By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Today, except for immigrant workers eager to stay invisible, few ride the rails just to get from place to place. With all the risk and potential for mishaps, comic and tragic both, walking is almost more efficient. But since the early '90s, train-hopping has been gaining ground among a new generation of tramps. The grizzled old hobos may be dying off, but they're being replaced in boxcars and on the porches of grain cars by street kids, gutter punks, dreamy anarchists and eco-warriors, train-obsessed professionals, all held loosely together by a vision of freedom as old as the nation itself, an America of movement and self-reliance, of mythic vastness and silence, of discovery, escape, rebellion. It's an America that was offered long ago and never delivered, that we're all supposed to love but not allowed to look for, that's just around the corner and always out of reach.
. . . to the mundane — either way, no advertising
THE WORLD LOOKS DIFFERENT FROM A freight train. There's no heat and no a/c. No meals are served. The restroom is wherever you find it. There are no buttons to push or cords to pull when you want off. The train goes where it wants when it wants to, and sometimes doesn't go at all. It doesn't care about your wishes. It doesn't like or want you, doesn't even know you're there. It can kill you without a thought, can leave you behind, maimed and bleeding, without a moment of remorse. There's no getting around it -- it's ridiculously romantic.
Ben, a crusty punk, tagging the Black Butte watering tank, built in 1926
We stay hidden as the train makes its way out of Los Angeles. Virginia's at the other end of the car, and I'm crouched beneath the axle beside Clare, a Web editor and sometime hobo who flew down from Berkeley to join us for the ride. We pass a Burbank strip mall, Krispy Kreme, Staples, Target, Best Buy, and I can't help but laugh out loud. All those packaged comforts, the shadowless, dust-free expanses of American convenience, exist now in another world completely. We thump off through the Valley, past auto-parts stores, taquerías, the leering pink neon of motels and topless bars. The L.A. night slides by -- a different country, already far away.
We leave the city and chug up through the mountains. It's too loud to talk. The train shakes out a cacophony that seems intentionally musical: a high-pitched squeal that varies from hiss to yawn with the steady bass rumble of the turning wheels, in turns cruel and joyful and terrifically sad, layered with the backbeat of the shaking steel car. I hold my ears as we echo through a tunnel and the high notes break toward painful.
Tags of yesteryear’s hobos
At around 3:30, the train shudders to a halt somewhere in the Antelope Valley. Bats flutter in the streetlights. After 10 minutes another train passes us, and we lurch on forward into the desert. We sleep for two or three hours, waking cramped under the axle, a cold wind blowing, our faces blackened with diesel smoke and dust. The sun rises and the air warms quickly. The Tehachapis roll by, golden on all sides, dotted with oaks and the occasional horse farm. We pack our gear and keep low behind the wheels until we've cleared the Bakersfield yards.
After Bakersfield we fly, maybe 70 miles an hour, past rusting factories of corrugated metal, pink trailer homes, a man watering his lawn, sunflowers as big as your head. We speed through miles of vineyards and citrus groves, along Highway 99, past sprinklers irrigating green fields in great white arcs, past three men trying to free a forklift stuck in dried mud. It smells of fertilizer, cow shit, diesel. We do our best to sleep through the morning, chasing the sun across the floor for the heat. I wake and see a world that is green forever in every direction but up. Later, I open my eyes to a huge white silo, filling the sky like a spaceship. This is the West as hallucination, as fever dream -- as strange and beautiful as you always knew it was. Cows loiter in a flooded field. We pass a bowling alley, a truck stop, a burned-out nightclub, a street called Temperance Avenue, swallows diving over a field of corn, a Costco, a man standing alone beside the track, looking right at me but not seeing me at all.
New York Slim with Babys, a Chinese pug he rescued
AFTER 13 HOURS, THE PIGGYBACK IS just starting to feel like home when we're spotted by Union Pacific police in a small train yard in the town of Lathrop, just outside of Stockton. The train has come to a stop, and as a white Ford Explorer pulls up in the gravel at the far end of the car, Clare begins to laugh. "Please step off the train," someone says, and Clare's shoulders start shaking. Funny time to laugh, I think. She covers her mouth to try and hold it in. "What?" I say.