It’s stupid, illegal, dangerous—and I can’t wait to do it again
When I went to sleep, our train was barreling forward. When I woke up, it was moving backward and gaining speed. C., my trainhopping instructor, shared an opinion about this new direction: “Nooooo!!!”
C. worried it could be a lengthy reversal and announced our new agenda: “We gotta jump!” Fighting through the haze of the abrupt wake-up, I crammed my pack full and was tying my shoes when he shot me a look and shouted, “You comin’!?” He didn’t wait long for my answer, lunging off the stack of freight—green, treated lumber (read: smelly to sleep on). He landed with a nice roll but pulled up quickly to look at his hand, cut on the flinty rocks not meant for breaking falls. It was that gesture—assessing an injury—that left me a bit shy about jumping. C. was receding further and further into the dusty dawn, sprinting out of the Roseville train yard to avoid the patrolling “bulls” while I struggled with the unavoidable. I tried doing what gymnasts do: visualizing how to maneuver my body through shifting forces and sticking the landing. On rocks.
Heeding C.’s earlier advice, I flung my body as far away from the train as I could, suspending in mid-air long enough to muse over a simple query: What the hell am I doing here?
It was 20 years in the making. Back then, my mom often would pile my brother and me into the old blue Chevy Nova to go retrieve my dad from his desk job in downtown Sacramento. On the way, we’d pass a train trestle spanning the I-80 freeway. On occasion, they’d be passing overhead—colorful boxes of hulking transport moving at a speed best described as: It would be so easy to climb onto me and journey to fantastical places and I’m sure it’d be fine with your parents. I mean, I really don’t know your parents at all, but come on!
The itch to hop trains began. But it wasn’t until I grew up, and was sharing cheap beer with some guys in Portland, that the itch met the scratch. At some point that night they leaked out they were trainhoppers. They said they’d be “catching out” soon, and I insisted they add me to the roster. By now, my parents could object all they wanted, but I could overrule, exercising my adult right to be as foolish as I wanted. And trainhopping is just that. But well-placed foolishness will do wonders for the soul.
In the month prior, my job moved away to New York, the small art studio I was finally generating work in shut its doors, an ailing relationship moved off life support. My soul was deflating. I needed some foolishness. The guys in Portland invited me up for a big, heaping bowl of it.
The bulls patrol the rail yards in white pick-ups and bark into walkie-talkies that broadcast at a special frequency. If they catch you trainhopping, they’ll do something, but what that is ranges wildly and not knowing complicates the fear. Overnight in the poky and a couple thousand in fines is the worst. A growl and a git! the most lenient I’ve heard. It was moot on my virgin hop. My initiation into the treacherous world of trainhopping was supremely uneventful. We strolled through the Brooklyn Yard in Portland to an empty flat car, a sleeping rust-colored beast. C. sized it up and pronounced, “She’s the one,” and we jumped aboard.
Snaking along the Willamette River under gradient, white to azure skies, at a pace that doesn’t blur the lush beauty, makes you think: theme-park ride. One that costs nothing and doesn’t end. It’s hard not to smile. This trainhopping foolishness was working. And not just on me. You hurtle by people in cars or on porches and, like watching tennis, they track your passing, their eyes moving and mouths dropping. Holy mother! There’s two guys just sitting there on that train. They can’t do that! More importantly, how can I!? Kids notice and spontaneously give chase, screaming their approval. Of course, the teenagers conceal their appreciation, tempering our heroics by giving the finger. And every so often, when the train enters the yard and slows to the mandatory crawl, you have time to spot other hoppers sliding by. With a nod and devious grin you communicate membership to a sly subculture.
But this insider’s club is not about gold crests on dark-blue blazers. The dues can frustrate and intimidate—death or mutilation heading the list. Add to that: getting trapped in a boxcar; suffocation in long tunnels; menacing gangs of territorial hobos; trains that just stop moving, leaving you who knows where; rain starting after you fall asleep under clear skies; severe sleep deprivation; and the conspicuous absence of seat belts. For my hop, the dues were minimal, if not embarrassing. While preparing a dinner of rip the lid off a can of tuna and eat it with your sooty hand, I managed to shred open a finger on the jaggy lid. This would be the least serious of my two wimpy injuries. I mummied the finger with toilet paper, concealing the wound from C., a little shamed that I could cheat death but not a tin can. And a full year after the hop, I’m finally recovered from a ligament injury, gripping a ladder too hard during a run and jump. With rocks and steel wheels beneath you anxious to grind up your mortality, you err toward over-clenching.
Now, with the threat of new injury foisted upon me, I rear back and fly off the backward-moving freight car, hoping for cool scars. It takes awhile. Then ugh!, a breath is forced out on impact, and I’m skidding upright through the sharp rocks. It takes awhile. Long enough for me to answer my initial query: I’m so glad I’m here, skidding through this train yard, doing this foolish thing.