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Trainspotting - part 2

by Katia Dunn for the Portland Mercury, 7/13/00

 

Rider XThough we didn't come in on a freight, we still rode in on the rails. After a 20-minute walk, 15 men welcomed us to their "jungle." The jungle is the place in any town where hobos hang out. It's always close to the tracks, always has a fire, and always has hobos - drinking, talking, eating. Hobos and tramps came and went, but were always returning to this central spot.

One of the first people I met was a 52-year-old man who requested the alias TRD. By trade, he's a nurse's assistant, but he really only works as a means to ride. He was also definitely the cleanest hobo I met; the few remaining hairs on his head were neatly combed, his long-sleeve shirt tucked crisply into his pants. TRD loved the Italian Renaissance and reminded me, in some ways, of a baseball fanatic I once knew - his knowledge of freight trains is encyclopedic.

Walking into the town of Dunsmuir (population: 2,100) so TRD could look for a copy of King Lear, he explained why he loves riding the rails. "Some people travel to get somewhere," he said, "I travel to travel, and to get somewhere. I've been all over the country this way." Trainhopping is TRD's only illegal activity; he doesn't even drink. "One time, I was talking to a friend about this, and he said, 'You know, you're only doing this do run away from your problems,'" TRD over-articulates every point, reminding me of my high-school French teacher pronouncing verbs. "And I said, you know, you're absolutely right. I am running away."

While explaining his love of trains, TRD also spoke of his ex-wife, with whom he had, only days before, ended a 15-year-marriage. "She just decided we were different people, that it was time to move on," he said, in a moment when his honesty and pain made me look anywhere but his face. "I'm not sure what it was exactly," he continued. "I know what it's not. She didn't cheat, I didn't cheat. I never beat her. It wasn't money. But when I return, I won't be allowed back in the house."

"If I were in your situation, I think I would be lonely in a boxcar, alone, in a strange city," I told him.

"Maybe you would," TRD countered "But maybe you wouldn't. Maybe you would enjoy it. Maybe you would think about things, and maybe you would read, maybe you would love traveling."

The last thing TRD and I talked about, before he wandered off into the dark woods, was that he loved the movie The English Patient. "What movie has ever captured a romance like that?" he asked me. "What movie speaks to the human condition, to the human desire, like that film?"

Rider X"There is a certain, fraternal order to our gathering here," explains a retired hobo from Seattle. His moniker - Points West - hearkens back to his glory days, in the '70s, when he rode half the year. On this trip in particular, he's left his family for one last glory ride. He's right about the similarities to a frat. Of the 20 people gathered there, I am the only girl. And, in many ways, the gathering is not unlike many other all-male functions I've attended. The boys get together, drink, talk shop, and bond in a way I can never quite grasp, since it relies not on words, but being in one place for a common reason.

"The most important part of this whole thing is our gathering together this evening," explains North Bank Fred, who is one of the main organizers of this bonding session, and I notice that the men who have come to hang out with North Bank are different than TRD. They talk about trains for hours, discussing the best routes, which freight yards are hot (meaning which are likely to be closely guarded), which are the most scenic, the fastest. It's not exactly bragging, as in traditional sports talk - it's not a matter of speed, or endurance, or testosterone. The competition is not with fellow hobos, but with the police. Yet, like any other game, the players have a mutual respect for the competitors. As TRD explains, "I always tell the police the truth. They deserve that, and I find they treat me better when I do."

"Why are you doing something illegal?" I asked all the hobos. "Is it just because you love trains?"

Yes, all the men loved trains. But as Points West explained, "It's like any other sport, but better, because, unless you think trespassing is immoral, there's nothing wrong with it. Yet, the stakes are higher than most sports."

He has a point. While football increases testosterone, losing doesn't have any real consequences. "Sooner or later, you're going to come to a freight yard," explains Points West, "and if you don't know what you're doing, you're going to seriously lose." And for this reason, hobos both love and hate the cops. "There's a certain respect you have for everyone, even the cops. If it wasn't illegal, the stakes wouldn't be nearly so high."

It is here, too, that the philosophy of train-hopping comes in. "No one wants to get caught, but no one wants the police to actually disappear, either," explains Points West. "Trainhopping isn't for everyone, and wouldn't be the same if it resembled a commercial sport."

"It was Christmas Eve," explains 45-year-old Larry, who is drinking his 15th Natural Ice beer. "And we had ridden to Helena, Montana. We were sleeping there, in the snow, and we built a fire." Larry pauses. "And then, the cops show up. They kicked me; Who knows why they chose me? They put out my fire and demanded my ID." Larry is furious, talking to me as if I'm the cop. "You just put out my fire, and now you're asking me for my ID? Well, Fuck You!"

Larry is a tramp; he rides the rails all the time, all weather. "I've been all up and down the West coast, in and out of jails," explains Larry. For him, riding is no game. "When I get arrested, I think hell, great. There's a warm bed, a meal. It's a college dorm."

In reality, men like TRD and North Bank Fred are minority riders. While TRD rides "just to ride," many don't take such a romantic view; they ride to get somewhere, or as a non-specific act of rebellion. Ben, a 20-year-old anarchist who organized protests at the WTO, searches for a reason for trainhopping, and failing that, opts for rhetoric. "I just don't want to be part of the capitalist machine," said Ben. "We're all slaves here, in America. Slaves to corporations, that is."

According to Rider X, people like Ben and Larry make up the majority of trainriders today. "Most of the people I see on the rails are either punk kids or Mexicans, who travel in the growing season to get work elsewhere." For Rider X, who has a family and a job, train riding is an eclectic, little-known sport. For tramps, it is a way of life.

At the conclusion of the "convention," Rider X and I bought tickets for Amtrak, making a journey in seven hours that originally took 30. We talked all the way back, about his family, art, music, and Portland. "I was impressed," Rider X later told me, referring to my first train-hop. "You never freaked out, you never gave up. For your first time, you did pretty well."

Yet, as I sat in a plush seat, watching the scenery through tinted glass, I couldn't help feeling like a bit of a failure for taking Amtrak. Maybe I would get too comfortable, forget how good it felt. Then I remembered what North Bank told me, after learning of my arrest. "Don't feel like you have to stop now," he said. "It's just like any other sport, you have to get up and try again. You just lost round one, that's all. You'll win round two."