Hopping Freight Trains in the Twilight of Hobo Tradition

by stephen holden for the new york times

The scruffy, outspoken train-hoppers in Sarah George's exhilarating documentary, "Catching Out," are a sure sign that the pioneer spirit still flickers in pockets of TV-wired America, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where much of the movie was filmed.

Driven by wanderlust and a craving for adventure, the four travelers profiled by the movie follow their bliss by illegally hopping freight trains, many of which cross some of the country's most beautiful terrain.

Hearing these self-described tramps and hobos evoke the thrill of riding a freight at more than 60 miles an hour through the countryside suggests the kind of raw, visceral experience others have gunning motorcycles on the open highway or skydiving. What is special about train-hopping is its historical associations with the dusty era of bread lines and hobo villages, when railroads ruled the world of long-distance transportation.

A goal most travelers have is to live as far outside the system as possible, avoiding paying rent or working for a boss. Achieving such independence, of course, requires a high degree of self-sufficiency and an unusual tolerance for physical discomfort, not to mention the stamina of relative youth.

Lee, the most articulate and defiant of the four, bears a physical resemblance to the actor Kurt Russell. When not hopping freights (he logs more than 10,000 miles a year by rail), he publishes a zine, with firsthand stories of trainhoppers' adventures. Off the rails, he lives as a squatter in a comfortably appointed cottage he built in the woods of Northern California. Lee, who leans toward anarchism, is a former member of the Hunt Saboteurs, a group that unsuccessfully tried to prevent hunters from slaughtering big-horn sheep.

The most romantic of the four are Switch and Baby Girl, travelers who met at a soup kitchen in Roseville, Calif., and teamed up after an extended courtship. Their rootless existence abruptly ends when they decide to have a child. In need of money, they go to the East Coast to visit Switch's family. When Switch is forced into the daily grind of being a breadwinner, his bitterness about giving up his peripatetic lifestyle is palpable.

Finally, there's Jessica, a brash, pigtailed Berkeley dropout, who travels with her multiply-pierced boyfriend until the relationship ends. Jessica was born into a life of wanderlust. Her father, who died when she was 1, was the hippie captain of a restored World War II tanker. She and her half sister, Tanya, spent their childhood traveling around the country with their mother in a renovated postal truck, until the family settled down in San Francisco.

When focusing on its four main subjects, "Catching Out"... is an absorbing, picturesque group portrait. Although the filmmaker clearly admires her subjects, she does not shy away from showing the strains of fanaticism and arrogance that run through their stories. But the movie jumps track, as it were, near the end, when it scurries to put the hobo life into a broader social context. It turns away from its four protagonists to examine hobo conventions and to take a cursory look at the generation gap between the old-style hobos and the younger, more reckless breed of itinerant scavenger.

One point on which the four seem to agree is that the train-hopping life is a relic from another time. With the decline of the railroads, and the development of more sophisticated surveillance systems to rout out illegal travelers, the era of freight hopping is inevitably coming to an end.

Produced and directed by Sarah George; directors of photography, Pallas Weber and Shane F. Kelly; edited by Casey P. Chinn; music by Pete Droge; released by Seventh Art Releasing. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Sixth Avenue, South Village. Running time: 80 minutes. This film is not rated.