Hopping Out — The Romance of Freight Trains

At the top of the blog fuckyeahfreighttrains,  which is devoted to train hopping teenagers and Gutter Punks, stands this quote by John Ruskin:

“Along the iron veins that traverse the frame of our country, beat and flow the fiery pulses of its exertion, hotter and faster every hour. All vitality is concentrated through those throbbing arteries into the central cities; the country is passed over like a green sea by narrow bridges, and we are thrown back in continually closer crowds on the city gates.”

Ruskin was writing in the 1800s, but the quote above captures the same feeling those who hop freight today have  of how being on the train connects the rider to something  vital, elemental about the country, something with a powerful, driving rhythm wrapped in the exhilaration of motion, even if it’s not clear where the rider is headed. Part of the draw in hopping a freight is that they don’t know where they are going, but they are going, and it might get better. At least it probably won’t get worse.


When I was interviewing in New Orleans, I asked everyone to share with me their most memorable train hopping stories. Here I’m posting just a few, apart of the oral tradition that  binds the culture together: the age-old uniquely American underdog tale of life on the rails. Some of the train stories weigh in like epics. So much struggle and grandeur.



The long look back



“We started the morning in Redding, California in the summer. It was 90 degrees and brutal. We got chased through the yard by the bulls and hid in a bush until the train started to move and we chased it and hopped on just before the bulls turned the corner in their SUV.  I guess they didn’t see us. We collapsed in the freight car and when we woke up, we were crawling slowly around the side of the Cascade Mountains and everywhere we looked – – 360 degrees – were elk and rainbows.”


The Southern Crescent crossing Lake Ponchatrain


“I had to get out of New Orleans.  I’d been saying that for three weeks, but then I’d get drunk and stupid and wake up two days later and the people I was going to hop out with, they’d split. I had to go find some more. And then the same thing would happen.  It was hell.  Finally, I just did it myself.  I went down to the yard and hopped on the first thing that moved, and it headed out over Lake Ponchatrain, the track right over the water, so all you see on both sides is water reflecting the moon and the city. I was dancing in the freight car. Things were going to get better, at least for a while.  I could feel it. When we pulled past the next little town there were little punk kids, no more than twelve years old, running along the side of the train yelling at me with their hands up saying, ‘Take me with you!  Take me with you!’”


“The first time we hopped out of Emeryville and we thought we were going North to Sacramento but we ended up in Portola, right on the Nevada border in the most desolate and decayed landscape I’d ever seen.  Like a Salvador Dali painting. Downed power lines, whole cow carcasses. The sand looked like it had its own tide. I felt like Lewis and Clark.  If you are not a train rider or and engineer, you would never see this.  There are no roads that go here.”