The day I turned 18 years old, my father told me, “You fuck up now and you go to jail.” We were on a family vacation in Hawaii.
A month prior, I had been kicked out of high school just before graduation. By summer’s end, I was bagging groceries and enrolling in useless courses at an underfunded community college in San Diego. I was now an adult.
I soon became aware of how emasculating it felt to ask someone permission to take a day off from work. I learned about taxes and wanted nothing to do with voting for the rich, religious crooks vying for my country’s hearts and minds. I had little in common with that world and decided against contributing to it in any way.
During winter break, I linked up with some similarly disaffected artists from Las Vegas to direct films about freight-train graffiti and homelessness. I soon discovered that in addition to painting these mobile canvases, they also illegally rode them, exploring America and visiting friends and family in neighboring states.
Upon returning home, I didn’t show up for work or school again. To keep from living the rest of my life with a teenager’s understanding of the world, I spent the remaining money I had on a collection of books that interested me, threw them in my car and moved to Las Vegas. Before long, I was cutting holes in fences and scurrying around in the dark with my best friends, attempting to skirt the railroad police.
Under the cover of darkness in a rail yard, you still feel vulnerable. You can never quite be sure if you were seen going in or if those ominous police headlights, scanning the hobo jungle, didn’t happen across your anxious face. In the moments before the frantic dash toward the train, the human heartbeats seem louder than the piercing sounds of air being released from the brakes. One second late and you’ve missed your ride; one loud word and you’ve gotten yourself arrested; one clumsy step and you won’t have legs to step on anything ever again.
And once you’re secured on the car, all you can do is curl up. Make yourself the size of the flask of bum liquor your friend is going to use to brave the mountain’s chill. Wait for the wheels to roll. Wait for the city to get smaller.
I caught my first train in summer 2006. It was around 3 a.m. For hours, we’d been quietly hiding in a jungle of tumbleweeds, barbed wire and bum shit just outside Downtown. When we cleared the train yard, I looked out at the city, a now-distant electric kennel, and then north toward the blackened hills of Northern Nevada. The first of many rides was under way.
I now ride trains every year without fail. I’ve explored the better parts of Nevada, Utah, California and vast swaths of the Pacific Northwest by rail, documenting each trip and rarely sleeping. Jack London did it decades before and published his experiences. Men and women hopped trains as a necessary means of travel at the end of the Civil War and throughout the Great Depression. An entire hobo culture—hungry, dedicated, resilient and filthy—was born out of it. Johnny Cash rode freights and wrote songs about it. Years later, Tim Barry of Avail introduced freight-train culture to modern-day punk rock music.
In most parts of the country, the tracks are miles away from civilization, which allows you to take in landscapes that virtually no one has ever seen. The rivers, forests and valleys of the Pacific Northwest are like some lush, prehistoric world, pulsing, breathing—too achingly alive for our jaded modern eyes. Traveling 200 feet over the Columbia River at dusk while standing on the top of an ancient Union Pacific boxcar is the closest I’ve ever come to believing in a higher power. I’ve closed my eyes only to open them to find more blackness and, after a second of panic, realized we’re traveling through a tunnel at top speed. When we blast out the back end, our lungs are filled with the train’s exhaust.
We’ve watched riders jump out of boxcars and break arms. We have hidden while friends stood frozen in the crosshairs of railway police pistols. Years ago, in Dunsmuir, California, after a miscommunication, I boarded the side ladder of a train that I thought was rolling to a stop. Instead, it picked up speed, and I was forced to jump off into a pile of rocks to avoid getting knocked off the ladder and under the train by a huge boulder jutting out the side of a cliff. Outside of Everett, Washington, there’s a tunnel long enough to cause riders to die from asphyxiation. We rode through it, but were lucky enough to sneak inside of a back engine to keep from suffocating. Delirium can kill you just as easily as anything else. In the midday summer heat, after well over 30 sleepless hours, I somehow managed to convince myself that if I jumped off the train, I would survive—and that if I died, it would be the greatest way to go. Luckily, I stayed put.
Train riding is synonymous with patience. Waiting for the right train can take an entire day, depending on the city. You have to stay hidden. Rail workers are historically tolerant of riders as long as they don’t catch them vandalizing the cars or putting themselves in a position where they have to call the cops. It’s a fun little game of “Look the Other Way.” The rail police (a.k.a. “The Bull”), on the other hand, are to be avoided at all costs. The punishments can vary, but you’re more than likely to end up in jail if you’re caught. A friend was pinned with an “Interstate Terrorism” charge a year after 9/11. Simply put, riding freight trains is illegal, and men and women are employed to stop people from doing it. However, it’s one thing to discover America through the open door of a boxcar; it’s another thing to do it under the nose of the law. To me, nothing is more American than disregarding laws that prohibit people from living a free and healthy life. Some spend millions on therapy, liquor and medication. Others take vacations to overpriced resorts or party in nightclubs. We ride freight trains.
I’ve spent a lot of time traveling and seen some amazing foreign countries, but those experiences—expensive and crowded, trampling common ground and breathing the same shared air—didn’t change me the way my rail adventures have.
I was fortunate enough never to have the need to return to school, and my days of having a boss ended that day in the grocery store. Today, nothing brings me more joy than calling my father from a train to check in. He knows damn well what I’m doing is illegal and carries some serious consequences. I don’t have to remind him of what he told me on my 18th birthday. He remembers. But he raised me on camping and hiking, and both of us understand the necessity of freedom, fresh air and adventure. No law can dictate that we live our lives without them.