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The Hobohemians 

On the rails with the new freedom riders

Wednesday, Jul 24 2002
Photos by Virginia Lee Hunter
A.K.A. West Coast Virginia Slim

Catching Out

I WON'T TELL YOU EXACTLY WHERE WE ARE, LEST UNION PACIFIC get wise and throw up another security camera, a few more reels of razor wire or some of those infrared sensors I keep hearing about. Suffice it to say that we're east of the river, not too far from downtown, and that there are a lot of train tracks around -- which is the point, really, since we're here to catch a train, but not Amtrak or Metrolink or anything so banal. We want a northbound freight, with luck one that will take us all the way up to Dunsmuir, just 50 or 60 miles below the Oregon line, in time for the annual hobo gathering there.

We heave our packs onto our shoulders and trek over mounds of concrete and twisted rebar. We settle in a clearing surrounded by rusted truck cadavers, their doors hanging open like broken wings, and listen to the hissing of air brakes in the yard behind us, to the hum of the electric wires, crickets chirping, and garbled orders from the Men's Central Jail PA system echoing across the river. What we don't hear is trains. Forty minutes go by, and not one has passed. "This is the waiting part," says Clare. Virginia, who has four years of sporadic train-hopping under her belt, nods in agreement. "This is what it's mainly like."

On the way to the Dunsmuir Hobo Gathering, Clare practices hobo songs on her ukulele.

Virginia, Clare and I spend the night curled in our sleeping bags amid the chaparral and rubbish. Only two trains pass -- one heading south, and a northbound that could've been ours had a crew of workers not been laboring a few yards away. With dawn our camp is revealed in all its postnuclear glory. I find an empty backpack, a handmade shank with its blade snapped off, a spool of surgical tape and a Bible, one of its pages penciled full with Spanish scribblings. I can make out only one sentence: "Love is extinguishing itself."

We return at night and are almost ready to give up when four locomotives roll slowly out of the yard, towing a northbound freight. They're gorgeous, sleek and huge and gleaming, all power and promise in the yellow lithium light. We jog through the gravel, lugging our packs and, running now, grab the ladder to a piggyback, leap up and pull ourselves on.

A piggyback is a flat car that carries the ass end of a semi truck, just the cargo box and the rear axles. We jam our packs into the narrow spaces above the axles and hide behind the wheels. I curl myself as small as possible, dreading the beam of a spotlight, the bark of a cop. The train stops for five minutes and I do my best not to move. It picks up again, slowly, and the river snakes by to my right. The towers on Bunker Hill loom bright in the distance, looking sillier than they ever have before. We pass Main Street and are out of the yard, picking up speed. Sitting there, wedged in among brake hoses, fluid reservoirs and spiny metal things, with dozens of identical cars ahead of me and more than I can count behind, I panic for a second and ask myself, "Just where in fuck's name am I going?" Then a smile spreads itself across my face, and I don't care at all.

Tehachapi Pass at dawn.


WE'RE HEADING TO DUNSMUIR TO EXplore this curiously American phenomenon, which, despite rumors of its death dating back at least a half-century, seems to be catching on again. Men (and until recently, it has been largely men) began riding freight trains after the Civil War, when enough track had been laid to make it worthwhile, and enough dislocated veterans had become averse to staying still. Since then every major war and economic downturn has seen a return to the rails, providing a sort of shadow history of America, a constantly mobile underground of migrant workers, radicals, dreamers and thieves, misfits of all kinds who didn't mesh with the societal weave. During the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, it was a common if not entirely acceptable way for working-class men to get around in search of wages. In the '30s, Frank Czerwanka, one of Studs Terkel's sources in Hard Times, recalled, "When a train would stop in a small town and the bums got off, the population tripled."

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