Riding freight trains in America was on my list. Just another technique of movement, that I wanted to learn. Another ”sport”. I read a 300 pages thick, technical guide about train hopping, and felt well prepared as I went towards the yards. Already the day before I heard the whistling of the trains all over Denver. A beautiful sound as attunement to a new hobby.
Train Hopping is dangerous. Compared to hitchhiking, here one wrong step can separate life and death. Or “just” losing an arm or leg. Trains are one of the vehicles that are more easy to accelerate than to brake. How brutal and monstrous they were I could only imagine. You know the moment when you are waiting at a railway crossing and that steel colossus sluggishly drifts past you.The ground is shaking. Rhythmic beats accentuate the movement. You feel respect.
Getting on the train
I had found a cheap donut shop and had a typical american breakfast- not healthy. As I left the store this Hobo* crossed the street. Our eyes met. “Hey man, what’s up? Do you know something about the local yards?”. I had no clue at all. I was a Greenhorn. Never hopped a train and never heard of a “Hop-Out-Spot“. I had only read a lot. I knew much about freight trains, american history of trains, technical details about the Air-Break, setup of a yard and how silly bulls act. But of train hopping itself I had no idea. You can’t learn it out of the book. You have to go and do it.
My Hobo friend’s name was Jessie. He was on the rails since 2 years finishing his journey here by hopping his last train towards home. ”I am ready to deal with my family now.”, he said and I was touched to share that moment with him. We talked about yards, about train hopping and I listened eagerly. He talked about stories of hardcore hoppers who tied hooks to their body and jump on trains on the run, to „fly with the train!” like he told. Sick shit.
We walked through the city. I bought us a gallon of water (3.78L). Jessie had no money and had to do some busking to buy water but I happily paid for him. He was a good guy. At some point he promised: “I make sure, we get you on a good car.” He really cared. I was thankful to met him.
Train Hopping is a lifestyle. Part of the american culture with a long history. The train hopping community in the US is pretty closed. It’s illegal and you really have to take care. A lot of dumb kids hang around on the rails behaving like shit and several train hoppers feel attacked by that. They don’t want this shit picture of them. And they don’t want even further increased safety regulations by the train companies.
A lot of information in this sport is thus closed off the public. There is the Crew Change Guide, like the Bible for train hoppers, very detailed hints on Hop-Outs and what to take care about on yards. It’s really hard to get a CCG. Took me long before I had a 2006 Version in my hands, completely outdated, pretty much useless, but better than nothing.
The more lucky I was to meet Jessie. He showed me the Hop-Out. A Bridge. A lot of traffic under it. Cars from the military police crossed a nearby intersection. After 15 minutes a train arrived going my direction. And stopped. I was pumped with Adrenalin already and asked Jessie if it was the right direction. He said it was just a loco. Pity. Anyway I checked the rails. There was definitely a long freight train up there. In my direction. Go, go, go!
We let another police car pass and climbed up the bridge. In bright sunshine on a road with heavy traffic. Felt strange, but I thought “Well.” We jumped over the first standing train and were able to check for a good car protected from being spotted by the two steel collossi.
We found a nice Grainer. Jessie said I can hop that one. I climbed onto it. We said our good bye, then it was hiding time. Keep yourself low! I lied on cold, dirty steel, my heart was beating fast. The Airbrake hissed,the train would start soon. Slowly the cars started moving and I had jumped my first train. What a feeling. I made that! Happiness and euphoria. Highball, here we go!
Being trapped with a monster
If a train rolls, it rolls. And if it rolls, it’s noisy. Steel couplings ripping the trains on the rails with enormous force over the rails. A monotonous sound of the tearing wheels. Dust and dirt everywhere. In front of me a 100 ton heavy grainer, which repeatetly is moving freightening towards me, till it gets smashed noisy into the coupling for making a move into the other direction. As the train accelerated I figured that I was captured there. There was no exit. We were rolling. You can get really afraid by a train. Especially sitting amidst one.
Our trail was leaving the city into the wild west of America. Into the unpopulated steppe, through dry land that had nothing but the rails leading our way. In between countless stops. Letting through other trains. Heading on. Crashing couplings. I was on a Peddlar, a low priority train. We were going really slow. 200 Miles within the first 17 hours. I knew trains ain’t fast, but that slow?
Not expected that. I had calculated 8 to 10 hours of drive. I didn’t plan the 21 hours that I would spend on that train in the end. Again I didn’t carry any food. Too lazy to go shopping. A gallon of water and a pack of cigarettes, that was it. My preparations were stupid and naive. But as long as the ride is rolling I am riding. Never turn down a ride!
At some point it was dark. The train stopped in front of the important crossing. If it was going west it would take me straight to the city I planned. Or it could go north where i didn’t want to go. We were already waiting since 30 minutes, letting pass one train after another. I made some pictures. From time to time i got a little paranoid. Has somebody seen the red focus LED of my camera? Or seen me? Is police on its way here to search the train? It went worse.
I walked through the wagon. On the ground there were those steel bars, connected with the brake. I stumbled over one. That can’t be good for the mechanics. Had I broken something? I sat next to the pressure tank of the air brake. Suddenly a loud, deafening hissing. The air brake gave off it’s pressure. 8 bar erupting next to my ear. Tinnitus, stress, something must have been broken by me. I panicked again. Starring towards the locomotive. Was somebody walking to my car fixing the brake? I saw a light. Will I be spotted now? I was so insecure and nervous. After several minutes the brake pumped up again. And we continued rolling. Everything allright Stefan!
Time to suffer
The train passed the intersection and headed north. Fuck. Wrong direction. I have to get off. But my slow and idle Peddlar decided to become a Hot-Shot. Rushing straight through the next 5 hours without a single stop. We went into the rocky mountains. It became very cold. Cold air was hitting me from the side. My summer sleeping bag failed again and I shivered. Water and cigarettes. That was all I had. I was tired, frozen, hungry and going into the wrong direction! Frustration! This is also a part of train hopping: exhausting and merciless. I wasn’t able to exit. Suffering period.
Whilst sitting on my backpack trying to stay awake I saw the mountains that we were passing. The land was deserted and brightened by moonshine. Somewhere canged inside of me. I understood the situation now. What had been hidden, came into my consciousness. It is incredibly beautiful here! This noisy, brutal monster of steel. Me amidst. Outside bright moonshine glazing on the passing rocky mountains. Not a single house. No streets. A panorama that you can only find on a freight train. Damn, why am I freezing?
Euphoria, Luck and Insanity again crawled out of their beds, joined at a table, abjured self-pity and I started to enjoy the ride completely. It was breathtaking. Serotonin rushed through my body. Some time passed, since I had that kind of thrill whilst hitchhiking. Train hopping: My new love! Hobo romance. The train became god. And I had to follow unconditionally.
It was about 5am as my train stopped for the first time leaving me a chance to flee. I looked around. There was a small settlement. Civilisation. Time to get off. Dawn was walking on the sky. I was in Idaho. A little too far north. But first, get off the train. My ears deaf from the sound. My train slowly started to move away and I looked at the passing wagons. I was in no hurry that night. Behind the train was a car waiting to cross the rails. I lifted my thumb. The driver immediately pulled over and gave me a ride. I couldn’t suppress my excitement and told him that I had just hopped that train. He understood. He also hopped trains when he was young.