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
Turning on my side, I can see Rocco standing by the fire looking glum while the Santa Cruz kids go on singing about being free, treading softly on the earth and loving one another. Then a train goes by on the tracks below and silences them with its wails, and the train's song seems to have lyrics this time, to sing of all that yearning, all the failed dreams left to hang immaterial on the edges of cities, beneath cement overpasses, in riverside jungles and hard urban squats, all that space and longing squeezed into this rhythmic yowl and clang. Everyone falls silent. The guitar and the fiddles stop, and maybe I'm drunk and sentimental and imagining things, maybe it's just late and everyone is tired, but it seems the train sang for them better than they knew how, and when it passed there was nothing left to do but stumble off into the woods and search out a piece of ground flat enough to sleep on.
IT'S A HOT AND CLOUDLESS DAY. TOURists and locals line the street in lawn chairs to wait for the Railroad Days parade. First come the VFW, old men marching stiffly in uniform, guns and flags on their shoulders. They're followed by a little girl dressed as the Statue of Liberty; some Boy Scouts; two kids cruelly encumbered with sandwich boards advertising Better Home Realty; seven vintage Corvettes; a few shiny fire trucks; a grinning boy in a go-cart labeled the "Osama yo mama Payback mobile"; a truck painted camouflage topped with waving children and a banner advertising Bullseye Tactical Firearms Training ("Protect Your Family and Yourself"). An old Ford tows a covered wagon, manned by a family in pioneer drag. The wagon is sponsored by the Dunsmuir Church of Christ, emblazoned with flags and painted "All Aboard America, One Nation Under God."
Finally, amid this panoply of patriotism, claiming another branch of Americana, the Hobo Marching Band arrives -- though this year their sign, in honor of the sheriff's shenanigans, reads "Hobo Marching Banned." An old tramp named Tex, who lives in a munitions dump outside of town, heads the group, hobbling along with a cane. Beside him is Banjo Fred, a ghostly codger who leads the ragtag, sunburned group in a rousing version of "This Land Is Your Land." Barefoot, dreadlocked kids skip and dance and beat away at frying pans, empty water bottles and upturned buckets. The onlookers seem torn: Some laugh and cheer, others watch silently, sullen and suspicious. "Well," says Banjo Fred when it's all over, addressing no one in particular, "if we didn't make an impression, I don't know what would."
There's a stage set up on a side street, nestled among crowded booths selling tri-tip sandwiches and "Protected by Smith & Wesson" T-shirts. The kids from Portland who played at the camp last night take their seats. They're the Old Timey String Band, and they play their old-timey music to appreciative hobos, who dance and stomp and whoop it up in the hot sun without any sign of tiring. No locals join in. Rocco and Ben look on in baffled silence. Half an hour goes by, and Rocco shakes his head: "Man, these kids must eat better than I do." Another hour passes. It only gets hotter, but the kids are still clapping and twirling, dousing themselves with water to keep cool. "We need to have a country all our own," Rocco decides. "It would be like this, all the time."
THE BAND'S SET ENDS AT LAST. A COUPLE of hours later, to avoid further run-ins with the sheriff, everyone packs up and moves out to Black Butte, an idyllic meadow of wildflowers and fragrant grasses a few miles up the tracks, between Mount Shasta and the tower of rock that gives it its name. For two days, train talk echoes around that meadow, pausing only when a train goes by. Debates rage over which is the longest tunnel in the country, which the highest pass. Most of the stories are tales of hardship, told now with a laugh, of frigid nights going through the Donner Pass by mistake without even cardboard to keep you warm, or of trains that stop and sit for days in the Mojave in midsummer. Ben tells of being so cold one Wyoming winter he had to stand all night because the soles of his shoes were the only part of him that wouldn't freeze instantly to the boxcar's steel floor. New York Slim tells about the guy whose face froze to just such a boxcar floor, and how they had to heat the metal with torches from beneath to melt him free. The stories dissolve into a sea of place names -- Marysville, Eugene, Pocatello, Livingston, Ogden, Evanston, Sparks, Colton, Whitefish, Green River, La Crosse -- an atlas of laughter and survival.
Crazy Angel keeps an eye on Meathead to make sure he doesn't get too close to New York Slim's dog Babys, a snaggle-toothed little puff of white and brown fur that Meathead would barely have to open his jaws to swallow. Meathead's fine with people, Crazy Angel tells me, but he's "kind of antisocial" when it comes to animals. In other words, "he likes to kill them." Meathead would prefer a world stripped of all non-human fauna, and does what he can to push things in that direction. So whenever he gets within 10 yards of Slim's pet, Crazy Angel issues a string of commands, each one more or less instantly obeyed: "Meathead, go over there. By the gear. Not there. Over on the other side. A little farther. To the right a little. Farther. Now lie down. Good dog."