August 2012: This is Hobo Living. The contents of this page were previously www.FreightHopping.com. Hobo Living is the original video and write-up of my freight train hopping adventure in America in 2005. NOTE: This means that all of the content below was made and written by me way back in 2005. Just so you know. It's also worth noting that Hobo Living is on Youtube twice (due to the sound being removed at one point causing me to reupload it) and that it has a combined total of over 100,000 views to date! Not bad for an 8 minute video about a very niche subject :D Anyway, enjoy...
In June 2005 I did something which I recommend everyone should try, especially 12 year old girls. I travelled to a foreign continent, met up with an ex-convict I knew only from the Internet and partook in an illegal activity for about nine days which could have got me either arrested or killed. That activity is called Freight Train Hopping.
Because I have so much content for this page I have divided it up into sub pages to make it easier to read and scroll.
I hope you like it otherwise I have failed horribly.
• America is covered in many thousands of miles of railway which is used by two main sorts of train: Commercial trains (for paying customers to get from A to B) and Freight trains (for masses of cargo to be transported around the country -and for cheeky non-paying customers). Freights are enormous hulks of trains which more often than not span over 1.5 miles in length, contain more than 150 cars -which can hold all sorts of heavy goods cargo- and travel up to speeds of 60mph between Freight yards where they are loaded and unloaded.
• Freight hopping is the act of sneaking on board a freight train and hitching a ride on it to wherever it might be heading after which you sneak off and either sneak onto another train that's going somewhere else or get the hell out the yard (sneakily) before you're seen and caught by security (surprisingly enough freight hopping is illegal). The people who do Freight Hopping are known as "Hobos". The rail yard security guys who you really don't want to bump into are called "Bulls" and seeing how far you can get via freight trains and coping with whatever the yards in which you arrive throw at you is called "exciting".
• Having never even really heard of Freight Hopping or Hobos before, it would have been unwise for me to decide to go to America and play on trains by myself. So I did it with a guy called Wyatt. I've known Wyatt online for over two years from a couple of forums (and MSN) and he'd talked about having done Freight Hopping before, including a couple of stories about various things which happened during some of his trips. These got my attention and I thought it would be pretty cool to go and try something like that for myself. I asked Wyatt if he would be up for any more trips and he said something along the lines of "HELL YEAH" so I decided there and then that is what my next set of travels will include. A few months later I was in the States, crouched in a dark freight yard waiting to see whether the security man with the flash light and the gun a few meters away was coming our way or not. HOW EXCITING!!
• I took my video camera to the USA (of course) and filmed lots of the freight hopping trip. However, it must be noted that my footage is pretty limited due to many parts not being at all practical for me to get my camera out and start filming. The whole experience was new to me so I didn't know what to expect which makes capturing the right things on film pretty tricky. My camera is also pretty bulky due to being 4 years old so when I filmed with it I had to get it out of my backpack which was awkward and meant I couldn't get it out during times when I needed to be ready to move somewhere quickly. To make up for the lack of video and pictures when in yards or boarding trains and things like that I have written about it instead exactly as it happened.
• Wyatt was 35 and hadn't been on the freights for eight years. However, before that time he had made about 12 freight trips during which he covered many thousands of miles in a whole range of states so the guy knew what was involved. One thing that Wyatt had never done before though was travel with someone else. He had always wanted to but didn't know anyone who would be up for the job. You must realise it's not something you just grab a friend and do for a laugh, what with the potential of arrest and death and things. SO WHY THE HELL DID HE GO WITH ME? Well, it's because I have posted on forums in the past about how I used to love sneaking about the dark when I was a kid, making dens, climbing trees, trespassing (not damaging anything though of course) and generally being a mischievous little scamp. He also knew that I am in good shape and could cope with the physical side of freight hopping and hiking. I can look after myself so I wouldn't be a liability.
Oh yeah, Wyatt is an ex-con due to spending 18 months in prison when he was 18/19. Luckily it wasn't for hacking up Hobos or pushing people from the Internet under trains, it was for possessing LSD. Now you know.
So that is how it all came together. I bought my tickets for the USA and on June 20th, 2005 I made the journey from York to New York, touching down in JFK at 7 in the morning.
But WHOA, I'm not going to pay the airfare to America for less than ten days of trip. I was sure as hell going to get some other things done too so I cleverly made my freight trip a good excuse to go see some other people I know around and about the place and see a bit of New York and East Canada. Here's a bit about the days before becoming a Hobo...
My most bestest superest chum Jack had been living in New York for almost 11 months due to spending a year at Schenectady University as part of his degree back home. Therefore it made perfect sense that I would spend some of my trip in New York with him. I got a bus from JFK and met Jack on the steps of the Public Library on 5th Avenue. It was good to see him and in such a surreal environment too. Walking around Manhattan is like being in a film due to soooo many of them taking place in New York. People who know me might also know that I am a teeny bit obsessed with Spider-Man. Well looking up at the massive skyscrapers in every direction I swear I saw the cheeky hero slinging web through the city. Or perhaps it was something in my eye. Or jet lag. Who knows? What's important is that I felt safe knowing Spidey was out there somewhere.
Jack and I planned on living as cheaply as possible by making the most of people he knew from uni. When you leave friends at the end of something like university people often say things like "If you're ever in my area feel free to call by and stay over" and other empty offerings like that. Well, Jack planned on making full use of them. Luckily the people we stayed with didn't seem to mind at all.
The first night we stayed in an apartment in East Manhattan with five others the same age as us. Even though the apartment was small they were in an awesome location as far as being in the city was concerned. That night we went out to this bar where one of the guy's girlfriends worked so we didn't pay a penny for a drink all night. AWESOME THING ABOUT NEW YORK # 426: Smoking is illegal inside all bars. Rock on, it was so good going out for some drinks and not coming home stinking of tobacco shite afterwards.
I'm not going to list out the whole week in detailed order or anything. That would be crap. Basically we then stayed with a girl called Jackie and her family in the wealthy suburbs of Queens where we were able to go into Manhattan every day and also take their speed boat out to Fire Island and get sufficiently sun burnt like all good Englishmen should be when on a beach. We hung out with Jackie and her friend Christina quite a bit, had an AWWWESOME dinner at Christina's house (Italian mum, you see) with both families, went to New Jersey to go to another girl's birthday party called Kim with whom we then stayed for another night before heading off the next day and spending three days in their beach house with her and her boyfriend Scott on Long Beach Island. That was cool being so close to the beach. The first night we walked down to the sea and it was real foggy and looked so surreal. It's such a bizarre island as it's about 200 meters wide yet five miles long. It feels like it would only take a slightly big wave to completely flatten the whole place.
Central Park, the Empire State building, Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, Ground Zero; we saw it all and a load of other places in our few days there with free accommodation and free food on a night. There is not better way to check out Manhattan (especially if you're on as tight a budget as I was). Scabbing off the generous gets 10/10 from me (although seriously, all our host families were really, really cool and we were very grateful to all of them).
Back at Kim's house we went out one night with a few of them including her cousin Brian who is a funny guy. He also has keys to a local gymnasium because he works there so we went there at about midnight and were messing about on all the spring boards and trampolines and things. Not the best thing to do after a few drinks and 20 buffalo wings but no one threw up/died and I was able to experience what it feels like to be able to leap 10 feet in the air like... SPIDER-MAN.
We were then back at Jackie's house for a couple more nights before finally heading off in our own directions; Jack meeting some other friends and me going to Connecticut to meet up with Wyatt.
Wyatt had an idea of which direction he wanted us to go (however, as it turns out, we ended up going in the opposite direction).
The first thing to do when hoping to hop Freights is to find a railway track. Wyatt doesn't live next to a line so we had to get to one ourselves. We ripped down to Wyatt's place of work to leave his bike in its building and set out on foot for a couple of miles to some highway exits where we hoped to hitchhike to the town in which we knew there was a yard. Wyatt has hitched even further than he's freight hopped and is usually very successful but alas, it would appear that two guys hitch hiking are a lot more intimidating than just one. A few people stopped but weren't going the right way which didn't help our mission one little bit.
After a frustrating afternoon, burning in the sun and walking to and from various gas stations and interstate exits we finally admitted defeat, walked back to Wyatt's work and called a cab for the half hour drive to Newburgh.
The driver dropped us off by some rails and sped off. We looked around. Just like a river will eventually lead to the sea we decided to follow the track South to the yard that was marked on our Rail Map. It was a sunny evening and we didn't know where we were going so we walked along the main road about 50 meters from the track. A couple more miles along the way and we saw a freight train not only pass by on the tracks but also stop for a while. This was a great sign. The line was active and freights stopped on it. It wasn't a yard but a Passing Place. This is where a track splits into two tracks for about five miles so that when two freights are going in opposite directions one can pull into the secondary line and stop whilst the high priority freight rushes by after which the secondary freight can continue, thus huge crashes and explosions are avoided.
For about a mile and a half it was just industrial plant after industrial plant by the rails. Eventually we reached a residential area where we continued walking, keeping to the left to hopefully try and join the rails. There were a fair number of police cars driving around and I felt particularly self-conscious about looking like completely obvious Hobos walking close to a freight line. Luckily we didn't have terrorist-coloured skin so America's Finest didn't bother us. Before we knew it we'd found some little bar round the back of some houses and went in for food and drink and information.
The place was quiet and the few people in there were really friendly. Not only did the bar tender give us three pints of coke each for the price of one but he also told us where to find a secret passageway onto the tracks as he and his friends used to go and drink down there when they were kids. We ate our pizza slices and head off as by now it was getting dark. Before long we'd found the mysterious snicket and walked through some woods before emerging on a shiny railway line complete with two tracks. It was a good feeling!
We sat down on the tracks which ran along the Hudson River so the water was only a couple of meters away from us. In the distance loads of fireworks were going off as it was a few days from July 4th and they looked pretty cool. After resting a while we decided to explore up the track a bit. Even though it was a new moon there was enough light to make out the tracks. We walked along them for less than a mile and decided to stop where the track cornered around. We were now surrounded on both sides by wooded area and steep embankments between us and the river.
We rested on the tracks again as the rest of the ground was gravel. I propped my head up on my rolled-up sleeping bag and shut my eyes. It would be surprisingly easy to fall asleep on rail tracks, especially when you've been walking miles and miles in the sun all day. WELL IT'S A GOOD THING I DIDN'T. We were laid there talking about stuff when Wyatt suddenly said "Whoa, shit, look" and pointed down the track. The rails looked as if they had been set on fire, like a trail of petrol leading to us had been ignited. Just then all the trees down there completely lit up and a massive light came round the corner. There was hardly any sound, just this huge light but it was getting closer for sure. By now we'd packed all loose things away and had jumped into the bushes. As the freight came closer everything just got brighter and brighter. The lamps on the front of those things are SO powerful. The track started buzzing from the vibrations and a few moments later VOOOOOOOOOSH the diesel engine had shot past our hiding place and almost two miles of freight cars followed in pursuit.
This was by far the closest I had ever been to a freight train and it was a crazy experience. I had never taken in their sheer size before. It was like a row of houses flying past your face, continuously for five minutes. And the sound! It's crazy. You've got all the cars clanging together, the wheels grinding on the rails and the air gushing out the way by the massive metal containers. Be sure to check the video clip to get an impression what it was like!
Freights moving at full speed vanish as quickly as they come and seconds after the last car passed us things were virtually silent again except for the buzzing tracks and the cars clanging in the distance. I realised my heart was pounding. These were the toys with which we'd be messing about for our whole trip. Freight trains were clearly not to be taken lightly. Wyatt had been whooping and cheering as it had passed us as he hadn't been on the tracks for so long and this brought it all back.
We were more than awake now. In the next few hours a load of freights passed us in both directions. Eventually one came down on the secondary track and stopped. The red light on the back car was flashing about a quarter mile in the distance so we decided to go over and check it out. Again, this was a first as I had never climbed on a freight before. The back car was a flat one with no cargo. I checked out how it was arranged and what there was on it, where the ladder rungs were and what sort of bits of extras were added on it and all that sort of thing. A light in the distance and the unmistakable freight fog horn told us that the train for which this one had stopped was coming our way.
Again, it flew past at great speed with all the gusts of wind they bring but then as I was stood on the stationary car watching the passing freight it suddenly shook beneath me and started moving. It was a real shock to feel how violently a freight train starts up. You'd think something so huge would begin incredibly gradually and it does except for the very start where the whole thing shudders several inches suddenly.
This is one of the many dangers of freight hopping and one best to become aware of real early on. There is a worryingly small amount of warning that a freight train is going to start moving. Due to the engine at the front being up to two miles away there is no way you can hear it charging up. Therefore when it puts the power on and starts pulling all the cars creak a tiny bit and then CLANG, they lurch forward a bit, almost instantaneously. You can hear the vibration moving down the train but it is so quick, like it travels the whole train in less than two seconds. You can hear it coming clang clang clang CLANG CLANG and then your car shoots forward a bit before starting to slowly roll and gain speed. If you're (stupidly) climbing under a train right next to the wheels and this happens you or one of your limbs will get crushed instantly. If you're climbing between cars and the train starts to move you can get shaken off from the sudden lurch. If you're mad and stood on the actual connectors between trucks then you can get something crushed in them or shaken off between them and then crushed under the truck itself.
Basically, the thing to remember is that any car on any freight train, no matter how long it has been stationary for, can suddenly judder forward without any real warning. If you're aware of that then you're pretty safe from being caught by surprise.
Anyway, I was now stood on a moving freight which felt really weird. The train was heading North and we wanted to catch out South so I jumped off and we went back to the spot we'd been laid in before.
We really were tired now and so we decided that we would get some sleep and try catch out tomorrow. We knew the line was active and especially busy during certain hours at night and we knew that trains stopped on it quite regularly so finding a place to catch a train was sorted. But it had been a real long day. We trampled through some undergrowth and after a bit of exploring the steep, wooded embankment above us (which using the cig lighters we had to see in the pitch black gave it all a very Blare Witch feel) we set up the tent on a relatively flat bit of ground (sloping about 10 degrees), put all our stuff in it and went to sleep. A warm, dry night meant that we didn't need to put up the water proof part of the tent, just the basic cocoon to keep bugs out. Therefore we could also see out through the netting with a 360 degree view which is always useful.
I woke up at about 5 in the morning to a freight parked right in front of us. There was no way we could dismantle the tent and pack everything up and jump on it right then but at least it told us trains stopped here during the day. Trying to sleep next to a freight track can be really difficult sometimes, especially when the freights are bi-hourly. As I would discover over the next week and a bit, never being able to get any properly deep sleep can really wear you out.
That day was spent hanging around on the tracks. Freights tend to be a lot more scarce during the day, probably due to the fact that they hold up traffic for so long when they cross level-crossings. A couple of trains heading North stopped but that's not what we were after so we let them go. The day dragged on. We explored up and down the tracks, explored the forests around us (not nearly as intimidating during the day), threw rocks into the river and got some more sleep. That evening we STILL hadn't caught out so we went back to the bar and got more food and coke. And water. We were glad that it was a different barman from the night before as that would just be embarrassing.
Walking back to the tracks we decided that we would catch out on whatever train next stopped, regardless as to which direction it was heading. As it grew dark again another train stopped on the secondary track. This was it! We ran alongside it, checking out the different cars it was holding. Wyatt pointed at one and said we should get it. The name of that sort of car is a "Closed Hopper" and it is by far the best sort of car to be in. We'd struck gold as far as freight cars go. Climbing on board the small platform at the front of the hopper we were still scouting around for any signs of people. We were about a half mile from the front of the train and therefore would have plenty of warning of anyone walking down the sides towards us but there was also a bridge about 100 meters in front of us over which cars were passing every now and then. Someone only had to look over it and they would see us if we didn't stay hidden. Added to that we saw a police car cross it and stop and didn't have a clue why.
Waiting for a train to start is quite nerve-wracking. This is because even though the chances are small you don't know if anyone has seen you running about the cars and climbing on. Until the freight starts to move you are a sitting duck and we were constantly peering round the side of the Hopper up and down the tracks in case someone was coming. The train was waiting a while and of course, like so much in the world of freights, we didn't have a clue why or for how long. It was growing darker by the minute at this point which is always a welcome thing. If need be we decided that we could escape into the forest we'd been staying next to the whole time because it was dusk and dark as hell in the trees and I really doubt anyone would follow us in there. Luckily though that wasn't the case as the train suddenly began to creak and CLANG, we started to move. It was a great feeling but we still couldn't relax. After having walked it the day before we knew the train was going to pass through a long line of industrial plants, all completely lit up with powerful lights.
This is the great thing about Closed Hoppers. Not only do they have a perfectly sized platform on which you can lay down and put your bags, not only do they have railings all the way around so that you're safe from losing you or your bags over the side but they ALSO have a convenient "V" shaped section of metal sticking out of the main part of the truck in which you can hide as this fantastic picture so clearly shows:
The best thing to do is for one person to stand inside the middle V and put their backpack in there too whilst the other person sits up against whichever side of the V isn't lit up by passing lights. When the freight is moving this makes it very hard for someone to spot two rogue stowaways and within seconds you're safely away. So in conclusion, closed hoppers ROCK!
Back to our situation and we were finally rolling, gaining speed but also about to pass through a very lit set of industrial yards. Fortunately the hopper allowed us to hide with ease and after a couple of minutes we were cruising at a good 40 or 50 mph, hurtling into the night, alongside the Hudson river. I was now officially a Hobo and it felt GREAT!
However, little did I know of what was to come that very night... *gasp*
Wyatt and I were cruising through the night aboard our own personal freight car. And the view was GREAT. Rushing alongside the Hudson River we could see all sorts. There were lights from towns over the river, lights reflecting on the water, boats docked in the bay, people waiting at level crossings and we'd pass through towns every now and then by the river. This was really weird. I remember flying over this real high bridge and looking down at the town around and below us. I could see people walking in the streets and I could even see through people's windows due to our height. I remember looking at this house and seeing someone sat in a room watching TV. I was sat there thinking how it was so bizarre that I could see into their room, I could see them and the TV yet I was in a totally different world, sat on board a massive steel machine in the darkness, gone in seconds.
Wyatt told me he classes America's railroads as a separate state. A state that passes through every other state but is still separated from them all. Once you're on a track you're somewhere else. And once you're on a train you really do feel like you're between worlds. The track was running alongside a main road for a while and there were cars going almost the same speed as us right next to us. Again, I could see the driver and passengers really clearly as they were only 20 meters away yet they were still in a different world from me. It's hard to explain, really but I'm sure anyone who has ridden a freight before understands.
After a couple of hours we realised we were pretty tired. The train was still powering along at full speed and so we thought we should try and get some sleep. We were at the front of the hopper which meant we had a 50mph wind rushing around us (although the chemical car in front of us offered some sort of cover I suppose). However, it was a mild night, the metal we were laid on was warm and we had our sleeping bags. It was actually surprisingly comfortable. One thing though, the NOISE was amazing. The constant clanging of metal and screeching and hissing from brakes was actually painful but I had stuffed some bits of toilet paper in my ears and that took the noise level down from deafening to bearable. Once I was curled up in my sleeping bag it wasn't so long before I unbelievably fell asleep.
I woke up to see that train had stopped. Wyatt was already awake. It was him who had woken me. We jumped up and checked out where we were and what was going on. Looking up the track we could see a set of red lights in the darkness. We were at a passing point and obviously waiting for another train to pass. All around us was forest. The millions of fire-flies in the trees made the whole thing sparkle for as far as I could see. That looked really cool.
The thing about freight trains is that you really don't know what's going on for sure. Therefore you have to improvise with everything. We were stopped for aaaaages and after a lot of talking, climbing up the rungs onto the roof of the Hopper, climbing about the chemical car and getting off and running alongside the train for a bit we decided that all we could do is get more sleep. We didn't know where we were actually going although Wyatt's Rail Map told us there was a yard not too far away, a place called Selkirk. Perhaps we'd stop in it, perhaps we'd roll right through it. We didn't know. So we went back to sleep.
Again, I was woken up by Wyatt. He seemed really concerned and as soon as I looked up I could see why. The train had started moving again whilst we were asleep and now it was slowing down. We were rolling at about 20mph towards an absolutely HUGE yard. And not just that but this yard was illuminated like you wouldn't believe. Imagine a football pitch but three times wider and you can sort of imagine the lighting of Selkirk Freight Train yard as we approached it.
This was my first experience of a freight yard. It was funny because the whole time I had been riding on this train I hadn't really thought about actually arriving anywhere or what a yard would be like but now that we were going into one it suddenly hit me that daaaamn, these things are big. And bright. And patrolled. And Wyatt and I were breaking the law.
Within a second of waking and realising what was going on I was rolling my sleeping bag up and stuffing it in my backpack. I made sure everything was packed away, all straps done up, shoe laces tied tightly, nothing to hold me back for whatever it was we were going to have to do. Wyatt and I got into our hiding places; me hiding in the metal V and him hiding to the side of it on the slightly less lit side. But as we rolled into the yard it didn't really make any difference. A hundred powerful flood lights lit up everything around us. All we could do is keep pressed to the sides and not move. Our best cover was the fact that the freight was so long. It would be difficult to spot two people on the front of a hopper when there's 150 cars passing you and you're not really looking for anyone in particular.
Looking around this yard I could see all sorts of things. Huge hangers, control towers, workers' buildings and of course many, many tracks, all splitting off from each other. At one point we rolled inside a building. This was bad. If the train stopped inside a building we would be in a world of shit, even more than we were right then. The place was so lit up and there would be people all over the place. Much to our relief the train carried on and emerged outside again. Looking round the chemical car I saw that our freight was docking alongside about fifteen other freights. It slowed down some more and then CLANG, it finally stopped.
After more than 6 hours of constant smashing of metal all around you complete silence smacks you right in the face. Wyatt and I looked at each other. It was time to rock and roll, also known as GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE.
We jumped down the left side of the hopper into the shadow. The main bulk of the floodlights were behind us now and at a slight angle to the train so we did have some shadow cover on one side. However, there were a couple of vehicles driving around on the road about two trains down from where we were and we did not want to get caught in their headlights. So where the hell were we and where the hell should we go? Well, we'd rolled through the East entrance of the yard for about ten minutes. So not only did we know that it was a couple of miles out that way but we also knew it was lit brighter than the day so going back the way we came wasn't an option. Therefore we were going West and hopefully eventually get out the yard the same way that the trains do.
Fast walking alongside the freight we headed East. We could hear noises in the distance and every now and then a truck would drive by on the yard's road. The gap we were walking along was wide enough for a vehicle to fit down and I didn't like that. The gap between the next two trains was much narrower. Not only would that protect us from vehicles but it also meant the whole lot was in much more shadow. Whispering we decided to cross over the freight next to us and get into that gap. However, just before we did I bent down and checked out the gap from under a train. Thank goodness this happened because less than two cars away on the other side of the train I saw light from a flashlight and a pair of legs walking along real slow. It was a Bull and he was close as hell.
I signaled to Wyatt that someone was there and we fell back against the train, hiding behind some wheels. This is where another problem became apparent. You might think that you're hidden somewhere but due to all the lights everywhere you're most likely casting a shadow somewhere. This is particularly obvious when you're moving, like climbing over a freight car. There might be a 20 foot shadow on the car behind you and you don't even know it. We ducked behind the wheels and waited. I crouched right down again and looked under the train. The Bull was only one car away now, his flash light moving all over the place. I signaled to Wyatt and we silently went across to the train on our right and scrambled over a car. We were now two trains across from the Bull and started working our way up the freight. After a good 50 meters or so we crossed back into our original gap and I climbed over a hopper to look down the thin gap in which the Bull was patrolling. I could see his light a decent distance away now which was a great feeling. Wyatt and I climbed into the thin pathway and carried on up the train. It was round about now that I realised how dry my throat was and how absolutely drenched in sweat I was. Still, we were far from out yet so I would have to worry about that later on.
There was a brief scare with a truck where it parked at the end of our narrow pathway and shone its headlights up it for about five minutes but I guessed that as we were walking right against the freight and the truck was at least 100 meters back there was virtually no chance they'd see us. So we carried on. After a bit longer we reached the front of the freight. Now this was a problem. In front of all these parked freights was just massive wide open space. Not only was it all lit up from the floodlights in the distance behind us but any vehicle could cut across it in seconds. If we got spotted running across it then a truck could catch us up in moments. Open space was not our friend right now so we decided to see if we could work our way across to the side of the yard as perhaps there would be better cover up there.
Crossing another train we saw there was one more train between us and the yard's fence. But it was a huge freight of car-carriers. These are crap because a) they are always locked so you can't sneak in or through them and b) they're just great big boxes with nothing to stand on or hide behind if you want to catch a ride. Basically, when freight hopping you don't bother with car-carriers. But we had to cross a line of them and they're about 20 feet high. That left us the one option of climbing between them. Wyatt said as a rule you never climb between those things because they are so packed together that the gap is barely big enough for a person. If they should slide at all then you'll get crushed like a paper-cup. But we really had no choice so off we went, running across the gap which was about 30 meters wide and then pulling ourselves straight up in between the car cars. This is a real bitch when carrying a large backpack but I was pumped up like nothing else and got myself and my bag up and over as fast as I could, dropping safely down on the other side. Wyatt followed right behind. We could now see the edge of the yard. A large wire-link fence surrounded by bushes and with a stream running alongside. Jogging again, we followed this stream, still partially lit up by the lights far behind us. We were also highly exposed to any truck that could come round the corner at any moment. If one did and it saw us we would have literally nowhere to hide. Otherwise our only chance was to either jump across the stream and dive into the grass or jump into the stream and lay still. We didn't want to have to do either so we quickened our pace.
Finally we found an exit through the fence. A track led over the stream and out of the yard. Some other tracks led off from it and these were in shadow from bushes so we ducked into them and carried on East alongside the yard but with some actual protection for a change.
We still didn't have a clue where we were or what was still between us and the exit. The road was dark but in the distance were some really bright lights, tall towers and electricity pylons. As we got closer we saw we were passing a huge industrial plant of some sort, perhaps a gas canister refilling station or something. Basically it was COMPLETELY lit up and there was nowhere at all for us to hide. We simply had to walk past the place, about 20 meters from its metal wire fence. There were people around but I don't think any of them saw us and after quick stepping along, absolutely illuminated, we slunk into the shadows once more.
Continuing along the road we were suddenly aware that we were casting shadows. Spinning round we saw a really crappy sight; headlights coming towards us. Without a moment's hesitation we both vanished into the undergrowth to our left, running through really tall grass and then into small but densely packed trees. When we were deep enough in we spun round, ducked and waited silently, trying not to breathe too heavily. After a short while a truck rolled past where we had been stood. It was driving slowly but didn't stop. We weren't sure if we'd been spotted or not. We waited a couple more minutes.
I decided to go scout around. I dumped my backpack and crawled back through the grass towards the road. Without the weight of my pack I found movement and speed ten times easier. Checking up and down the road I saw that the truck had reached the end of our road and turned right, back into the yard area and was heading back to the freights. It was probably just a Bull on patrol and he had almost certainly not seen us earlier. There was also a freeway crossing the yard over a big bridge a little ahead. I saw lorries driving over it but nothing else. I head back to Wyatt and told him what I'd seen.
The end of the yard wasn't so far away now. We could see freights leaving although we saw one train stop at the end and security checking the front of it with torches. We didn't know why but stayed low until they'd gone. The road was one possible option but we really didn't want to bother. I went to scout it out and after climbing the embankment to the edge of the road I saw that we were in a huge industrial park. There were only factories and industry in every direction. There were probably no residential areas for miles around. If we walked along the road we'd look so out of place and suspicious that we'd get stopped by security of some sort in no time for sure.
Therefore we decided to stick to the rails. The good old State of Railroad. Moving through the bushes all the way to the road embankment we checked around before quickly emerging and walking up under the bridge and alongside the rails. Once passed the bridge we started to jog, keeping a steady speed whilst the great yard of Selkirk got smaller and smaller behind us. It felt like we were two fugitives escaping a prison. Headlights shone in the distance to our rear but we were gone, like ghosts in the night.
When we were about a mile out of the yard we reached a bridge over a road and stopped for a rest and to reflect on what had just happened. The first feeling was HOORAH, we'd got out of Selkirk Freight yard. We'd been thrown right into the middle of it without any warning and had successfully worked our way around every obstacle it had before escaping into the night. We were buzzing. The second feeling however was how completely, COMPLETELY parched we were. In the hour it took us to escape Selkirk I must have sweat at least two liters. Not only had my heart been racing the whole time, the adrenaline flowing and my whole body on full alert but I had been sneaking, crouching, climbing and running with TWO t-shirts and a pullover on (from being asleep earlier), not to mention my 30kg backpack. I literally stripped down to my underwear by the side of the track trying to cool down. My t-shirts were soaked through and steam was pouring off both Wyatt and I. Naturally we were both totally thirsty right there and then but upon checking our water we realised we had literally a mouthful each. We needed water and we needed it fast.
Checking Wyatt's map we saw that the closest town to us that would have a convenience store was a modest 7 miles away. We'd broken out of the sinister Selkirk yard but our journey for that day was far from over. Packing everything away, we put our lead-weight backpacks on once more and started off on the long trek to life-giving water. It was getting light by now and soon the sun would be heating up everything around us. All I could think about was buying a bottle of ice cold water. This was going to be a long walk...
Seven miles is a really long distance when your throat's grating from being so dehydrated. As the sun came up Wyatt and I stopped talking simply to conserve water. As you are probably aware, railroads are very long and straight and every time we reached another corner we'd be thinking "Maybe this is the last corner before civilization?" before following it around and seeing the crushing site of another stretch of rail disappearing into the distance. Ah well, we just had to get on with it. There was one point though where I thought "What the hell? Am I hallucinating?" There was this kid's football in the middle of the tracks, even though there were no houses near by and I just went and kicked it and it spat a load of water out. I stopped and stood on it and loads of water squirted out of its valve. It didn't help the dehydration situation very much.
As well as bizarre footballs full of water we also had to keep an eye out for deer carcasses, killed by freights because they're surprisingly unobvious until you tread in one and get hit by the smell equivalent of a sledge hammer. I was filthy and I stank already but two-week-old rotting deer guts all over my jeans was not something I needed right there and then.
AT LONG BLIMMIN' LAST we saw a crossroad in the distance which we knew belonged to the town to which we were heading. We'd passed some farm houses earlier and had talked about perhaps checking them out to see if they had an outdoor tap but concern about getting shot by a farmer or mauled by his dogs set us back on our way along the tracks. Now we were in INSERT TOWN NAME HERE, two hoboes covered in crap emerging from the rails in this sunny, everyone-knows-everyone smallville kind of place. Greeeeeat. We blended in like a treat...
Just before the crossroads where we could walk along the town's roads we saw a small patch of woods to the side of the tracks with a small river/large stream running through it. That would be our camp, for sure.
We walked into the local gas station store and I carefully chose a gallon of water for the undisputable price of $1.30. We also bought various bits of crappy food to give us some energy back. Unsurprisingly people were looking at us in bemusement but we didn't care as we finally got to drink our sacred water and eat our Snickers-of-Life. Top stuff.
We then became aware of a) how tired we were and b) how badly we stuck out. After going into a little diner by the crossroad and having a fantastic cooked breakfast (and being able to wash our hands/arms/faces in the bathroom) we headed back to the trees we'd seen on our way in. Dropping down the really steep embankment we checked the place out.
It really couldn't have been more ideal. We had by chance found an area of flat woodland which wasn't only hidden from the local area but was actually fenced off from it so it wasn't even open to the public and therefore offered no risk of dog walkers or people passing by. Across the little river was a private garden but lots of trees and bushes hid us from the houses over there. The only way in and out of this place was by the rail. This was so good. We set up the tent and washed in the river after which we got all of our stagnating, sweaty, filthy clothes, put them in a bag and headed back into town to a Laundromat. Cleeeeean clothes = hell yeah. It was a sunny day and all we could think about was going to sleep. It had been a very long night and an even longer morning and we were now fed, watered, clean and were out the way of all the locals. I lay there in the tent and fell fast asleep, only waking occasionally as a freight train came screaming past ten meters away at the top of the embankment. Pah, it wasn't so bad, I was more than used to that sound now.
Nine hours later I woke up. That had been a sleep I had most definitely needed. It was now the late afternoon and Wyatt and I started to make plans on where to go next. It soon became apparent that the only logical place to catch a Freight would be back at Selkirk. The prospect of walking all the way back wasn't as bad due to having actually had some rest but it was still funny that we would have literally walked a total of 14 miles just to get a drink of water and something to eat. It was also funny and kind of ironic that the only way we could get out of here was by returning to the yard we had been so intent on escaping the night before.
We packed up, made sure we were loaded up on water and set off back along the tracks. We had timed it so that we'd be approaching Selkirk as it was getting dark but due to our recovered state we powered along the tracks much faster than when we had come the other way and did the whole distance in less than an hour and a half. Freights would pass us every now and then causing us to hide in the undergrowth just in case the drivers radioed back to the yard to tell them of two Hoboes approaching (not so likely but hardly worth the risk). With Selkirk yard in sight we ducked into a passage way behind some reeds and made our plans. As we were waiting for night to come we got changed into our dark clothes and geared up with boarding a freight train in mind.
The trains that passed us were going too fast to catch so we decided to tab along closer to the yard so that we could be at a point where they hadn't picked up much speed. As it was now properly dark we were able to get real close to the yard (we had no intention of going back into it though). We could see the trucks patrolling the yard about 400 meters from us but we were on the opposite side of the rail tracks from the track used by vehicles so even when they came right up and passed our location (we weren't sure why) there was no chance they'd see us, especially as we'd vanish into the thick undergrowth we'd deliberately stopped next to.
Oh yeah, it was in fact July 4th that day/night too. We saw fireworks in the distance all over the place which looked kind of cool as we waited at the mouth of Selkirk for the next four hours.
That night I learnt how to comfortably sleep on gravel although every time I got comfy and felt myself drifting off another train would come out and we'd have to jump up, grab our bags, get into the bushes, watch the engine pass and then run out and decide whether the train was going at a catchable speed or not. This constant attempting to rest before having to suddenly dive about the place is really wearing on the mind, let me tell you. At one point I was contemplating sneaking right over to Selkirk yard and going inside just for something to do. Luckily we didn't have to as a train came rolling out. "This could be it" Wyatt shouted as it rolled towards us, gathering speed but still slower than we could run. "Let's do this" I yelled back as we burst out the bushes and curved in towards the freight.
This was another problem a Hobo can so often experience: Catching out on the right freight car. You see, you can't just grab hold of any old car. Some of them are extremely hostile when it comes to riding a freight. Some have absolutely nowhere on them in which to hide. Some offer no cover or protection from the elements. Some cars are carrying hazardous crap that you really don't want to be close to and some are simply not rideable. You have to always bare in mind that whatever car you catch out on, you could be sat (or stood) on it for the next 10 hours. If you get onto a chemical tanker then you will find yourself having to stand for the entire journey, not to mention there might be corrosive chemical on the outside of it. So a freight hopper has to choose the best car possible for his unknown journey ahead. This is fine if you're sneaking about a yard and checking out stationary freights but when one is actually moving and accelerating out of a yard you have very little time to pick a car before it'll be traveling too fast for you to get on board. This was the situation Wyatt and I now faced. Added to that it was night time so we couldn't even see the cars properly it was literally a case of finding the first car that looked boardable and climbing on board. There could be no second chance.
Wyatt was in front of me and grabbed the rungs of a car, a type known as an Intermodel which carry huge metal containers piled two high. Getting his feet on the rungs Wyatt pulled himself on to the top of the platform. I was running alongside the car which was getting faster and faster. I also had to watch out for anything on the track which I could trip on in the dark. I was running almost as fast as I could with my backpack on by now. I grabbed the rung with my left hand and then jumped and grabbed it with my right as well. This caused my whole body to swing around but my foot missed the bottom rungs. Wyatt said afterwards that he honestly thought I was going to go under the wheel at the point. Pah, he had no faith in my AMAZING UPPER-BODY STRENGTH!! With my legs swinging in towards the huge steel wheel spinning around in front of me I had to lock my arms and pull myself back without my feet hitting anything. This worked and I was able to get a grip on the rungs and climb on board. CLOSE CALL! Although if I had had to hit the wheel I would have kicked against its exact center on the axel. As this is just spinning and not actually moving it wouldn't have dragged me under anything and I'd have been safe. But Wyatt said his heart still skipped a beat.
Rock and roll! We'd caught out of Selkirk and were now heading... somewhere else. It was a real relief to finally be back on a train even if it wasn't as ideal as a closed Hopper like the one we'd had last. The Intermodel we were on had a flat bit (with blunt metal spikes all over it which were great for grip) and an alcove by the freight containers. It was pitch black and would have been really easy to jump down into the dip on the car except Wyatt said "Be careful, it has no floor". I looked and saw he was indeed right. The Intermodel had no base, just two metal beams crossing each other and a bit of metal platform sticking out the sides. This was a bit of a shock at first, being able to see the ground moving inches below you at 50mph. I then also realised that the car's wheels were right next to my legs with nothing covering them and it struck me that in the darkness I was in fact surrounded by lots of fast-spinning, powerful, moving things. I immediately checked my backpack didn't have any loose straps or chords hanging from it. Getting one caught in the spinning axels would be messy.
Into the night we shot. Another difference between this train and our last was that we were really close to the front (due to having such little time to pick a car when catching it). Therefore there was a constant smell of the diesel engine's fumes about three cars in front of us. Whereas this wasn't unbearable it reminded me of another danger I had read about when freight hopping. If you end up close to the front and the train goes through a long tunnel you can find yourself getting poisoned by the fumes. If you can help it then you should always avoid the first 20 cars of a freight train. Not just because of the fume risk but also because they're much more likely to be observed when rolling into a yard.
We rested for a while by sitting on the side metal panels and propping our legs against the metal bars with the ground whizzing by below us. Of course, you can't fall asleep like this but at least the wind wasn't strong down there.
As the dawn began to break we could see what sort of terrain we were cruising through. It was swamp land. Good old Western New York State swamp land. There were some crazy cliff formations around some rivers and most of the land around us was just swamp covered in algae. I was imagining what it would be like to fall off the train into a swamp. With nothing in either direction for 40 miles you'd really find yourself in some trouble. If you survived, of course. You'd also stink like nothing else although I was pretty used to that by now.
It then began to rain a bit so we decided to cross over to the Intermodel in front of us and use its massive freight containers as shelter. Climbing between the cars as they hurtled along could be a bit unnerving but the metal ruts gave us great grip and there really wasn't as big a risk as it might appear. I think.
At something like 9am we started to slow down and rolled into another yard. Now, Selkirk had been bad but at least it had been night time. Sure, the floodlights were all over the place but at least there were shadows and dark areas to hide in and darkness to cover us as we escaped the place. Doing the same in broad daylight is a completely different matter. Our train rolled through Syracuse Yard and we peaked over the top of our Intermodel. This was another huge yard complete with a watch tower that could no doubt see everything for miles around during the day. We lay down on our little metal platforms as the train crept along. We had our bags on and were ready to bail but were waiting to see exactly what would happen. For all we knew (at the time) our train might just roll through the whole yard and carry on.
However, this was not the case and we came to a stop. I was able to look around by hanging my head down through the floorless car and looking about upside-down. There were quite a few workmen about which wasn't a good thing. There were also vehicles driving about including a brown van which was almost certainly a Bull's car. We'd rolled about a mile or two through the yard and had stopped. Suddenly, with a great amount of creaking and screeching, our train started reversing. We were almost certainly docking in the yard alongside the rows of other freights. This was not good because we'd be right in the middle of the yard, under the eye of the watch tower and nowhere to go without being spotted by someone. There's very few hiding places in a freight yard in the middle of the day when you've been spotted.
Therefore we had to get off the train and fast. I looked around real quick. The watch tower was about a quarter mile away. There was a freeway crossing the yard on a bridge about 100 meters away. The driver's engine was just three cars in front of us. Next to our line was a steep embankment with trees and bushes at the top of it. There was only one thing to do and only one chance to do it. I shouted to Wyatt to get ready to bail and he saw what I intended to do. As soon as the bridge blocked the line of sight of the watch tower from our position we jumped off the side of the moving Intermodel and ran to the embankment about 10 meters away. We then scrambled as fast as we could up the steep sides, about 10 meters high and dived into the bushes before the engine passed as so the drivers wouldn't see us.
It worked a treat. The train reversed past us, the drivers were oblivious, we were out of sight of the watch tower and we were hidden in undergrowth, elevated over the yard. We were happy for the moment.
Sitting in the bushes, Wyatt and I checked out our surroundings. Behind us were residential houses so we wanted to avoid any chance of attracting their attention in case they called the police. In front of us were the many lines of the yard and a big building and to the right of us was the freeway bridge and main docking part of the yard, including the watch tower and all the buildings around it. We ate some of our food and had a drink of water. We then realised that after having been awake all night we were a tiny bit tired so we crashed out. This was my finest moment; curled up underneath a bush in the middle of the day, laying on the dirt, using my pullover as a pillow in deep sleep for no less than five fantastic hours. Awwwwesome.
Once we were awake again we decided we had to catch out as soon as possible because there wasn't a great deal we could do or places to go tucked away in these bushes. There was one point where a freight passed us and we decided to try and get it but after sliding down the embankment and running for a suitable car we realised it was going too fast to catch. We stood down there pissed off watching our ride out of here whizz by when we realised the end car was approaching after which we would be completely obvious and exposed so we had to power back up that damn embankment again in time to avoid being seen. After having been quite comfortable in my bush I was now hot and sweaty again and there was much effing and jeffing to be heard.
However, a bit later on another train stopped a couple of tracks in front of us so we bailed out of the undergrowth and ran over to it.
We were able to find a closed hopper and make ourselves comfortable in its brilliantly shaped platform. However, we weren't sure what this train was actually doing. For all we knew it could start rolling back again and dock in the yard. We had to be ready to get away if need be.
We waited and waited, some freights passed us on the priority line, we waited some more, various trucks drove up and down the yard road next to us, we waited, another freight stopped next to us and we had to decide if we were going to swap trains not knowing what either train was going to do. In the end we stayed with our original train and watched the other one roll out the yard. Damn it! Well we carried on waiting, messed about on the train a bit, we waited some more and Wyatt spotted a gas station about a half mile away on the main road and ran off to it to buy Dr Pepper.
That's probably worth a mention actually. Wyatt must have tried every drug known to man several times yet ironically the only thing he is completely addicted to is caffeine. In fact more specifically than that, Dr Pepper. I thought he was kidding when he first told me he drank 12 cans a day but very quickly I learnt that he was in fact telling the truth. The guy priorities Dr Pep over water for goodness sake as when he got back from the gas station he had in fact forgotten to buy anything else, despite our water rations being down to less than a quarter bottle. Greeeeat. Another water-less day lay ahead. But yeah, traveling with an addict does have its advantages such as the way Wyatt will happily go and trek as far as it takes to find a shop to buy Dr Pepper so if I need something but can't be bothered to go walking for it I can just tell him to pick it up when he's there. Usually he remembered...
Back to our waiting. After what was FAR too much time our freight started to move. Now we could relax a bit as the next yard was a fair distance away. Before long we were speeding along the tracks once again, sheltered from the wind in our 5 star accommodation that was the hopper.
As we sped through the countryside we started messing about on our car. I climbed up the rungs onto its roof and was scrabbling about up there for a bit, quickly climbing back down when we passed crossroads in case there was a police car waiting; not that they could do much but they might radio ahead or something.
Oh the joys of being totally irresponsible on a dangerous vehicle. When I was in Thailand back in February my friend Urs and I took a sleeper train down to the beaches in the South. With it being Thailand the train's doors were left wide open to get some ventilation running through the place. You wouldn't get that happening in England so naturally we made the most of such an opportunity. Urs and I were hanging out the door, holding onto a rung next to it and leaning out as far as we could whilst the train hurtled through the night. I remembered what a crazy feeling it was doing something as silly as that so I thought I'd try some more Train Surfing here as well, as did Wyatt. To anyone looking at someone hanging off a speeding train it would appear completely gut-wrenchingly dangerous but when you're actually doing it it's fine. I could feel exactly how strong my grip was on the metal rungs and knew that nothing was going to cause me to let go so unless I got hit by a sign or something I would be fine. It was pretty exhilarating at any rate.
Well, on we rolled until once again the train began to slow down. Our map told us we were approaching Buffalo yard. Now, this caused concern for a couple of different reasons. One, Buffalo is on the Canadian border and neither of us had any idea what the procedure is for checking freight trains when they cross borders. I would imagine that even with their massive size, freights are given a slightly more rigorous check when crossing into another country as it would be a really obvious and easy way to smuggle stuff across compared to doing it in public or private transport. Perhaps the way into Canada would be easy but I could bet coming back into the US wouldn't be. I didn't have my passport with me so if I got stuck in Canada I would be in a bit of trouble. Basically, we didn't want to cross the border. The second concern was that it was still day light and when you're a hobo approaching a yard, daylight really is not your friend.
The train stopped on a long stretch of line and we had to decide what to do next. Weighing up our options and the pros and cons of staying or bailing we chose to get off the train and walk along the line. We'd spotted a sign a bit further back and so we knew we were a few miles from Buffalo, in a place called Lancaster. We jumped off the train and started walking along the line. Little did we know that we would be spending the next THREE DAMN DAYS along this 6 mile stretch of track. I will now try and compress this ludicrous amount of time into one brief page...
Walking along the tracks towards Lancaster a mist came down and it started to rain a bit. Once again we'd run out of water and I tried walking along with a plastic bag open in front of me to try and collect water but it didn't work surprisingly enough. We needed supplies and things so we found a track leading to the main road and started walking into town, once again sticking out like absolute sore thumbs, covered in dirt and carrying filthy backpacks. We went into a garage and bought loads of junk food, the crapness of which you don't even care about when you're hungry as can be. We also bought another gallon of water each and Wyatt splashed out on a 3 dollar key ring LED light shaped like a pig.
We then walked around Lancaster a bit. There's a prison there somewhere (we spotted it from the train earlier) and so there were police all over the place. After a bit we went back to the tracks by running up a steep embankment next to a bridge. This was especially dodgy because we were on a main road covered in cars and had to wait for a moment when no traffic was coming so we wouldn't get spotted legging it up the hill and reported to the police as terrorists or something. Back on the tracks we moved away from the residential areas and washed with our newly bought water as well as ate everything else we'd bought. Once we were as clean as you can get by the side of a railroad using a gallon of cold water in the rain we head off into town to wash our clothes and get some real food. In the Laundromat Wyatt was talking to this woman who told us that security is real high in Buffalo since 9/11and that the police in this area are real serious about it. Greeeeat. Wyatt said she probably didn't know what she was talking about and that we'd be fine. Hmmm. We then went to a bar and ordered good old greasy bar food which tasted like a rainbow covered in happiness, I kid you not. We stayed in the bar for quite a long time and Wyatt got his fix of 5 pints of coke.
Once out again it was properly dark. We were tired and needed to get out of sight to set up camp. Sneaking back onto the railroad again we trekked all the way back to where we'd got off the train hours before as it was out the way of everywhere and started putting up the tent.
THIS was funny now that we look back at it but trust me, at the time, it was a BITCH.
Basically, we were both real tired, it was really dark, it was raining and we were trying to pitch a tent on gravel next to a freight line. The tent had to be as far back in the undergrowth as it could be but the ground sloped off back there and we couldn't pitch it properly. Then of course the tent pegs wouldn't go in the ground seeing as how it was made of stones. THEN we couldn't get the waterproof cover to stay on the top of the tent. THEN as we were trying to do this we were getting bitten to pieces by loads of invisible bugs, including me getting bitten by a "sweat bee" which I had never heard of before but after successfully crushing it (after it had bitten me) I saw that yes, they do indeed exist and yes, they do indeed burn. THEN when we had finally sorted the tent and its covers out, climbed inside and got in our sleeping bags and started to fall asleep a freight train rushed passed (five meters from where we were) which simultaneously blew the rain cover off and ripped into our eardrums with it's magnificent NOISES OF DEATH.
And this happened every hour or so for the whole night.
The next morning I did not feel as energetic and joyful as I usually do, I have to say. Wyatt got up and filmed a train that had pulled up next to us whilst I struggled to open my eyes.
Okay then, so now we naturally wanted to catch out of this place. It was early morning so it would be light for ages and ages, therefore we thought our best bet was to go into town to buy things and check the place out. To cut a long story short we did just that and learnt that the main track into Buffalo split into many tracks into Buffalo and we didn't know which ones were used and which weren't so to make sure we didn't get back onto a dead track we had to walk back to where the track was one and follow it up. However, it was broad daylight which as I keep saying, SUCKS. We walked over a level crossing and then when a minimum of cars were around we broke right and started tabbing along the track, moving fast so we would be out of sight of traffic as soon as possible. Thus our ridiculously long walk into Buffalo began.
We saw a train stopped in the distance heading the right direction (back the way we came) so we waited in some bushes for ages. It eventually started up and flew past us. "Good" we thought. "Trains going in the right direction stop along here. We'll get one soon enough no problem". We sneaked further along the tracks and stopped for another hour or two in some bushes, waiting for the next train to stop near by us. Some trains passed but didn't stop. We waited some more. A train stopped further up the line from us. Damn it, we couldn't go to it because the drivers would see us but hey, at least another train had stopped. All we needed to do was hide in the bushes further up the track so we'd be opposite freight cars when the next one stopped. So we did. But none stopped. And thus the game continued like this for a loooong time. The problem was we could never be sure where to hide out. If the train stopped further down from us we wouldn't get to it without being seen. If we walked too far down then a train might stop miles further up the track and we'd miss it altogether. It's really tiring having to gamble and guess which 2 mile stretch of a 6 mile track a train might stop on, especially when you have to stay in a hiding place up to 5 hours at a time before deciding that nothing is going to stop here.
That night we set up the tent again in a cool little patch of undergrowth in some trees and went to sleep, disappointed with the long, long day of waiting around but happy knowing that we were certain to catch out tomorrow. PAH.
The next morning pretty much the same stuff happened. We moved along the track, stayed hidden for hours and hours and hours in various bushes and then moved along the tracks again. The day was a sort of blur, really. That night we were all packed up ready to catch a train but alas, none of the bastards stopped. Once again I found solitude in trying to sleep on gravel and getting up every hour as a couple of trains flew by but none of them actually stopped. At about 2am we gave in and set up the tent again.
The next morning we moved further along the track. We waited an hour or two in some bushes, nothing happened, we moved on, waited an hour or two in some bushes, nothing happened, moved on rah rah rah. There was a rail station a bit further down with people waiting on it. We obviously couldn't walk along the track close to that so we broke off into the trees and bushes by the side and worked our way through them. At one point we found a clearing with a load of makeshift chairs set up and fire places and things. At first Wyatt thought we might have found a hobo jungle but it was most likely a hang out set up by local kids. Let's face it, if you're young and in Buffalo there doesn't seem to be a huge amount to do.
We were sweating our balls off in the heat but on we walked. We passed the station, got some strange looks from people, crossed a main road and carried on walking alongside the tracks on this quiet road which literally vanished into the distance. And yes, once again, we were really low on water. Further down the buildings separating the rail track from the main road stopped so we couldn't carry on otherwise we would get spotted by numerous people driving up and down. We therefore did what we had now become really skilled at and hid in some bushes. Wyatt decided to go ahead and see what was going on so he left his bag with me in some tall reeds and went off. I just sat there and covered my head with my bandana to keep the mosquitoes off and relaxed. I could hear some kids playing in a garden somewhere close by (there was a residential area behind me) and the buzz of traffic in front of me and it was actually pretty peaceful.
Wyatt came back with two rail caps which would become his pride and joy for the rest of the trip. He'd found some shop down the track which sold train stuff and had bought us a cap each for memorabilia's sake.
Wyatt said he'd seen a sort of industrial estate ahead and that the Buffalo yard was apparently pretty close. We walked off the tracks into the estate and walked parallel with the rail as best as we could hoping to make distance during these daylight hours without getting stopped or something. We then crossed back onto the rails and this is where we got nervous. We were walking along this freight line in full daylight, a busy road across from us and nowhere to run if security came driving towards us. There was a crappy pool of stagnant water to our right and we dropped down onto its banks out of sight to decide what we were going to do next. This is where we had our slight clash of ideas...
Wyatt wanted to jump over a fence into the empty delivery car park of a WalMart next to us. I didn't want to because once we had jumped over that fence we would be SO exposed, two scruffy hobos hanging around the back of a store near a train line. I also said we had no guarantee that walking around this WalMart would lead to the yard or that we'd be able to get back onto the rail. I wanted to stay on the tracks and stay hidden until it got dark. Wyatt didn't want to do this at all. I insisted that I did. Wyatt insisted that he really didn't. We were stood up on a wire part of the fence which was behind the wooden fence leading to the WalMart having this argument when Wyatt suddenly shouted "Shit, bail, bail" and started running back to the tracks. I looked up and saw a police car had just come round the corner of this deserted car park and was heading straight to us. I ran back down to the tracks but stood in that FLIPPING STAGNANT POOL OF CRAP as I was moving. We started jogging along the tracks, slightly worked up and still arguing. We were passing a load of trees and bushes and I knew we had to hide in them as right there and then we were simply too vulnerable. The fence between us and the cover was a real bendy wire link one. I jumped up and pulled myself over into a little clearing. Wyatt followed but got his jeans caught on a metal spike and RIIIIIIIIIIIP... Now he was REALLY pissed and there were many "Motherfuck shit fuck shit damn FUCK"s to be heard.
After a bit more arguing we had to just stop and laugh. Here we were, sweaty and filthy, sat in a tiny space on a dirty slope next to an absolutely simmering STINKING cess-pool, my foot REEKED of the rotting water that I'd trod in and my feet were wet from it, Wyatt had a tear in his jeans and both of us were going to have to stay in there until it got dark. And THEN, just to complete the perfect scenario, a psycho squirrel started squawking and barking at us from the branches above our heads because its nest was a meter or two above us and it didn't like us at all. So then we had to spend the whole time being ready just in case this vermin decided to try and scratch our eyes out. "If only Mark and the others could see us right now" Wyatt said, referring to the members on the forum that we were both part of. Oh how we laughed...
Well, I don't really have to explain how long three and a half hours is when you're sat in those cramped conditions and smelling like we did but hec, we were used to this shit by now so a mere 3.5 hours was a breeze. AT LAST the sun started to go down and every minute our surroundings became a bit darker. Before long we would be working our way into Buffalo yard and (please please please) getting the hell out of here. OR WOULD WE???!!1!!!
The sun was setting, the shadows were growing and Wyatt and I were moving... We tacked along by the bushes further and further towards Buffalo Yard. When we had been waiting in the bushes a train had been shunting backwards and forwards for nearly the whole time. This is what they do when they're loading up. Because freights are so long they have to pull right out of the yard before stopping and then reversing all the way back in again. This makes it a bit awkward to catch out because you never actually know if the train is leaving the yard or if it's just loading up. Therefore you run the risk of climbing on and being taken back into the yard in front of all the security there or staying hidden in the bushes and the train just driving off leaving you behind feeling a real idiot.
Buffalo yard is not at all inviting. There are powerful lights all over the place, a watch tower and the Bull drives all over the place. The tracks also run RIGHT next to Buffalo's main road so you have the added hassle of police driving up and down. After a brief stop in a petrol station to load up with nutritious processed sugar supplies we disappeared back into the darkness of the tracks and decided what to do next.
We had been in this place for soooooo long that we were actually starting to lose hope. Trains heading out from here seemed so scarce at the best of times and even when they did, who's to say they'd be passing us at a slow enough speed to run after? WE COULD BE DOOMED TO BE IN BUFFALO FOREVER! It was the stuff of nightmares. A train was shunting back and forth which was really off-putting because we simply didn't know whether we should get on or not. It got to the point where we didn't care. We just wanted SOMETHING to happen. A train stopped in front of us so we ran across the tracks (about 10 of them side by side) and jumped on board. After a bit the train started moving back towards the yard. Damn it. However, we stayed on and decided to see what would happen. Back into the yard we went and BAM the train stopped again. There were about four or five freights stationary in a row and we were on the middle one. This was when you find yourself on full alert. A Bull could come round the corner any second, we might have been seen or we might not. At one point Wyatt said he'd seen a Bull coming towards us. I didn't know what he meant exactly, how far away the guy was or whether he'd seen us or not so I jumped across from our car onto the freight car next to us and told him to bail. We dropped down behind another train and started to move up along them in the tiny gap. If either train had started moving we would have been in a world of shit. Wyatt was shouting "What the hell? Dave, you're crazy, you're fuckin' crazy, Dave" but I just knew we had to get back into the shadows. We bailed out onto the main road and jogged along then, when the traffic allowed us, we ran back across to the front part of the yard and slinked behind some convenient bushes which were between the main road and the rail lines. This gave us a great vantage point to see everything and perhaps run for a train. Once again, we were sweating from running with our backpacks and the adrenaline was flowing.
Well, there were several more false alarms and a number of trains which passed us -heading out towards freedom- which were going too fast to get on which was a bit soul-crushing to say the least. An immense light in the distance from in the yard told us that another train was coming. We crouched behind the bushes and waited. The freight seemed to be going pretty fast. I was ready to give it a try. The engine flew past us and the great big gust of air ripped through our hiding place. "Damn it" yelled Wyatt. "It's going too fast. DAMN IT!" I wasn't sure. I thought maybe Wyatt was underestimating our speed. "No man, we can do this" I shouted back and off I sped, curving in towards the moving cars. I was more than happy to realise I was running the same speed. I stopped and yelled back to Wyatt. He came running and we both started running after a closed hopper we'd just seen pass us. WAK! I grabbed the rail and pulled myself up before turning and making sure Wyatt had a grip of it too. He did and in he climbed. WAHEY! We were both shouting a cheering. Surely this was it. Wyatt patted me on the back. "Good work, man" he shouted above the screeching of the metal. It felt good to be moving.
But DAMN, the train then began to slow. NOOOOOOOOO... Then it stopped. What followed was the longest wait we'd had so far. Not long in time but long in the fact that so much balanced on it. If this train started moving East again then we would be safe. If it started rolling West again then it was just going back to the yard and we'd be back to square one. Which would SUCK. We waited patiently on our car.
We were about a half mile from the yard and saw lights coming our way. It was another train. It flew past us for about five minutes. Once it was gone we waited with baited breath to which was we were going to start moving. Nothing. Just then another light from the other direction and a train passed us again. We would wait there for at least five different trains to pass us before ours began to move.
I had jumped off our car to go run ahead and see what the other cars were like further up the train. I had run about ten or so cars ahead when everything suddenly started to squeal and CRUNK the whole train started to roll. It was heading EAST! I ran back to our car and although I could hardly see anything Wyatt was hanging over the edge shouting "Yo DAVE, come on, man, WE'RE GOING". I jumped on board and we both stood there as the train began to pick up speed. PLEEEEEASE let this be the train leaving, we were saying. The train was really rolling now and still showed no sign of slowing down. We passed a set of green lights. It appeared that we were. FINALLY. LEAVING. BUFFALO.
HOOOORAAAAAH. Wyatt and I were jumping about like silly little school kids. I climbed up on the roof of the chemical car in front of us to look around. The mind-numbing town of Buffalo flew past. A police car drove by on the main road but we were moving, NOTHING could stop us. HAH. It was a fantastic feeling. Wyatt and I watched the six miles of track we had spent three days wandering along bit by bit zoom past our ever-accelerating freight. It was amazing just how far we had actually walked. Ten minutes later and we still hadn't passed the bridge where we first left the train coming into Buffalo. We saw the spot where we had set up camp that first night when it was raining. All that seemed like an eternity ago. This really had been the longest three days either of us had known, EVER.
As we flew through the night once more and after the excitement of leaving had died down Wyatt and I realised just how absolutely completely and utterly KNACKERED we were. We were sat on the front of the closed hopper so we didn't have as much protection from the wind this time. We got into our sleeping bags, curled up and blocked our ears from the noise. Both of us knew we were heading straight back to Syracuse and that we'd arrive when it was light but we would worry about that in a few hours time...
The date was Friday, July 8th, 2005. Being woken from sleep when you're real tired is bad enough but when you then have to immediately get everything packed up and ready to run because you're rolling into a freight yard early in the morning then waking up SUCKS. We were back in Syracuse Yard but whereas we were more than familiar with the bushes next to the main line we were now on the other side of the yard and rolling towards the middle of it, right under the watch tower and amongst all the lorry-loading area. We had to think fast. Jumping over the side of our closed hopper we jogged alongside the moving train until our cover to the right ran out. Looking around we could see the yard had a fair few people in it. We couldn't afford to get spotted so we ran across from the tracks to the edge of the yard. Ducking through some trees and bushes we emerged in a clearing of grass behind a lorry park. We knew how ridiculously long Syracuse yard was and knew that walking through it to the other end wasn't an option. Therefore we decided to walk around the edge of it and then work our way over to the main road which ran adjacent to it about a quarter mile away.
In less than half an hour we were walking on normal roads again, the early morning traffic looking at the two dirty hobos who had emerged from the yard. We walked and walked, before long reached one of the three or four bridges which cross over the freight yard. We walked along it in the direction of Syracuse town. From the bridge we could get a clearer idea of exactly how huge this place was. We could also see the watch tower, the Bull's police station and loads and loads of parked freights including one all by itself on the other side covered in military vehicles. We made a joke about how we should try and catch that one out. We'd be dead before we even got within 50 meters of it, for sure.
At the other end of the bridge we stood there pretending to look at a map. When there was a break in the traffic we suddenly jumped over the edge of the steep slope leading down into the yard area. We did in fact end up in someone's garden and quickly ran across the bottom of it out of sight of the house. The last thing we needed was someone phoning the police to report two homeless guys snooping about their property. Or for them to come out with a shot gun...
At the end of the garden the grass suddenly became really long and we disappeared into it. Following a small track through it all we reached an opening in the bushes which led straight onto the train line. This was a good thing. Well, as long as a train going from West to East stopped there at some point which of course there was absolutely no guarantee that this would happen. It was nice to be able to lay down for a bit anyway, away from everyone else or being spotted. As Wyatt crawled about the bushes next to the tracks I put down a couple of plastic bags and laid on them with my head propped on my sleeping bag. It was in fact extremely comfortable and even when it began to rain very slightly it didn't bother me at all. I think I fell asleep for about two hours.
When I woke up Wyatt told me he'd been scouting about and had decided we should head back to the bridge we crossed but hide underneath it. I didn't really want to move from my awesome bed of grass and dirt but we got up and went anyway. One thing we had both been aware of was the complete lack of trains that had passed by us in either direction since we got there. This is never a good sign. We were both extremely tired and extremely sick of waiting for countless hours for something which may or may not actually turn up.
Under the bridge (down town) and we found that if we sat at the top of the slope we were virtually hidden from all directions as it was so dark up there. There were maintenance and security vehicles driving around up and down the paths next to the rail tracks and police cars constantly went to and fro from the police station on the other side of the yard. Wyatt and I weren't going to be leaving this bridge anytime soon...
There was hobo graffiti on the walls under the bridge. Our concerns about the lack of trains passing through Syracuse was increased by the delightful message scrawled on the bricks next to use "Fuck this place, it's a shit hole, east bound, west bound, who cares". Our morale was deteriorating more and more, it had to be said. We also spotted something which we thought was a bit odd. A flag in the middle of the yard was flying half mast. We were both wondering why on earth this might be. I sort of joked that maybe George W. Bush had died but it was then I realised that neither of us actually had any idea about what was going on in the world at that point.
After a bit of messing about on the girders under the bridge and signing our names on them in a couple of places we both decided what we were going to do next. We assessed our situation: We were both as tired as can be. There didn't seem to be any train activity in this yard. Even if we did catch out, the way we wanted to go would take us straight back to the cursed Selkirk yard and in all honesty neither of us could be bothered to have to deal with that place again, especially as we'd be coming in from the West. We were both very hungry and we both needed more water. We both stank, were filthy and were worn out. After a short discussion we came to the conclusion that our best bet was to throw in the towel, call it a day and get home via public transport from Syracuse. Wyatt had to be somewhere important in 2 days and I wanted to go to Canada so it was decided.
Climbing back onto the main road and walking into the town of Syracuse, it was actually quite a refreshing feeling knowing that not only were we heading home but that we didn't have to worry about getting in and out of freight yards any more. A couple of miles later and we were in Syracuse which was about as dull as Buffalo but so what. We went into a diner and ate a great big fry up which tasted GREAT. Our spirits were now much higher but as we went into a petrol station to buy some more food I glanced over at the newspaper stand and saw something which was completely shit. A photo of a red double-decker bus ripped in half like a tin can was on the front page of one paper. A business man covered in blood and wrapped in bandages was on the front of another. The words "LONDON" and "TERROR" were on virtually all the front page headlines.
I was like "What the fuck?" and had this utter sinking feeling in my stomach as I started reading the papers. This would explain why the flag was flying half mast back at the yard. Terrorists had set off a load of bombs in packed tube trains and busses during rush-hour in London the day before and had killed over 50 people by doing so.
It's hard to explain but even though I don't have any family in London and I live over 200 miles from London I felt absolutely gutted. It was more the whole feeling of not knowing that the attacks had even happened until by chance the next day. Not just that but I felt completely cut off. I wouldn't say I'm patriotic or anything but I was thousands of miles from my home country and I felt completely separated from it. It's all pretty silly when I think back to it but even though I couldn't do anything to help even if I was there I wanted to be back home right then. Reading statements from Tony Blair saying how the country must all pull together and stuff, it really got to me that I was in a whole other continent. I don't mean to sound all boo hoo or anything but as I was sat on that picnic table by the petrol station in the light rain reading eye-witness accounts of the explosions and seeing pictures of people covered in blood I couldn't help but break down into tears. The fact I was so damn tired probably didn't help matters either. That really was a shitty moment :(
Well that certainly put a dampener on things for a bit. We got up and set off once more. It was another two mile walk to the Laundromat where we got all our grimy, stinking clothes washed whilst watching The Simpsons on a small TV in the corner. We were also able to wash in the bathroom which was much needed.
Well fed, watered, clean and wearing fresh clothes I have to say we both felt pretty damn good. Except for the whole London thing. We then caught a bus into Syracuse where we caught another one which took us to the train station. We then bought tickets and waited a few hours for our train. I've got to say, Syracuse has some weeeeeird people living in it. It's hard to explain but Wyatt and I both noticed it immediately. It was almost like it was all set up and we were on some comedy TV show or something as bizarre person after bizarre person just started talking to us about nothing in particular. Wyatt asked someone on the bus which bus we'd have to take to get to the station and no less than five people turned round and started giving us advice and talking amongst themselves and discussing bus numbers and going on and on and on and on about WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT. There was this massive fat woman shouting at herself, some mental guy got on with a walkman and said to the nearest person "I've been good today" before getting off again and when we were waiting for tickets at the train station a hyper-active 50 year old guy started talking to Wyatt at five thousand miles an hour whilst I watched the TV screen showing the news about London and a guy stood next to me and started telling me how he wanted to be a sniper for the US army so he could blow the heads off Muslims but they wouldn't let him sign up. No shit. Then he told me he was a preacher from Canada and that his God was the right one and Allah was wrong and his God will strike them all down and then he started going on about how he loves shooting and wanted to shoot people.
I was far, far, far too tired to even try and correct this fool and his whacked facts so I just sat there and nodded and wished I was in a sunny meadow of flowers somewhere without a crazy racist preacher psycho shouting in my ear about people with dark skin.
Aaaaanyway... fast forward a bit and Wyatt and I were finally back in his home town after a long and expensive detour to Manhattan from Syracuse to then get the train to his place. We walked back through his town, the same route we had walked twice nine days earlier after our failed hitch-hiking attempts. Back at Wyatt's work and we were pleased to see the bike was still there and looking good. Ripping back through the country lanes on the 750cc machine we got back to Wyatt's house in no time where I got a shower, went online for a little bit to tell people Wyatt and I were alive before crashing out and sleeping properly for the first time in over a week.
The next day we tried to arrange to get a meet up of me, Wyatt, Jack and Mark but Mark wasn't able to drive down to New York (from DC) which was a shame because that would have been CLASSIC. Still, Wyatt and I went back into Manhattan and met Jack at the Public Library which was great and we all hung out in some Irish bar until the place closed and had a great laugh and talked about all sorts of things which did, of course, include the other forum members. At the end of the night Wyatt head off back home whilst myself and Jack went to the youth hostel we'd booked into. My life as a Hobo had come to an end... FOR THE TIME BEING!
For the next two or three days Jack and I stayed at the youth hostel and hung out in Manhattan during the day. There were some really cool people staying in the hostel too which is always a good thing. Jack then went home as after 10 months of living in New York his year at uni had come to an end.
With Jack gone I head off to Canada for a bit. I figured that seeing as I am all the way over here it would be a waste to not go and see some of my Canadian chums who were but a stone's throw away (i.e. a 10 hour coach journey) so I took a week out to go see a bit of Crazy Canada. At the coach station in New York I met a fantastic French Canadian girl called Gila who was heading to Montreal on the same coach as me so the journey didn't seem quite as long as it was. Once in Ottawa I met up with Christina, a really cool girl I have known online for a while. That was good. Then I met up with my friend Phil who I met in Thailand in 2003. That also was good. Then I went to Toronto and stayed with Mick, another guy I met in the fantastic Summer of 2003 in Thailand. It was a real whistle-stop tour of Canada and a week after arriving in the country I set off from Toronto it was back to New York and a couple more nights in the hostel, hanging out with some of the super people I met there.
Oh yeah, one night a group of five of us were out having some drinks in a bar and we got talking about places we'd been and things and I said I'd done Muay Thai in Thailand and one of the women with us said she did Muay Thai too. I told her I have a website about my trip over there and she asked me to write it down so I did. She looked at the address and said she already has it saved in her favourites on her computer back home in Israel. She didn't take it in just then that it was my site. I told her and she clicked and she was like "WHOA!" and then everyone else was like "WHOA!" It was cool, that's for sure. Here I was in the city of New York with nine million people, staying in a tiny little hostel in Manhattan, drinking with a few people from around the world and one of them just happens to have one of my websites saved in her favourites. Rock on. A small taste of t'Internet fame, for real...
On my last night in the city I went out to a bar with a really cool Aussie called Sarah and we drank quite a lot. The next day I got myself down to JFK and rock and ROLL, I was flying directly home to England. A bus ride and a tube ride through town and I was at Kings Cross Station to get my 2 hour train back home. I was looking forward to getting home because I can't lie, it had been the most tiring and varied five weeks of my life. Not bad for someone who is £10,000 in debt with university loans :)
So there you have it. My fantastic trip compressed into... err, well, not very compressed at all actually.
Still, I hope you found it interesting/fascinating/mildly amusing. I am very pleased I got to go Freight Hopping. Even though it was just a small taster of what it's like it was enough to tell me a few things.
Here's some pointers and things about freight hopping and my trip in general...
• I will definitely do it again and this will almost certainly be with Wyatt. Next time we will travel South (like we had originally intended) as Wyatt says it's much easier and there are more options.
• I know what to expect so I can pack accordingly. For the next trip I will pack much lighter. Our tent could be replaced with quality bivvy-bags and everything can be condensed down. I will also collect together clothing with freight hopping specifically in mind. Hell, I might even create a modified set of clothes for it like Wyatt and I discussed countless times whilst waiting in bushes. Basically we're going to build the Bat-suit.
• My video camera desperately needs upgrading. Next time I will have a tiny digital video camera which I can keep strapped to something on my front so I can film with it quickly and easily meaning I can get footage of more exciting things and at a moment's notice.
• New York and especially Manhattan has a million things to be seen. I need to spend more time there one day.
• I'm going to go back to Canada and see the same people again as well as head over to the West and check out BC.
• The Americans Jack and I stayed with were extremely welcoming and generous people. That's cool.
• Not a single person we met on our whole trips supported Bush. In fact when we were driving through Brooklyn one time there was a huge slogan painted across a massive wall: "WORST. PRESIDENT. EVER".
• The smoking ban in bars in New York is the best thing ever.
• Sitting on a motorbike at 125mph when you're not in control of it is not the best thing ever.
• My first ever Freight Yard experience just happened to be in -and I quote- "The MOTHER of all freight yards". That makes me smile :) Being thrown in the deep end right at the very start can only be a good thing as far as experience and learning curves go.
• I now know that my body can survive for extended periods of time on nothing but the crappest food you can imagine and spates of no water at all.
There's a line near where I walk my dog and I never really took it in before but freights use it all the time. I now recognise the sound of a freight moving and have checked out the yard although I don't think freight hopping would work very well in the UK. For a start the freight trains are tiny in comparison to the USA and aren't very rideable at all. Secondly they'd reach a new yard every half an hour which could prove a bit of a problem. I think I'll stick to America for all my freight train hopping for the moment.