Railway Renegades

despite the real perils, train-hopping is catching on again
by leonie sherman for the san francisco chronicle
march 26, 2006

Nothing can prepare you for hopping your first freight train. The ground vibrates, you hear that lonesome whistle blow, and a wall of noise hits you like a tidal wave: groaning, screeching cars, steel wheels scraping against tracks, your partner yelling in your ear, "There's your car, go for it!"

I almost lost my foot on my maiden voyage (couldn't find the bottom rung of the ladder that hangs from the back of the grainer), but my heroic partner, a man I'd never met before, grabbed me by the seat of my pants and hoisted my body 4 feet in the air, while running behind me at train speed. Eight years and several thousand miles of rail later, I still thank him regularly.

Faced with the stultifying predictability of modern life, many contemporary thrill seekers turn to prepackaged outdoor adventures. For $1,395, Outward Bound will give you eight days of practice in self-reliance designed to challenge and inspire personal growth in dozens of locations from Patagonia to the Kenai Peninsula.

Me? I'd rather climb through a hole in the chain-link fence that surrounds the Oakland freight yard, hide in the shadows for six hours, jump onto a solid-bottom double stack when nobody's looking and lumber out of town for limitless practice in self-reliance and inspiration.

There's nothing prepackaged about this experience. Your travel insurance won't cover it, and a group leader won't offer waiver forms to sign at the beginning of your expedition. You're certain to get filthy, you'll risk arrest, and you might even sacrifice limbs to the rail gods, but remember what Helen Keller said - life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.

Want to visit Mexico's Copper Canyon, the Canadian Rockies or Alaska's Inside Passage? A freight train can take you there. And if you think the view is nice from Amtrak's glass-walled observation rooms, just imagine what you can see from the open doors of a boxcar.

Besides, you'll be on the cutting edge of new-millennium hoboes who carry cell phones, credit cards and traveler's checks.

Once reviled or romanticized, the lonely rail rider - from Civil War hoe-boy to Great Depression tramp - has slipped into the realm of myth and legend. But somehow this celebrated figure is making a comeback in the 21st century. Although hitchhikers have all but disappeared from the nation's teeming freeways, it turns out that plenty of people are still willing to risk life and limb on a train for the chance to work in the United States or just for the glory of watching the wilderness roll by from the porch of a grainer.

Thousands of men and children ride the rails north from Central America in search of family members or well-paid work, while stateside, ex-middle-class punks hop freight trains on a quest for your basic adrenaline rush or a little social bonding. The kids are doing it in packs - I once spent 40 hours in a boxcar with 12 of my closest friends.

Train hopping is illegal, and dodging the bulls - those rail cops mandatory in any hobo folk song - is imperative. If you let your attention waver for a minute (which will inevitably lead to gentle snoring curled inside your sleeping bag), you might find yourself in a boxcar outside Klamath Falls, Ore., staring up the barrel of a government-issue rifle. Later, you'll have to re-route to avoid counties where there is a warrant out for your arrest.

Make no mistake: Jumping someone else's train can be hazardous to your health. I've seen a few telltale scars on hobo compadres. Then there's Heather, who proudly displays her metal prosthetic limbs - she lost both legs below the knee her first time hopping. (Getting on the boxcar was no problem, getting off was another story.) But I've also met hundreds of hoboes who have hopped tens of thousands of miles and never sustained an injury. This is a dangerous activity, but let's examine the nature of that word "danger."

Outward Bound instructors rate their various open-air activities by perceived and actual danger. Rock-climbing, for example, has very high perceived danger - a sheer fall of hundreds of feet, exposed granite all around - but a very low actual danger, because of that complicated tangle of carabiners, knots and harness keeping you suspended above the valley floor. Driving, on the other hand, has a very low perceived danger. Most Americans do it multiple times a day. But in reality, automobiles kill more people every year than cancer and heart disease.

Like many people on the West Coast, I learned how to minimize the actual danger of the perilous pastime of freight hopping from Hobo Lee, a stocky man who sports post-industrial plumbing parts as jewelry. The day of my training trip, about eight of us gathered for a short joyride on a local train.

Most people don't just jump on a bike and pedal away; they start with training wheels and require lots of parental encouragement. A predictable train, low danger from bulls, lovely scenery and some thoughtful instruction are the hobo equivalent. Lee paired first-timers with more-experienced riders and delivered a short lecture.

"If you can jog and you can climb a ladder, you can hop this train," he told us. "Once the conductor has passed, find your car. Start jogging next to the train, and when you're going the same speed, grab onto the ladder at the back. Then climb the ladder, starting with your back foot."

After hopping dozens of trains, that beginner rail line still terrifies me, because you have to catch it on the fly, while the train is moving. A certain macho attitude develops about one's ability to nail different cars at different speeds, but by avoiding moving trains, you significantly reduce your chance of injury.

"The train's gotta stop somewhere," says New York Slim, a hulking man who's hopped trains since the early 1970s. "And that's where you get on." Slim runs with a grizzled crew of old-school tramps called the Freight Train Riders of America, which earns him the respect and admiration of the younger generation.

Engineers and conductors deserve an eight-hour workday just like the rest of us, and freight trains have to stop to change crews. Once you figure out where the crew-change spots are, you just hide and wait. And wait. Bring a good book.

Sitting in a grimy, baking freight yard waiting for a train that may never come might not seem like the ideal vacation. The initial setting is dreadful - most freight yards are in grim industrial parts of town with no public restrooms for miles - but once rolling, the scenery can't be topped.

I celebrated my 30th birthday on the porch of a grainer as part of an extended free tour of the Canadian Rockies, and four gainfully employed friends of mine spent a weeklong summer break last year enjoying the breathtaking beauty of Northern California and Southern Oregon by rail. But the ultimate recreational hobo destinations are the rural towns of Britt, Iowa, and Dunsmuir (Siskiyou County), which host hobo gatherings every summer that attract hundreds of grubby riders for a week of merrymaking.

For others, riding the rails is just free public transportation, all work and no play. The brave man who saved my foot on my first trip used to ride freight trains to Tijuana for cheap dental work.

Cell phones and credit cards aside, today's hoboes have a lot in common with their predecessors. "The main difference is in the trains," insists longtime freight rider and storyteller Utah Phillips, a 70-year-old with a long whip of a white ponytail who rode his last train two years ago. "The trains are more and more automated, so there's fewer workers in the yard to talk to, and they go faster than they used to.

"But there's always been people who are inveterate wanderers, who are constitutionally incapable of having a boss, taking a master," he says, chuckling. "I was a tramp, see. I wasn't looking for work, just enough money to get a steak and move on. A hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders, and a bum drinks and wanders."

We all have a bit of that worker, dreamer and drinker in us. And a growing number of modern misfits are following in Phillips' footsteps, riding the rails.

I would never encourage anyone to sneak into a freight yard and board the first boxcar going anywhere, because that would be illegal. I'm just saying, if you do, don't be surprised to find someone else already there, preparing for their customized-budget Outward Bound journey.