Longform

Loco Motives

Page 4 of 6

"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.

So, instead of hopping, Sarah flew into Phoenix and took a bus until she was within easy hitchhiking distance of the Jungle.

Sarah, a bright-eyed college graduate with a nose ring, who has logged 5,000 to 10,000 miles on trains, explains, "A boyfriend in college had ridden, so I knew people did it. As for being on the Internet, I'm super happy that there's information out there. I've met a lot of people in the hobo community through the Internet. I was a better, safer rider than I would have been if I hadn't gotten really good advice from people who have been doing this for years. I think it's a shame that people now want to exclude new riders from that information. I think it's an important source, so people who are riding are riding safely and respectfully.

"From my first ride, I realized that I loved it and I've just found every excuse possible to hook up with people and ride trains. The dangers of riding are very real, but my analogy is that people do dangerous things every day. People have learned ways to reduce the risk of the dangerous things that you do. And riding freight trains, you can reduce the risk. Still, there's no way to get around the fact that there's still considerable risk. It's always gonna be there. You're on something that is not meant to be passenger-safe, and there are people out there who are not friendly. So you can really reduce your risk by learning as much about how trains run and what they do, why they do what they do.

"When I ride, I'm always careful about the rides I choose. Even when I'm on a safe ride, I always pay attention. In terms of the people, I just never ride alone. I'm a woman, and for me, riding alone isn't an option. I've traveled around the world, so I think I have some good sense. There are total dangers, and I certainly don't advertise or promote riding trains, but if you're going to do it, I'll tell you how."

Another train-hopping trend is the weekend adventurer. These riders are likely to go train hopping short on experience, but long on equipment, like a scanner to monitor crew and yard activity, a cell phone for emergencies and rides, a video camera to record the event and a credit card to post bail if they're arrested.

The Combat Railfans videotaped a run from Roseville, California, north of Sacramento to Sparks, Nevada, over the Sierra Nevada and Donner Pass.

"We had the most beautiful seven-hour trip over a hill I have ever had," Bacardi remembers. "Smooth train, we got stopped out four times. Nobody saw us. . . . We get off at Sparks, literally got out of the boxcar, walked across the right-of-way, and grabbed a cab to Circus Circus for dinner and dancing. It was a mind-boggling trip."

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Dave Irwin