The man who took the photo that illustrates my story pitch tracked me down, I’m happy to say. I appropriated his photo from the website fuckyeahfrieghttrains.com. There was no way to give Reade Charles credit. He wasn’t listed as the photographer.
When he found me, Reade and I talked and he sent me a few more photos taken from that trip, his first time hopping trains.
He said he’d fantasized about touring the country “to go out and see everything” from the time he was in high school and was saving up money to buy a van. He left home and was staying with his friend Zach in Gainesville. Zach told basically any kid with a backpack that they were welcome to crash at his house. Among the people at Zach’s were Carly and Sasha, the couple in these pictures, who had been hopping trains for about a year.
After talking to them, Reade dropped the idea of saving up for a van.”Through the weekend I heard the stories from around the country; and the romanticized train hopping stories, probably more than a couple times. By the end of the weekend, I had decided that a van was superfluous; there were too many payments that I couldn’t afford. I didn’t have to wait to go anywhere now, ” Reade said.
Reade had an army backpack that his father had bought at a flea market. He had stuffed a few possessions in it – “Too much shit. Too much weight: sleeping bag, jacket, two pairs of jeans, too many warm clothes two books. Now I’d just take a sleeping bag and a jacket.” — told his folks he was hitting the road and, despite their pleas, walked out the door.
Zach, Carly, Sasha and Reade stayed in touch. About a month later, they agreed to meet up at the Ocala Rainbow Gathering and hop out from there. Although Reade’s parents had been cautious when he left, telling him to be careful and call them regularly, they were really upset when he disappeared for a week at the Rainbow Gathering. “For a while, my parents were losing their minds,” Reade remembered. “Now they accept the fact that I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”
At the time of the photo, the foursome had just started traveling. They hitched to Jacksonville, as you can see from this photo, then caught a train to Waycross, Georgia, then hitched from there to Savannah.
“A buddy of ours took us over to the Kroger we dumpstered a full bottle of white wine,” he said, of the beverage they seemed to be enjoying in the photo. The wine was an omen, a sign of good luck for travelers, they thought. As they walked toward the train with their bottle, they had to walk right past the train engineer. They debated the wisdom of this for a while and then decided to take their chances with the train engineer alerting the railroad police that they were on the train. The feeling of good luck continued as they passed him. “He waved at us and kept the train stopped until we got on,” Reade said.
Once inside the gondola car, they cracked open the bottle to discover that there was a reason someone had put it in the dumpster. “It was nasty ass wine,” he said. They had to coerce each other to finish it. “We were always saying, ‘It’s your turn. You’ve got to drink next,’” he said.
Reade and his friend Zack traveled with Carly and Sasha for about a while, then argued when they were in Charleston and split up. Currently Reade is back living with his parents while he looks for a job. He wants to buy land and set up a place where train-hopping kids can stay on their way across the country. “I want to be able to buy my acreage and take care of the little dirty kids,” he said. Yet he’s restless and planning to hop out again this summer.
What I like about his photo is the feeling of joy, of freedom, of clowning around. There were many very grim and lonely photos that I looked at when I was trying to choose one to illustrate this story, photos of solitary people in vacant box cars, or filthy scenes where everyone looks played out and/or sickly. Each image as a little kernel of truth in it. The scene in the gondola car as the vagabonds toast their good luck captures the feeling of getting away with it.