I hear a train a-comin’ Freight-hopping may be a dying way of life. But it’s not dead yet.
It’s an unseasonably warm January day, and M has stripped down to a sleeveless brown undershirt. She sits on a pile of spare cross ties; her mother sits next to her.
A few seconds before, she’d heard a train whistle blow, and she thinks a train is coming this way. She cranes her head, looking around a bend to the north and waiting. After about a minute she grows impatient.
‘“Well, I guess there’s not a train coming after all,’” M says.
Another whistle, closer this time, almost cuts her off and a headlight bright as sunlit silver turns the corner to bear down on us. As soon as I settle back onto the ties the train is hard upon us, faster than a jump cut. If I extend my hand I can almost touch it.
But I don’t extend my hand; I lean back. Steady wind flutters our hair and we sit in silence while the train passes. Noise makes talking impossible. The train isn’t deafening but it is persistent, like the sound of rushing blood when you cover your ears.
For the minutes we sit shaking by the rails, my perception shifts. My five senses dissolve into the unity of the Train and its thundering, metallic heat is all I can discern. My legs go wobbly, and only the ties and a thick complement of pride keep me from bolting.
Beside me M calmly watches the locomotive, her eyes half closed and shoulders relaxed. The train is an empty intermodal. Somewhere down the line steel frames will hoist factory-loaded containers onto the cars. At the end of the track they will be unloaded so semi trucks can take them the rest of the way. A Freddy pulls up the rear.
‘“That was just about the most boring train you could have seen,’” M says. My heart is still pounding.
‘“You never told me they were so big and scary,’” her mother says a little breathlessly.
It’s one of several details the taciturn M kept from her mother for the three years she hopped trains across the country. There are others: where she slept ‘— outside mostly ‘— and how often she avoided danger.
In the train’s wake, my senses settle back comfortably into their separate niches. Creosote and diesel fumes saturate the warm air. The rail yard is as deserted as the ruined buildings to our backs.
A few years ago, when M had much more time than an hour lunch break, this is where she went with her dogs and friends to hop a train south. In one of the crumbling brick buildings, a floor above the jumbled wooden bricks, they set their sleeping bags on swept concrete and waited.
The brick structure shows all the signs of time passing. Its inside walls are covered with uninspired graffiti and structural elements once strong have been capriciously broken. Outer walls and the roof sag as if anticipating the blows of the wrecking ball.
The building next door used to be a roundhouse where the tracks ran to expedite pickup. Nature picked up when people and trains moved out, and the structure is well on its way toward vegetative reclamation. We pick our way through weeds and mud until M and her mom stop in front of a crumbling wall.
‘“I don’t even know if I want to walk under there,’” her mom says.
M agrees. She has a healthy respect for danger that seems, paradoxically, to embolden her. Cars scare her more than trains, she says.
Industry insiders and experts might balk at the notion that an automobile poses more risk than a mile-long train at full throttle. After all, presenters from Operation Lifesaver use empty aluminum cans to represent cars. For trains they go with something a little more substantial: a linebacker.
But nothing about M betrays a reckless nature. She is quiet and steady as she ticks off landmarks. This industrial swath of town might have been the first place she caught out of a few days after her 18th birthday. It might have been where she hung out with the punks and tramps who introduced her to hopping. She knows the place well, where to hide and which way the trains go.
On the way back to her nine-to-five in my rickety aluminum can, M reflects.
‘“That made me miss riding on trains,’” she says.
When you hop freight trains you disappear, L says. The last choice a hopper makes is to ride the train. Once that decision is made, the rider surrenders her self-determination to the will of the rails.
It isn’t like driving a car, or even buying a bus ticket that allows you to depart on command. Train hoppers wait for the elements to align. Then they step off the grid.
‘“There’s definitely a culture that exists of independence,’” L says. ‘“And on the rails you’re free.’”
Once L took a hotshot across the Great Salt Lake in Utah. For three hours she and her friend rode over the water, looking at the salt crystals that formed snowflake patterns on the surface, watching sunlight turn the lake pink and red. The track disappeared under the cars, and L felt like she was skimming over the water.
‘“It’s always about the scenery,’” L says about the voyage.
She shrugs when asked how she started hopping trains. Like M, it was something she always wanted to do; she lived along a train track in her Virginia hometown that regularly dropped seasonal workers. After several broken promises, a boyfriend from Greensboro took her to the tracks and within a couple of days the two caught out to Durham. Later they crossed the country to do forest defense in Oregon.
Freight rails run off the main roads, in areas untouched by billboards or highway construction. They also run downtown and back up traffic in front of an Elm Street coffee shop. Those are the kinds of places you want to hop off, if the train is moving slow enough.
Around her neck L wears a giant necklace made of pennies flattened on train tracks. Each on its own is a copper testament to locomotive power, but together they resemble a patch of armor. The talisman works, and L has never had a real close call. The worst injury she sustained came the first time she jumped off a moving train. She didn’t anticipate the inertia and took the full weight of her slight body and backpack on her face.
‘“It’s not as dangerous as the companies make it out to be,’” L says, ‘“But I have no doubt that accidents happen.’”
They do, to the tune of 500 trespasser deaths a year and twice as many injuries, according to Warren Flatau, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman. All the same, he concedes the agencies do not expect safety messages to penetrate the hardcore train hopping community.
A friend of M’s friend in Asheville lost his legs in a train accident. He tried to catch a train on the fly and got sucked under the wheels.
L has a firm policy against such shenanigans and only hops trains standing still in the yard. There isn’t any trick to it, most of the cars have ladders you can climb up onto the surface.
There are gondolas, grainers, trusty boxcars and intermodals. A 48 is a better ride than a piggyback.
‘“It’s like a shoebox inside a bigger box without a top,’” M says about 48s.
A rider on a 48 has about four feet of space in which to stretch out, between the walls of the container and the train car. On a piggyback, where the box travels tires and all on top of a rail car, the best thing a rider can do is hide in the wheel well. It might be hours or days before the train stops. Yeah, a piggyback is definitely the worst ride you can catch.
And sometimes when it stops, the hopper is not where she expected to be.
‘“One time in Baltimore when we were trying to get to Pittsburgh we couldn’t get a train for three days because they were going too fast,’” L says. ‘“We were in a really sketchy situation. There was a really poor black neighborhood and a really poor white neighborhood. The only thing between them was the railroad tracks. We got really desperate so we finally just jumped on a train and fell asleep. Seven hours later we were in the Baltimore Marine Terminal and the tracks were totally blocked in by three layers of barbed wire.’”
It took L and her traveling companion two hours to find a way to sneak through the fence.
‘“There’s always holes in fences,’” she says. Just like there are always holes in society, some of which are fast, steely’… and come at you with horns blaring.
It’s ironic ‘— or subversively malignant ‘— that hoboes, tramps and other ne’er-do-wells have used one of the oldest forms of industrial transport in America to opt out of the system. American Class 1 railroads netted $3 billion in 2004.
The industries served vary, but big ones include coal, chemicals and agriculture ‘— the building blocks of industrial society. If those raw materials are the fundamental units of the American organism, like cells in the human body, then the railroads are the arteries.
Even though we are car people now, the oldest railroads predate highways by more than a century. Norfolk and Western originated in Virginia in 1838. Southern Railroad started on our other neighboring state, South Carolina, about the same time. Hundreds of mergers and acquisitions later, the renamed Norfolk Southern runs up and down the East Coast, including four tracks into Greensboro.
Gov. John Motley Morehead’s North Carolina Railroad laid the first tracks in Greensboro in the 1850s. The completed line brought the Cones in 1890, Burlington Industries in the 1930s and the Army in the 1940s. All those industries have since departed.
But the trains have stayed and gone according to schedule. The nickname ‘“Gate City’” came from the 60-odd locomotives that stopped daily in this little burg.
Back in those days Greensboro was a bit of a frontier town, but nothing compared to the lawlessness that raged west of the Mississippi. Pioneering businessmen sought to extend their empires in the west, and the railroads were eager to turn a profit out there as well.
With the Army occupied fighting Indian tribes, the railroads commissioned their own police officers endowed with the power to enforce the law of the land. They guarded against train robbers and other bandits.
Later these police, who counted Allen Pinkerton among their ranks, turned against striking railroad workers. Now they patrol railroad property, searching for trespassers and property damage.
‘“The bull is lazy,’” L says. ‘“He gets to drive around in an SUV. The bull gets to sit around while the rest of the railroad workers are outside doing their jobs.’”
Title 49, part 217 of the Code of Federal Regulations allows railroad police to enforce laws not only in their home state, but also within any state in which they conduct an investigation. Train robberies have largely gone the way of the masked bandit, which means catching hoppers and taggers and sometimes sending them to jail.
M did a three-day hitch in a Minot, ND jail when she got pulled off the Canadian Pacific High Line by bulls. She did her stint and then called her mom for money to spring her dog from the pound.
‘“Different yards have different levels of security,’” M says. ‘“The police usually have white trucks or SUVs. Some yards have motion detectors.’”
Special Agent Chris Maney patrols the tracks around Greensboro, and it is a big area. Fifteen counties between Guilford and Mecklenburg fall under his purview.
‘“We’ve had all kinds of crimes,’” Maney says. ‘“We’ve had homicides, rapes, serious assaults, employee assaults, armed robberies’… you name it.’”
He has seen all of those crimes in his 20 years on the force. In addition, he’s investigated derailments, rail grade crossing accidents and, yes, accidental deaths.
Aside from the dangers the trains themselves pose (which at an average of 8,000 tons at 70 mph is not slight) there is a shadow organization that also lurks in the switching yards, the Freight Train Riders of America. Formed in the 1980s, the band is either a murderous gang or a band of stubborn traditionalists, depending on your perspective.
‘“The FTRA, or ‘Fraid to Ride Alone, are like Hell’s Angels badasses, only they ride trains instead of motorcycles,’” M says. ‘“The ones I’ve met have been okay.’”
A retired Spokane, Wash. police detective estimated the membership in the FTRA at about a thousand. Train gang members are not the only threat. The late ’90s, about the time M’s older sister hopped out for the first time, saw the emergence of ‘“Boxcar Killer’” Robert Silveria who rode freights and racked up victims.
Despite that, both M and L consider train hopping a safer alternative to hitchhiking. M always hops with at least a dog and a friend. Once after Trampfest, an annual gathering of travelers organized through word of mouth, M hopped with six people and five dogs.
‘“It got old,’” she says. ‘“You kind of get sick of being around people all day.’”
L hops alone sometimes, and it inspires her.
‘“A couple of years ago I don’t think I would have thought it was really possible to exist in a sexist world without harassment,’” L says. ‘“Now I know that anything’s possible. Something that I really want to do can become reality.’”
In her estimation, some of the worst things about riding trains can turn into positives. If you catch a hotshot across the Mid Line, you might not hit a town for days. That leaves the rider exposed to the elements, rationing food and water to hold out for the better part of a week.
Riders crouch in the shade of the bulkhead, which provides minimal relief in an intermodal car. The vibrations and noise mess with your sleep patterns, leaving you a little out of sorts by the time the train stops. Sometimes you pull out your best duck-and-cover to protect yourself from the slack action that tosses cars around when the air brakes are applied.
‘“By the time you get where you’re going you’ve got nothing,’” L says. ‘“You’ve given everything up and you’re filthy and genderless. It’s something everyone should try once. Just not at the same time.’”
For a while, at least, she’s settled down. Last summer a two-week trip that included a weeklong detour to Utah courtesy of the wrong train left her disillusioned and she returned to Greensboro. Besides, the bivy sac she uses the shield herself from the rain needs to be replaced.
Next summer she’ll probably be back out on the rails, maybe catching out from a hooked-up spot in Seattle or pumping railroad workers for train destinations. Most of us won’t see her, though, because she camps camouflaged in out-of-sight bushes and has never run into another rider while traveling alone.
For M, who hopped freights and begged for the better part of three years, the future is less certain.
‘“I started to get worried that being homeless was the only thing I would know how to do,’” M says. ‘“So I came back here to learn something else. I mean, I can still pack a backpack and jump on a train.’”
She’s got good memories and bad, but ‘“sick of it’” comes up a lot. There was the time she shot out of a tunnel onto a trestle spanning a drop between cliff walls. But then there was jail, and the gnawing cold that only comes from whipping 70 mph through winter wind.
Now she has four dogs that tie her down, and she talks with her mom about paint colors for the guest room. At ten to one we cancel a visit further down the yard to look at the different types of cars. M only has an hour for lunch today.
She might have a regular roof over her head these days, but it’s still on a house next to the railroad tracks.
‘“Trains calm me down,’” M says.
To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.