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The Hobohemians 

On the rails with the new freedom riders

Wednesday, Jul 24 2002
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Page 3 of 11

The Bull

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.

It seems Virginia had taken advantage of the train's stillness to heed nature's call, and was squatting over the edge of the car when the bull drove up. A stocky, pink man, he seems a little embarrassed -- pinker than usual perhaps -- but mainly pleased, like he's already looking forward to chuckling about it over a quiet beer after work. Clare doesn't have to wait, and is laughing openly when another Explorer stops beside us and we climb off too.


Tex leads the Hobo Marching Band in Dunsmuir’s Railroad Days parade.

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The second bull, a compact Latino man in a blue uniform, asks Clare and me if we are associated with "the FRA." (He's talking about the FTRA, which stands for either Fuck the Reagan Administration or Freight Train Riders of America, and is alleged by everyone from Fox News to The Times of London to be a "gang of killers who prey on the weak" -- more on that later.) We are not. He asks me if I'm armed, asks where we're coming from, where we're going and if we've done this before, and seems as much motivated by curiosity as any putative intelligence-gathering. He takes our IDs, but doesn't bother to check them for warrants. He's almost apologetic when he finally hands us our tickets, citations for misdemeanor trespassing, and tries to make up for it by giving us directions to a homeless mission five miles off in Stockton, and offering a little advice: "Now you never heard this from me, but if you're going to ride freight trains, be careful, and I'd prefer you do it after dark."

It won't be dark for seven hours, so we hitch a ride to a bus stop and two buses later are in Roseville. We hike from the station to the freight yards, and by midnight have found an open boxcar on a northbound train. (On the West Coast, northbounds generally carry empty lumber cars, which come back south piled high with fresh-sawed timber.) We climb in, spread our bedrolls in a corner and fall asleep to the sound of hammers clanking far off in the yard, and to the steady click and kiss of the idling engines, like someone spitting on a white-hot stone. Three hours later the car rolls out of the yard, and within a few minutes is speeding along, singing and pounding, its floor vibrating at a frequency that could iron out your elbows and turn your spine to jelly.

For all that, a boxcar is a great ride. You have shelter from sun, wind, rain and the prying eyes of cops. If you're lucky and both doors are open, you have two huge bay windows and a choice of views. It's roomy, with a high vaulted ceiling, perhaps indifferently furnished -- some broken two-by-fours, stray cardboard -- but still bigger than a lot of apartments I've rented. Until last year, a boxcar could easily have fetched two grand or more a month on the Manhattan real estate market.

I lie awake until the boxcar's groans and belches begin to sound like voices. "Shhh!" they say. "Last! Phhhh. Eat 'em! Pht! Eat 'em! Tsph. Get 'em out!" I drift off and wake in the mountains, in a forest of high firs. The earth is red here. We pass fingers of Lake Shasta, dotted with fishermen and kids on boats, the water clear and green. Purple wildflowers line the tracks; the Sacramento River flows fast and white beside us. Finally Mount Shasta appears, a giant ice-cream sundae of a hill, alone on the horizon, snow-topped and startling. We've arrived.

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