Heres a 7 part series about Ray Tylicki (@trainfinder222/@David1) (missing part 5?) of the "Hobo Adventures with Rapid T" written in 2003 by Timothy Gibbons, it's pretty fuckin' hilarious........
*Sunday, Jan. 7*
It took a day to get out of the house. My putative guide, Raymond
Tylicki, called from a pay phone in Buffalo to wake me up around 8 a.m.,
letting me know he planned on hitting town sometime later in the day. He
showed up at 2 or so, and I got my first warnings that he might have a
After asking if he could take a shower, he proceeded to spend the next
two hours in the bathroom, apparently alternating between baths and
showers. When he finally emerged, he asked to borrow some of my clothes
and told me to wash his clothes. My surprised look -- I was still being
subtle at this point -- went unnoticed, and I scrounged up enough money
for him to do a few loads. Actually getting quarters required a trip to
the corner mart for a dollar exchange, a trip he returned from with a
fistful of quarters and a bag of clothes he found on the sidewalk.
This haul was augmented when we went down to the basement laundry room,
a cubbyhole adjacent to the apartment trash pile, wher he found a bottle
of Chinese herbs. Tylicki emptied the odorous brown bills from the
incomprehensibly labeled jar, debating with himself whether he should
take them on the trip. When he finally decided not to, he offered them
to me. I declined.
While we waited for the clothes to dry, my guide raided the cupboard,
eating two bowls of cereal, three of oatmeal and all my milk. Before
heading out, I made up an odd casserole of rice and vegetables, a
mixture he topped off with salsa, honey mustard dressing and mayonnaise.
To wash it down, he rifled through my roommate's beer stash -- three
Coronas and an El Presidente. Pleas to not consume my roomie's supplies
fell on deaf ears; when I finally acquiesced and handed him a Corona, he
handed it back. "I want the El Presidente," he says. "I don't drink Corona."
I took the Corona. By that point, I needed one.
Eventually, we were ready to head out. We pored over the computer to
find out the best way to go, deciding to catch a train from the Bronx to
Selkirk, NY, a train yard Tylicki was familiar with. During our
preparation time, I got my first glimpse of Tylicki's strange
transformation when it came to dealing with the railroads. As a sort of
Conductor Jeckle/Mr. Hyde, Tylicki became eerily businesslike when it
came time to hop.
"Hi, I'm Mr. Tylicki and I'm trying to get through to the dispatch
office in the Bronx," he told a somewhat bewildered clerk in a Metro
North office. A few minutes and a few calls later, he had the number.
Posing as a freight shipper, he got the dispatcher to give us all the
information we needed about the last train from the Bronx to Selkirk. We
took to the subway, getting off the No. 6 train just across the street
from the Oak Point yards. While Tylicki went to check out the situation,
I laid low under a bridge at the east end of the yard ("Act like a bum,"
Tylicki hissed before heading off to talk to a yard worker).
The worker turned out, Tylicki says, to be "friendly-unfriendly" --
confirming where the train was going and which track it was one, but
warning that he'd be keeping an eye out and would be sure to kick us off
if he discovered us.
Once he was out of view, we headed to a grainer, a large, empty,
tank-like car with two little cubbyholes graciously built into the front
of it. We crammed into one of the holes, blocking the entry point with
my duffel bag and crouching down at every noise we heard. It was the
first time I'd been in a freight train: when I backed into the minuscule
compartment and brushed against the sloped wall, I inadvertently
screamed like a little girl; I'm not sure what I thought was in there,
but I know I didn't expect to feel like someone was touching my back.
It took almost an hour before the train lurched into motion, screeching
along at a good clip except for those time when were shunted to the side
to make room for a passing Metro North passenger train.
(There's a strict hierarchy of track usage among trains, I later
learned. In general, the type of freight trains I rode is at the bottom,
with passenger trains at the top. Anytime the faster passenger trains
have to get by, the freighters are kicked to the side.)
After the train started moving, I crawled into the other cubbyhole, on
the left side of the car, rolled out my sleeping bag and crawled in,
laying so I could look out the door at the passing landscape. The
snow-covered landscape looked like a postcard from Winterland,
especially as we rattled past some bridge or other. "I feel like the
ultimate passenger," I write in my journal -- a theme that will be
repeated as the trip progresses. "I can just watch the world pass by --
not worrying about directions, road signs or other drivers." I fall
asleep around midnight. Around 2:30 a.m., the train stops in a field
somewhere, waking me up from my dozing reverie and giving me a glimpse
of what may be the most tranquil scene I've ever seen: a snowy expanse,
with not a person in sight or a sound in earshot. Later, we're put "in
the hole" between Yonkers and Greyhorse, making room for a Metro North
passenger line to rocket by.
Already, my feet are frozen -- another recurring theme. I took my boots
off before getting in my sleeping bag and plan to try sleeping with my
boots on next time. The root beer bottle I'd filled with water (now
root-beer-tasting water) has frozen solid by the time we pull into
Selkirk, around 4 a.m.
I begin increasing my train riding knowledge now, discovering what it
sounds like when a train releases its brakes. Freight trains operate on
air brakes: the brakes naturally reside in the closed position, holding
the wheels in place. Before the train starts moving, air is pumped into
the brake lines with one type of distinctive hiss, a kinda long-out,
modulated one. When the brakes are cut, at a train's final stop, the air
is released, with a shorter, sharper hiss.
We clamor out of the train and walk between a line of cars, running into
the first worker I've encountered on the trip. The worker is trying to
force closed a boxcar full of oranges that came open while heading
north, and pauses in his work to hand us a few of the fruits. He also
directs us to a nearby convenience store -- directions that Tylicki, an
old hand in Selkirk, doesn't really need. We stop by the store to use
the bathroom and from there hike a block or two to the post office,
where we loiter and doze for the rest of the night.
*Monday, Jan. 8*
We hang out at the post office until it opens and then head back to the
yard, stopping en route to break our fast on a couple Butterfinger bars
and the filched oranges. We're not sure exactly what our next stop
should be; we're trying for Ohio, but Tylicki says Buffalo might be our
The departure area for Selkirk is on the other side of the yard, so we
trudge along a nearby road to get to it. To obtain an overview of the
yard, we head to a highway bridge near the middle of it, giving Tylicki
a chance to expand my train knowledge. Tylicki came to train hopping
after a childhood spent as a train buff. When he looks at a yard, he
doesn't just see a bunch of cars and engines (units in railroad
parlance.) Fascinatingly, he provides a rundown of the different types
of cars -- what grainers can't be jumped, what units have historic
significance, what type of loads different cars are carrying.
Around 5 p.m., we find a train going to Willard, a big Ohio yard
Tylicki's been in numerous times. The first hopable car we see is a mini
grainer -- like the grainer from Sunday, but with one, much, much
smaller cubbyhole. I force my 6"2' frame inside, with my legs hanging
out, rubbing against the metal lip. After a few minutes of that, all
circulation is cut off in my legs and I switch to a kneeling stance, in
which my feet are inside the hole and my upper body hanging out. Twenty
minutes later, I'm trying to think of other stances that might work when
I hear Tylicki's "Yo." Since the train hasn't left yet, he thinks we
have time to find another car. A few minutes search turns up a boxcar;
its door is closed, but it's not sealed, meaning there's nothing inside.
A few minutes work with a crowbar is sufficient to unlatch the door and
shove it back.
Once inside, I can actually lay out, the first time I've laid prone in a
day, with the steel toe of my boot braced against the wall in case of
sudden stops. (It's always a good idea to put your feet facing the front
of the train. Hobos have had their necks broken by laying with their
heads against the wall.) The jostling of the boxcar soon lulls me to
sleep, but I wake up several times to watch the huge winter moon as it
goes one direction in the sky and we go the other on the tracks. The
temperature has dropped still further -- I know it's bad when Tylicki
starts complaining about how cold it is. In truth, it's not so much the
wind and weather that makes it cold as the steel floor, which leeches my
body heat like it was getting paid for it, despite a sleeping bag, four
layers of clothing and a plastic tarp shielding me from it. Wearing my
boots to bed doesn't help much with the cold, but makes it a little
easier when I have to relieve my bladder in the middle of the night -- a
process that introduced me to the odd pleasure of watching the world
stream by while going to the bathroom from the door of a box car.
The moon is still big and beautiful as we pull into Willard around 2
a.m., lighting our way through the lines of train stretching every which
way. Cold and tired, we walk the three blocks to town, where the tipsy
barkeep at the Victory Inn lets us huddle in a corner, listen to old,
sad country songs -- the type of music you can only find on the jukebox
at a place like the Victory Inn, a tin-roofed tavern built some hundred
years ago. We chat with the locals a bit, including a guy named Weed,
who looks exactly like you'd expect a guy named Weed to look. Weed plans
on heading to Los Angeles, he says, as soon as he can save up enough
money from his job unloading trucks. When the bar shuts down at 3 a.m.,
we head back to the streets, declining an invitation by a horribly drunk
woman to "come party" ("Where's the party?" she asks the barkeep. "I
dunno," he slurs. She looks around the bar. "It'll be at your place,"
she says, pointing to me. "I don't have a place," I reply. "Then we'll
have it at my place," she says. Her muscle-bound boyfriend looks on and
We head a few more blocks down "the stem" -- hobo speak for a town's
main drag -- and fetch up at the Post Office, which is left open all
night. We discuss the historic WPA painting decorating the post office
wall and play a few rounds of blackjack (sans money) before both falling
asleep, Tylicki with his head on a table holding tax forms and me lying
on the floor next to the radiator.
Tuesday, Jan. 9
We wander out of the post office around 5:30 a.m., heading to the train
yard to pick up our bags from where we'd stashed them the night before.
Again demonstrating his touch for getting train information, Tylicki
headed to the yard office, where he traded my Buzz Potter CD -- Poems of
the Hobo Road -- for a "ticket": a map of the train yard and the number
and time a train bound for Columbus would be called. It was scheduled to
head out around 7:30 a.m., but as I'd already learned, that didn't
necessarily mean anything. Mechanical problems, oversleeping crews and
congested tracks could all conspire to make a train, once made up, sit
Nevertheless, we walked for about 40 minutes to the other side of the
yard, with my feet getting colder with each step. By the time we got to
the departure point, my feet were numb, a coldness that no amount of
stamping did anything to dissuade. We wander around, quizzing passing
brakeman, before discovering -- after about three hours -- that the
train hadn't arrived in the yard yet. We have the right track, though,
and the right train. We wait. By this point, I can't feel anything below
my knees. The scarf wrapped around my face was keeping my chin from
going totally numb, but was turning my mustache into a slash of
hoarfrost: as the moisture in my breath percolated through the scarf, it
froze, dotting my upper lip with pellets of ice. My waterproof gloves
are similarly decorated, from wiping my constantly dripping nose on
them. Sure, it's gross; but getting a handkerchef from my pocket
requires removing my gloves, a task that's just too much trouble after
the dozenth time.
The train finally shows up shortly before 11 a.m. It's a long string of
coal cars -- a dangerous ride (because of the chance of getting buried
by a shifting load) in the best of weather, but perilously exposed with
the weather some 15 degrees below freezing even without the wind chill.
The train has one unit, and we take the hobo's last recourse, asking the
conductor if he would mind a few passengers. Getting caught would mean
his job, however, and he tells us no. Somewhat discouraged, we head to a
nearby switchman's shanty -- nicely heated -- where we sleep on narrow
benches for a few hours before heading into town.
This is the first time Tylicki and I have really interacted away from
rail yards since leaving my apartment, and the Conductor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
syndrome comes into full play. Tylicki insists on hitting every store
along the stem, including a florist's shop where we're horribly out of
place, and a Mexican restaurant where he begs a bowl of tortilla chips,
eats two, and then bolts out the door. We wander into a clothing shop
(which has pictures of trains in the window) where the proprietor tells
us about a local woman who was killed on the tracks the other day while
walking home from the grocery store -- a somber tale that has us promise
to be careful a dozen times as she relates the gory details. At the
Chamber of Commerce, Tylicki falls back into railroad speak (suggesting
that Willard host a hobo convention, a proposition the Chamber president
receives quite dubiously) before weirding out and quizzing the man about
Mexican Pentecostal churches in the town.
Tylicki wants to next head to a Mexican grocery store down a side street
-- a scene I can't begin to imagine -- so I mosey over to the local
newspaper office. After a few minutes of chatting with an employee,
Tylicki comes in, forcing a quick exit when he begins insisting that the
paper do a story on us.
Hoping for some peace and quiet -- and a chance to check my email -- we
head to the Willard Public Library, a visit that gets off to a bad start
when Tylicki discovers its collection doesn't include a Torah. After
working his way up the chain of command, he's finally mollified when a
senior librarian promises to order one. Meanwhile, I've read through a
few days' papers and headed to the computer room. Twenty minutes later,
Tylicki tracks me down, plops down on the floor and begins arguing with
the librarian who tells him he has to sign up to use the machines. He
finally does, and things quiet down, although Tylicki's habit of
removing his shoes (a practice accentuated by the one white and one blue
sock he's wearing) garners him some odd looks and an eventual command to
please put his footwear back on.
Although we didn't meet the editor when we stopped by the Willard
Times-Junction, our sojourn there sticks enough in his memory enough
that he recognizes us when he runs into us at the library later that
afternoon. After chatting for a while, Clif Spires invites us back to
the office for a cup of coffee and some fruit. During the conversation,
Tylicki tells his stories about working for a paper in Vermont -- a
palpable lie. Nevertheless, Clif's heading out to a city council
meeting, he tells us, and invites us along -- a situation I know will
end badly, but that Tylicki is committed to experiencing. Having covered
hundreds of city council meetings, I'm interested, too, if for no other
reason than the surrealness of it.
On the ride to city hall, Clif explains the big news at the meeting: a
local businessman is seeking some additional tax abatements, a topic
that makes Tylicki quite irate, prompting a lecture on the evil of
businessmen. We get to the meeting right before the public comment
portion of the agenda, the part of the meeting I'd dreaded. Sure enough,
Tylicki raises his hand when the council president asks if anyone wants
to say something, and, saying he lives in Willard, begins a tirade
against tax abatements, urging the council to pass a living wage law
instead. The businessman gets up and leaves and I see Clif write in his
notebook: "Note to self: Don't pick up strangers."
During a break in the meeting, an old woman -- one of the few spectators
at the meeting, instantly recognizable to anyone who's covered city
government as the local crazy -- comes up to Tylicki and congratulates
him on his keen insight. The meeting breaks up for good after a
long-winded discussion on overtime for the local cops.
Clif drives us to the local Catholic church, where Tylicki says he knows
the priest. "Knows" turns out to be a bit of an overstatement: he'd
heard about the father through his social work, and knew the priest will
provide a night's lodging at a local hotel for those down on their luck.
Father Mac sets us up the Country Inn and, in the type of generosity I
still find amazing, slips us 15 bucks to get some food. (After which
Tylicki begins a theological discussion, centering in whether people who
paint pictures of Jesus as a white guy are true Catholics.)
The true weirdness was only beginning.
While walking to the hotel, Tylicki picks up a cheap bottle of wine, a
purchase that surprised me, since, for all his faults, he didn't appear
to be a drinker. He says he'd drink it in the hotel, but when we stopped
by the nearby Denny's-knockoff, he pulled it out.
First, some background is in order: Tylicki is of Checkoslovokian Jewish
descent, coming from a family that had been, probably forcibly,
converted to Catholicism centuries ago. At 28, Tylicki was now trying to
rediscover his Jewish roots, a pursuit that could be summed up by his
habit of eating kosher whenever it was a pain in the ass to do so.
So my first order of business at the Country Kitchen is to stop him from
complaining that every breakfast dish comes with pork products. Finally
he decides to order the only breakfast food that comes pig-free: a
ground beef and cheese casserole over eggs. Needless to say, that ain't
kosher either. He didn't notice. He did notice that it came with
pancakes, though -- and he wanted French toast. That occasioned a
15-minute discussion with the waitress about substituting, a request
that she refused to fulfill. Finally, she summoned the manager, who told
us the same thing, and Tylicki subsided.
(It's interesting, I noted at the time, that much of Tylicki's
train-riding advice was about keeping a low profile, a stance he seemed
to utterly forget when back to civilization.)
While waiting for our food he began pestering the waitresses, walking
(shoeless) into the kitchen demanding a plate of bread. ("Three pieces.
Whole wheat. On a plate. With nothing else.") It turned out the bread
and wine were to serve as a Jewish meal blessing, with Tylicki pouring
small glasses of the drink, salting the bread, and consuming both in
When the food finally came, he made two more trips to the kitchen,
asking for Tabasco sauce and French dressing, both of which, combined
with maple syrup and butter, he poured over his Fiesta Skillet.
Meanwhile, perhaps in the spirit of combining things, he poured some
more wine into his orange juice.
He never got to drink it. At some point, his erratic behavior had pissed
off the wait staff to the point they called the cops.
Four boys in blue -- Sgt. (no joke) Pepper, looking a bit like a younger
Kevin Spacey; Officer Helden, wearing an Eskimo-like hat; and two others
-- showed up tableside.
Officer: "Heard you guys had an open container."
Me: "I don't have anything."
Tylicki: "We're just sitting here eating. We're not bothering anybody."
Officer: "Do you have an open container? We heard you came in with a
paper bag. Do you want us to search you?"
Me: "/I/ don't have anything."
Tylicki: "This is private property. You can't search us. Do you have a
warrant to search our possessions?"
Officer provides explanation of the law, the hallmark of which is that
restaurants aren't private places and he's not going through our bags.
Finally, he pulls Tylicki out of the booth, finding the bottle in a bag
on the floor.
Tylicki: "We didn't do anything. It's not an open container. Look, the
top's on it."
Sgt.: "You boys have IDs?"
Tylicki says nothing, but tries pulling away with the cop holding him. I
give them my driver's license.
Sgt: "How'd you'd get here?"
Sgt.: "You walked here in 20 degree weather?"
Sgt.: "Where you heading?"
Me: "Down south."
I smile again. The sergeant smiles.
Tylicki, finally, remains silent -- but now the officers want him to
speak. His not answering any of their questions finally pisses the cops
off to the point that they cuff him, at which time Tylicki begins
spouting various legal phrases, none of which, as far as I can tell,
have any application to the current situation. One officer asks him
where he got his legal degree, to which he replies "Ohio State."
One his way out, being dragged by two of the officers, Tylicki asks the
waitress to bring a doggie bag. When she does, I wave it away -- a
decision I hear complaints about for the rest of the trip.
With Tylicki gone, the situation calms down a bit. They pull Tylicki's
Social Security Card from the discarded camouflage suit he left behind,
calling in the number and expressing surprise when it turns out to be
valid. I chat with the two officers left, wondering how likely it is
I'll get picked up for trespassing. Like many of the people we meet on
the trip, it turns out the officers couldn't care less. "We don't care
if you hop trains," Sgt. Pepper says. "If the railroads care, they'll
take care of it."
"We get kids in here all the time," Helden says.
"We didn't even want to do anything when we came in here," the sergeant
says. " If he'd given us the bottle, we'd probably have taken it and
told you not to do it again. When he started giving us trouble, we had
to do something. Everyone here's watching. They expect us to do something."
Making it clear they weren't arresting me, the sergeant then asked if I
wanted to head down to the jail, or if I had another place to stay.
"It's 20 degrees out there," he says. "We don't want you freezing to
death on the street."
I settle the bill, apologize to the manager and live a dollar tip --
another decision I hear about for days. The hotel is across the parking
lot. When I show up alone (the priest had told her there'd be two),
she's surprised for a second, and then nods at the restaurant. "Over
there?" she asks. "Yep," I reply. I get the keys, and proceed to take
the longest, hottest shower of my life.
Tylicki shows up a few hours later, just after 1 a.m. Charging him was
too much of a hassle, the cops said, and simply told him to catch the
first train out of town. I fall asleep again while he mu
*Wednesday, Jan. 10*
We wake up around 6:30, shower (two showers in 24 hours -- what luxury!)
and walk a few miles to the rail yard, showing up at the departure yard
a little after eight. To our surprise and consternation, the 7:30 train
actually left at 7:30 -- a first (and almost a last) occurrence on the
trip that leaves me muttering about Stalin. After dithering a bit and
deciding we have no interest in hanging around Willard for another day,
we head to the library to plan out a new route, hoping to catch out in
the afternoon. Checking routes, in fact, is what we'd planned on doing
yesterday, but the thrill of being warm and in civilization had pushed
the plan from our minds.
The library didn't open 'til 10 a.m., though, leaving us with an hour or
so to kill. After 30 minutes of sitting in the wind on the sidewalk, I
suggest heading to Trinity Lutheran Church, an imposing building sitting
across the street. The doors are all locked, but eventually we're able
to get the attention of the secretary, who lets us in. I start talking
first -- hoping to forestall weirdness from my Virgil -- telling the
secretary we're passing through town and asking her if we can sit in the
sanctuary for half an hour. Tylicki cuts in and begins explaining that
we're missionaries, a claim that moves him closer to collecting the
complete set of quizzical looks.
She leads us to the sanctuary and we head for pews on opposite sides of
the church, sitting in silence for a few minutes. After 20 minutes, the
pastor shows up – with his first question being what type of
missionaries we are.
After clearing up the "confusion" ("No, pastor, my friend was just lying
to your secretary" is just a strange thing to say.), we chatted with the
Rev. Kent Wilson for a few minutes, with Tylicki occasionally hijacking
the discussion to explain why all conservative Christians are evil. Out
of nowhere, then, Wilson says he wants to show us a multimedia project
the church has been working on. Now, I've been in a lot of churches,
I've covered religion, I know bunches of pastors: there are few things
more frightening then having a pastor invite you to view a videotape of
the youth group's latest drama. So I didn't figure we were in for an
enjoyable wait for the library.
To my amazement, the pastor leads us upstairs to an alcove where I
encounter one of the sweetest collections of high tech gadgetry I've
ever seen gracing a church. Wilson then runs us through a series of
PowerPoint presentations, videos, slides and other multimedia
extravaganza – spending two hours talking geek speak and explaining how
his church is in the forefront of a high-tech multimedia religious
revolution. Before we leave the alcove, we ask to add requests to the
prayer list sitting by the sound board. Tylicki asks for peace between
Jews and Christians. I ask for traveling mercies.
Wilson takes us to his office, then, where he prays, takes my picture
with his digital camera, and invites us, if we're in town, to come back
for a community dinner and service that evening. He then leads us to the
kitchen, makes us the best cheese sandwiches I've ever had in my life,
and shows us the door, inviting us back if we need anything else.
We walk out of the church in a daze: warm, fed, heads spinning; and
cruise over the library. While Tylicki looks up railroad maps, I peruse
USA Today, feeling almost like a civilized member of society. Heck, I'd
even had a shower that morning.
Tylicki hits the computers again, a situation that takes on a slightly
surreal note when his Hotmail account keeps crashing. Eventually, he
leans back in his chair and (literally) begins sobbing. I fix the
problem and life goes on. Later, he goes on a 15-minute tirade against
the Internet: "It's so hyped up and all the ads show it so pretty, but
it's really slow. Unless you're a millionaire, you don't really get the
experience. The Internet sucks." And so on.
Before leaving, though, we check out the web sites we're using to plan
the trip, including the Bull Sheet, a railfan resource that shows when
trains arrive and leave from certain yards; email suggestions from the
train hopping list we're on; and the web sites of CSX and Norfolk
Southern. We figure on heading to Columbus, Ohio, now, a town from which
we can, it appears, get to Cincinnati. From there, we can catch a
hotshot to Tennessee, cut down to New Orleans and blast over to Arizona.
On the way from the library to the train yard, we pass the Willard Food
Bank, open for the first time since we hit town. We go in and I explain
we're just passing through and ask if we can have one of the dozens of
bags of apples sitting up front. The man running the place says sure,
and then begins to load us up with a variety of portable food stuffs,
including pretzels, potted meat, oranges and crackers. We head back to
the train yard, consume most of the oranges at the little box we'd
stashed our bags in and then, for what seems like the hundredth time,
head to the opposite end of the yard to catch our train. It's around 7 p.m.
The train's a short one and leaving sometime soon, so we grab the first
rideable car we've seen: a gondola. Gondolas are like huge metal
shoeboxes without a top. Their 5 1/2-foot-high walls provide a decent
windbreak, but it probably won't be the best ride in a Ohio winter.
While we're waiting, Tylicki susses out the rest of the train and finds
a Canadian grainer -- similar to the one we rode in the first night, but
with only one, smaller cubbyhole that's rideable; the hole on the other
side is filled with brake machinary. He offers it to me, I accept, and a
few minutes later I'm sitting upright, with my knees to my chest, in a
hole whose floor is covered with bolt heads. The train leaves about an
hour later, providing perhaps the least enjoyable ride of the trip.
Because of the seating arrangement I can't see out, and every time I
drift off I'm awakened by either the cold or the bolts. The cold problem
is different than in the past, though; the entry hole is small enough
that I can block most of it with my duffel bag, but a eight-inch hole in
the back corner directs a stream of cold air to my left foot the entire
trip. By the time we arrive in Columbus -- awaking me in a blind panic,
convinced Tylicki's gone -- I have no circulation in my entire left leg
(and, indeed, wake up at one point during the trip convinced I've had a
*Thursday, Jan. 11*
When we disembark, I come the closest yet to killing myself.
On the other trains, we'd gotten off on the right side of the cars,
which I proceeded to do when we stopped around 3:30 a.m.. A minute or so
after I jump down, though, Tylicki calls my name from the other side.
With a combination of sleep and adrelinine battling it out in my head, I
toss my bag back on the beast and climb back on -- doing it all as
safely but as quickly as I can. Unbeknownst to me, the engineers were
"cutting" the train: removing various cars and sending them to the hump
yard, an area with a downhill slope where trains are pulled by gravity
at 40 mph onto different tracks. The car I had just gotten back on was
about to be cut.
The engineer doing the work noticed me just before he hit the release,
which would have sent the car -- and me -- on a short, fast ride into
the back of another car. Probable result: Tim paste.
The worker, who was as startled to see me as I him, relates the same
story of the dead woman we heard in Willard, adding to it the tale of a
railroad worker who was just killed. She, he says, was a new employee
and had on a backpack like mine, which got snagged on another train
while she climbed on the car. One or both of the trains started while
the bag was caught, and she was dragged to her death. "We killed two
people on two trains this week," the older gent says. "One was a woman.
"Heh," he added reflectively, "they both were woman. 'magine that."
Perhaps because of the tragedy, the yard is the least friendly one we've
been in, with workers declining to provide information and indicating a
general attitude that we get the hell out. There's no trains to
Cincinnati from this yard anyway, they add, although we thought we could
catch out in that direction at 11 a.m.
Figuring we'll have to try again after a shift change, we head about
half a mile out of the yard, spreading our sleeping bags under a
railroad bridge and nodding off. Tylicki wakes me up at 8:35, explaining
that he's heading into town to check the place out and maybe get some
maps, but he'll be back soon. He gets back just past noon, right around
the time I'm going nuts from boredom. (In his Down and Out in Paris and
London, George Orwell argues that enforced boredom is one of the worst
aspects of vagrancy. When you have no money, no job, no friends, no
transportation and -- especially -- if you have no education, you're
reduced to simply sitting and waiting for stuff to happen.) Having none
of the above save education, I page through a History of Protestant
Theology and begin reading John Keegan's History of Warfare, brought
along for this very purpose. My education was trumped by hunger at one
point, though, when I pulled out the can of potted meat we got in
Willard. Potted meat, for the uninitiated, is a substance that aspires
to be Spam. I'd list the ingredients, but was afraid to look at them
after consuming the stuff.
When Tylicki returns, he brings with him several boxes of cookies, which
he founds in a dumpster behind a drug store. (Drug stores, he tells me,
have some of the best dumpster hauls, though he's unable to explain
why.) With my last real meal a day and a half in the past, I dive into
them. Tylicki also got a hand-drawn map of the rail yard from somewhere,
discovering in the process that Columbus boasts almost half-a-dozen
yards -- and the one we came in having nothing heading anywhere we want
to go. Norfolk Southern trains head out near a bridge half a mile away,
though, and might go in the right direction, so we head down there to
check it out. There's some freighters around, but none of them are
moving anytime soon, so we repair to a doughnut shop a few blocks over
and decide we need better maps. Tylicki's been walking around for hours
now, so I leave the stuff with him and head three miles into town to
find the nearest library. The branch's offerings in the atlas section
turn out to be all but nonexistent; I photocopy what little I can find,
print out some Internet guides and head back to the shop (evincing more
weirdness when I get back and offer to buy Tylicki a doughnut. He
insists on an apple turnover, badgers the worker 'til she microwaves it
("I can't eat them cold") and gets yet another weird look when he asks
for butter for it.)
With the library turning up little, Tylicki gets a chance to show off
his social engineering skills again. From a phone in a crowded doughnut
shop, he's somehow able to convince a CSX employee to lay out the
schedule for the next few days. Norfolk Southern sounds like a better
bet, though, so we head back to the yard around 6 p.m., seeing, from the
bridge, a train that looks like a good bet. We hit (or perhaps "create"
would be a better verb) some snags heading down three blocks to the
One the way to the bridge that morning, we had passed a house with three
mangy, yapping dogs in the yard. Tylicki had wanted to feed them the
Vienna sausages then, an idea I had talked him out of at the time.
Passing them again, the temptation proves irresistible, and he spend a
few minutes handing out cookies (it turns out he ate the (non-kosher)
sausages) to the mutts. We then stop to fill my water bottles, and by
the time we get down to the tracks, the train was gone.
It appears trains ran south from the yard all day, though, so we camp
out by the tracks, setting out our sleeping bags on the foundation of a
railroad bridge nearby. Tylicki adds more to my railroad knowledge,
showing me how to recognize different types of grainers, how to jump on
a moving car and how to guess from a car's content where it's going.
Catching a train on the fly, he tells me, requires a hopper to
concentrate on two things: just as when getting on while the train is
standing still, the hopper must make sure to be braced at several
points, so the rattling and rolling of the car doesn't shake him off
mid-climb. The hopper also has to make sure that he's in a position that
will throw him free of the car, rather than underneath it, if he does
get knocked off. The correct way is to run alongside the train and match
its speed and then grab the ladder adorning the side of all jumpable
cars (other than boxcars) with an underhanded grip, in which the palm
faces out. Instead of trying to lift your feet onto the ladder, you
should then pull your body up, tucking your knees in underneath you,
until your feet are above the bottom rung. You then put your feet on the
ladder and clamber up as quickly as possible, moving only one limb at a
We drift off to sleep under the bridge, talking idly about our families
and hobbies before sleep takes us. Three trains pass us in the night,
all going the wrong direction.
*Friday, Jan. 12*
We wake up at 8 a.m., immediately heading back to the CSX yard we
arrived at to see what's leaving. They confirm that to get to Cincinnati
we'd have to catch a train that might be passing a switching point a few
miles away. The problems: the train will be going at least 10 mph, and
despite the previous night's "on-the-fly" lesson, Tylicki isn't sure if
I'm ready; nobody knows when it's going by; and we don't really know
where the switching point is. The best bet, we figure to head to the
other CSX yard in town, about four miles away, where a train to Kentucky
will be leaving later in the afternoon.
We have about two hours before the train we want leaves, which is a good
thing. The yard lies on the other side of a baseball field, and as we're
crossing the diamond, weirdness ensues. Tylicki had gotten a cup of
water from a McDonald's we passed and, upon finishing it, tosses the cup
to the ground. A few minutes later, a voice from nowhere says, "Hey,
could you two guys come up here." Whirling around, we see a cop car
parked on the far side of the park, with two officers inside. We trudge
back to them. They demand our IDs and ask if we've been train hopping,
questions we evade. They explain that they don't care about the trains;
they detained us because they don't like litterbugs. "We have no
problems with train hopping; that's up to the railroads," one officer
says. "We just don't want you to litter."
After running our IDs and extracting a promise that we'll go pick up the
cup, they let us go. We head back to the tracks (picking up the litter
on the way). Our luck doesn't seem good, though. The train heading to
Kentucky is all coal cars, a dirty, nasty ride if empty and a possibly
deadly one when full. (Shifting loads have been known to bury unwary
hobos, a way that I, hailing from the coal country of Pennsylvania,
really don't want to go.) Most of the other trains in the yard are
loaded with intermodules (flatbed-like cars carrying tractor trailers),
auto racks, tankers and locked box cars -- all utterly unrideable.
Things take a definite turn for the better when we ask the coal train
engineer if any other trains are going his direction. He says no, but
offers to let us camp out in the second unit on the train, where no
workers will be. (Additional units, or engines, are attached to give
more pulling power.) He warns us that the train might be searched and
"If we get stopped, I never saw you." There's more risk in riding in the
unit; if we do get caught, penalties might be more severe. But the
chance for a warm, comfortable ride -- in an actual train engine! -- is
something no self-respecting 'bo could turn down.
We walk inside and lay down on the floor, making sure no prying eyes
from outside could catch a glimpse of us. While we wait the requisite
hour or so for the train to start moving, we get to listen to the
chatter of the crew. The holdup is no different from that of previous
rides, but this time I can tell what's going on. (There was a problem
with the brake hookup, and workers had to check out various cars to see
where it was.) I also learn that it's apparently a requirement that
railroad workers have a southern accent.
Riding in a unit added a layer of excitement to this leg of the trip.
Besides being warm and having access to an actual bathroom and
refrigerator stocked with cold water, the windows of the unit provided
an admirable lookout point from which to see the fields of Ohio turn
into the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, a vista broken only
when we ducked away from them at any sign of civilization. Plus, though
I've never been a real rail fan, what little boy hasn't dreamed of
riding at the controls of a behemoth locomotive?
We sneak out of the engine in Russell, Kentucky, around 8 p.m., heading
into the depressed little Appalachian stereotype of a town crowded
around the rail yard. The first convenient store we stopped at had no
maps, while the second one was presided over by a young woman who
couldn't find our location on the atlases they had there. A customer
finally pointed out where we were, information that allowed us to get an
understanding of how the yard was laid out. We headed back to what
appeared to be the departure yard and jumped into the second wide open
box car we passed on a southbound train. After half-an-hour, we began to
re-think our decision. We hadn't seen any workers around and weren't
altogether certain where our train was heading -- or when it left. The
best option might be to jump off and find a worker, but that created the
chance that the train might head out while we were looking. Finally, we
decided information was necessary and ran like demons for the engine
house in the middle of the yard. "Ayup, I'll be testing the brakes in
'bout 45 minutes," drawled the brakeman who answered our knock,
confirming that our train was heading to West Virginia, where we could
switch for Waycross. "What you want to do is head down the train a bit.
There's some good box cars there for you."
(The phenomenon of incredibly friendly and helpful railroad employees
surprised me for most of the trip. There's a few reasons I can think of
for their behavior. First, they really just want to get us out of their
yard: if we're going to get ran over, they'd prefer it to be somewhere
else. Also, I think many of them feel more in common with hobos than
they do with the office-worker types charged with finding hoppers.
Helping us along is their way of sticking it to the man. Many of them
are proud of the trains as well, an interest they share, by necessity,
with successful hobos. As far as the bulls -- the security agents who
kick folks off trains -- avoiding them is generally easy. They drive
around the yard is quickly identified SUVs, which can be seen for a
distance and hid from. Yards are too big and the trains too difficult to
get around for a vehicle-bound persuer to really find one or two people
bent on eluding them. We had no real run-ins with bulls on the trip,
although three times we had to duck into bushes or hide behind trains
when we saw suspicious-looking folks around, and one boxcar we were in
was panned with a searchlight while we hid in the shadows in the back.)
We run back to our boxcar and jump back on, with the train pulling out
about two hours later. For the first time, I enjoy a night trip; while
still cold, the weather is warm enough that I can stand in the doorway
at times, watching the hills pass in the distance. We pull into East
Charleston just after midnight, we hop off and wander over to a nearby
7-Eleven. After reviewing some maps there, we once again kick around the
idea of heading to the Norfolk Southern yard, a plan that looks good
until we find out it's six or seven miles away, on the other side of the
Instead, we head to hotel row, with Tylicki hitting up a Ramada at 2
a.m. for its business service room, which has an Internet connection,
allowing him to check his Hotmail and print out railroad maps. He spends
some three hours there, doing God alone knows what, most of which time I
spend loitering outside, watching the world go by. Eventually I stumble
inside, with the desk clerk letting me lounge in the lobby. We leave
with a stack of printouts and an actual route: The plan now is to go to
Jacksonville, Fla., the headquarters of CSX. From there, I can head back
to NY and Tylicki catch out due west to Arizona.
We get back to the yard around 5 a.m. and decide to camp out in an
old-time caboose that a worker tells us should be sitting around the
yard 'til Monday. (Cabooses are rarely used anymore. Their purpose --
letting people at the front of the train know the back of the train was
OK -- has been taken over by an automated Rear End Device system
(affectionately called Freddie; you can figure out where the F comes
from yourself), marked by the blinking red light attached to trains
shortly before they're ready to go.)
*Monday, Jan. 15*
As do many big shipping or port cities, Richmond has several railyards,
usually brought under the control of the big boys (CSX and Norfolk
Southern) as companies merged. The yard we're looking for in Richmond is
know as Acca Yard, but we're uncertain if the yard we've entered is that
one or another. We argue for a bit, trying to tell what direction we're
heading based on the moon -- a skill neither of us possess. Eventually
we get off the train and wander around a bit, with Tylicki, who has been
to Acca Yard, determining this ain't it. We begin walking in the
direction he says Acca lies -- but when we pass the back of the train,
we realize we're walking in the wrong direction. Fed up with the entire
thing, we head back to our car and sit around for half an hour until the
train pulls out, depositing us 45 minutes later in Acca.
After stashing our bags in a switchman's shanty near the edge of the
tracks and using the bathroom next to it, we wandered out of Acca Yard
into Richmond, our first extended period off the train since Saturday.
Our first stop is a bridge over the yard, where can get a sense of how
things are laid out. From our vantage point, we see the ubiquitous black
Blazer driven by bulls pull into the yard. All of the other times we saw
them (in Columbus, Kentucky and West Virginia), the bulls -- hobo slang
for railroad security agents -- had been on the other side of trains or
far enough away that we could hide. General railyard workers, such as
brakemen, engineers and conductors, are unlikely to call the bulls on
hoppers; they're more concerned that you stay the hell off the tracks
and get out of their yard as soon as possible. This bull, though, scared
us a bit. When he got out of his truck, we could clearly see a gun
strapped to his hip, and a cell phone and radio on the other. He was
obviously a man who took his job seriously.
Hoping he'll be gone by the time we get back, we walk 20 minutes to a
gas station, where I enjoy a blissful cup of actual coffee. I buy
Tylicki a package of Strawberry Newtons and a bottle of milk, but that's
not enough for him. He ducks back in the store while I'm outside
studying a map on the wall, returning a few minutes later with a cup of
hot water into which he puts a tea bag he's been carrying around.
Moments later the manager comes out, asking him if he paid for the cup.
"It's just water," Tylicki replies -- at which point the exact same
conversation about charging for cups takes place, almost word for word,
as we had at the Taco Bell. When it's over, and the manager takes the
cup away from him, I go slightly insane myself, standing in the parking
lot yelling "you have to pay for cups!" at him. (You know, I wonder if
that's how the crazy people I see wandering the streets of New York got
started. I'm sure I'd get weird looks if I walked around saying, "pay
for cups, pay for cups" -- but it would, in a twisted way, make some
sort of sense.)
After sitting around for a bit finishing our coffee and milk, Tylicki
heads back into the station to see about using their bathroom, a display
of moxie I've never seen the likes of. He comes out in a few minutes and
says he has to head across the street to another bathroom; the first one
was too dirty for him.
He finishes up there and suggests stopping by the United Methodists
Community Services Building a few doors down. Although it's closed for
Martin Luther King Day, somebody comes to the door when we ring the
bell, a man who we ask if there's a food bank around. He asks us to wait
and returns a few minutes later with two vouchers for a restaurant
across the street. We repair to the place, called McLean's, where I get
the roast beef dinner and Tylicki gets whole fried herring, which he
douses with Tabasco sauce and maple syrup. It's the best meal we've had
all trip, and on the way back, full and drowsy, we sprawl out in a field
by the tracks, napping for an hour or so.
We hang around the yard all day, waiting for trains to show up, reading,
napping and talking. From our research back in West Virginia, we know
what trains we want: we can catch either the L148 or the Q409 from
Richmond. to Waycross, Ga. The former, an intermodule, is supposed to
arrive in Acca at 4:15 p.m., while the later is scheduled to be handed
off to Richmond half an hour later.
The intermodule shows up on time, but is made up entirely of flat cars
with tractor trailers on them, not the double stack cars that we could
ride. (Double-stack trains, as their name implies, have two trailers on
them, and a cubbyhole underneat them where hoppers can ride.) The
manifest train, Q409, though, is nowhere to be seen. We hang around the
top of slanted wall under a highway bridge we've made home for another
hour, but I start getting antsy. I head down to the bathroom at the
entrance of the yard, and on the way back stick my head into one of the
yard offices to see about some information.
It's like my own private graduation ceremony, as I actually get to put
into practice the knowledge I've picked up over the past week. I chat
with Douglas, a clerk there, asking questions and getting information I
wouldn't have even understood a week ago. Douglas pulls up the 409
schedule on the computer and tells me the train is about an hour away,
indicating the track it will come in on. He then starts giving me tips
on riding -- pointing out the garbage cars to avoid, telling me how to
get into box cars. "Be careful who you ask questions of," he says,
pointing to the cars in the parking lot and naming their drivers. "Those
are Eric's and Jack's," he says. "They're good guys.
"The bad guy is Gumshoe Andy," he explains, describing the starched
white shirt, tie and gun we'd seen from the bridge in the morning. "He
used to be a special inspector. Now he's called a property protection
specialist. I call him Gumshoe Andy. He's an asshole."
I thank Douglas for the info and the dozen little bottles of water he
gives me and head back to the bridge, successfully spotting and dodging
the Amtrack train as it passes. I realize for the first time that I feel
at home in the train yard.
While I was gone, Tylicki started a fire in a can a quarter full of
motor oil and raided the dumpster at a nearby Budweiser plant for a
handful of dented but full cans. While we're sitting there enjoying the
fire, we see a train pull in. It fits the schedule Douglas gave and
appears to be going the right way, but we're not certain it's the 409 --
and the train is too long, the conductor too far away, to ask him. When
we ask a conductor on another train he says he has no idea, but points
to another train, which has been sitting in the yard all day, which he
says in going to Newport News, from which we can catch out to Georgia.
This creates something of a quandary. The worker in Charleston also
suggested going to Newport News, but he had says the train we got on
went there, which it hadn't. Also, Newport News wasn't listed on any of
the Internet resources we'd been using to plan the trip.
Tylicki says its my call, and I opt for the 409. We pick a mini-grainer
-- the type that have one small hole, meaning it's my turn to sit on the
porch -- and climb on, finding it covered with some sort of corn syrup
cement, a sticky, slippery, nasty concoction that coats everything we
own in minutes. We continue arguing about what train we should be on. I
stick to my guns, but agree to get off and find another car. If we can't
get something more comfortable than the grainer, I say, we'll head to
Newport News. A dozen cars down, though, we find an open boxcar complete
with cardboard padding and climb aboard.
Eventually, the train takes off like a bat out of hell who's not
receiving overtime. Despite starting some four hours late, we pick up
three-and-a-half hours while booming through the night, getting to Rocky
Mount, N.C. around 2 a.m., only a half-hour behind schedule. Bizarrely,
the train then sat there for the rest of the early morning, finally
leaving at 9 a.m.
*Tuesday, Jan. 16*
This is the most classic hobo experience I've had all trip. The weather
is beautiful, making sitting in the doorway of the "personal Pullman" a
delight, and most of the trip is being done during the day, actually
letting me see the countryside through my moving picture window. The
land is beautiful -- rolling hills and fields, dotted with tobacco
drying sheds blanketing the air with a spicy odor. We swoop through
little towns like Wilson, N.C., the type of town time forget, with the
old-fashioned downtown not having needed a citizen's committee to create
it, but having just evolved over time. I wave to cars at grade
crossings, wondering what goes through their minds when they see a
grinning figure standing at the entrance to a boxcar. Hey, Mable, they
say, nudging their wives, there's one of them old-fashioned hobo folks.
If nothing else, I figure it's sort of an adventure by proxy; how many
kids that I waved to chattered excitedly about it at the dinner table
When I got tired of standing, I lean back against the door on the other
side, nicely warmed by the rising sun. A woodsy odor creeps in,
replacing the tobacco fumes, as we pass sites of new construction,
seeing the carcasses of recently cleared scrub pines. Later, a fishy
odor takes over as we cross trestles with rivers babbling away below.
Once again I realize how relaxed I am. The ride is smooth, letting me
return every so often to my tome on military history, but most of the
time I just sit and stare, wondering about the lives we're rolling
through. We rumble by trailer parks and office parks, cutting through
horse farms, goat farms and cotton plantations, seeing the cycles of
city life from urban sprawl to quaint downtowns to suburban homesteads
set far back from the tracks. I lean back on a pile of cardboard
pallets, put my feet up on a block of vulcanized rubber left in the car
and just look.
All of the books I've read on hoboing talk about the meditative
qualities of train hopping -- something I've somehow missed in-between
dealing with a nut, freezing off my feet and worrying about missing
trains. Now, though, the rolling pines and jostling box car lull me into
a state of calm, into which I just sit and relax.
As the afternoon wears on and we pick up speed, I get up and stick my
head out the door, watching the countryside roll by first hand. As the
warming wind blows into my face, I at first reach up and hold my hat on
my head, before finally pulling it off and let the air blow through my
hair for the first time in days. I continue reading Keegan's history of
warfare, coming across this passage: "The nomads had a weakness: they
liked the nomadic way of life and despised the weary cultivator, bound
to his furrows and his plough-ox. What the nomads wanted was the best of
both worlds: the comfort and luxury that settled ways yielded but also
the freedom of the horseman's life, of the tented camp, of the hunt and
of the seasonal shift of quarters."
I look out at the blurring landscape and think how nomadism will never die.
The trip continues through the day and night as we sweep through North
and South Carolina, stopping for about five hours in Charleston, S.C.,
in mid-afternoon, but finally getting to Waycross, Ga., shortly after