Longform

Loco Motives

Page 3 of 6

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.

"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.

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Dave Irwin