advice from people who have been doing this for years. I think it's a shame that people now want to exclude new riders from that information. I think it's an important source, so people who are riding are riding safely and respectfully.

"From my first ride, I realized that I loved it and I've just found every excuse possible to hook up with people and ride trains. The dangers of riding are very real, but my analogy is that people do dangerous things every day. People have learned ways to reduce the risk of the dangerous things that you do. And riding freight trains, you can reduce the risk. Still, there's no way to get around the fact that there's still considerable risk. It's always gonna be there. You're on something that is not meant to be passenger-safe, and there are people out there who are not friendly. So you can really reduce your risk by learning as much about how trains run and what they do, why they do what they do.

"When I ride, I'm always careful about the rides I choose. Even when I'm on a safe ride, I always pay attention. In terms of the people, I just never ride alone. I'm a woman, and for me, riding alone isn't an option. I've traveled around the world, so I think I have some good sense. There are total dangers, and I certainly don't advertise or promote riding trains, but if you're going to do it, I'll tell you how."

Another train-hopping trend is the weekend adventurer. These riders are likely to go train hopping short on experience, but long on equipment, like a scanner to monitor crew and yard activity, a cell phone for emergencies and rides, a video camera to record the event and a credit card to post bail if they're arrested.

The Combat Railfans videotaped a run from Roseville, California, north of Sacramento to Sparks, Nevada, over the Sierra Nevada and Donner Pass.

"We had the most beautiful seven-hour trip over a hill I have ever had," Bacardi remembers. "Smooth train, we got stopped out four times. Nobody saw us... . We get off at Sparks, literally got out of the boxcar, walked across the right-of-way, and grabbed a cab to Circus Circus for dinner and dancing. It was a mind-boggling trip."

A 70-minute video of the trip, Done Did Donner, is sold from the Combat Railfans' Web site.

"We put it out on the Internet, and we've actually had four real sales. We're thinking it was the FBI, ATF, Phoenix PD and UPPD [Union Pacific security] under assumed names," Bacardi laughs.

The Combat Railfans learned to how to hop freights from their greatest success story, "A#1."

"He had train on the brain so bad he actually became a hogger," Bacardi notes proudly.

A#1 admits, "I used to hobo and I'd take them with me. I used to average about 10,000 miles a year."

A#1 and his wife and toddler have driven to the Jungle from Nebraska, where he runs coal trains for the Burlington Northern and Sante Fe railroads.

"I started riding when I was 13," he recalls, smiling. "We'd walk on down by the railroad lines, and if we didn't want to walk home, we'd ride and hop off by the house and that was how it all started. I grew up by the tracks, and I've always loved trains."

He took his then-future wife train hopping early in the relationship. She loved it, but found it more than a little messy riding in dirty gondolas. He concedes that they are more likely to ride Amtrak these days.

"Well, I've got responsibility now," he says. "It's a whole different world when you're hoboing. You don't have any responsibilities. It's really great."

"I love my job," he hastens to add. "It's a challenge. We run 16,000 to 17,000 tons of coal. You have to think miles ahead. You use too much dynamic [the balance between speed and braking] and you can derail a train."

"Now that he gets paid to drive trains," Bacardi bemoans, "he'll call us from the unit on the mobile, and say, 'Hi, I'm in a 70 Mack diesel. What are you doing?' Screw you, I'm watching Laverne & Shirley."

Connecticut Shorty took to the rails just a few years ago. Shorty, whose father was a hobo and is buried at Britt, retired after 28 years as a senior administrator with a life insurance company for a life on the road.

"I'm going out for four or five weeks this May," Shorty says. "I'm going to meet Luther the Jet in Chicago, and we're going to ride the High Line. I won't ride freights by myself. I'm not foolish."

She and her sister, New York Maggie, who retired after 20 years as a paralegal, mostly rubber hobo in their motor home, working part-time as they travel. Each has been Queen of the Hoboes, Shorty in 1992 and Maggie in 1994 with Sidedoor.

"It's a good life. We love it," Shorty says. "Actually, everybody on the rails, if you have the nerve to be having this lifestyle, we have a mutual respect for each other. Not that there are no bad apples, but most of them are really good people. People who don't ride the rails and don't know us, they have a lot of opinions about us. But they haven't talked to us."

Understandably, the Union Pacific, while finding the Combat Railfans an entertaining anomaly, takes an absolute stand against train hopping in any form.

"It's unsafe and potentially life-threatening, and no one should ever do it." Furney reiterates. "At a minimum, they're guilty of trespass, and we can have them prosecuted for it. It's more for their safety than anything relative to the railroad. It's nuts to do it. There's no good excuse. Any rational person should understand that trying to jump on something that weighs tons, and has no handy means of allowing you to do that, and which risks your falling under the wheels and being killed or having legs or arms amputated belongs in a loony bin. It's part of railroading -- we understand that -- but it's certainly a part that we would be delighted to eliminate."

Meanwhile, the Combat Railfans and their guests drink beer, cook, trade stories and detonate things.

"We don't know half the people here," Bacardi admits. "People just show up."

He says that if not for the Combat Railfans, people like him would likely be wards of the state by now.

"We've had no births or deaths, couple of minor injuries," he points out. "The worst we do is mentally disturb people. Never physically, but, well, we've emotionally harmed a few."

In the distance, there's a loud thud as Colonel Horne demonstrates how to explode torpedoes.