Loco Motives

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

"We don't believe such an organization truly exists," says Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furney. "We just have no evidence of anything that we've seen in the last years to suggest that that is a reality. We know bad things happen, but we don't think it's organized."

Tramp Printer agrees. Although he rides freight, he calls himself a "rubber hobo," having logged more than a million miles since 1972 on the tires of his Ford van.

"FTRA isn't as dangerous as they're made out to be," he says. "Most of them are out in Montana, riding the High Line (the northern rail line between Chicago and the West Coast). I don't think it's all as beefed up as it's made out to be."

It's a chilly Friday night, and Banjo Fred entertains with songs around the campfire about the hobo lifestyle. His rich baritone voice rings out, accompanied by banjo and 12-string guitar. It's going to be a relatively quiet night, since the Union Pacific doesn't operate on New Year's Day.

Banjo Fred has a Ph.D. in economics and teaches part-time at a community college in California. He was one of the original crew on the Hudson River sloop Clearwater with Pete Seeger in the late Sixties. His interest is in preserving traditional hobo music. He'll host a section on hobo songs with U. Utah Phillips at the national Folk Alliance convention next month in Albuquerque.

"The older guys rode the rails because they didn't have an automobile," Fred explains, "so they used it to get from job to job. The ones who survive, someone like Sidedoor, he's always worked. He's typical of that type, they get this wanderlust in them, but they've always supported themselves. It's really part of their work requirement. They're here to share their experiences, get notes on where they've been, who's been able to get where."

When the jug of whiskey runs out, a bottle of Night Train fortified wine is passed, another log is thrown on the fire to fight the cold.

Trainman leads the kitchen crew in making a 10-gallon batch of Mulligan stew. Everyone is waiting for a train.

Finally, a little after 6 a.m. Saturday, the low rumble of the first train of 1999 carries for miles on the crisp desert air. It's a hotshot Amtrak passenger train with hardly anyone visible through its windows. Most everyone in camp is still or finally asleep, except for Bacardi, who waves a green lantern of welcome in the early morning light, then goes back to bed.

Incongruous as it may seem, the Internet has become a mainstay of the train-hopping communication network.

(The Combat Railfans' Web address is members.home.com/claygill/index.html; Their invitation has also been posted on the National Hobo Association Web site, www.hobo.org)

The Internet is a significant resource for new riders. At this year's Jungle, several people, Wes, Mark, Frank and San Luis Sarah, who had communicated electronically over the Internet, finally met.

Wes notes that a Web search on train hopping a few years ago yielded only Mark's site (catalog.com/hop). Train hopping now has its own Yahoo category under recreational travel, as well as several news groups. Wes hosts his own Web site (www.thespoon.com/trainhop).

Mark explains, "The reason I did this Web site back in '94 was I always wanted to hop trains and I didn't know anyone actually did it. I put up information for other people."

Frank is a rider from Nevada who is surprised and pleased to finally meet people he has communicated with for years.

"I got a computer and I looked up the only thing I was interested in, freight hopping," he explains.

He's been hopping freight since 1978, and has taken his son and daughter out with him. Having recently quit his mining job after 14 years, he hopes to attend a school this summer to qualify for a railroad job. He and Wes, on learning each other's identity, begin planning to hop out of the Jungle together westbound to California.

"In Roseville [California], " Frank explains, "you just go to where it comes out of the yard and you get up along the trees. When you hear that horn, it's time to roll up."

They talk, watching the sunset from a small hill overlooking the camp until someone comes up with a eight-inch pipe bomb that immediately clears the area.

"Fire in the hole," they shout just before the explosion punctuates the twilight.

At the kitchen, Trainman is making a batch of menudo for the morning.
Coal Train Gem, another old-timer, entertains outside his motor home, performing humorous poems and telling stories about the little green men who make him write.

That night a crew stops a train on the tracks to visit. Everyone gathers around to talk, necks craning. Later, a crew in the hole near camp allows Bacardi onboard the lead unit to visit. From every train that passes by, the engineer blows the whistle in recognition and waves.

On Sunday, San Luis Sarah arrives. She has bad news. Lee, a 43-year-old anarchist who edits a fanzine dedicated to hopping, There's Something About a Train, is stuck in Oakland, California. Both Wes and Frank know Lee. He had attended last year's Jungle where his raising of a black anarchist flag created a minor stir among the more patriotic Railfans, who viewed it as un-American. The flap was quickly resolved with characteristic Combat Railfan compromise and camaraderie.

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