Riding the Rails


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Dick Erb

June Lake, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 13, 2009 - 11:27pm PT
Back in my California college days a couple of friends and I hopped a freight in the Oakland yard and rode it down to LA for Christmas vacation. I became quite intrigued with this relaxing method of free travel and would sometimes ride up and down the coast, sometimes alone and sometimes with other climbers like Eric Beck and Steve Roper. When I moved from Berkeley to Boulder the freights seemed like the way to go. I could even take my bicycle. So I rode down to the freight yard asked a yard worker which track had the train I wanted, found a boxcar, threw my bike and pack in the door, hopped in and waited. Often the wait would be for hours but seemed much mellower than hitch hiking where I was always hoping the next car would pick me up. Finally the train was rolling out of the industrial city, across the central valley, and over the Sierra out into the Great Basin. I sat in the open doorway watching the world go by all the way into Salt Lake City. There I found another train that was going to Denver, and another boxcar.

It was fall. Time for the pea harvest in southeast Colorado, and a half a dozen migrant farm workers climbed into the car just before the train pulled out. I wondered what they would think of this kid with a bicycle, but everything seemed cool. One guy mentioned being in Chicago and another said he used to live there, had a job, a wife, and some kids, but one day just walked away. Never been back. Any how we were heading out into the dark and it was getting cold. The bums were rolling up in newspapers trying to stay warm. That made me feel quite self conscious as I pulled my down sleeping bag out of my pack. I looked over at a friendly Mexican shivering in the corner, grabbed my down jacket and handed it to him. The sound of the wheels and the rocking rhythm of the train lulled me to sleep. Sometime in the night the train rolled to a halt and I felt someone shaking my shoulder. I opened my eyes in the darkness to hear someone say, "It's too cold we're going to get out and build a fire. Here's your coat". I stuffed it back into my pack thinking that a down parka is probably one of the best things a hobo could own and felt the warm feeling of brotherhood.
Don't let go

Trad climber
Yorba Linda, CA
Nov 13, 2009 - 11:38pm PT
What a great story! Can you be open about asking for what train to hop on? Do you have to sneak onto the boxcars or does no one care? Any tips would be appreciated.

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Nov 13, 2009 - 11:40pm PT
Awesome, Dick!

I'd always wanted to try that, but was always afraid
of recent stories about the real criminals doing it
these days.

Your's was a time past. . .
Dick Erb

June Lake, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 14, 2009 - 12:10am PT
I always had no trouble just asking the switchmen which trains go where. Some times they would warn me to watch out for the bulls (gumshoes, yard detectives). Some railroads were better than others. I heard, "Never ride the Union Pacific". The Great Northern was the best. A past president of the company said, "Let the bums ride". Pratt and Chouinard were riding the Sante Fe through Arizona and New Mexico and found a nice cushy seat inside an automobile on one of the car carriers. Unfortunately the windows fogged up and the bull spotted it. Their trip was delayed with a little bit of jail time.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 14, 2009 - 12:14am PT
Great story, Dick! My adventures hitch hiking were never that pleasant.
Eric Beck

Sport climber
Bishop, California
Nov 14, 2009 - 12:18am PT
I was introduced to riding freights by Roper. It was the early spring of 1963, raining and snowing every day in the Valley and Roper says "Let's go to Mardi Gras". This seemed like a good idea. We hitched to Barstow and caught a train heading east. It went to Albuquerque where we caught another. In the morning we woke up not really knowing where were but inferred from the license plates that we were in north Texas. The train continued northeast and we finally jumped off in Oklahoma.

We made our way to Tulsa where we were kicked out of the yard and warned "You guys are lucky I caught you. Tiny, who works the other end of the yard has a ruber hose and knows how to use it". Several days of hitchiking led us to Little Rock where we spent a night with an old friend, Charles Bell working there for AP. He had done the first ascent of the Willis Wall (Rainier) and showed us pictures from the ascent.

We got a Rock Island train south and eventually got off in New Orleans. Only a few blocks out of the yard we ran into a Mardi Gras parade snaking its way thru a drunken mob.

Some hightlights from the return, being at gunpoint in Houston, throwing beer bottles off the train into the Rio Grande in Del Rio (wow, how environmental sensibilities have changed) and the amazing train we got from El Paso to LA. After poking around the El Paso yard for several hours we finally concluded that there were two trains heading west. The first was to be a drag and the second a manifest, leaving 45 minutes later. There was lot's of conflicting information. We waited and dozens of people got on the drag. Our train left as scheduled 45 minutes later and roared past the first which was waiting in the hole for us. It wailed all night and we were in downtown LA in the Taylor Yard at 9am the next morning.

Riding freights became a regular practice. Some useful rides, the Southern Pacific 378 Oakland to Portland, and the Southern Pacific 336 Oakland to LA. These always made up on the same track each night and it was as easy as taking the bus.

Also rode Reno to Denver, Sacramento to Fresno, and Minneapolis to Seattle.

Trad climber
greater Boss Angeles area
Nov 14, 2009 - 12:21am PT
I've seen enough F.T.R.A. grafiti (whether genuine or bogus) near train tracks to squelch any train-hopping curiousity I ever had.

I dig hearing about it, though.
Big Piton

Trad climber
Nov 14, 2009 - 12:21am PT
I met this young guy 6 months ago. He was sick and tired of living in Oxnard Calif. He said he was heading to FL. by way of the freight train.

Claiming he has done this many times before.

His rules of the rails are:

1) Never travel alone.

2) Always have a knife aka weapon.

3) Off before the yard and on right after the yard.

He called me one month later from FL. No Problem!

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 14, 2009 - 01:02am PT
Speaking of travel adventures, Mark Powell once told me a story about Roper's first car. Galen Rowell was working at his garage and sold it to him for fifty bucks. He also let it be known that he thought that it might have been hot. For its maiden voyage, it was decided that the Needles of South Dakota was the place to go. Roper, Powell and Eric Beck loaded up and headed out. Since Eric is here, he should fill in the details. Eric was assigned to be the oil guy since the motor burned up a quart in no time flat so they had a case in the trunk....
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C. Small wall climber.
Nov 14, 2009 - 01:18am PT
Thank you Dick, Eric and Jim! Great stories - I had no idea riding the rails was done so often in the 1960s. From reading about the depression, the hoboes, and the railroad bulls, I had the impression it didn't happen much.

There's a somewhat related thread on climbers and hitch-hiking: http://supertopo.com/climbers-forum/495602/Hitch-hiking_to_the_crags

Nov 14, 2009 - 01:25am PT
Climbing at Index Lower Town wall we would sometimes see people riding the freights on the railroad below.

Back East I remember hearing about a guy, I think he was at one time a hut-keeper on Mt. Washington, who lost a leg riding the rails.

Nov 14, 2009 - 01:34am PT

Trad climber
Nov 14, 2009 - 01:35am PT
Reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road right now, good rail riding stuff in there.
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C. Small wall climber.
Nov 14, 2009 - 01:36am PT
Hobo Dave, with what I believe is called a bindlestiff. He doesn't actually seem to ride the rails, but he sure is nostalgic about them. http://www.hoborails.com/
John cameron

Trad climber
Nov 14, 2009 - 02:03am PT
John cameron

Trad climber
Nov 14, 2009 - 02:07am PT
Mike Brodie aka "The Polaroid Kidd" has captured some really great images on the subject.


Mountain climber
Monrovia, CA
Nov 14, 2009 - 02:38am PT
My ex's cousin, a Dartmouth boy, loved ridin' back in the early 70's. He was very slight of build and non-confrontational but never had any problems. Last I heard he was a VP at CitiBank!

LA Times had a nice article a while back that was quite good. The bloom is definitely off the noble life what with ass-kicking rail dicks and a general decline in the ethics and morals of the brotherhood.

Social climber
Nov 14, 2009 - 10:05am PT
I took four cross country trips in the early eighties. The best ride was a hotshot to Spokane where we transferred to a Portland bound freight. We got a real flat wheeler-or maybe the track was bad but I recall being bounced off the floor of the car about 6" for what seemed like forever. We made it into Portland (32Hours!)very early and settled in to sleep a little but they started making more train with our set and we were getting smacked pretty good with each collision. We got out and had breakfast at a Dennys and then hitched down 101 to San Francisco and eventually Yosemite.
Another time we were going to Glacier National Park. The High Line for Burlington Northern makes a stop at Spokane, Cour de Lean, Whitefish (Glacier) and then out of the mountains to Havre. We had left Sandpoint and it was late- the train stopped and we couldn't tell if this was Whitefish- it might have just been pulled onto a siding to give way to priority trains and we did not want to hop out and get stranded in some Montana grizzly bear forest-We stayed on- Big mistake- 6 hours later we hit Havre.
There we met up with some waitresses who worked at an all-night restaurant, They let us crash at their apartment and use their bath tub. I still remember how grungy the ring around the tub was when I got out.

That night alone with one of the waitresses-She refused my crude offer of a night in bed with a "travelling man"- informing me she wanted to save herself for marriage..........while I informed her this was something I was willing to spend before I got married. Unfortunately that bank account had to wait a while longer even though it was not lacking in interest

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Nov 14, 2009 - 11:02am PT
Great story Dick.
Thanks for sharing some more with us!

Trad climber
Nov 14, 2009 - 11:13am PT
Very cool stories!

Thanks for posting up!

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