My two friends John Turner & Jake Estes decided to hop a train to San Francisco during their spring break. I asked them to send me a story of their adventures. What I got was an epic exploit almost too dark and too intense to publish, but I decided to go ahead just for journalistic integrity. Here is their tale.
John: I dropped out of school a few weeks ago (again). I spent a couple of weeks frantically trying to find meaning in life on the internet before I decided I needed to do something. After talking with a friend we decided the “something” we were going to do was hop a freight train from Portland to San Francisco. This was going to be a trip was going to breathe some life into my continuously stale life. Jake, being the anthropologist that he is, did his best to put everything into categories, even when the overlaps were greater than the differences.
When I told people what I was going to do I got one of three responses. 92.7% of people said: “That’s so dangerous! Be careful. You’re going to die!”. 5.3% said: “That sounds like something I would do”. I hated that response the most. Don’t say you would do that if you have the opportunity. Everyone has the opportunity! Go find a train, get on it, wait for it to start moving, there you go, you’ve done it. The other 2% of people I told said that they had done it.
With the little information we had collected from the internet and talking to people we were on our way.
Jake: We marched southward, along the train-tracks silently, in anticipation of the adventure that was to come.
John broke the silence “Dude, something really weird happened today.”
“Oh yeah? What’s up?” I replied curiously.
“So I was getting ready to go today, getting all my shit packed up, and I looked outside…there was this guy standing there, right outside my house.” John continued.
“What kinda guy?” I asked.
“This black guy, he was, like standing there, standing there and—holding his dick, spinning it around. He wasn’t even taking a piss or anything.” John fearfully claimed.
“That is really weird man. Does that happen a lot?” I asked
“Actually, it kind of does.”
The fist thing I found funny is the difference between their two narratives. I couldn’t help but to think that Jake was the Sal Paradise and John the Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, cutting across the American landscape in search of a meaning that would always elude them. That also meant that Jake was going to die of cirrhosis of the liver and John was going to die of a barbiturate overdose.
John: Google Earth told me there was a train yard south of town that had tracks running North to South, so that was our first destination. We got there at 5 pm and got our first sight of a train. We crossed the tracks and set up between a golf course and the yard. We saw an Amtrack blow through the yard. Then we saw a train moving south, we got excited until we realized it was just doing “yard stuff”. We were rookies and had no idea what we were doing but it was exciting to see a train. Four hours later and a tad discouraged we decided to try another place where we knew some people had had success by the steel bridge.
We stayed out until midnight until we (wrongly) decided there weren’t going to be any more trains that night. Everything we read told us that patience is key when it comes to train hopping, but we weren’t prepared for the maddening amount of patience that was required not knowing if the train right next to us was going to move in 2 minutes or 2 days, and then when it did start moving would it be doing what we had loving named “yard stuff” or if it was going anywhere. As we were walking back along the tracks we saw two guys walk out of the fog on the tracks. Jake asked them if they ride the rails. This was a turning point for us in our trip. These 2 guys and specifically the one we talked to would become gods in our eyes and gave us something to strive for. These guys were clearly traveling, and just as clearly were not on drugs or suffering. They were doing what they were doing because they enjoyed it. They guy that we spoke with that we affectionately named, “The Hobo”, was very reluctant give us any information. He had an accent that neither of us had ever heard before and had a vocabulary that we could only dream of. He told us that we were in the wrong place that it would be hard to catch it on the fly. In his weird accent he told us that we needed to go back down to the yard we had been at and get on a stacker with units facing our direction and then just wait for it to go. He told us to get to SF we’d have to go through Roseville where we needed to watch out for officer Flood.
Feeling inspired and our determination refilled we decided to go home, get a good night’s sleep and try again in the morning.
Jake: I didn’t know it then, but I know now that John’s story, the tone was set for the next few days. We continued on along the tracks, searching for a section heading from the west side of the river that merged with tracks running north to south, we thought it would be easiest to catch a train there. We walked, and waited, and to our surprise, the trains coming through were either flying by or heading in the wrong direction. We got close to one, heading in the right direction, but it was a garbage train, and it looked like it would make for a slow ride to hitch.
We sat along the Willamette River, as the sun began to drop, waiting, impatiently for our dream train to come. As our morale was dying, we shifted our goal for the evening, and the consensus was determined, we needed food, if we were to catch a train. We hopped the fence protecting the Willamette river bank from the bike path, cluttered with douche-bag hipsters, street kids and old men in black spandex shorts, and spotted a dirt path that would lead us up the side of an overpass, and onto the main road, where food could be found.
As we climbed the dirt hill, side-stepping beer cans, and hopping over condoms and lice infested blankets we neared the peak of the dirt path we heard an unfamiliar and animalistic grunting; a noise so disgusting I fear describing it in words will give my computer a virus.
Gooorrrobinahhhhhh—the voice moans.
The summit of the hill provides us a direct view of the culprits, conducting the horrid noise, a group of three…oh gross…our eyes instantly avert and we focus forward.
“Dude! Those homeless people were definitely having sex, right next to that sidewalk.”
“Yeah. That was really gross.” I replied.
I think that sometime during John’s meeting with the “Hobo”, a spiritual transference had happened, with John taking some of the soul of the Hobo and becoming him. Even now I see John look out the windows and look longingly at the road he longs to be on.
Jake on the other hand will have to relive the visuals and sound and smells of those two bums having sex in his dreams forever.
John: Tuesday morning we met up and again took the bus down to the Brooklyn yard. We found a nice place to wait for a train to start moving. We found a backpack stashed up in a tree that we took as a sign that we were in the right place. After hours of waiting we decided that we were would have better luck back under the steel bridge. We were up on an overpass over the yard when a train started going. It was going towards town instead of South, but we decided to run for it. I made it just in time to hop on, but by the time Jake go there it was going too fast. I road between 2 cars, right out in the open through the yard and to downtown. Not only was I not noticed by any bulls (railroad cops), but I was surprised how few people noticed me, people just don’t look closely at trains. Jake got picked up by his girlfriend and we decided to meet up again after dark.
We found a place to hangout by the steel bridge that smelled disturbingly of poo, but we didn’t see any so we stayed. While we were there we agreed that the next open box car we saw no matter what direction it was going we would get on. A little while later we saw a train going east with an open box car. We ran for it. Jake stepped in human poo earning him the nickname Shit Shoe for the rest of the trip. The train didn’t go very far before it stopped and we didn’t really want to go east so we hopped off and walked started walking back to the steel bridge. While we were walking we saw a train going south. We ran for it. While running along the tracks two guys cheered for us. But by the time we got there it was going too fast to get on. The guys that cheered for us called us over and we met Gutter Slut and Joe. Joe looked suspiciously like a girl, but turned out to be an adolescent boy, and Gutter Slut was a crusty looking dude with face tattoos. Neither had seen a washcloth in a long time and both were drunk.
Gutter Slut proudly told us that he was from the east coast and didn’t know these lines, but he offered to take us back to his camp so we could ask the people there for some suggestions. Even though we knew we might get robbed we followed Gutter Slut, Joe and their puppy back to their “camp”.
Walking into “camp” we were greeted by an animalistic “OYOYOYOY” to which Gutter Slut replied “OYOYOYOY GUTTER SLUT OYOYOY”. We seemed to be welcomed into camp and when told of our mission we were bombarded with advice so much that it wasn’t helpful. We had to quiet them down and ask them to speak one at a time. We got a few tips and in return bought them some beer.
Jake: From there we ventured to an inner southeast dive-bar, to grab a bite. We threw down a couple of burgers and John advised a fellow patron how to urinate in the men’s room, and we hit the road.
We tried and missed through the night, and eventually decided to call and head home for the night. We needed to sleep on it, and try again the next day. On our way back to civilization we encountered two guys wearing forest green heavy canvass jackets, and asked for advice on how to catch a train. The younger guy walked silently in front of us, frustrated in with our questions. The other guy a bit older maybe early thirties or late twenties gave us specific advice. We could catch one on the fly under the bridge, where the homeless were fornicating, or ride a stationary IM down south at the rail yard.
“But be careful of Officer Flood, if he slides ya outta one a those baax cars, ya neva know. One of the toughest bull’s around” The Hobo advised.
Wow, we learned so much, we walked back to civilization starry eyed, thrilled with the real hobo encounter, ready to pursue the next day.
We met around noon and puttered around the train yard, eye balling hobo hideouts, we were on the hunt for an IM heading south. We decided to hangout under a tree in which we found a backpack hidden in the upper branches, certain in was a hobo’s stash, left there while he pursued work, or food, waiting for him when he needed to hop the next train out of town. Finally the train we were watching was on the move, just as we had given up and headed back to the bus stop, John eagerly chased it down, climbed the ladder on the go, and I followed hesitantly behind. The train was heading north, we were looking to go south, but John caught it, I tried to catch up but it was moving too fast and I stood frustratingly at the south end of the yard, watching John wave me to hurry as he disappeared around the bend.
I, being the worst transient ever, called my girlfriend and asked her to pick me up at the golf course that was close by. As I set my phone down from the call John hit me with a text:
“Dude I blew it, this is not a good one to be on. I’m real exposed; I thought there was a good place to hide. But there isn’t.”
My stomach sank for a minute, I imagined John getting pulled off the train by a bull (yard officer) and slugging him with a Billy club or something. I really had no idea what happened to a hobo getting busted by the bull, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.
To our amazement John made it through the yard, and safely dismounted downtown, we decided to meet up that night, and catch a train for sure.
Our meeting spot was the dirt path adjacent to the one the homeless people were having sex on, it smelled terrible and was covered in garbage. John said it smelled like shit, I wasn’t sure, I was a bit congested, and we staked out trains for a while. Eventually one came by heading south and we hit the ground for cover. As my head reached the ivy that semi covered our pathway, I made direct visual contact with piles of toilet paper, the smell John smelled, hit me. The train looked appealing and it was catching speed so we hoped to our feet and I warned John about the toilet paper, and told him I believed his sense of smell was well calibrated. Just as I pivoted to leap down the ivy covered dirt path I felt a deep, wet and slippery squish enter the sole of my shoes, this coincided with a smell so strong and disgusting that my sinuses cleared.
Though it was disgusting, the squish didn’t stop me and we got on that train, in an open box car, headed in the wrong direction. We high fived and put turned our flashlights on.
“John, I stepped in shit, and I don’t think its dog shit—what do you think?” I queried.
John leaned over with his head lamp and examined the sole of my shoe.
“Yeah that’s bum shit alright.” John acknowledged.
I panicked and took my shoe off throwing it towards the entrance of the box car, ashamed that I tracked human shit into our first train ride, and disgusted with the horrid stench that my shoe was omitting.
The rush was amazing of the catching a train was amazing; though a bit short lived as the train came to a sudden halt about three miles down the track. John called me shit shoe, saying that was my hobo name, I agreed, and we went on down the track to catch a real one out of town.
As we headed back to the section of the track that merges, we saw a train heading south again, and missed the jump by a good margin. Fortunately we were seen by a couple of Gutter Punk Crusties, the name some of the homeless rail riders go by. It was two of them, a kid, who must have been about sixteen, I can’t remember his name, but it wasn’t good, and an older guy, named Gutter Slut, who smelled and had ink pen tattoos covering his face. Gutter Slut offered us drugs and told us of his problems, but he was rather helpful and offered to take us to his camp, where his friends would teach us the way of the rail.
We walked with Gutter Slut and the kid down the tracks, along the cyclone fence that separated camps of homeless people from the rest of the world. Gutter Slut showed us a hole in the fence, and a graffiti marking that indicated it so. We went through the hole, and walked slowly toward what sounded like a camp of Norwegian Pirates from the 1500’s. I gripped my knife, as we approached the group surrounding the fire. There was a primitive acknowledgment that sounded like that of a soccer hooligan as Gutter Slut approached the camp;
“Oi! Oi! Oi!” He screamed out
The call was returned back from the camp. I grit my teeth as arrived at the small fire, surrounded by fifteen or so Gutter Punks, covered in gnarly face tattoos, crusted piercings and moldy clothes. There was one fellow whose hand was jet black from infection and swollen to the size of a boxing glove. They were all clearly on drugs, but openly accepted us as honorary members of their crew, when we told them our train hopping desires and agreed to buy them beer in exchange for some information on trains. They told us where we could hop and avoid being seen by cameras, when to do it and what would happen if we were caught. This group was not nearly as elusive as the first two we met, and we were amazed at their friendliness and openness. The few campgoers that we spoke seemed content with their lifestyle and enjoyed life on the road. After buying them drinks we bailed in fear they would ask us to stay and live with them forever, or things would get weird or something.
I started seeing a theme in John & Jake’s story; John has a penis fetish and Jake is enthralled with shit.
John: Reflecting on the experience, Jake was impressed and astounded. He tried to wrap his head around what we had seen. Lots of poor quality face tattoos, open drug use, high spirits and people that at least claimed to be there because they wanted to and they liked it. They stood in stark contrast to The Hobo we had met the night before. Even though both groups road the rails it was clear that they were a different different breed.
At 1 am on Wednesday morning, we caught a train going south. We “road dirty” (in the wind) in a fox hole of a grainer. It was beautiful. There was a full moon and it was a clear night. We could see for miles.
The train stopped at some point for an unknown reason and we decided to find a boxcar. We found one and got ready for our long ride to San Francisco. At 7am, with just three and a half hours of sleep the train stopped in Albany where we were seen by the Bull. I packed up my sleeping bag as fast as I could and we got out of the yard before we were caught. We got some breakfast in Albany and took a nap on a beach by the river.
Feeling refreshed we went back to the yard to wait for another train. Hours went by with nothing. We decided to try to get to Eugene so we hitchhiked. Thunderstorm. Hours of waiting. Finally got picked up by a weird guy named Grady. He was driving 2 hours to see a girl that he had just met online. He proudly showed us a photo, she was not attractive. He told us ad nauseam about his exes and all the great jobs he’s had. What is it with weird people picking up hitchhikers? I have never gotten a ride from a normal person, and inversely I have never picked up a normal person hitchhiking. The weirdos give the rest of us a bad name.
Grady drove us right through Eugene and dropped us off 4 miles away, Thanks, pal. We decided to take a “shortcut” over a mountain into town. About halfway up we ran across a sign warning us that we would be shot, and we wouldn’t be the first if we continued. We continued. I saw a train and was determined to get to it, so we ran down the mountain and got to it before it started going. We waited a few hours, but it never moved so we walked back toward town. On the way we took another shortcut that included running through a junk yard, which ended with me falling in a creek and Jake using himself as a wrecking ball through a wall of thorns and nettles. Exhausted, wet and cold we decided to split a 40 dollar a night hotel. I felt a bit defeated by the decision…it wasn’t very “hobo” of us, but upon entering it was clear that the room wasn’t much of an improvement from outside.
When we woke up Thursday morning Jake was worried about not making it back to Portland before Saturday, so we admitted defeat and dogged it back.
That was the tale of John & Jake, or as I call them Hobo & Shitheel, and their adventure of hopping trains to San Francisco. When I see them now they look empty eyed and spaced like they died somewhere near Albany, Oregon. They may never feel at ease not being on the road.
I also watched these two take a huge chance to seek adventure and overcome fears and face dangers just to have an adventure.
This is also an introduction to my new travel bureau. Look forward to future posts on the road.