Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Romance of Train-Hopping.

When I was in my early and mid-twenties I became obsessed with the idea of hopping on a freight train and venturing to parts unknown. For a number of years I lived in near proximity to the railroad tracks. This could have been a result of having limited resources to spend on rent. In one apartment the trains roared by so closely that I used to wake up in the middle of the night believing that the city was under bombardment. Eventually I got used to the sound, and it was integrated into my subconscious as a comfort and reminder of home. This could well have contributed to the romanticism I associated with train travel.

I also learned quite early that passenger trains were the most pleasurable way to cover long distances. I often took that route across Pennsylvania, and even into New York City. The leisurely pace wasn't as frustrating as it could be, because riders were able to get up and walk around. A visit to the lounge car could break the monotony of the trip, and on more than one occasion I met interesting fellow travellers with whom to spend a few hours in conversation. If I didn't feel like talking I could read (since that particular motion didn't make me nauseous), and when I got tired, the sounds of the rails would lull me into a pleasant sleep.

Of course stowing away on a commercial line wouldn't be nearly as comfortable. There were lots of considerations that needed to be taken into account before I could pull that off. I'd have to locate an ideal place to jump onboard safely... when the engine slowed down enough to permit a confident hold on a ladder. And I could never figure out exactly what I would need to bring with me. I'd have to put a lot of thought into the clothes I wore... no doubt weather conditions could make a long ride gruelingly rough. Plus I didn't know how I'd explain my actions if I got caught by railyard security. All these issues introduced enough doubt into my head to keep me from ever following through on my temptation.

I wonder if things would have been different if I had seen Riding the Rails, an American Experience Documentary released on PBS in 1997. This film documents the widespread phenomenon of train-hopping during the Great Depression. It specifically focuses on the firsthand accounts of people that hit the road during their teenage years. Some of the interviewees did so to escape the pain and suffering of home, while others were simply looking for adventure. It's clear that while these folks look back on this period of their lives with some nostalgia, very few had any idea what they were getting themselves into at the time. The perils of this type of travel were substantial, and while riders took advantage of a free form of escape... they often paid with the loss of innocence, if not their life.

The archival footage in Riding the Rails is particularly fascinating, with hardscrabble faces masking the ages of many of these young hoboes. Challenges of self-sufficiency were complicated by predators who were constantly alert for opportunities to exploit the naive. In many towns throughout the West, townspeople were extremely unwelcoming to intinerants. Many tramps ended up in local jails before being driven from town. It was a desperate time in US history, and many communities couldn't even take care of their own poverty-stricken residents... let alone strangers coated with grit from the road.

Ultimately there was so much hardship in this way of life that one would have to be foolhardy to embrace it. Yet there's something in the plaintive call of the folksingers that provide the soundscape to this documentary that brings all that sentimentality right back- the unfettered pilgrimage and yearning for freedom that is endemic to the American people.


Blogger Lee said...

I am so not a hobo. I can't even stand Amtrak, the most overpriced way of travelling. I can take the Chinatown bus from DC to NYC for a fraction of the cost and about the same time. I'll bring a PB&J thank you!

I think it's Ayn Rand's fault somehow.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Amtrak is expensive, no doubt. But to me, any amount of money is worth paying to avoid Greyhound (I don't know anything about that "Chinatown bus"- is that just a DC company?)

Anything to get out of being trapped in close quarters with nasty people and no leg-room. Actually... te same thing applies with planes.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous marc v. said...

I've travelled on Amtrak extensively across the United States several times in my lifetime (the section through the Rockies on the California Zephyr should be experienced by ALL), but not lately. I know that it's way more preferable than the hound, and that - in order to recoup some govt. funding and to remain viable, that they've resorted to concentrating on primary, East Coast corridors (i.e. NY to Boston). I will say that I bemoan the fact that we never got a spider-web network of train travel going in this country (damn the big oil and car companies)....
Merge, if you can track it down, there's a film that showed at Garfield Artworks a couple months back , "who in the world is Bozo Texino". It deals with hobo culture and especially hobo graf. markings. I dug it and highly recommend it...and, oh yeah, FORGET the hound AT ALL COSTS!!!

12:41 AM  
Anonymous jefg said...

Oh, the lure and lore of train travel.

I remember the days when my grandmother would arrive on the train for a weekend visit. The family used to meet her as the steam train pulled into the station. The tracks that brought her here those fifty miles no longer exist.

I remember when you could take a train from the city next door to Philadelphia or New York. Neither track exists today. Train tracks removed, bike and foot paths, housing developments and bare threads of land take their place, the track beds no longer visable.

Now they're talking once again about re-establish commuter service in some localities. The NYC and New Jersey expansion of commuters and retirees into the Poconos has lead to discussions of the advantages of a train line. Well, figure that. Figure also that the cost is substantial, so substantial that it's my bet it won't fly (no pun intended).

While I've taken a number os short train rides (Colorado Springs, Jim Thorpe, Interlaken Switzerland, Portmerion in Wales, most recently the high speed (120 mph) train from Venice to Florence Italy, to name a few), the only trips I've taken of any real distance consisted of the Amtrak auto-train service to Florida. I always wanted to take a train across Canada. That is, until they closed part of the route for good. I do have the video, entitled "Last Train Across Canada". I also own a video of train travel in Alaska. Perhaps it's just my perception of train travel as some romantic idea. Perhaps it's nostalgia over my several iterations of model trains (S, HO and finally N gauge)in my past.

Now, my partner has no interest in trains, except perhaps for occasionally indulging me with a scenic long as it is of a duration of less than an hour or so. She prefers the automobile (of course, I'm driving) or the relative speed (there is all that waiting time) of air travel. So my thoughts of doing that one great train trip of a lifetime in the US, Canada or Europe, or getting a ten-day pass for travel to points unknown within the US, has pretty much faded away like the tracks, too late to be recovered without a lot of effort.

Oh well, one should never say never. How about Chicago?

9:12 AM  
Anonymous marc v. said...

actually, it's just "Who is Bozo Texino?"

11:04 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


thanks for the tip. It definitely sounds like something I'd like to see. I was particularly fascinated by Basquiat's use of hobo semaphore in his work.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I'd like to ride the rails to Chicago.

It's never too late to take those trips (unless you are dead or otherwise incapicitated... and that's not counting marriage).

I foresee a time when the railroads make a resurgence. As the price of individual automobile transportation becomes less economically viable, I expect a desire for an expanded passenger rail service. There is no reason why it can't continue to be subsidized by the government. The amounts of money that the government has sunk into air travel (since its very beginning)is exorbitant. Now with domestic security concerns, that price has sky-rocketed. And it benefits a narrower range of social class than the railroads potentially could.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Rob Park said...

Surely I mentioned my exploits hopping freight trains. The first time when I was 16 and the last time when I was 23.

I find it hard to believe you wrote this post and I never told you about my travels.

Some of the most memorable and formative experinces. Running with the bulls and hitch-hiking around Europe also gives some of the same adrenalin pumping adventure. But train hopping is actually more dangerous and illegal.

All my trips started in Pittsburgh reaching Newark, Indianpolis, and
Ann Arbor on different occasions.

If you need any advice feel free to ask. I learned many lessons the hard way.

12:02 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I don't remember ever talking about it with you. It seems like I would have remembered that... I would have certainly grilled you for information. We'll have to sit down and have that talk. Not that I'd do anything like that at my age.

11:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopping up here in Canada is not too hard if you're an outdoors type and don't mind dirt.
It's still basically for the desperate and nearly desperate or those who are economically challenged for whatever reason.
One of the bst adventures eh?

6:26 AM  

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