So why do I jump trains?

Three years later, I flew back to far northern California to revisit the place and the memory of those adventures.Now I was unhappily settled on the East Coast, driven there by job seeking and my inability to embrace train hopping full time, and I had returned for Dunsmuir’s Railroad Days, the unofficial annual gathering for tramps on the West Coast.

In his day, a local tramp named Road Hog had helped convene the hoboes; now Road Hog was gone, but North Bank Fred, accomplished train-hopper had taken up the torch. North Bank had helped me jump my last Western train. With brief naps in rest areas, I drove all night from Sacramento to Dunsmuir, the railroad town nestled in the Cascades near the Oregon border. This was, for me if not the hoboes, a “straight” trip; I was renting a car and staying in a motel up in Dunsmuir. The blasphemy!

As the summer morning’s heat built, I parked and strolled down to the local pancake breakfast. Two Internet-connected riders whom I knew, Grinch and Points West, and two whom I didn’t, Zwoodenspike and Interbay Bob, greeted me there. They had arrived a couple of days earlier and filled me in on the abuses committed by the sheriff’s department. One of the Siskiyou County deputy sheriffs, Randall, detested hoboes.

Every year he made them feel unwelcome, but this time he outdid himself, showing up with a shotgun, dogs and another deputy to roust the encampment. When the hoboes returned, they found bags of rice slashed open, their food stamps ripped up, and their backpacks soaked with water. I was reminded of the deteriorating hospitality of Britt, Iowa, home of the National Hobo Convention, where the organizers have cracked down on real train riders while cozying up to picturesque frauds.

After breakfast, I parted company with Grinch and crew to explore the trackside encampment where the deputies had ruined everything. I clambered off the Dunsmuir Avenue overpass and down to the sunken track and headed north through the Sacramento River canyon. Several modern-day tramps whom I recognized as anarchist Santa Cruz types emerged from the woods and strode south toward the same breakfast. I noticed Lee and we said hello. It was immensely gratifying to be remembered, three years after my glum departure from California, out here in the remote canyon.

Having inspected the area to my satisfaction, I then saved myself a sweltering trek back to the overpass by hopping a California freight train for the first time since 1999. The pig train had been sitting there during my hike, and as it conveniently lurched into motion, I grabbed a ladder for the half-mile ride. The sensations and sights all raced back and topped my overflowing memories – Mount Shasta loomed far off and the glacially cold Sacramento River flashed through the tree canopy. For some of us, the East Coast is one dispiriting place. Then again, judging from the Census statistics since World War II, mine is the prevailing sentiment.

The rest of the day was spent catching up on the area and the people whom I remembered. We marched in the Railroad Days parade to a mixed reaction from the townspeople and watched the new film produced by one of our own. With Grinch, I was able in mid-afternoon to find North Bank, who was taking a break from his exhausting, self-appointed duties of chauffeuring the tramps in his pickup truck. He was sitting beside his beloved Sacramento River again, sharing his fortified wine and inviting me to jump in and swim. I accepted the former and postponed the latter till the next morning, when I nearly had a heart attack in waters still untouched by the rising sun.

In many ways, I thought, it seemed like we had retreated in time, being confronted by policemen who clearly wanted us to “leave town on the next freight.” Suddenly we were back in some reenactment of the 1930s, with the police morphing into the heartless enforcers of the old days who abused the powerless outsiders.

Except this time, the supposedly dispossessed hoboes had allies with cars. Later that night, to avert another run-in with Randall and his comrades, we “airlifted” the hoboes 15 miles to a remote railroad siding up in the Cascades, where we drank and laughed, drank and talked, drank and climbed an abandoned water tower, drank and caught up on train odysseys and what life had dealt us, as the night drew in. Among the more senior hoboes were New York Slim, who had been crowned King of the Hoboes in 1998 in Britt, Iowa, and New York Ron, who had just finished an eight-year prison sentence. I excused myself later that night and returned to my motel as the train-hoppers retired to their tents. I envied them hugely. The next morning, I drove to the Bay Area to keep some promises.

All too briefly, I had gotten a chance to relive those long-ago rides. We had seen the local cops revert to their bygone type, and it had been a joy to meet the younger practitioners of train hopping and to exchange views with the Hopkins brothers, who had revived recreational hoboing throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

Now we who had learned our craft pre-Internet somehow felt like old-timers ourselves. All the eras of hoboing were represented one way or another that weekend – the thuggish deputy who evoked the 1930s; the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA) tramps who were often scarred by Vietnam and who were tarred as serial killers by the press in the mid-1990s; those of us who rediscovered this page of history a generation later; and now our own successors, the slacker,

Internet-connected tree-house dwellers and forest squatters of Santa Cruz and Portland. The only substantial faction not represented was the Latino migrant workers who still ride from crop to crop. A more disparate bunch united by the same passion never convened in the Cascade forest.

At the century’s end I had the luck to learn a craft practiced since the Civil War. I hit the rails for a raft of different reasons: love of scenery, love of country, love of history, wanderlust, and, to be sure, a quest for some kind of solace. In a country that prospered hugely and grew ever more oblivious to its past and to the idea of ever stepping out of one’s SUV, I somehow fell in with those who embraced skills of the past.

I was always motivated by a race against time, as the railroads cavalierly abandoned thousands of miles of scenic track and as the industry changed. Within a decade, what had been four major railroads out West, two of whom were hospitable to hoboes, had merged down to two uniformly unfriendly ones. I began hopping in a continent that still had the legendary Southern Pacific and the Burlington Northern and wrapped up with the BNSF and Union Pacific as the only options.

As I roamed the West’s mountains, rangelands and small towns, the traces of pulled-up tracks, the boarded-up depots ignored for decades and the juxtaposition of failing mining communities and metastasizing new subdivisions testified how quickly economic fortune can turn. Someday even those subdivisions will be dust. Pushed hard by this sense of urgency, I jumped trains to worship the Modoc Plateau, the Royal Gorge, and Tennessee Pass before doing so became impossible. At the end of this crazed run, I felt sorrow, certainly, but it was balanced by a melancholy satisfaction at having nailed down those routes.