A Different Kind of Outdoor Adventure
WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK of outdoor adventure it involves visiting remote areas, by themselves or in small groups, and taking calculated risks to experience something beyond their static everyday lives. Those words certainly describe mountain biking, rock climbing, or backcountry skiing. They could also describe hopping freight trains.
Only hopping freight trains is not just dangerous, it’s also illegal.
That hasn’t curbed its appeal to young men, and, to a lesser extent, young women, eager to take up the hobo mantle and ride the rails.
There are no comprehensive nationwide statistics for train hopping, or railroad trespassing, as it’s known in the industry. The Federal Railroad Administration does keep statistics for injuries and fatalities as a result of trespassing. Need some education in respecting the power of a train? If you mess up and are involved in an accident there’s a 50% chance you’ll end up dead. For the last ten years the casualty rate for non-crossing, non-vehicle related accidents on trains has held steady at about 1,000 incidents a year, about half of those being fatal.
According to Gus Melonas, Seattle area public relations officer for BNSF, about 20 people a year die hopping trains in the state of Washington, a number that has held steady for the past ten years.
“Back in the 50s and 60s my brother and I would just count the hobos on the trains going by” says Melonas. But not anymore. “My office is right at the yard and I see 60 trains a day go by,” says Melonas. “I don’t recall seeing a hobo in years.”
Melonas says there are now more freight trains in the Northwest than anytime since his company first came to the region in 1873. The trains are faster, fuller, and the yards are more secure. “We are more aggressive than ever in enforcing our anti-trespassing policy—there is less trespassing now, without a doubt, “ he says. Starting in 1990 railroads became more assertive and high-tech in discouraging trespassers. That effort picked up more steam after 9/11.
In 1998 train hopping had a streak of media exposure. There was a well-publicized case of a dozen plus hobo murders attributed to the rail riding gang loosely known as the Goons. PBS ran a documentary about the depression era called “Riders of the Rails.” Both The Austin American-Statesman and The New York Times did pieces on modern cell-phone and web enabled hobos and recreational rail riders that ran in 1998 as well.
Ten years later there’s no indication that a yuppie hobo-revolution ever materialized. But there is no doubt that train hopping is alive and well among transient punk rock kids. In Spokane many get off trains at the west side of town and walk through to the downtown core and city services.
So with all the impediments why do people still ride the rails? Why do they endure the discomfort, the danger, and the loss of control that comes with waiting for a train and seeing where it takes you?
OTM interviewed a veteran rail rider from Oregon who goes by the hobo moniker “Widerstand” to get the answer. Widerstand has been riding trains for 12 years and his travels often take him through the Spokane area.
WHY DO YOU HOP TRAINS? RECREATION? TRANSPORTATION?
Well both really, I don’t think it can really be just one or the other.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS? RAIL YARD BULLS? BROKEN LIMBS? KILLER HOBOS? GANGS?
Well there are many risks but just about all of them are under your own control. When you ride a train all of the cards are in your hands.
For the most part the Special Agents (Railroad Bulls) are really nice guys if you’re nice to them and show them a little bit of respect. I have talked my way out of many tickets and nights in jail by just being nice to them and calling them Sir.
Yes riding trains is dangerous but so is driving a car or riding a bike. At least when train hopping if you use your head and know how to be safe on the rails things like broken limbs and dying do not really happen.
Yes there have been a few killer hobos but there isn’t a community out there that doesn’t have a few bad seeds and as for the gang thing that would be the last thing I worry about.
Really the biggest risk and what has killed more train riders then anything else over the past 100 or so years would be exposure. Freezing to death in the winter and running out of water in the summer and just cooking to death.
WHAT’S A COMMON MYTH ABOUT TRAIN HOPPING?
I wouldn’t say that there are myths, just misconceptions. I think a lot of people view train riders as lazy, unintelligent, drunken, dangerous bums that just so happen to ride trains. This could not be farther from the truth. Every year I manage to put out a 100+ page book on train hopping and I know many other people that work cool projects, create music, and art…etc.
WHAT’S THE SCARIEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED TO YOU RIDING?
Well over the past 12 years of train riding I would have to say the scariest thing that happened to me was this summer when I was on a train near Cascade Summit. We were stopped at a siding and I heard footsteps outside the car I was riding and I looked out expecting to see the conductor walking the train or something but instead it was a black bear… My heart skipped like 10 beats…
HOW ABOUT THE BEST THING?
Probably the best thing about riding trains is the landscapes you get to see that no one else ever gets to.
HOW DO YOU COMBINE RIDING WITH EARNING A LIVING?
Well its really not that hard for myself. I live a really cheap life style so if I can earn about $3000 a year I am pretty set, but seems like every year its getting a bit harder for me to find a job in the current economy.
Other people I know often just busk (play music) on the streets, fly a sign…etc. but I really just prefer to have a job for a few months out of the year, if I can find one that is.
IS THE NORTHWEST A GOOD PLACE FOR TRAIN HOPPING?
The Northwest is an excellent place for riding trains! Just in Oregon and Washington you have two large Class 1 carriers, UP and BNSF, which cover the two states pretty well along with a long list of regional and shortline railroads.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT RAIL RIDING IN THE SPOKANE/CDA AREA?
Well the history of the railroad in Spokane goes way back to the 1880s I believe all the way back to the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway and along with any railroad comes the train riders.
It’s pretty hard to ride trains without at least passing though the Spokane area, if you look at a rail map of Washington or the US you would see that a huge amount of traffic is routed through there. The area between Spokane and Sandpoint is nicknamed ‘The Funnel’.
On top of those things the Spokane area has been the stomping ground of some well-known hobos and train riders.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED RIDING?
I started riding trains when I left home at 14 years old. I spent some time just sleeping outside not really knowing what to do at that age.
One day I saw a stopped train and not really knowing anything about trains I got on and in fact I ended up all the way in Spokane on a super cold February day . . . I really thought I was going to freeze to death on that train . . . I got off and almost immediately ran into some much older riders (40’s and 50’s)… They were the nicest people I ever met. They helped me out a lot and showed me the ropes of train riding.
For the first time in my life I had felt accepted and felt like I found where I belonged and I have stuck to it ever since.
THAT WAS IN SPOKANE? CAN YOU TELL ME ANYTHING MORE ABOUT THAT?
Well I pulled into Spokane riding BNSF and it was cold as can be out when I met them, they gave me some much warmer gear and showed me the ropes of getting free food, work, places to sleep, and most importantly how to be safe when riding trains. I ended up spending a few months riding with them and learning things. The three of them were really old looking, they maybe appeared to be in their 60s at least but they were really in their 40’s and the years of riding and living outdoors had really broken them down.
DID YOU SEE ANY OF THE GUYS WHO HELPED YOU OUT AGAIN AFTER THAT TRIP?
I never did see them again but from what I can put together from asking people over the years about them I think they headed to the east coast and we parted ways and that was that… They could have changed there monikers or died and vanished.
DO YOU USUALLY RIDE ALONE?
I often ride alone just because I find that having a traveling for partner is like having an anchor attached to me or hiking with a pack of bowling balls; it just slows me down.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF CONNECTED TO A LONGSTANDING TRADITION OF TRAIN HOPPING?
Absolutely! It’s really hard for me when riding not to think about the past and the people that traveled on the line I am on before I did. I feel like I’ve always tried to be a good representative of the train riding community and carry on some of the traditions.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO THE HOBO CONVENTION IN DUNSMUIR?
I have never made it to the West Coast Hobo gathering just because well I am not that social and being in large groups makes me pretty uncomfortable.
HAVE YOU NOTICED CHANGES IN THE ECONOMY OR THE RAILROAD INDUSTRY AFFECTING RAIL RIDING AT ALL?
Well, the number of trains moving over the whole system is up due to the fact that the cost of fuel for trucks is so high and it is much cheaper now to ship via rail so it doesn’t seem like you have to wait as long for a train as you did just 10 years ago.
HAVE YOU EVER ENCOUNTERED HOSTILITY FROM RAILROAD ENTHUSIASTS OR FOLKS WHO ARE AGAINST TRAIN HOPPING?
Of course there is always some self-righteous ass out there that feels like it is his place to enforce the law and they will call you in or something along those lines. I think the general consensus that most railfans or foamers are pretty much against the idea of riding trains for one reason or another… but I probably shouldn’t get into my opinion of that.
IN 1998 THERE WAS A LOT OF MEDIA ATTENTION ABOUT “RECREATIONAL TRAIN HOPPERS”– FOLKS WITH PROFESSIONAL JOBS HOPPING FOR FUN. THE NEW YORK TIMES AND THE AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN BOTH HAD BIG PIECES ON TRAIN HOPPING AND HOW IT HAD BEEN AFFECTED BY THE INTERNET. TEN YEARS LATER I WAS WONDERING IF YOU HAVE SEEN ANY BIG CHANGES IN THE PEOPLE YOU SEE HOPPING TRAINS? DOES EVERYBODY HAVE GPS AND CELL PHONES NOW? IS HOPPING TRENDING UP OR STAYING FLAT? OR GOING DOWN BECAUSE TRAINS ARE MORE FULL AND FASTER AND MORE SECURE?
Well I would say that the majority of train riders now have cell phones or if there is a group traveling together I can pretty much guarantee that one of them will have a phone so that is pretty normal now… I don’t see much use for a GPS but then again some phones now come with it so… Some people also use scanners. Train hopping was super trendy in the 90’s and I would say that it is still somewhat—but not like it use to be. There are a lot more riders in the summer time then in the winter.
IS THERE A WHOLE SCENE OF YOUNGER RAIL RIDERS?
The vast majority of the train riding community is younger. Mostly 16 to 30-year-old males.
I’VE READ THAT TRAIN HOPPING IS SORT OF A RITE OF PASSAGE FOR CRUSTY PUNKS AND ANARCHIST KIDS. IS THAT TRUE IN YOUR EXPERIENCE? HAVE YOU EVER ENCOUNTERED KIDS WHO SEEMED TO BE HOPPING BECAUSE IT SEEMED LIKE THE COOL THING TO DO AND GOT IN OVER THEIR HEADS?
Oh god yes! Just go to any metro area in the summer like Portland, Seattle, SF, Minneapolis, Baltimore, or New Orleans…etc. and crusty punks that ride trains are a dime a dozen! I have nothing against them or what they do so long as they leave me be, but that kind of goes with everyone. The world is full of stories from crusty punks that start with “We were so drunk waiting for a train in the winter time but at least we had our spacebag…etc.” for example… I would say that a fair amount of them get in over their heads.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY FRIENDS OR ASSOCIATES THAT HAVE BEEN SERIOUSLY HURT OR KILLED RIDING TRAINS?
None of my close friends have died riding but I have known a few people that did die because they were being stupid and for them I really have no compassion. I guess because it was about this time of year I think of Lil Jay who caught out of Tacoma, with his wife and friend. They were riding an intermodal suicide well-car and drinking when he was digging in his bag or something and they turned around for a second and looked back and he was gone. The story after that comes from his wife and what I heard second hand from an engineer, I guess the girls started to freak out, I guess when he fell under his body also hit a dragging defect detector so the engineer stopped the train and the conductor walked the length of the train and found two girls freaking out and crying and shit and then further back he found the balled up broken mass that was Jay. I guess the conductor wasn’t really the same after seeing that.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO RIDE THE RAILS? (OTHER THAN THE OBVIOUS, “DON’T DO IT BECAUSE IT’S ILLEGAL AND DANGEROUS”)
Find a friend that rides that you can trust and go with them on your first trip, learn as much as you can about railroads and trains before heading out, bring more food and water then you think you will need, always be prepared for cold weather even in the summer months, and bring your patience.
THE DANGERS OF TRAIN HOPPING MIGHT BE BEST DESCRIBED BY TRAIN HOPPERS THEMSELVES IN ACCLAIMED ZINE THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT A TRAIN, EDITOR LEE QUOTED THIS PASSAGE WRITTEN BY MIKE FROM ANOTHER TRAIN-RELATED ZINE CALLED ANTIPATHY AS A DISCLAIMER FOR READERS:
It seems to me that riding trains has become a punk rite of passage or even a social standard. There is a certain degree of illustrious machismo that accompanies train talk, of triumphs and failures, of friendly bulls that buy you lunch to frostbitten toes and jail time, and accordingly, affords it a kind pretentiousness, Ask anyone who has never ridden a train, but has been excluded from a conversation how it looks to them . . . I am positive they will concur.
It’s not that this is bad necessarily, because like anything else, train jumping is something people have to identify with one another and make connections. However, there is something a biy scary about a social standard that puts people in an uncomfortable place. Train jumping is not safe. People die. People get their feet run off or fall from trains. They are robbed or beaten by the various degenerate life forms that hang around train yards. People get thrown in jail, poisoned by toxic chemicals from the cars, dropped in the middle of nowhere with no food and no water . . . The list goes on and on. [emphasis ours—e.d.] For me, the joy and philosophy that train jumping gives me is more than ample justification to continue on in the noble art. However, for people that are not willing to be arrested on federal trespass charges or risk eating shit and losing a body part, it sucks that it has become such a standard. Basic point; we need to think about social standards as they manifest themselves in our culture and recognize their effects on other folks in an effort to keep them from coming to dominate.