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Freight Train Hopping in the U.S.A.

Updated on May 26, 2011

Trains....there's nothing like travel by rail

Romance of the Rail
Romance of the Rail

Loving Eric and Riding Trains

Fast forward to young adulthood and, my romance with trains stirred to life again, in a big way.

Upon returning to my home town of Napa after living in the East Bay Area of the greater San Francisco Bay Area, I decided to take a few classes at the local Junior College. Having spent more than the required years attending classes in Psychology and Sociology, I thought it would be fun to explore Humanities and Liberal Arts. The Napa JC offered excellent Professors who possessed Doctorates in their chosen fields. I enrolled in classes in Logic, Writing, Philosophy and Art. To supplement my education and income, I gained employment in the college Library as well as the cafeteria; both part time.

I met Eric during my school cafeteria days. He was also a Liberal Arts student trying to find who is was and what he excelled in. Brilliant as well as introverted; Eric met my idea of the perfect young man. I didn’t know this at first in fact, we worked together, at irregular intervals, for over a year before I realized how much I liked him. It took the announcement that he would not be returning to work the following fall to awaken feelings I had, up to then, not recognized. He had decided to work in an agricultural area about 100 miles away which would more than pay for his planned cross country trip via Freight Train. I discovered, to my surprise, how disappointed I felt which made me think that I didn’t want to return to that part time work without him being there.

While working together, over washing dishes, serving lunch and clean up, we discussed all kinds of subjects including philosophy, religion, politics and ethics. Eric was quite intelligent and had, obviously spend quite a good deal of time considering things. His father, Ronald, was a professor and a very liberal subscriber to the Hippie ideology and, as such, had influenced Eric quite a bit with his counterculture life style.

So, Eric had an open mind and was exposed to much beyond his young years. Younger than I by 5 years, I felt in awe of his apparent self confidence; his professed outlook on life and the fact that he seemed to be able to come and go without all the anguish I felt under the same circumstances. Where I would cry and worry and avoid major changes in my life when it came to relationships, work and home, he appeared to be able to move freely from one to the next without so much as a look back. I wanted to hold on and he was satisfied to let go.

Being an avid locomotive enthusiast, Rick often spent weekends with a group of boys and men who gathered at a retired train yard to work on ‘mothballed’ engines, cars and cabooses. This group also engaged in Lionell and H.O. miniature trains   But, the main emphasis was on locomotives and railways of the past and all the lore, history and art which was inspired by and reveled in the colorful, important role these huge behemoths played in the making of this country. The railway played a major role in political strife and decision making as well as the profit motivated business of transporting people and goods across this great country. Rick always had pictures of trains, calendars with trains as the motif and many books about the historical significance of the rail way in the formation of the U.S.A. He also traveled by freight train, often, just for the fun of it. Hopping freight trains was his favorite pastime. He learned the ropes, the yards which were easy to access, and could identify the places where the rail yard “bull” seriously threatened one’s well being if caught trying to jump onto a slowly moving train as it exited the yard.

He came to my small apartment a day before his planned departure to say goodbye and give me a parting present. At the time, I wondered why as we hadn’t voiced our feelings for one another and, as far as I knew, he didn’t share my remorse at this change in our time together.

But, as it turned out, he did! He had written a lengthy letter, which he gave to me and asked that I read it after he left  I did just that; reading the words he wrote declaring his respect, admiration and attraction to me. I was astounded and pleased! Since I learned of this after he had gone, I had no way to respond except to hope that he’d magically appear at my place. I had no address or phone number.

One day, weeks later, I checked my mail and there was a letter from Eric. Quickly, casting the bills and ads aside, I opened the letter.

Eric wrote a long missive describing his new life, experiences and daily routine. He left nothing to detail (something which did not surprise me as he was always an in depth conversationalist) which made me feel as though I were walking those fields and riding the tractor right along with him. He was living a fantasy, of sorts, since he had always wanted to try working in fields, something completely foreign to his upbringing in an intellectual, professional family of teachers. His exuberance at explaining his daily life was contageous!  I gained a new appreciation for the rural side of life through Eric's colorful descriptions of his experiences.   And, he also told me of his feelkngs for me and how much he missed me and our discussions, laughter and frivolity. He closed the letter by informing me that he would be in Napa the following week and wanted to see me.

I was very excited and could not wait to see him. When he finally appeared at my door, he had changed. He was tan, more slender, lean and  much more defined, and strong!  His thick hair had grown. He was a GOD! Not only was he, as always, attractive mentally and intellectually but, he had turned into a gorgeous young man. Not that he wasn’t before but, now, he was an ‘outdoors healthy,” golden California specimen.

Over the weeks and months, we wrote back and forth, and, on occasion, when he had access to a phone, we’d talk for hours and hours. We never had trouble communicating; ours had started as a mentally stimulating relationship, the physical attraction followed many months later.

Eric and I became a bona fide couple soon after his stint in the fields of America’s bread basket came to an end.

Motorcycles were another favorite interest of Eric and he had several during our time together. We’d pack our gear and head off for undetermined destinations at the merest suggestion. Often, these would be just weekend or 3 day jaunts but, occasionally, we’d leave with no time constraints and just see where the road would lead us.

One trip took us to Colorado. We took 5 days to get there from Napa, taking our time to see sights and camp out. We both liked hiking so we made sure to allow time for several trails we came upon. When it was time to head back home, we decided upon a less traveled route which took us through the Sierra Mountain Range via Scenic Route 49. It was awe inspiring! Visually beautiful with high snow covered peaks and rivers which ran so clean that one could see 10, 20 feet to the bottom of sparkling crystal clear water which was home to myriad fish.

We came upon a very small mountain town called Downieville where we decided to camp out for 3 days and nights. (In the future, with my new husband -not Eric- I traveled this road again which resulted in buying my first home but, that is another story). Beautiful and unique, we both fell in love with Downieville; it’s residents and quirky, local color stores and businesses.

I mentioned that Rick loved trains..particularly freight trains! He had always wanted someone, a girlfriend, who would be willing to share this with him. Up to that time, and probably because of his youth, he had not yet met that girl…until he met me.

I had a history of riding trains once a month for a year…passenger trains, yes, but because of that girlhood experience, I had grown to love the feeling, the enchanting journey available when riding the backroad, out of the way rails of trains.

I was enamored with the idea of ‘hopping freight trains.’ I looked forward to our first trip. Eric chose a short ‘maiden voyage’ for me just so that I could get used to the rigors and rules of the rail road. First of all, if you can’t catch a train as it slows to cross a road or meander through town, then the only other way to grab a train is in the ’yard.’ And all yards have a person called the “bull” who watches out that hobos, derelicts and neer’ do wells don’t jump on an open freight car while the train is standing still awaiting the next job. To avoid getting caught by ‘the bull,’ one must have guile and guts. Eric possessed both, I had neither…at least, not yet!

Not too long ago in the city of Napa, the local Southern Pacific rail road hub was located right off Main street and the central part of the small town of Napa. The big engines stood there, on a “side track,’ until needed. During this entire time, the engines continued to rumble and humm. It was a rare event when an engine was turned off. Eric said it took more fuel and exerted much more stress on a locomotive to start cold so, habit was to allow them to idle until needed. Sometimes, there would be two or three on the same side track. I could hear this wonderful sound from my downtown apartment just 4 blocks away. All night, if I wanted, I could concentrate on that big, smooth sound. All seasons, winter, spring, summer and fall; It never bothered me; I found the constant rumble comforting. Sometimes, Eric and I would climb into the cab of a big engine and sit there talking for hours. No one was aware of us and we were able to spy on everyone and everything around us. It was great fun, specially in the heavy downpours N. Calif. is known for. Cozy and warm, we'd cuddle together while the rain drenched everything around us

Eric thought it would be best to catch our first train together just out of town before the long snakelike form began to pick up speed. We got a friend to drop us off at an intersection which sat over a small, meandering creek. A rarely traveled out of the way route for auto traffic, it was perfect for our needs. Eric knew all the schedules of the local trains by heart since he’d been hopping freight trains for years. So, we were ready and, before long, I could hear that familiar drone as the big engine approached. Since the route for this particular train did not include the climbing of mountains, there was only one engine. When trains are particularly long or heavy or when their route takes them up into the Sierras (or other mountainous passes), there can be many engines. They’ll be in front and in back, sometimes the middle; pulling and pushing their heavy load to it’s final destination. Since engines can go equally as strong and fast in forward or reverse, it looks weird to see the rear engines “pushing” rather than pulling but, this is the way it works.

Our train of choice had a front engine and it was coming towards us at a very slow, in town, intersection pace. As the motor passed us, Eric said, “next flat car or open freight car that comes by will be the one we’ll take.”

“Yeah, right!” I said. Now that the actual time was here, my enthusiasm was somewhat curbed by the reality of the situation. How in the world was I going to get myself up into a moving freight car? Eric said he’d get on first and grab out to help me.

“Start running as soon as the engine passes,” he said, “keep pace with the train, don’t try to outrun it.”

“Ok!” I replied.

“Now“, he said, “ watch me…see how I do it. I’ll pull you up!”

Before I knew it, an empty flat car approached and he kept up with the back part of it where small ladders are attached for easy boarding. This would prove to be the best option for us because this way, I didn’t have to try to jump into the car but, rather, grab onto the end of it. He held on to the rungs and swung his legs forward. The movement caused his legs to go backyards and even with the ladder where he quickly gained footing and proceeded to pull himself up and onto the flat car. He urged me to run and keep up.

“Kath! Don’t fall behind. Try to grab the ladder and put you foot on the lowest rung. “

Since I hadn’t done this and didn’t know the trick of propelling your legs forward, first; I did as he told me and took hold of the ladder with both hands while running and then, holding on for dear life, I “jumped” as best as I could while lifting my stronger right leg onto the lowest rung. Thank God!!! I actually did it!! Out of breath more out of fear than the slow running required to ‘board’ the trains, my heart was pounding and I started to laugh. Eric did, too and, there we were, a motley duo, laughing our selves into near hysteria at the thought, the image and the sight of us sitting on that flat car.

How exhilarating! Being in the open, riding in the wind enjoying vistas we could not have seen by car. Trains take routes which are vastly different than that of the automobile. Through mountains, along the sides of these with the rails seeming to be hanging on by a thread, dropping down to unimaginable depths engines pulsing through mountains via, sometimes, centuries old tunnels; the course of the railway encounters magnificent views.

On many mountainous rail routes, there are small villages and towns which mainly cater to the crews and workers of the trains which travel through. Quaint and picturesque as well as rough and tumble; frozen in time and mostly untouched by current events, these remote buroughs appeal to nostalgia and an America of the past. There is almost always a local watering hole, dark and smoky, a small ‘mom & pop’ grocery store and maybe a hardware or dry goods store. Rotary phones in phone booths and TV antennas abound. Of course, the theme in just about all of these stops along the way is the railroad. Calendars with trains, magazines featuring trains, and sundry assortments of paraphernalia having to do with the operating, riding and enjoying of trains is in evidence everywhere one looks.

Over the weeks and months of summer and into fall, Eric and I sampled different trains and different routes from the California coast inland to Colorado, Montana, the Great Plains states, the deep South and all points in between. Riding in empty box cars, mostly, we had the time of our lives. During warmer weather, flat cars are great vehicles as you are right out in the open, buffeted by the wind and feeling as though you could reach out and touch everything. Box cars are better for cooler weather and privacy. Once, when we hauled ourselves into a boxcar, we found we had company. Three raggedy looking men who looked as if they’d been doing this for a very long while. Quiet and sinister, the men watched us as we tried to disappear into the woodwork structure at the opposite end of the car. Through many miles, a blaring silence filled the air as we did not want to instigate any misunderstanding that could cause us harm.

Finally, the thinner, scragglier of the three asked us what we were doing on the train.

“What you two doin’ on this train?“ He inquired.

I, not thinking, replied quickly, “Oh, this is the first time we’ve done this, we just wanted to see what it was like to hop a train.“

Eric about fell over. I knew he’d figure out that I was ‘playing dumb’ hoping that the scruffy fellows would not see us as competition or threatening. He went along.

“How do you guys get off the train? “ he asked. “Is it very hard?“

"Naw," replied one, "ya jus jump off the side there and roll."

"OK!" I thought..."easy as pie!'

The three hobos appeared to relax a little and didn’t say another word until we reached one of those isolated train towns high up in the hills. Eric had earlier urged that we jump off to get away from the guys as soon as possible just in case their mood changed and they decided we had something they might want. As the town approached and the train slowed, we scuttled off and out of the box car, jumping without much preparation, tumbling and rolling in the oil covered ballast. Rock, aka ballast, is sometimes oiled to keep the dust down and off the tracks. Unfortunately, this gravel was greased to the max, making for very oily, sticky clothing and bare limbs. But, happily, we were free of potential harm and right, smack dab in another of those wonderful enclaves meant to meet the specifications of train folk.

Occasionally, and specially when the weather up in the mountains was very cold and some of those peaks still held snow, we’d work our way into an engine for the long haul. By now, I had become adept at exiting and boarding a moving train if it slowed enough. So, we'd jump from a car and run up into the engine.

The engines are just about always open and, except for the main one in front and the driving force at the rear of the train, these engines are unoccupied. No engineer!

Engines are always warm! Engines always have that wonderful rhythmic chug chugging that is almost like being rocked to sleep. The cab is huge, chairs very comfortable and views outstanding! There is lots of floor space, too. There’s something to be said about sitting high up in the cab, snow falling all around. And, there is truly something to be said about the pulsing, constant thump of an engine!

Eric and I spent many hours in engines!

Well, now that I thought of myself as a seasoned veteran of freight train hopping, I was ready for the next step.

To be continued…….



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    • Lucky Cats profile image

      Kathy 6 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

      Well, Augustine...I guess I was a was SO much fun doing this! I always looked forward to our next trip..the excitement, anticipation and the danger; yes, danger such as the three men on the car w/us and never knowing, for sure, where it would be easiest to disembark..and, just the magical allure of the unknown. you said it..Danger! Hey, remember the movie with Michael Keaton? (Has nothing to do w/this topic but...) "Johnny Dangerously." Loved it....

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 6 years ago from Texas

      Kathy, I can't believe you were hobo! You should be scolded, it's very dangerous to catch the train the way you and your boyfriend did. But that's probably why it was exciting. Enthralling tale...

    • We Save Cats profile image

      We Save Cats 7 years ago from SE Kansas

      Before I met Kathy, she lived a pretty crazy life. Afterwards too. A great story, Kath

    • profile image

      freight collection 7 years ago

      Nice hub. I had a friend who did this from New Mexico to California. THanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      Fiddleman 7 years ago

      Good read. When we were in high school, some of my budies would hope the trains as it was passing through the small town of Saluda, NC and beginning its descent down the Saluda Grade. They hopped off near Melrose and some one picked them up by car or truck.

    • Kim Lynn profile image

      Kim Lynn 7 years ago

      A Great story! Refreshing and well written.

      Thank You!


    • vietnamvet68 profile image

      vietnamvet68 7 years ago from New York State

      A very good story of train hopping, one thing that I could never do, as it takes to much courage and is very dangerous besides. Looking forward to reading the rest of the story. God Bless Kathy