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It's early morning at the "Jungle in the Desert," the Combat Railfans' annual New Year's bash, which unfolds along the track southwest of Phoenix.
Bacardi Carty, a founder of the fanatical Phoenix-based group, opens a beer for breakfast, the start of a routine day in camp for a Combat Railfan.
He shows off a recent cache, a railroad crew pack for stopping trains. It's complete with red flags, flares and railway torpedoes, explosive devices powerful enough to take off your hand. They clip to the tracks and go off as a train rolls over them, alerting a hogger (engineer) of danger ahead. Illegal train riders sometimes use them to trick a train into stopping so they can sneak onboard while the crew checks the line.
Bacardi got the pack from a passing crew in exchange for some fried-chicken wings. Not that he needs more torpedoes. The Combat Railfans have a whole box of them. They explode them for amusement during the sometimes long wait for the next highballing freight to roll by.
Rimfire, the young son of a Combat Railfan called the Unaplumber, takes an extreme interest in the explosive devices. Bacardi explains the dangers of torpedoes, which only heightens Rimfire's curiosity.
Colonel Horne, another founder, grabs a handful of them and takes Rimfire off to show him how they work.
At some point over the years, the Combat Railfans' love of explosives got out of control as they tried to launch 55-gallon drums and 19-inch TV sets. They also accidentally fired a starburst while a squadron of National Guard helicopters flew nearby, causing concern that the choppers would think they were being fired upon, and perhaps return fire.
Now the pyrotechnics are mostly illegally imported commercial stuff, firecracker strings, bottle rockets, aerial starburst mortars and the torpedoes. Concerned about people who explode things in the desert, the FBI made some inquiries, but apparently determined that the Combat Railfans posed no danger to anyone but themselves.
As fireworks explode nearby, Bacardi admits that members of his organization aren't quite right.
"We all have train on the brain," he says.
Combat Railfans are the outlaws of the normally genteel avocation of train and railroad appreciation.
For normal railfans, excitement is looking at pictures of old steam trains, collecting stock certificates of long defunct railroads and showing sequential slides of the same locomotive from different angles to a somnambulistic group of people who photograph flowers while waiting for trains.
"When it comes to typical railfans, most of them are geeks," says Trainman, another longtime Combat Railfan. "Not all, but a lot of them. They just want to sit back and look at slides, drink Diet Coke and count bolts."
The Combat Railfans have taken a traditionally staid hobby to a new, obsessive level. They frequently camp beside the tracks at a secret location along the Union Pacific Railroad line. They often entertain the passing train crews with large, illicit fireworks displays over the empty desert. They like to moon Amtrak passenger trains. Sometimes they hop freight trains, a dangerous, illegal act and an absolute no-no to the normally prim railfan community.
Bacardi notes with glee, "Most other railfans, when they hear who we are, back away from us. They never turn around and walk away, they just start backing up."
The first weekend of each new year, the Combat Railfans host their annual Jungle, so named after the old hobo camps. They invite all other rail maniacs to join them. About 60 to 70 people from around the country manage to make their ways to the remote site this New Year's weekend. Many of the guests arrive via freight trains they've hopped from Tucson, California or the Midwest.
Like the old hoboes who used nicknames to make the life of a bull (railroad security) more difficult, the Combat Railfans have their own monikers. Regulars include Bacardi, Trainman, Colonel Horne, Wormburner, FireWalker, AP and PeaVine.
The New Year's enclave is likely to include some of the punk/squatter habitues that might also be seen on Tempe's Mill Avenue; middle-aged tramps; yuppie riders; and increasingly rare Depression-era hoboes. They drink lots and lots of beer, detonate myriad pyrotechnical devices and talk about trains until dawn. If you have train on the brain and don't mind loud noises from explosives and passing trains, you're welcomed.
AP and LittleBear are college graduates who voluntarily travel the rails much of the year. AP is an accomplished photographer and LittleBear does computer work and makes jewelry. They managed to catch a train from Southern California that took them right to the Jungle.
"It dropped us off a quarter mile from the camp," AP smiles. "Pulled in the hole [a railroad siding to let other trains pass on the single line track] and we walked in. Curb to curb service."
AP became a rider in college. "This friend of mine had done it as an adventure the year before. We caught a freight from the Midwest to Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and came back. I think I only ran into one real tramp at that point. A tramp is essentially what the people who are riding today full-time, 365 days a year, call themselves. It doesn't have any negative connotations to them. So it put the hook in me because I could see a lot more people under the bridges that we just missed. I was more interested in the people.