Loco Motives

he Combat Railfans celebrate the new year on the fright side of the tracks

"A year later, I took a camera. The next summer, I caught out alone. I was out for three months. I'd hook up with a group of real tramps and ride with them for a few weeks and then I'd hook up with another group if they were going in a direction I wanted to go. Panhandling or food stamps, lived as they did for three months. When I did that the photographs got a lot better."

LittleBear notes that the young punk/squatters, with their elaborately decorated bodies, sometimes get hassled by the older, more conservative tramps. They call the young riders "Flintstones."

"Typically, more conservative riders have a problem with how the young riders look," he notes, "since they have spikes in their noses and tattoos and jewelry around their necks made out of bones or plumbing parts. A lot of these kids look kind of rough with their tattoos. There's a certain percentage of us who work, like the older hoboes do, and a certain percentage hustle, like tramps. Our camps are pretty much the same. We're not that much different, we just look a little different. There's a percentage of drunks and a percentage who are working types."

Despite a degree in anthropology, LittleBear is living on the road.
"I'm doing odd jobs; I make jewelry. I do whatever I can to get by. Sometimes I have to beg when things get down and out. But I've had good times with the Flintstone kids and the squatter/punks."

Among the Combat Railfans and their guests, the talk is constant about types of locomotives, vanishing forms of rolling stock (railroad cars), changes within railroad companies, scenic routes you'd never see by car, towns like Pocatello, Idaho, or Klamath Falls, Oregon, hot railyards with mean bulls, weird behavior, legendary riders and old friends.

The Combat Railfans blossomed from their dissatisfaction with the conservative trainspotting groups, such as the National Railroad Historical Society.

Bacardi recalls, "Colonel Horne and I started talking about how we railfanned and what we did. Colonel Horne wanted to drink beer and watch trains, a real basic, simple concept. The regular railfans think when you're watching trains, you just shouldn't be drinking beer."

They began hanging around at a Mesa model-train store that increasingly did not welcome their presence. The group finally congealed on a weekend photo trip in 1989 to a workyard at a nearby mine, where they found that better pictures could be had by quickly trespassing on company property than by shooting through the fence.

"There were locomotives there and we just had to see them," Bacardi remembers. "So we drove on the property, jumped out of the van like a SWAT team, photographed everything we could and drove back off to BLM land. Within five minutes, a security car was there."

The security officer's attempt to confiscate their film failed and the Combat Railfans were both christened and emboldened. They had tee shirts and caps printed up. The group grew to about 20 regular members, plus a number of honorary fellow travelers. Of the original six on that first fateful trip, three are still partying at the camp regularly, 10 years later.

They discovered their isolated campsite on BLM land abutting a graceful curve in the tracks, surrounded by low hills and nobody within miles.

The granddaddy at this year's Jungle is Sidedoor Pullman Kid, an old hobo who started hopping trains in 1930, joining an estimated three million riders on the rails during the Depression.

Now 81, he still rides, taking short hops with his buddy, Tramp Printer, and leaving Phoenix during the summers for New York and Pennsylvania. Over the years, he's supported himself as a fruit picker, a gandy dancer (track crew) and a construction worker.

"Hoboes are the king of the road," Sidedoor says joyously. "That's a hard school of people to beat. . . . You couldn't buy the education I've gotten for gold."

Sidedoor was honored by his compatriots at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, as King of the Hoboes for 1994. The convention is one of a growing number that celebrate the vanishing hobo lifestyle.

Although the term is used indiscriminately, hoboes originally were migrant workers who hopped freights. In those days, temporary manual labor was easiest to find in the industrial areas near the tracks. Today's riders are more likely to be tramps than hoboes. Tramps tend to be slightly younger than the old hoboes and have a more marginal lifestyle, generally living in poverty. For tramps, money is where you find it and honest labor is merely one of several options.

Tramps have been taking heat because of the recent publicity about a segment of their population, the Freight Train Riders Association (FTRA). This has included a news segment on ABC and a July article in Spin magazine ("Attack of the Freight Train-Riding Crazed Vietnam Vet Psycho Killer Hobo Mafia--Or Not"). Some law enforcement officials claim that the FTRA is an insidious organized-criminal gang guilty of welfare fraud, drug trafficking, robbery and murder, using the rails as a cover and transportation. Their lofty estimates of FTRA membership are dubious, considering there are only an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 active riders. Even the Union Pacific officially dismisses the FTRA.

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