By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
We meet a tall, slender man with an easy smile who combs his long, yellow-gray hair with obsessive regularity ("I'm a platinum blond," he laughs) and looks a bit like Donald Sutherland left out in the sun. He sticks out his hand and says his name with a grin: "No-Nuts." Later, we'll argue about who gets to ask him how he came to be called that, but it turns out it's no secret: He earned his name the hard way in Vietnam. We meet a bearish fellow named Tennessee, and the voluble Silver Miner Larry, a fast-talking tramp with short gray hair, his eyes a little loose in their sockets. He introduces his old lady, whose name is either Kimberly or Bert or Whistle Britches, depending on whom you ask, and who, before the weekend is over, will somehow manage to break her leg in three places while squatting to pee.
The trading blanket: Hoppers negotiate for train patches, old railroad dated nails, hand warmers, etc.
That night we bring a pint of whiskey over to the clearing, expecting to find a crew of beer-happy tramps to share it with. Instead there's just Tennessee, sitting alone in the dark, working on one last 12-pack of Natural Ice. Over the next few days I will never see Tennessee sober, neither at 9 a.m. nor midnight. Nor will I ever witness him being anything but gentlemanly, regardless of his condition -- he will one afternoon rouse himself unsolicited from what looks like a near-comatose state to help me lug a couple bulky 25-pound packs a quarter-mile down the tracks. He's bearded and a little shaggy, like Santa's wayward younger brother, with fists large enough to make the beer cans they continually clutch look like they belong in a dollhouse, and a North Florida drawl as thick as his forearms.
He complains of a Siskiyou County sheriff's deputy named Stuart, who lives around the bend and will prove to be no end of trouble. "Excuse my language," Tennessee says, "but he's a real fuckin' prick." Just the other day, he says, he was walking over the bridge to the Texaco on a beer run, when Stuart stopped him. He ran his ID for warrants and found none. ("I'm unwanted," Tennessee says.) "He said, 'Why don't you get out of here?' I said, 'Where you want me to go?' He said, 'Just go. I don't care where. Go to Roseville, Klamath Falls, Eugene, Reno, Elko, I don't care, just get outta here.' I said, 'I been to those places, and they all told me the same thing. Except they said come here.'"
Tennessee sips the whiskey gratefully, chases it with beer, then holds forth on the nemesis of West Coast tramps, the bull in Klamath Falls, a certain Roger the Dodger.
Roger the Dodger
EVERY WORLD AND EVERY ERA NEEDS its myths, its saints and its demons, and this one is no exception. Meet Roger the Dodger, a trickster-devil for the epoch of the corporatized rails. Not that he's not real -- even those who doubt his omnipresence and scoff at his legendary powers affirm that Roger does exist. Like Lucifer, he stood among the angels once. Back before Union Pacific bought out Southern Pacific, Roger was a friend to the tramp. He was hard but kind, and made only two demands: "Stay off of my money, stay off of my power." So long as he didn't catch you riding a hotshot (a high-priority train towing particularly valuable freight) or stowing away in one of the rear locomotives, you could count on a smooth ride through K-Falls. If you abided by his rules, he'd let you be, and might even tell you when your train was leaving, and on which track.
But after the buyout, legend has it, the corporate powers put the screws on -- if Roger wanted his job and his pension, he'd have to bust some tramps. He took to his task with all the zeal of the converted. If you can believe the stories, Roger the Dodger never sleeps. He works no fixed hours and knows the tracks like the veins in his arms. You've got a slim chance passing through K-Falls under cover of night, but in daylight it's near impossible, says Tennessee: "He'll get you, Roger will." It was Roger who got New York Ron, fresh from the Montana pen, and kept him in the tank for two days with the snoring drunks and, Ron says scornfully, "no shitter, just a piss hole." Roger keeps a book two inches thick containing the name of every tramp he's ever come across, says Ron. Their only other encounter was 10 years ago, but Roger remembered the name and flipped straight to the tattered page. So if you choose to ride the rails, take Tennessee's advice, and "Watch out for old Roger" -- no matter where you are. "I've even seen him right here," Tennessee swears, "under that bridge."
Tennessee is not joking, but Roger's not there now, and won't be tomorrow either, though a steady stream of tramps will be coming up the tracks all day long. Save for a few stragglers, everyone will be here by afternoon, and before they all arrive, some introductions are in order.