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Western Railroad Discussion > long Harper's article on hoboes, January 2007
Date: 06/11/07 12:30
long Harper's article on hoboes, January 2007
Section: LETTER FROM A FREIGHT TRAIN by William Vollmann
Travels in an open boxcar
What do you need? asked the woman in the bushes.
To catch out.
No, what do you need?
The other bush people waved me away, not threateningly but urgently. They were making crystal deals, buying and selling the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Nobody would tell where the freight trains stopped.
So we went south along the rails, the three of us, all the way to the overpass from whose exalted edge we hoped to see the telltale double track, and we entered the graffiti'd warren beneath. Like most experiments, this became a cul-de-sac; but the cyclone fence that enclosed us daunted only me: my pelvis, healed of a fracture, still ached in bad weather. I stayed there with my ridiculous orange bucket, listening to the truck thuds upon the concrete over my head while my two fitter friends, one of whom reached his fiftieth birthday on this very journey, climbed up and over. They never said a word to make me feel ashamed. I sat on my orange bucket, and my friends came back saying they'd found nothing.
So we walked back to the passenger station of Salinas, California. I had been useless beneath the overpass, but I was the one who spied the train through an alley. Each human has his virtues. We ran, then circumspectly walked down the yard, passing a woman who was fellating a man on the gravel. Moments after we rounded the tail of the snake, the hissing of compressed air warned us that it was about to slither off the edge of the world. We leaped on just in time, or rather my friends did; I employed my risible orange bucket, which I upended and stood on, stepping easily onto the train, and pulled up after me by means of a string attached to the handle. -- Hey! somebody had kidded me when we were walking down the tracks. You stole my bucket! Gimme back my orange bucket! -- An orange bucket was not such a bad thing, aside from the fact that it was orange. One could sit on it and carry things in it and piss into it. I sat on it and looked around.
We were riding a lumber gondola whose huge packers of planks bore one rectangular gap on the right-hand side, another smaller gap on the left, and a passage between them. It was the perfect refuge; we could dodge the bulls no matter which side they came on. Hunkering down against officialdom, we passed through the yard at increasing speed, reached and left that former overpass in a couple of breaths, and off we sped, accompanied by fog, mountains, and water-lined fields, with the dim dusk scrolling by, the train shuddering and groaning, the wood groaning. Our hope was Santa Barbara.
I had never ridden among lumber stacks before and was apprehensive that they might shift and crush us. Eventually I consoled myself with the thought that if they did slam together, I would probably die instantly, so there was nothing to fear. Moreover, Steve had ridden the gondolas many times and seemed unworried, so I let it go, relishing the open air and the smell of fresh lumber around me.
A flare of evening sun in the Gabilan Range (pink chalcedony), the white loveliness of rain birds blowing spray in elongated flower petals, the leaden darkness of a lettuce field, all these perceptions granted to me right next to the freeway became my loveliest treasures, which I hope to hoard right up to the cemetery lights amidst the last golden green of the fields.
That was the great thing about this sort of ride: breathing the air of reality. In the Gilroy country the evening smelled of garlic; later on, near Santa Barbara, the dawn would smell of anise. Freight-train rides are parables. Why have we chosen to live behind walls and windows? For an answer, imagine the shocking blackness and feeling of asphyxiation when a freight train enters a tunnel! An old man once told me about riding a freight in some nebulous northern realm where a tunnel was so long that the hobo on top of the gondola fell off dead; the old man had succeeded in becoming an old man because he rode in a boxcar full of air! Was that a tall tale? I don't know. But I can assure you that the tunnel darkness beyond the window of a subway car or passenger car, however eerie it might be, is quite innocuous compared with the real blackness that wrenches breath away. Reality caresses and reality stings!
At dusk the train halted alongside a dingy white wall whose graffiti had been whitewashed into irregular shapes of a different griminess, and on the far side of that wall and its weeds, a beautiful young Hispanic woman stood holding her daughter's hand and gazing at the train. I waved to them, and they smiled and waved back. My loneliness drained away from me, and even now I feel gladdened by the memory of that moment. After a time their men came out. They, too, stood and waved. I never said a word to them, and I will remember them forever.
Into the dark went the train now, accompanied by few and pale lights and by more darkness that compressed the already flattened ground. I inhaled the darkness of vegetation and pallid darknesses of fields, the corpse-white dirt roads, everything glimpsed between stacks of lumber, in the cut between high ridges of darkness. Halfway up my lumber stack I suddenly spied the lemony-yellow lights of a small ranch and wondered what it would be like to live there for the rest of my life. Like the lumber piles shifting subtly back and forth, neither solid enough to be entirely safe nor sufficiently yielding to avoid crushing me if they should fall, the lives I could have lived teased me; in two steps I could have leaped off the rusty metal train bed and made landfall in sight of that ranch if I'd really wanted to; then I would have lived out my life there in truth, for the fall at that speed would have killed me. But nothing felt inimical, except occasionally those lashed-down towers of Canadian Douglas fir around me--and when I say me this is not to deny the presence of my two companions, with whom I shared my pleasures; but just as a family can go to church together and sit side by side on the pew while experiencing (or not) separate communions with the many-faced Spirit, so too my friends and I, although we shared food, water, booze, cigars, and vigilance, remained gloriously alone in that nightscape. I saw a tall palm silhouetted in the night, then a tall forest. I saw it, and then it was gone. How could I know what my companions saw?
Slowly chewing a date, wrapped up in all my jackets, I stretched out on bare steel that was a truly luxurious bed thanks to the soft shadow of the darkness. My friends were sleeping as I rode the trestle bridge's black shadow on the silver river. I rode it through the smell of river and grass, and a bright star in the sky kept me company, turning bluish-white for my delight, until a sudden invasion of road lights drowned it in alien brightness. Happily, those excrescences fell behind quickly. My star returned to me. The moon was playing hide-and-seek with the ridge, then came a canyon with moon-white grass and trees as richly leaved as thunderheads, the night sky almost white by comparison; and I hoped never to see this place by day because it was so perfect in its night incarnation, being not merely my past but the vanished American West itself where I would have homesteaded with my pioneer bride; I would have planted orchards and drunk from the artesian well of dreams.
The freight kept going right through Santa Barbara, and we thought we might have to ride to Ventura or beyond, but just south of Carpinteria it slowed, and what increased our motivation to get off just then was that a man with a walkie-talkie was standing in the gravel, staring into each car, and his eyes met mine, at which point he raised the walkie-talkie to his mouth. The train kept traveling southward at about the same speed as a running man, so when the walkie-talkie man was the merest dot behind us we jumped out, landing either erect or on our hands and knees, as we thought best. Then we began to walk away from that life. It was half past seven in the morning. Crossing the highway, we regrouped against the wall of a gated community, and Steve called his daughter on a cell phone while I pissed on a tree.
My good and patient friends waited for me without recriminations while I toiled over the breakwater's boulders, anxious not to crack my pelvis again. A series of small strokes had wrecked my balance, and what would have taken them fifteen minutes took me an hour. Then we went out for breakfast with Steve's wife and daughter, and slept all afternoon in Steve's daughter's apartment, I on the floor, Brian on the couch, Steve upstairs in the bed. When I woke up it was a great pleasure to lie a little longer on the soft carpet, safe from reality.
The next morning we took the Amtrak first from Santa Barbara to Goleta, then, when we saw no double track, changed our minds and stayed on the train, buying new tickets for San Luis Obispo. The conductor silently admired my orange bucket, it was a comfortably innocuous ride alongside an extraordinarily flat blue sea with greenish-white traceries. The gulls on the tan beach were now accompanied by a fleet of red kayaks. The palm trees, dome tents, and pretty beach girls were no longer the world, as they had been when I had seen them from the lumber gondola, but a series of pictures bordered by windowsills. I cannot say that they were better or worse. We ordered beers from the dining car and luxuriously drank them. Once again I saw schools of porpoises. At about one-fifteen we arrived in San Luis Obispo.
One always hides when the freight enters a yard. I particularly remember how from my rat hole between lumber piles I'd observed the sinister illumination of this very station as my friends snored. It had then seemed as daunting as an enemy military installation. Now it was a harmless afternoon place, open to the public, because we were there legally. It was high time for that to end.
Discreetly paralleling the tram yard on the nearest street, we walked northward for a block or two, then rejoined the tracks out of sight of the station. There was no litter here, unfortunately; this must not be a spot that had brought good luck to our vagrant colleagues. And south of the station we'd seen a large track crew. It seemed best to lie low for a while. My more agile companions went over the fence and I slithered under it, my oilskin pants getting good and muddy. and down we all ducked into the creekside's poison oak and up the other bank, up the steep eucalyptus hill to the parking lot, where a girl with a bicycle had told us that one locked-looking gate wasn't really locked, and it wasn't, so we went down the hill and ran across the clearing that was bordered on one side by a fenced house with a NO TRESPASSING sign and on the other by the tracks themselves, from which we were screened by a narrow oasis of eucalyptus, geranium, and palm. There we lurked like rodents, watching the tracks in the sun, framed by brightly graveled whiteness, rusty rails, mad birdsong. I felt edgy whenever a pickup door slammed on the tracks; that pickup was angled toward us, and what if it belonged to someone with the authority to remove us? Next came the sound of a woodpecker, and engine noises far and close. We were not so much hopeful as ready.
Hours went by without any train at all. Lying in the pine needles, I breathed the honeyed hours of illegal time. I argued that we should lurk near the overpass, so that we could board a long train near the rear without being seen; but my companions pointed out, with good reason, that the oasis where we had spent the afternoon, and indeed that entire east side of the tracks, was less exposed. So I was outvoted.
When night came, Steve saw a locomotive with an open door and proposed that we hide in there, but as soon as we'd entered its darkness a light came on across the tracks and Brian was sure that we'd been seen, so we ran back down and along the right-hand side of the tracks, hoping to reach our oasis, but by the time we'd reached the shed, here came a man with a giant flashlight! Another Amtrak was coming south, its lights aimed at us. The conductor dismounted. Brian and I froze against the darkest wall of the shed; Steve was already gone. The man approached and shined his light; I was sure that he'd seen me, but he did nothing. He was a steward; he locked the gates to some of the tracks. As soon as he was gone, we threw ourselves down in tile grass. The Amtrak tolled its bell and hauled its two tiers of yellow windows down the tracks to bed, hissing and snoring in front of us for a long time. Suddenly the conductor was walking toward us down the gravel; my heart was pounding. Officials with flashlights came straight toward us.
Trust me, said Steve. Their eyes aren't adjusted. They can't see us.
He was right. I experienced a surprisingly extreme fear, commingled with the fascination of observing a rare phenomenon: namely, our own supernatural power of invisibility. These men in uniform, I could almost have touched their ankles! They were so close now that their various yellow probes of wrist light puddled around them and caught the grass around my elbows. They were an island of authority in the night, with immense theoretical power over us, but, like us, they were small and alone; the night was bigger than any of us. And we were more a part of the night than they were.
We crouched in the undergrowth. Here came more functionaries with flashlights. That last gate, one of them said. That was our gate. Steve and I ran up the hill as Fast as we could and threw ourselves down into the leaves. But this time the man with the flashlight saw Steve's pack and my cursed orange bucket.
Someone's HIDIN', he said, and laughed.
In a fright, we ran into the weeds and clung together like lovers. The man shone his flashlight directly on us. But we were in the shadows and our clothing was dark. We waited through the pate white lights, the blinking blue light on the track, the yellow light through the palm fronds, and we spied on the rusty tracks that were now milk-silver in the security lights. Again menacing silhouettes with caps and flashlights advanced upon us, and our hearts pounded. They shone their lights in our faces, but once again they failed to catch us. A century later the track steward returned, locked the gates to the Amtrak, and retreated into his place be hind the dark window. Life was the whish of air, the rustle of grass, and I hoped I was not lying in poison oak.
Now it was midnight and the freight finally came, but behind a passenger train. Shit, shit, said Steve; Bill, you were right. A crew swarmed around that train, which was southbound. A man's voice said: There's a freight ahead of us. It's a-goin' over the hill to Oakland.
I abandoned my orange bucket. We van around the head of the train, and the engineer either failed to see us or else out of pity or indifference refrained from making a report. We strolled down the west side of the tracks and into the darkness, passing through the parking lot on the side of the station. Now the stopped freight stretched infinitely southward.
Finally we found the darkness of an open boxcar. Steve hated boxcars and wanted to look for something better, but we'd gone only a few cars south of it when the brakes began to hiss. I persuaded the other two to come back, and while they tapped the door open with a railroad spike I wriggled up and in, as proud of doing this without my bucket as a toddler is of walking; and I flicked on my flashlight just for a moment, to make sure that there was no excrement or broken glass and saw graffiti of a naked woman's ass and a white, rather friendly skull on the white walls.
There came another hiss of air, and after ten hours of hidin' in San Luis Obispo the freight began to move. Through the wide-open door I saw a vast square wall of vivid life. All the waiting, that living fieldmouse-small in the grass, was a necessary part of the experience, because it made the journey feel like salvation. And I wondered whether life could be good without the hard times.
Dark and lovely tree-shadows raced across the long white gallery, and the shadows of my two comrades continually glided toward me, getting devoured by the pursuing shadow of the doorframe. Then all of a sudden, red signal-luminescence rushed into the boxcar and flushed us with the blood of the entire world.
That night the boxcar seemed to be speeding upward like a rocket under attack from anti-rocket missiles; it roared at what felt like an ever-increasing velocity, took evasive action by shaking from side to side, and every now and then lurched horribly, as if it had just been hit. Sometimes I would be awakened from a light doze by the boxcar's sudden slamming, as if there had been an accident. Amidst all this shrieking and creaking, the immense open door, the lighted city of the men's prison immediately to the west, then the multitude of foggy pictures before dawn, I felt as if every possibility were offering itself through the open door, but without Mephistophelian trickery. The infinities available to me paraded as beguilingly as clock figures on a medieval church tower.
My friends woke me up again because we were coming into Salinas. I leaped up, fully clothed and shoed like a soldier, slung nay pack to my shoulder, mad I was ready! But the train kept going. My friends stood dismayed. Well, it was nice while it lasted, I said, and went back to sleep.
Six hours later we glimpsed cornfields and then half-constructed houses, the ever-swarming California; and though the boxcar was still, objectively speaking, huge, all the obscene drawings could now be seen from one end to the other, and our traveling gallery seemed to have shrunk. Its grimy, rusty floor was drearier, and even the fabulous rectangle of real life projected upon its open movie screen seemed less enchanting, in part because so many California cities are ugly, in part because I had hardly slept, and surely in some measure because riding the rails, like any attempt to escape from life, must taste of failure every now and then.
Presently we found ourselves speeding into Hayward and right through the yard, far too quickly for even Steve to consider getting off, then increasing velocity again, coming into the Oakland yard with its many tracks, fences, and the stench of excrement; a baleful place that I would not want to be wandering through at night. Passing through Jack London Square, the train slowed to ten or fifteen miles an hour, but by now we were already in Emeryville, with the blue giraffes of container shipping cranes ahead. My friends feared that the train would not stop here either, so we decided to jump off by a vote of two to one. I voted no because I was fearful. I have always avoided jumping on or off moving trains, but there was nothing for it. Brian went first, fell, hit his head, and slammed his hand against his bloody face, falling far behind us now. We couldn't leave him, so now we had to go. Steve went next and landed erect, tough and bold on the day after his fiftieth birthday, but later admitted to having hurt his ankle. I, solicitous for my knees and pelvis, landed in a ball on the gravel, twisting my knee. I limped well enough, and we all slithered under the yard's fence quite adequately.
Did you ever ride the mils? I asked the hobo.
Yeah. I rode the freights. Shitty. Like just plain dirty. When Burlington Northern and Santa Fe merged, they tightened all the screws. They see you, you go straight to jail. Right now I just hitchhike. I'm stranded here. Maybe I'll clear seven or eight bucks a day. When I left Seattle I only had twenty and that wasn't enough. I wanna make at least fifty-sixty bucks here before I hit the next town.
I talked with that hobo awhile, and then I gave him money, got into a car, and off I went, down the freeway, right out of Missoula, Montana; and the feeling within me as I departed his sad life resembled the feeling when the train accelerates and the yard is safely behind; I am free, and for the moment my own sad life, with its own rules, necessities, and railroad bulls, will not be able to catch me.
Havre, Montana, was a long narrow town whose spinal column consisted of a railroad line and a dozen metal grain silos shaped like stubby pencils. The railroad yard itself lay just north of Main Street, where Mrs. Gregory, proprietress of the Silver Thimble sewing shop, had once kept her establishment. Hoboes sometimes used her outside water tap, because on the far side of the tracks lay the hobo jungle. She'd tried turning the tap off but then they came inside to ask for water, and Mrs. Gregory, who really was a friendly enough sort, turned the tap back on and left them to it. Once a customer came and cried out that a naked hobo woman was washing herself outside. Mrs. Gregory said to let her he; she wasn't doing any harm.
I never to my knowledge met any of Mrs. Gregory's guests, but I made repeated acquaintance of the hobo Ira, who, clothed in his slimy blue windbreaker and in his smell of old sweat and burning garbage, loped along the side of the road, away from the locomotive from which he'd leaped, trotting and then running and running cross-country from his fear, happy to be asked about himself but afraid to answer, hanging his head, twisting away. He was a pitiable curiosity to me when I first met him nearly a decade ago; now I begin to see that he is my brother. Ask him how life was on the rails these days and he'd quickly insist that he usually took Greyhound. He was toothless, and his weathered, swollen face had darkened until it resembled one of those frozen mummies they'd found in a cave in Greenland. Someone had stolen his false teeth. He said that Nevada was a dangerous place, filled with "lifters," but when I inquired whether someone in Nevada had lifted his false teeth he ducked his head and equivocated, afraid to give up this secret. Where had he been? Well, all over. He was headed for Glacier National Park, where there might be a cabin he could deep in while he repaired his finances. What were his plans? Well, get a rest, get a little snack, try to improve his finances. All he carried was his bedroll, because he didn't really need to drink water that much. The worst thing about riding the rails was risking falling asleep. He seemed terrified of failing in his vigilance, whether because of railroad bulls or of gangsters or simply of his own nightmares I never learned. I asked him whether he liked boxcars or grainer cars better, and in terror he murmured something about hotels and riding Greyhound. His meaningless evasions repeated themselves, like his odor of burned cooking and of sooty, dirty concrete underpasses whose ceilings were charred perfectly black.
In the narrow strip of mosquitoey trees and grass between the south bank of the river and the old Great Northern tracks there in Havre, Montana, the wind came through sweet-smelling trees and cooled a NO TRESPASSING sign. Dogs barked across the brown-green river. Gnats attacked my throat. Past the NO TRESPASSING sign there was a bend around which the narrow grassy strip widened into a plain too mucky for camping, plastered with old dogprints and footprints and a few fresh raccoon tracks. Mosquitoes danced golden like evening river-ripples; train bells sang by. Between the river and the tracks lay a shrunken scrap of forest through which a trail led alongside a barbed-wire fence, and though I saw grimy cardboard flats and scraps of plastic hidden under pines and in dandelion thickets, the only shelter I could find, roofed by a plastic tarp weighted down with old tires, held nothing but a farmer's hay bales. There were no hoboes in the hobo jungle anymore.
There is no hobo jungle, a woman said. They cut down a lot of the trees and widened the road about three years back, to discourage 'em.
An old man in Shelby, Montana, said: Oh, those hobo jungles just kinda dried up. Self-destructed. Alcohol abuse, missing children.
Oh, it's in full swing now, said the officer behind glass at the same town's police station. We see ten or fifteen hoboes a week. They're going across the Hi-Line. It always picks up after April.
I'd heard about the Hi-Line from a woman in Townsend, who'd sighed: There used to be more of an honor code. You know, honor among thieves. And people used to be more prepared. I was a Hi-Line winter rider! I'd get on at thirty below. Never froze, because I carried what I needed. Now people don't ride with gear, and since they don't have any they want yours.
How often do they get arrested? I asked the officer in Shelby.
We've only arrested one in the last year. Felony assault on a citizen with a knife.
Does the railroad call you in to arrest the train riders?
As long as they keep their feet up on the car or the flatbed, they just let 'em go.
And I saw them going, and I wanted to go, like silvery rain blowing off an overpass. I wanted to ride the Hi-Line and get away from this world.
I had one more question for the officer.
He scratched his head. -- Did we have a hobo jungle? I dunno.
No, there were no hoboes in the hobo jungle in Havre. The next morning, returning with my sweetheart, Lizzy, with the sky as steely as the silos of the Farmers Grain Exchange, I set out to explore every inch. We found a camp hearth with a cooking pot still on the ashes, as if the hobo there had had to leave suddenly. -- It reminds me of Pompeii, said Lizzy mournfully. -- Passing two kids fishing, we ducked under the bridge and waited by somebody's bedroll for hours. Graffiti proclaimed the self-expression of Gros Ventre Indians, and a camouflage jacket lay in the sand. On the concrete wall it read:
I'm an unhappy hobo
I just have no luck
Even when I ride the train
I ride like old people fuck.
But amidst other graffiti wriggled a pair of SS lightning-bolts beside the ominous letters FTRA, which referred to an organization described by Spokane police detective Bob Grandinetti as a very dangerous group of people. They are highly mobile and fiercely violent.…Many FTRA members are basically cold-blooded serial killers who could definitely pose a dangerous threat to police officers. The same wall memorialized FTRA KOMO HOPPER 97 EASTBOUND 8-21-97 and FREIGHT TRAIN PENNY. How dangerous were Komo and Penny? How might they have compared with Ira or the hobo woman who'd washed her only set of clothes behind Mrs. Gregory's store? To the townspeople of Havre, none of whom seemed to have heard of the FTRA, they all might as well have been trolls.
I looked down an alley, and so I saw an alley tramp. The other homeless ones I'd seen in Sacramento were busy and unfriendly, but this man took his time, slowly sawing at a pack strap with his razor knife as he sat among shopping bags, guarding a woman's purse, so I wandered over to him and said: Pardon me, sir, do you know anything about the FTRA?
I know they're a bunch of mother-fuckers, he said. I never hopped trains, so other than that I don't know much. But my girlfriend's going to be back in a minute. She knows. She used to hang around them FTRA. She's out getting Chinese food.
When the girlfriend came back, he said to her: He wants to know about FTRA.
I'm a reporter, I said.
The two of them recoiled, and the man said: I swear I didn't tell him nothin'. He looked me up and down and said: What are you, some college kid?
Something like that, I said. Are the FTRA around everywhere?
Sure, the woman said. They're just ordinary people. Good folks to hang with if you're catching out.
Why did you used to catch out?
To get from here to there.
I hear they wear bandanas.
Yeah, around their necks. Red or black. The bag-and-tag, they call it. They can be a little bit rough.
That's what I told him, the man said. They got a bad rep.
If I see somebody with a red bandana around his neck, can I just go up to him and say, Are you FTRA?
You goddamned doofus! shouted the man. That's the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard. You wanna commit suicide or what? I'm not even FTRA and you're already starting to piss me off. Don't you get it? We hate you.
Because you're just a goddamned citizen.
The woman might have pitied me. She said: They're fine people. Just like anybody else. They only have a different code of ethics.
Well, bag-and-tag is the hardest. They get you, everybody gets to beat you up, and then they take a red bandana and everybody pisses on it. Then they stuff it up your face. After that, you're FTRA.
You ever run into the FTRA? I asked the hobo in Missoula.
Yeah. I met T. All he is an overgrown kid with a bad attitude. And I know the Goon Squad. If they know you got five dollars' worth of food stamps in your backpack, they'll kill you. Goon Squad runs from Portland to Seattle. FTRA goes all the way up through Montana. Wrecking Crew goes everywhere. They're the same. They're nothing but killers. When I ran into the Goon Squad, I ran into Choo-Choo and Catfish. I bought them Mad Dogs all day long. I got them drunk. Then I had to sleep, and the next thing I knew, they was using my head for a football. I said, I'm comin' back. I got a two-by-four and smashed Catfish on the head. I thought I killed him. I went to the mission and turned myself in and said: I killed someone. But when they went to look, Catfish was gone…
Pachacos, they're the worst, he said. They're the enemies of all. It's a family name. They're the big enemies of everybody. I ran into Red. He was on crutches in Spokane. He took off his shirt and on his arm there was a tattoo of a cross and dots underneath it for confirmed kills.
How many dots?
The woman in Townsend who used to ride the Hi-Line was named Cinders. -- Comin' off the train in East Glacier, she'd said, that water's so cold, that spring water, that everybody jumps off the tram a minute to taste some.
That was what Cinders said. She was the recently anointed Great Grand Duchess of the Hoboes. Frog, the King of the Hoboes, had chosen her. She was fifty-five years old when I met her. When she was thirteen she'd run away from home, wandering the streets of New York City, sad and lost. Then one night in a shelter she met long-bearded men with piercing blue eyes who sat around sharpening their machetes, carrying knives and guns and the other tools of their trade. Something happened, she said. They became her Brothers. She'd been broken like Humpty Dumpty, and they put her back together again.
She got a reputation for defending herself--that is, for fighting as needed. She said that a rep didn't need to be true. Whatever you'd really done got whispered into strange ears and magnified, like the messages in the party game called Telephone, until you sounded superhuman. That protected you.
She had fine memories. Through open boxcar doors and in hobo camps she'd seen elk at sunrise, eagles. She remembered a baby who'd jumped off the freight to pick her a rose.
Yeah, you think a lot, because you're alone a lot. Even the couples, One's gotta go searchin' the dumpsters for food, while the other has to watch the gear.
Heavyset, her red hair going gray, her high blood pressure and her many pets whose needs helped keep her off the rails, Cinders still longed to ride the rails, but she was afraid to now, and maybe unable to. She'd broken her back twice, and she suffered from a spinal fusion. She hated "those young guys," "those wannabes," who spray-painted switches black just for the hell of it to cause train accidents, who broke into buildings, who solved arguments with guns instead of punches.
From a certain open boxcar in a freight train heading the wrong way, I have enjoyed pouring rain, then birds and frogs, the fresh yellow-green wetnesses of fields. A jackrabbit hopped right past our open door, pursued after the fact by a dog whose modest velocity expressed resignation to the fact of the fence between pursuer and pursued. And I, chronicler of nature's great doings, have seen it all, at my ease and guarded from rain. The interior of the boxcar was thick with an unknown white powder, probably gypsum or talc, that frosted my pants quite nicely, and at dusk kept the walls cheerily visible for a prolonged interval. After a handful of miles, the train stopped. Steve and I stood pissing out the doorway, twin sovereigns of still mirror-ponds and shiny dean gravel somewhere between Marysville and Wheatland. Later he drank whiskey from my flask and I smoked one of his cigars. When the train began to move again, the rainy darkness hat| come, and Steve's shadow was a pillar of deeper darkness marching round and round the walls. Then we stopped again, close by the water-shining headlights and taillights of Highway 65. We ducked out of sight of a cop car. Then nothing happened. Or, if you like, everything happened; there were any number of hissing and sizzling cars in the rain, and an unknown story inside each one.
In winter, my freight dreams are very different than in summer. The act of train-hopping in and of itself stimulates the same feelings in me that a schoolboy has in spring when he contemplates summer: an infinite, wild green freedom will soon be within reach! But it is only in summer that that freedom is actually infinite and green. In winter my freedom remains wild, to be sure, but the cold darkness constricts me; my body reminds me of its vulnerability. 1 must not get ,so wet that I cannot dry off. I must not get too cold. The lone tree with the farmhouse light beneath it no longer invites me into an imaginary possession of the property as it would in summer; instead, it seems like a dismal, even dangerous spot; I want the train to speed on to the safe warm place I feel drawn to. My boxcar becomes more conveyance than shelter, and instead of thinking about what might be, I interest myself in what is. I remember that on that end-of-the-year night, Steve and 1 talked about our lives and what we had and had not found possible. Although in most ways I hardly know him, I felt close to him and happy with him. The qualities of a good road companion--considerateness, friendliness, generosity, openness, patience, determination--are such as to make him immediately and deeply a friend. This man's religion, politics, and moral views differed considerably from mine. That was, as it always should be, utterly unimportant. I would gladly have ridden all the way across Canada with him. I trusted him with my backpack; I counted on him to help pull me up into a boxcar when my muscles were aching; I shared my water with him. If he got arrested I would cheerfully come forward to share his fate.
So we chatted, smoked, drank, and rubbed that unknown white dust out of our eyes. I asked Steve how many people he knew who would envy us if they could see us now, and he thought awhile and said: zero. That made me even happier.
It was about nine o'clock, nearly seven hours after we had first climbed in, when we slid off the lip of the boxcar's square mouth and began walking along the tracks into an inexpressibly refreshing night whose frog songs were as rich in tones, volumes, and multitudes as all the recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When we reached the head locomotive, we saw that it was dark; the engineer mint have gone home long since; our decision to leave this cold dead train was thus proven to be in the same spirit of prudence manifested by lice leaving a corpse. What proud train parasites we were! After an hour we packed away our jackets, drinking in the air with every inch of exposed skin; I especially remember the bliss of cool oxygen, seasoned with occasional raindrops, on the backs of my hands and on my sweaty throat. It felt wonderful simply to move. My body's happiness became mine. After another hour the horizon grew poisoned by the false dawn of city lights, and the tracks, which had long since gone from double to single, were isolated by flooded ditches on either side. We remembered that somewhere hereabouts was a trestle, and after briefly mistaking a distant headlight for a locomotive lamp, it occurred to me that this might not be the best place to meet an oncoming train. When a side spur gave us our chance, I prevailed on Steve to forsake the tracks for the road. Soon enough we had entered the outskirts of Roseville, California, and could hear the whistles of locomotives and the slamming clanks of assembling and disassembling trains. At eight minutes past midnight we stood beneath the clock at the Amtrak station, gazing into the freight yard. We had already probed our target's perimeter two or three blocks earlier, where in the midst of a grim fence stood a gate with a NO TRESPASSING sign, the lock conveniently jimmied for us by our predecessors. The detritus of a hobo jungle was all underwater there, and since the truck was single and trains were as absent as any bush or overhang to shelter us from the drizzle for however many hours might be required, we pressed on.
Although Steve was restored to all his determination the instant we entered tile yard, I was now beginning to tire, and the rain began falling much harder, so the next three and a half hours grew progressively more unpleasant for me. Tile Roseville yard runs a full six miles from end to end, and we did not know it. A kindly carman whom Steve and I approached for help warned us that we would be jailed. He said that people had no idea how important Roseville yard was. Why, it was Freight Central for everything west of the Mississippi! If the terrorists ever blew it up, there would be hell to pay. We assured him that we didn't wish to blow up any trains in Roseville, and that we would never litter or piss in his boxcars. The young carman, a giant with a shaved head, decided that he liked us. He asked us which way we were going, and we said that northbound would be just great but any of the other three directions would work about as well. You r/de freights for fun! he cried with a smile. He advised us to walk the gravel on the south side of the yard, just off the first truck, and keep going until the trucks dead-ended, then swing right for the departure yard. It was about a mile, he thought. He called over to his partner, who said that a West Colton train would be leaving from track 9; so we set out in good hope, water shining gold on cold wet traces of night; but the ballast gradually grew sharper beneath our shoes, the rain *'ell harder and harder, the way narrowed, then went toe-deep and heel-deep with water, so we had to clamber over the outermost train and continue westward down our iron-walled alley.
By a quarter past three we were both longing for a rest, 1 more so than Steve, and every time we reconnoitered across another train the sweat burst out all over my body because my oilskin pants, superb though they were at keeping rain and abrasion at bay, hindered me from raising my thighs high enough to get my toe in that first rain-slippery rung; and of course the trains could have begun to move at any time, at which point a slip could have been fatal, so I had to cling and feel my way very carefully, half-blind with the rain on my glasses, and my pack pressed down on me. The real truth was that I was getting old, tired, and fat. All I want is an open box, Steve was saying, any open box. After that they can fucking arrest me; I don't care. He trudged slowly on, and I limped after, feeling every gravel-point in the soles of my shoes, hating the trains around me and the rain on my neck, until finally we got to tile end of a train and saw that there was still no sign of any departure yard. Once upon a rime near Townsend, Montana, up the slanting green plateau at the base of mountains, a long train headed by four dark locomotives rushed by like a string of windblown clouds and I would have given almost anything to be on it; now I didn't care about whether my predestined train went to the mountains; I simply wished for its magic to carry me away from here.
We stopped to rest under a tree, and Steve sighed that he could almost sleep here, when just then we saw a long train crawling westward, many of its boxcars gaping most welcomingly. The train stopped. We ran for it and jumped into the nearest box. We should have spiked the door open, but there were no spikes in sight and we were very tired and any minute now this train was going to take us all the way to wherever it was that we were going! Our train now began to move, and we exulted. Sighing, Steve lay down. The bright yellow rectangle of light projected through the doorway slowly narrowed and angled backward, dwindling into a single line of twenty-four-carat gold, then dying into darkness. Then there came more lights, too bright and too familiar.
Steve, I said, We're going backward.
Oh, shit, he yawned.
We didn't care; we went to sleep. In the morning the rain was still sizzling down, and we were in the middle of the yard. At noon we walked back to the Amtrak station and took a bus home.
Such is train-hopping, with its many reversals of fortune and feeling. Because these impress themselves on me so intensely, I never perceive even defeated attempts to catch out as any kind of failure, for one truly lives more on these occasions, whose memories, however obscured by night and rain, remain on my mind's tracks as numerous as the trains themselves. This one night alone offered ever so many other experiences, no less precious for being brief: a glimpse of an ancient Pullman car, as fabulous to us as a woolly mammoth, the sudden sweetness of breathing night air after a rest, and, best of all, a spectacular shadow show on our boxcar wall when the adjacent train began to move; every grainer car silhouetted itself in succession, stencil cuts of perfect beauty whose beauty in fact consisted of simplifying reality until I with my human stupidity became capable of marveling at it. How many grainers had we passed that night, and how many had reached me? What am I missing in my rattle-clank journey through life? Almost everything.
Shortly before I set our on that lit. tie adventure through Roseville, my father telephoned me, trying to talk me out of it because it was December. That was how it had been when I set off to visit the North Magnetic Pole; he wrote me a long letter saying that if I went, I would surely freeze to death. Needless to say, I myself was dreading that possibility, and the burden of reassuring him when I wanted reassurance myself brought me nearly to tears. But all that had been for the best; his apprehensions and mine impelled us to a camping store with a shopping list, where my father generously bought me such items as a spare stove, which served me excellently at my destination. This time there was nothing he could do for me but beg me not to go; once again he was afraid I would freeze to death, I was irritated--I'd come back from the Magnetic Pole, hadn't I?--and sad for him for worrying so irrelevantly, incidentally increasing my own fears--and wasn't that one reason I rode the freights, to cut fear down to size? The latter operation is not unlike brushing one's teeth. It must be done over and over.
Life spends a perfect moment of itself in Karen's Cafe (Shelby, Montana): What will you lovely people have on this lovely day? demands the grim waitress. And I think: How awful it would be to live in Shelby. And I know that if I did live there, life would be no more or less fine for me than anywhere. In the meantime, how perfect it is to pass through Shelby and then run for the tracks when I hear a train bark in the darkness! I have camped near Shelby wind, fire and moon, rain of sparks, choking smoke smell, lovely rushing wind, the mountains cloud-smudges in the night; in short, I have escaped from Shelby.
Montana trains crawl high under the rainy sky, heading toward stumpy gray peaks like bear claws. White water keeps exploding between the moss-bearded firs and spruces, pillowing upon rocks and ledges, then speeding blindly on beneath that gloomy sky. Where does everything go? I want to find out. I want to get to Everyplace, not just Anyplace with its gravelly sidings.
I ride freight trains in the belief that I can trust myself, that I deserve to be trusted even to be a reckless fool if circumstances so turn out--and, after all, if I am dead as a result of my own folly, I am no worse off than if I died safely and soberly. The most cogent thing that can be said against train-hopping is that it is the unauthorized borrowing of others' property--that of corporations, not fellow citizens who would be inconvenienced. I am a microbe hitching a ride on an elephant's trunk! Besides, so many of my proudest deeds have been unauthorized by somebody that I now subscribe to an aphorism by Georg Lukács: Breaking a law is approximately as weighty a matter as missing a train. And when the train throbs and hisses on the track, I'm not going to miss it, not unless some other law begs me for violation! All the same, I am proud to say that I have always followed the advice of an old black hobo I once met in Roseville: Never steal anything but a ride.
And because the character of the night ride ahead remains unknown--indeed, it might not happen at all--my life, which, like yours, is constrained, approaches the verge of vastness; the future will offer me a bouquet of possibilities both real and illusory. And so the evening turns as yellow as Union Pacific locomotives in palm-tree light just before the sun goes down--look! Those yellow, yellow machines are tinged with darkening green; at this moment they rum the color of peaches, alive like fruit.
William T. Vollmann is the author of many books, including Europe Central, which won the National Book Award in 2005.