I jumped on in Spokane. It was late December and the middle of the night. The boxcar was dark, dirty, and damp, but empty. The south-facing door was half-open, which was enough for a view and for keeping out of sight.
This was my first go. I came to learn later that there is a diesel-stained esoteric code to this dim-witted activity, and ‘asking around’ might give you advice (however dubious and untested) about choosing cars, tracking routes, and trusting more than luck to keep from being maimed, killed or arrested.
Best to heed unwritten laws such as: jacking the door open with a board or pallet so you won’t lose dangling legs on a sudden stop, checking out the whole train before jumping on to see if there are indeed engines attached, and maybe even bringing along food, water, and sufficient boxcar-appropriate clothing to keep from ending this manly excitement as a smiling corpse in some far-flung sub-zero siding while the engineers keep warm a mile ahead sipping cheap wine and waiting on the midnight train to Omaha, now five hours late, to pass through. Absent such wisdom, however, I endured. And by 4 a.m., we were racing over the winter sagebrush landscape, headed west under a bright full moon that lit up the frosty land for miles around.
I knew enough geography to place myself. The mainline tracks roughly parallel U.S. Highway 2, but I had no idea when or even if the freight would stop before the Cascade Mountains. At daybreak, around 7, we squealed down a long grade and soon banged across the Columbia River on an ancient steel bridge. I gathered up my blanket, pulled my stocking cap down tight and jumped off at the switch yard in Wenatchee. Somehow, I got around the back end of the train and managed to avoid attracting the attention of the bundled-up yard workers going about their business. With just enough money for breakfast at the old Owl Café near the tracks, I washed up and then devoured an order of ham and eggs – clearly a meal for a sure-enough gypsy tramp hobo, or whatever I was. I then found the highway to hitchhike back to school and my empty dorm. I could do this.
The Tunnel of Death
In the years to come, I would take several more freight rides. Some of my friends, also eager to re-frame their stupidity as skillful impetuousness, would choose to sign on. Pete and I almost got to the Canadian border late one night drinking whiskey and bellowing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” with our feet dancing and waving over the boxcar’s edge. We first had to change trains in Everett to keep from possibly suffocating in the Stevens Pass rail tunnel. We were smart enough to know about the eight mile long passage but not enough to know if there was enough air to breathe during its passage. We imagined a big pile of dead tramps on both sides of the track with open mouths and their eyes popping out of their head. When we jumped off to find a train north to Bellingham, a runaway teenager who had been standing by the tracks climbed aboard. He looked confused and not too bright and said he was going to go wherever the train took him. We wished him luck, but looked at each other and shook our heads.
To our surprise we sped right through Bellingham that night. We had been warned by the yard worker in Everett we ought not get caught when the mean and unforgiving Canadian customs agents go through all the boxcars at the international border, so we bailed out north of Ferndale as soon as the train slowed enough to allow the liquor to convince us it was safe to jump. Clearly, the British Columbia immigration jails are full of booze-sotted fools singing old country western songs.
On my 29th birthday brother Terry, friend Scott and I rode an auto carrier car south on the Burlington Northern line from the Seattle Interbay yards to Tacoma. We rattled hell-bent down the valley through Duwamish, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn and Puyallup on a clear autumn day. “Automotive Racks”, as these rail cars are properly called, are now all steel-sided to prevent vandalism, but back in the day you could climb the outside ladder at sixty or so swaying miles per hour to the top deck and get a hell of a view. Just don’t try to stand up.
On that trip, two honest-to-god hobos got on as we waited by the old Kingdome. Davey and “Loose.” Loose carried a scented, well-traveled duffel bag. Davey had a jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of bread in a pair of crappy old boots slung over his shoulder. I noticed one of the boots had a heel missing. Davey said that those boots got him arrested in Colorado the past year as he was walking in circles and the cop hauled him off to jail for “weaving with the intent to fall over.”
We jumped off in Tacoma then took them out to the 24th Street Tavern across from the yards and bought them drinks. They sure could drink. And they sure could tell stories – real goddamn hobo stories. I bought a pack of Camel cigarettes for Davey, though from the way he coughed I was pretty sure he had tuberculosis. Just our way of saying thanks.
We phoned my friend Paul who lived in Spanaway. He came over and drove Terry, Scott and I back to my 29th birthday party in North Seattle where my girlfriend Sue was waiting somewhat impatiently. She was thankful in spite of my reeking and reckless condition that I was still alive. A guy couldn’t ask for a nicer gift. Some time later I became convinced that chicks dig idiots. I’m in. Life is good.