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CSX - ridin the rails

This is a story i wrote about my adventure hopping fright trains in the south. Its kinda long so i will split it up into 3 installments. I hope you enjoy it (i will be happy if you even finish it).

I had been in New Orleans for about 2 weeks in early May. It was becoming too hot for comfort and I was getting a feeling of uneasiness that I later characterized as a sign to move along some where else. I was spending a lot of my time hanging out and going on missions with some fellow travelers, whom I became pretty close too. It was my first time understanding the true natural value of friends. If your living day to day, like our pre-agricultural ancestors, you need to rely on friends to: feed you if you’re sick or couldn’t get food, watch your possessions when you need to move un-encumbered, protect each other wile sleeping, and for social and psychological support. And where ever I went there were always other travelers to do just that. Ruthy, Joshy, Harry, and Wildthing were hitching west to Cali within the week, and Len & Trigger were hopping fright east, destination unknown soon. I had always wanted to ride freights but a lack of knowledge, experience, and I admit fear, kept me from it in the past. Their desire more then their experience, which was negligible, convinced me to go with them.

Our chill sleep spot in the dog park, New Orleans

My new companions had previously procured extremely vague directions on where to go and what to do by some hobos, which were written on a paper bag. In short: take the bus to the Chetmenteur Bridge, then walk to the Gentilly rail yard, sneak over to the north side and watch for a CSX train locking cars. The idea was to get to Jacksonville, Florida and hop north from there. Everything went smooth until we got near the rail yard where our lack of experience became more evident. We hiked through dense thorny vegetation mixed with polluted wetland to get to the yard. This was obviously the wrong way to go. We came out on the completely opposite side from where we wanted to be. It was the beginning of a very long night.

The directions

We started about going to the other side of the tracks, not an easy task. First is about 8 sets of tracks all with coupled cars on them, then a wide, well lit road, then another 6 sets or so. Climbing over the chest high couples with a full pack on your back and a gallon of water in your hand is more labor intensive then you would think. And if the train starts at the wrong time it could easily mean limb or life. Going under isn’t much more easy and definitely not more safe. Even worse was the fear of getting caught because our government used 9/11 as an excuse to revoke freedoms. Consequently, train hopping became a felony. We constantly redirected our route to avoid rail personal, and when they were near every step on the rail rocks seemed to revel our presents.
We must have sat in the shadows eyeing that brightly lit road for at least 5 minutes. White pickups randomly drove by every minute or so. When we finally made a break for the other side, all at the same time, a white pickup came hulling in our direction at high speed. Panic hit and we ran. We took refuge in a rail car with solid sides, and an open top, but the floor was 4 beams in a XX shape. There we hid for a few minutes, balancing our packs a bodies on those beams, only daring to peak over the top. We heard it about a second before it hit; when the train couples cars it simply just slams into them, locking the couples. BAMB, I was violently thrown against the back side wall. We could see straight down to the ground and the rail road ties seemed to be moving at and incredible rate. Len shouted "bail!", and we threw the packs and jugs over the siding, then our bodies.
We eventually made our way to the other side of the tracks to discover it was not where we wanted to be. We were exhausted, our nerves shot; it was hot, humid, and mosquito infested; and to top it off we were starting to argue about our next moves. We relaxed and discussed our actions many times over the next hour or so. Over time we decided to head back to our starting point and hike to the other end of the yard where a train heading our direction would exit, but on our way there we were blocked by a group of rail personal. We sat there in the shadows, stuck, with workers walking about no more then 20 feet in front of us.
Now most rail workers will help you when approached but we were not about to risk it. We walked, as quietly as possible, between two trains, away from the workers. Soon the train they were working on was moving in the direction we wanted to go with only one train and some empty space between us. Even though we were still in sight of the rail workers we made the snap decision and ran along side it and hopped on. As I was running I started to see little lights trace in front of my eyes. I thought the exhaustion and stress had got the best of me and I was about to faint; it had been a long time sense I had seen fire flies. We got on a grainer and it slowly took us to the other end of the rail yard, at least 5 miles, and stopped for about 20 minutes. There we sat, wanting nothing more then for that train to take us absolutely anywhere, when Trigger said "Shhh, someone’s coming". A light flashed on us and a deep southern voice said,
"Woah!, you guys ok?"
"Umm, yeah."
"Where you tryin’ to go?"
"Well this train ain’t going nowhere for a few days. You want the train two tracks down from the road. It’s leaving in 15 minutes so you better hurry"
His name was Curtis, a brakeman, and my personal Jesus that night. We ran to said train and were moving east bound within minutes. Our spot was a 6 x 10 platform that you see on either end of grainer cars. In this spot you are in plain view and exposed to the elements. My hair danced franticly in the wind as we made our way east in the damp night. After a victory joint and some hollering, I promptly fell asleep.

Kickin it in cargo

We woke up the next morning in broad daylight with a freeway on one side and a service road on the other. From the license plates we were somewhere in Alabama. In front of us was another train stopped ahead of ours. We hopped off and attempted to hitch at a nearby onramp; we didn’t even get a smile. We had our thumbs out for an hour or so before checking out the other train. Under the onramp was an obvious place were hobos camped out and waited to hop out. There was also a large collection of good graffiti were we learned our exact location; Mobil, AB. We found an open box car where we ate some food, and waited for over an hour fanning ourselves in the extreme heat before the train started.

Self explanatory
The box car was definitely a step up from the grainer. The open doors framed the beautiful and endlessly moving countryside. A view you could never get from a car. I spent many hours just sitting on the side of the car with my legs dangling just over the fast moving tracks below. I read, wrote, stretched, exercised, did cart wheels; looked for signs, license plates, checked the compass and looked to the sun to discern our direction; and spent many hours sleeping. Different areas of the car would rock more the others. In the front it was so intense that your body would be violently rolling back and forth when the train was at top speed. It was pleasant to only possess a vague idea of where we were and where we were going. After 8 or 10 hours we were stopped in Montgomery around midnight. We all had a big argument over whether we should get of there or not but before it was resolved the train decided for us and started again.

Me writing more or less what your are reading

By the next afternoon we were in Birmingham with very little water, so it was decided to hop off there and re-supply. We passed by the security entrance as we left and got a stern look and a threatening head shake from the security guard. We headed straight to the truck stop which was not far off. The girl working at the subway gave all three of us meals after we told her our little story. We spent a few hours asking truckers for a ride, food, or money. More then one asked us how much for some time with Trigger in a joking manner. Even though we were in public our hands didn’t wander far from our blades. After an hour we made about $60 and were stocked on food.

Travelin without moving

A CSX man getting off work told us that the yard we just left was the North / South line and the West / East was about 8 miles a way. We got a ride from some painters to the area and hung out around the east bound exit until a white truck pulled up. I decided to approach him without my pack and ask him casual questions to figure out if he was a threat. He turned out to be a train enthusiast who watched trains go by. He had a scanner so he could hear when trains were leaving, where they were going, and what kind of car’s it was pulling. He knew where they performed the crew changes (where trains stop to quickly switch the crews). He drove us to the spot, told us when the train was coming and left. All he had wanted from us was to hear our train adventures. Soon a train stopped right there, we snuck onto a box car and it took off some minutes later.

Dirty little vagobundos

This was by far the coolest part of the ride. It was much more scenic as it followed a river instead of a road. It must have been a low priority freight because we always stopped for other trains and watched as they passed by. The best part was when an Amtrak went by. Everyone with a window, car by car, stared wide eyed at the dirty children waving to them from a box car. Other times when the train would stop we would cool off in the stream and run back to the box car before the train took off again.
The next morning we were in Columbus, Georgia, in a thunder storm. We stayed there until mid-day when the rain stopped. It had been stopped for at least 8 hours, we tried yelling to the conductors in the locomotive to get some info but no luck. Here we hopped off the train and continued to Savannah hitchhiking. But that is another story. This was one of my favorite adventures of my life, and the sound of a locomotive whistle still speeds my heart.

a la savannah
So thats my story. About a week of a 6 month trip. I have been working off and on with transcribing my travel journals to digital format (not too much fun). This version has been edited a bit for content and language. So if you want to get the real deal, just ask. And if you have any questions about the tramp (hobo, vagabond, what ever) style of travel i would love to share that aswell. Its the best way to travel. Its a truly different experience (forget comfort zone travel. who learns from that?) and its no problem if your on the peoples side of the class war. Even after 6 months i nearly broke even on my finances (i worked every city i stayed at). Im not an expert on the subject but i would be glad to share my stories, tips, and what not.
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