HOPPING A TRAIN may sound like a romantic adventure. But for the teens and young adults forming a new generation of hobos, the reality is a rough, dangerous search for meaning beyond the streets.
With matted blond hair, soiled clothing and a faraway look, he stands on an overpass looking down on the Interbay rail yard and the freight trains he’s ridden for years.
But he is not an old grizzled tramp.
He is a homeless 22-year-old man named “Creek,” part of a new generation of young hobos riding the rails. Nevada, Utah, Nebraska and Iowa – he’s hopped trains to each state since he left his family’s West Seattle home at 14.
He and a friend peer into the rail yard as the setting sun glints off box cars and tracks that promise new sights and adventure. The young men won’t be riding tonight, but who’s to say what the future will bring? As hobos, freedom will call them again.
That may sound overly romantic, and it is. Although the notion of young hobos has a novel and appealing ring to it, the reality of their lives is bleak.
“Creek” and “Fre,” as the two call themselves, are homeless, jobless dropouts who drink away their self-doubts and ride the rails to escape dreary lives.
For years, they have slept in flop-houses or under freeway spans, as do many other young people now riding the trains.
Once the province of old tramps or immigrants who often found work at the end of the line, freight trains lure more and more teenagers and young adults who hop on in an elusive search for a life and meaning beyond the streets.
That’s how it is for the dozens who show up in Seattle each year, carrying little more than backpacks, bed rolls and maybe a guitar or skateboard. Usually, they make their way to the University District, where free dinners are served through the “Teen Feed” program run by the University Street Ministry.
It is there, in the basement of churches, where they meet and discuss their lives.
Fre and Creek, for example, both dropped out of high school and left home in their teens. Creek wears canvas tennis shoes wrapped in duct tape below yellow pants that are soiled and baggy. Fre has silver rings through his nose and ears. Chains encircle his neck and wrists.
Abby is another homeless rail rider, a 16-year-old girl with her long hair dyed purple and a ring through her nose.
In May, she took a freight train between Portland and San Francisco, carrying her farther from her home in Minneapolis. She sleeps at people’s houses, or in the parks.
Troy is 17. He rode into Seattle from Bellingham two weeks ago. He panhandles for food and alcohol. He has no idea where he’ll be in three years.
“Anything could happen,” he says with a shrug. “I could get run over by a train.”
There are dangers for young hobos, and Troy offers this advice: Bring warm clothing, food, water and a weapon for defense.
Rory Marcotte agrees there are hazards. “I’ve had to make bonfires to stay warm,” says the 21-year-old Spokane native, whose scalp is shaved in swaths between twigs of matted hair. “I’ve traveled with tramps, too – they’ll take your stuff and knife your throat.”
Most young rail-riders, however, save their most dire warnings for rail-yard security officers, known as “bulls.” Creek tells this story:
Two years ago, on a trip through North Platte, Neb., he had jumped off a train and was stopped by a rail-yard officer.
“I know you just got off the train and if I catch you again, you risk six months in jail,” the man told Creek.
Well, what is risk to a young transient?
Creek went for food, returned to the rail yard and hid under a bridge. He waited for a grain car, which has a small platform ideal for stowaways, but didn’t see one. So he and a traveling companion opted for a coal car. They climbed up and into the coal bin, wedging themselves down into a corner of the large, open container.
“The train started moving, and then it stopped,” said Creek. “All of a sudden, we saw two wrists come up over the edge, carrying guns. They told us to throw our backpacks out and get down. I was scared, man. I was scared.”
But rather than landing in jail, they were put in a truck and dropped off in a Nebraska corn field.
Jail time, fines await trespassers
Creek was lucky. Rail riding is criminal trespassing and punishable by varying jail terms and fines, depending on the local laws where the arrest is made.
Between May 1992 and May 1993, Burlington Northern Railroad discovered 6,656 trespassers on its trains or rail yards throughout the West.
Of those, 1,283 were arrested, said Bill Stairs, assistant chief special agent for the railroad. Most of those arrested were undocumented immigrants, but the company is starting to crack down on others.
“It’s really dangerous,” Stairs said. “The rail yards have a lot of heavy machinery; transients often get injured or run over by trains.”
Fatalities are high. Nationally, more than 500 trespassers are killed every year by moving trains or crushed between cars. In Washington, 36 trespassers have been killed in rail yards in the past two years.
More efficient than hitchhiking
Those dangers, however, don’t deter young riders who often have no other way to travel.
At Teen Feed, for example, most of the rail riders are jobless and homeless and live hand-to-mouth every day. They ride less for the glamour and thrill than the sheer necessity of getting a free ride somewhere. They are just as likely to hitchhike, although there are advantages to clambering aboard a train.
“You get there quicker,” Troy said. “Nevada, for example, would be impossible to hitchhike across.”
He has ridden freights across the desert there, or rumbled into the rail yards at Salt Lake City. The dry lands of eastern California have passed by his boxcar, as have the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Does that make him a hobo?
“Definitely,” he said. “If anybody’s going to call me anything, hobo’s the best.
A HOBO SONG