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
He left with no goal in mind except "to get the hell out of there." His first ride took him to Mexico by mistake, the next one to Barstow, where he stayed in a mission for a while. "I don't do homeless missions anymore," he says. "I can depend on myself more." He Dumpster-dives for food, panhandles, works when he can. "If you're starving in America, you're a fool."
Despite the anarchist tattoo on Rocco's arm, he doesn't see train-hopping in any explicitly political context, except as rejection and flight. "The way we live is not acceptable to society." The distaste is mutual: "I don't care for greed," he says. "That's why society's so filthy and shitlike."
Rocco tries to downplay his love of trains -- he rides because, he says, "I don't want to be bound by anything. I don't want to be tied down." But he has a boyish enthusiasm for big machines, and a hard time keeping it from showing. "For me it's to escape. And it is my transportation, like people use their cars. I really love it," he concludes, waving his hands in frustration, unable to express the depth of his feeling.
His partner, Ben, taller and more reserved, will later open up over a few beers and put it like this: "Sometimes I feel like I'm the richest guy in the world. I could've set out to make a million dollars and never seen the things I've seen. But I didn't. I decided to be poor."
THEY ARRIVE IN GROUPS OF 10 OR 12 at a time, around 40 of them altogether. Most are in their early 20s and look a lot more prosperous and middle-class than the crusties: Their faces are rounder; they wear Tevas rather than combat boots and carry expensive camping gear instead of battered army-surplus packs. Despite the road dirt and the long trip, they glow with youthful exuberance and hardly rest before they begin sorting lentils and chopping potatoes for a big vegan mulligan stew. Enough came from Santa Cruz that they had to meet before they left and divide into three shifts to prevent dozens from descending on the train yards all at once. Many of them haven't hopped before, or have done so only rarely, and most, when asked what got them interested in hopping, say the same thing: "Lee."
Banjo Fred performs at Black Butte camp.
Lee Desaux, 47, is a sort of Pied Piper of Santa Cruz, where he's been living in well-appointed squats in the woods for more than a decade. Invariably dressed in torn cutoff black sweatpants and boots, his neck and arms bejeweled with aluminum hose clamps, Lee's been riding since 1986, and introducing the barefoot and besandaled, eco-radical, neo-hippie set to the rails for almost as long. For Lee, and most of the Santa Cruz crew, train-hopping is a beautiful way to see the country, a source of community and, he says, with trademark squinty smile, "a natural extension of our visions and lifestyles." It's a way to get around without buying into the money economy, a way of consuming without waste, of living off the leftovers of American abundance in the same spirit as squatting unused land and subsisting on food that grocery stores and restaurants discard. Freight trains are like a communal garden that moves.
LAST COME THE YUPPIE HOBOS, IN which category I include not just the ones whose cell phones wake them up on boxcars, but all those folks with homes and jobs somewhere who could afford Amtrak but ride the rails because they love it. Some make occasional long-weekend excursions, others organize their lives around trains. Take Clare, who rode with Virginia and me up from L.A., but fell ill shortly after arriving in Dunsmuir and left for home. She does freelance work in what's left of the Bay Area's e-economy and has taken a handful of freight journeys over the last few years, once as far as Iowa. She likes the adventure, she tells me on the phone a couple of weeks later, and the fact that "When you're traveling by freight train there's no advertising pointing at you. You go through the back yard of America" without a billboard in sight.
Longhaired Donnie and his new girlfriends from Santa Cruz
Or take a hobo couple, one member of which will later e-mail me to ask that their names not be printed here. He lives in the Midwest and reviews grant proposals for a living; she's an ornithologist based in California. They met in a rail yard three years ago. Both work freelance, and work just enough to be able to devote about half of their time to train-hopping, riding back and forth across the West to see each other.
Or take SocX, pronounced socks -- it's a complicated pun decipherable only by train freaks, but yes, it does refer to his hosiery, which is enviably colorful. The 25-year-old sound engineer with an apartment and a girlfriend back in Nashville took two weeks to get here. He started riding short hops with a friend when he was 17 and was thrilled to learn later that "This isn't just a mode of transportation, there's a culture here." He rides as often as he can and absorbs the minutiae of railroad history and lore like a sponge soaking up diesel. "I'm one of the complete nutcases," he says. "If you would take a microscope to me, you'd see there's trains running in my veins."