First and Only True Train Hop

Samwell Nomad

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So this happened about three years ago and I then wrote this piece... I was too embarrassed to paste the Forward but it basically was an explanation to my family and friends justifying the start of my new life. It was also my first time hitching, and I was filled with ignorant views and understandings. I haven't pushed the train hopping experience though I hope to do it again. I just want to make clear, that my dumb luck doesn't mean you should go out there and just hop on a train. Now that I have been a bit more street educated, I wouldn't blindly go try to fill this desire, fail, and ruin it for others. Forgive me if I didn't use the correct terms, also for the long length. Trip Well Comrades!
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As I crammed into a car near the Tennessee/North Carolina border, I found my source of information wedged up next me. Matt, a fellow hitch-hiker, looked good for being on the road for his tenth year. He shared some wisdom without me having to pester him too hard about it. It can be tiresome to have to explain yourself repetitively while on the road, so I asked him an open question about what one needed to know in relation to the sport of train hopping. His advice would lead me to Missoula, Montana: this location would be a predictable route for a train, it either ended up in Seattle or in Portland. His reactions hinted to me that information was a valued commodity in the underground world of a vagabond—something I had already suspected. I knew my greatest benefit would be to experience it myself. Matt and his pink-haired lady friend got out of the car a few minutes later. All that I was really given was the key to the front door. That was enough for me.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I find myself in a green space, a hundred yards from the tracks. Reality was really sinking in, but at the same time it felt like I was a million miles away from understanding this reality. I was too paranoid to snoop around, and I even more worried, that just my appearances would make me a target of suspicion—I had a backpack, along with both a fleece sleeping bag and a pad bungeed to my cedar stick—the look of a glorified hobo. The recognizance I had gotten while crossing over the bridge of the six-wide track, had showed me a small road that paralleled the tracks where the main road bended away. That would be my entry point.

I couldn’t do much until dark, which would be many hours later. It was one of those beautiful long summer days and I would spend most of my time reading The Alchemist while observing the trains periodically. I would come to realize more and more how little I really knew about trains and their processes. I was also surprised to see brakemen on ATVs roaming about. I was upset with myself for not asking more questions during my recent spend in Decatur, Illinois; Honz had hopped trains for many years, and his buddy Bigfoot worked for a train company. The advice that I did receive that weekend were warnings: don’t jump on if you can't count the lug nuts, and avoid getting on a railcar with strangers (spend a day with them first).

By the time it was dark, I had moved closer. The busy main road was separating me from my destiny, and where I now resided, a definite tramp encampment in the bush. I kept watch on the movements of the ATVs; I did grasp the concept that a train would be leaving the station soon, when workers would shine their light in each railcar. Either than that, I had no clear idea in which direction or even what time a train would be leaving station. And I was still unsure of what railcar I should of been looking for. Not wanting to be seen by anyone, I didn't venture out until after midnight. With only a few vehicles out, I scurried down the main road a couple hundred yards to reach the side road. After another quarter mile, a vehicle made it’s way down it. I was so pumped with adrenaline that it felt effortless to run and hide. My caution rightly payed off, it was a security truck. Security would be circling the area the whole time. But their pattern was predictable. I moved further into the darkness. It was time to play “cat and mouse.”

I entered the yard between two railcars. One could compare my ability and knowledge, as to a foreigner trying to exist within another culture. I didn’t know where to grip, or how to place my feet for a smooth transition. I worried about moving parts and if they would delimb me or not. I stayed there, in between, for a few minutes and practiced like it was a jungle gym. I was gaining a sense of my surroundings, including a perception on the effects of sound and light. At the first sign of ATV movements, I hurried back over to the other side of the road. Soon I gathered the courage to hop over a couple more of the occupied tracks, but was then also quickly turned around—and just in time to jump into a ditch to avoid being spotted by the passing security truck. As a precaution, I stayed put, there was an attentive ATV brakeman too close for my liking. Eventually, I made it to the furthest track. I found a huge debris pile of dirt, rock, and cement distanced between some flood lights: it allowed for 360° cover. I finally felt like I had deserved my badge of honor, and I put on my green bandana around my neck.

You can’t help but mention the eeriness that one feels while traversing through a place like this. When no trains are moving, it’s quieter than your backyard. There isn’t much life besides the occasional worker, and any rest of it is certainly hiding in the shadows. I better understood why people suffered injuries in these kinds of situations. If I had found a ruffian, in the wee-morning, with a resisting independent attitude, I would probably bop them over the head too. But as for other tramps in the yard, I would have to try and keep my distance; I am thankful now as I was then, for not ever having to deal with such an element like that for the first time. With my usual approach, I traverse through most predicaments in life by another meaning of arming oneself to the teeth—a genuine smile. My last option for protection is a sentimental bent nail that happens to fit nicely in the middle of your knuckles… Just in my one month of traveling, I heard of three people being killed: crushed, beaten, and thrown off a moving train. I don’t necessarily enjoy the natural dangers of my adventures, though I do tend to seek out those conditions, merely to reach for a heightened level of awareness. It is a powerful feeling when one becomes sincerely friendly to the limitations of the human body, mind, and spirit.

I spent the next hour roaming my area, and resting at the debris pile. I had become a little discouraged because nothing looked plausible to ride in. I was incredibly focused though, and still felt I would achieve my goal. At one point, I was again positioned between the first and second tracks. A train then zoomed on by on track one, the impression of restraint instinctively made me turn back around towards the direction of the pile. As I checked in the space between the second and third track, I was alarmed to find ATVs doubling back. I hesitated, my questionable opportunity had only seconds before the first brakeman would receive a chanced glimpse of me, and it seemed for sure in the space after that, the other ATV wouldn’t have left a shadow for me to conceal myself. The only plausible exit now was in the direction I had came in from. My best action was to get some distance away from the brakemen while running against the moving train. This would allow time for me to cross over track one. With the sound drowned out by the train, I found myself cursing aloud as I kept my steady pace. With a moment of hindsight, I found the whole situation comedic. Luckily I was able to see the train pass, and I headed over the first track. There wasn’t a ditch anymore, so I was able to makeshift a more advantageous hiding spot with the little amount of shrubbery in my presence. Security and the brakemen passed me, and I stayed undetected.

Eventually the first track became occupied again. It was a hopper car train, and it would be my destiny. Curious to see what was in it, I climbed up inside the open container: coal. I sat for a minute, pondering if I was desperate enough to ride a coal train. As I climbed out, I was quickly forced back in by more security movement. Again, I contemplated the coal train; I pressingly felt like this was going to be my ride. I had no idea how long it would be stationary, but before I could make that excuse, the ATVs were moving on each side of the train. I was twenty feet up, and their routine, that I could view down the line, wasn’t to look up and inside of them. It was exhilarating to hear them as they passed me up. When one was at my car, not only could I hear his breathing, but I could perceive the dirty sweat on his face. It was so personal, it made me hold my breath. The train soon after took off in the right direction. I was now able to breath freely. It was 3:28 AM.

I sat in the back of the car because the space was deeper from the railing to the coal than it was in the front—with all the unexpected brakes I also didn't want to fall out while observing. I had my bandana over my mouth and nose, and my sunglasses on too, which helped me tolerate the coal dust. I didn’t last long in exuberance, but made sure of one last junction with the help of my primitive map. I then climbed into my perfectly camouflaged black sleeping bag. Little did I know how lucky I would be by hiding in the coal. I was too tired to care about my surroundings for the rest of night, even though I knew I went through at least one major train depot.

I slept in till after nine. I was expecting to be following the Clark Fork River in Idaho by this point, and I was—one of the grandest sceneries to wake up to. I enjoyed the next six hours with infrequent and short stops. Intermodal trains always have seniority to pass, also called “hotshots.” I looked for any opportunity to ride a hotshot, or in any other train, but I was deterred with the fact that Idaho doesn’t take kindly to hitchers and hoppers. It wasn’t worth the exposure. So I listened to music and took it all in. Occasionally though, I would wave to a fisherman; none ever waved back. I thought my bandit look while in a coal train was just too much for them to process. I enjoyed their befuddled looks tremendously, but had to restrain myself in order to keep a low profile.

I was retaining a lot of information, keeping in thought of it’s value. The train wrapped around Lake Pend Oreille, and went over it a couple of times on a one track bridge. As we headed southwest, we arrived somewhere near the Idaho/Washington border—most likely in the town of Rathdrum. I spent about two hours there, in the hottest part of the day. I was on high alert, there was a lot of activity and I wasn’t sure what was happening at the time. In retrospect, they could have been changing out engine cars, or possibly a crew shift.

As I lay baking in coal, I couldn’t help but engage my thoughts on the material. Our world depended on this energy, and specifically China had a high demand. But most people have never dealt with it or even considered it’s hazards. Coal is mostly a fossilized carbon, which once burned, releases Carbon Dioxide, one of the leading human causes of climate change. Beside that, there are traces of other harmful elements released during burning. Another issue is coal dust. According to BNSF (the train I was on): it is estimated that five hundred lbs to a ton of coal dust blows off each car en route. Although it is a natural material, I could still write a whole other piece on the disputed detriment it has done, and will do to the environment, and what the current policies are in effect. This all makes my throat hurt thinking about it, along with my heart. But what I really felt in the moment is still a weird feeling to express and explain; I deserved that suffering. My intuition told me that we had ignored, and had taken for granted all the resources of this earth. To continue with the strangeness of feeling, I eventually became thankful for my hundred ton pile of coal and embraced it. Coal was a contributor to so much technology, including one of the most important technological revolutions, the locomotive. I decided I was going to ride this train all the way.

As I was cruising west towards Spokane, Washington, I was displeased to have to duck away because of all the parallel traffic that could reveal me with a simple 911 call. As I enjoyed the coolness of the wind, I realized I had gain familiarity with the movements of the train. I knew when she was turning, slowing or speeding up, or approaching a public crossing—all by listening and feeling. Soon after, I had a great tour of Spokane. I wondered if people had seen me from the buildings and what they thought of a person sitting in the coal. My map stated that just outside of the town I would know if my ride was heading to Seattle or to the Portland area. I had an inkling that the coal would most likely be heading to the giant ports of the Columbia River. Just outside of town, I went over a tall bridge, which was above the I-90 grade, in the south direction. This was my destiny. I knew that my trip would be a success because my will had already pointed me towards Oregon! It took a while to leave the area, as we seemed to be at a crawl, but a few hours later I was enjoying the sundown in the vast and ancient foothills of dry, east Washington.

In the vastness, I was able to really understand the scope of this mechanical beast. I counted around a hundred and thirty cars from my center position. The train was so long, I only received a few chances to count half the cargo cars at a time. Later estimates would put my train at about a mile and half long, with thirteen thousand tons of inertia. Any mistake by a conductor or by operations would certainly be the end of me. And unknowingly, as I passed through Mesa, Washington, a coal train had partially derailed there almost four years to the day and time. Surprisingly, coal dust is usually always the culprit—causing instability on the track. But it doesn’t take facts to experience this hopelessness: just stand next to one, or better yet, cling onto it. When hopping a train, one can’t help but suggest a higher meaning; the ingredient being that there is no real control over your life (another feeling I covet). I know for a fact that this humbling feeling makes me a better person.

Outside the major town of Kennewick, I fell asleep from exhaustion. I was rudely awakened by a non-hazardous liquid surfactant that was topping the coal to keep the dust down. I was instantly cold but I had dry gear. I knew the coal had gotten a coating before I jumped on, and I accurately guessed I was halfway home. I did the usual shifting from side to side to avoid the cameras; I later learned that some were thermal-seeking, thus the coal’s heat protected me from discovery. My path was now following the Columbia River Gorge to the Pacific. I knew I would be missing some amazing scenery because of the dark and the waning moon, but I needed the sleep. And as long as I stayed cocooned, the cold was tolerable.

Around ten am, the train was slowing down. I could see Portland on the other side. I checked down the line and gracefully stepped off. A woman with a stroller was for an instant, taken aback by me. Of course I was my cheerful self, and with a huge grin I’m sure I didn’t look too threatening. There is never a true transition of relief while on the road, because you are still all alone and exposed—just another challenge. But I was high on life. I went across to Apple Tree Park, and washed unsuccessfully in the river. It had been thirty plus hours, and all I had consumed was less than two liters of water. I walked with a pep in my step across the bridge and found a bite to eat.

Although I stuck out, I wasn’t a novelty anymore. The west coast is filled with people like me. As I was trying to hitch out, two men brandishing bandanas approached me. They quickly learned that I was a newbie in the train-world, and that I couldn’t help much with information. I eventually gave up on hitching and went to a real train station and bought a passenger ticket. I was done playing glorified hobo.

Like my usual style, I didn’t document much. I only took a few videos of my adventure. And I still have a pair of patched pants stained in coal. My mate Rory also collected some of the black soot off of me; he put it in an envelope and pinned it to the wall. It read: “Sam’s coal.”
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My spirit of adventure causes me to tuck away numerous ideas of epic sojourns. They lay rustling for the chance to become reality. The best part being, the unknown: only the potentiality of it all pushes me to make them happen. Although I put myself into these situations, I could never have never done it alone. Mostly in thanks to my family and friends, but also to my fated strangers that I meet on the road. I love you all.
 
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Coywolf

Mastering the Art of Houselessness
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Thats a great story, and it seemed like you did have just the right amount of info to figure out what to ride and where it was going.

I had no idea they sprayed down coal like that, but also, I try to avoid coal, rode it once and felt like I had black lung the next day.

How did you like going through Pasco? I severely dislike that place.

I wouldnt completely give up on it, man, there are so many awesome other train routes. Good story. Thanks for posting.
 

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