Doc Bo and RR Rev caught an eastbound boxcar from the biggest storm of the year in Los Angeles. We bumped the rails to Yuma… err Tucson, and there was a lot of action on this first Executive Hobo Trip since 2001.
Standing on the Pepper Street Bridge overlooking the Colton freight yard in a light drizzle, Rev’s jaw tightens and bursts. ‘It’s one thing to go into danger blind, and another to go into danger with you!’ I’m thrown back to August, ‘01 when four Executive Hobos echoed the same. I guided a NYC speculator, Silicon Valley CEO, Toronto Gold trader and Bay Area Chief of Disaster Response from Denver to Sacramento just in time for 9/11 that clamped railroad security to pull the noose on the last of the money hobos.
RR Rev is Steven Klet, the best mind I’ve met since the executive hobos, and a hair faster. That’s why I gave him the moniker Rev. He‘s the VP and computer head of a family run Vulture Medical Device business in Orange, California. I toured the factory floor beneath a 20’x40’ American Flag where he strapped four leads of an electric device to my right arm to heal tennis elbow and invited me to crank the voltage, which I happily did, until the hand saluted. I assured his mother, the receptionist, that her only son’s decision to catch a first freight was astute since, ‘He’s bright, coordinated and has your genes.’
In August, 2007, he read about the Executive Hobos in the archives of Daily Speculations and during the next three months entreated me to introduce him to hobodom, however I couldn’t break from school teaching in Blythe, California until a recent puzzling juncture.
On November 13, 2007, I was assigned to substitute Middle School boys’ Physical Education where the pupils assaulted me and each other with balls, rocks and fists. At last bell, the vice-principal implored me to write the day’s vicissitudes with suggestions, that I gladly did. The following morning, the district dismissed their ace sub expressing concern that they refused to put into writing about the middle school incident. I had also Emailed the report to personal contacts outside the community- my parents, brother who’s a teacher, and other educators… that mysteriously reached the Superintendent’s inbox. I visited unemployment, another first, and like Jethro Bodine with floppy hat in hand called on a Palm Springs attorney who professed my case weak. I wrote letters to the Editor, School Board and Governor, and then hit the rails like Weary Willie for brighter horizons. The prompt to everyone was: How did the Superintendent read my Hotmail?
I was thrown straight from teaching in the classroom to the boxcar!
We drove an hour in the belting rain from the medical device factory to the Union Pacific RR yard and brashly parked in the San Bernardino Hospital emergency lot kitty corner from the Pepper Street Bridge. From that wet perch we spot numerous white vans marked Renzenberger, the leading limonene service for locomotive crews, and salivate trusting one any minute to splash up to four huffing engines of a long train under our feet. Yet I declare, ‘The crew may already be aboard,’ and we slide down the muddy embankment to embark a sky blue open boxcar into the secret world of hobos. But enter carefully, Rev. The last four people I know who entered were permanently altered.
‘Don’t look back for two days,’ I urge as we inspect our packs on the metal boxcar floor.
His red suitcase holds a change of clothes, 99c raincoat, sleeping bag, multi-tool, flashlight, digital camera, cell phone, Theroux’s ‘Riding the Iron Rooster, snacks and a quart of water. My black laundry satchel carries the same except a disposable camera, L’Amour western, and a sleeping bag from a chicken roost, patched and washed clean. He wears dark coveralls, and I two kaki pants with rope suspenders to stuff paper between layers against the cold. The rain batters lightly the roof, diesel wafts into the open door, and couples clang outside and echo within our 15’x50’ box.
‘I can’t believe one can waltz into a yard and catch out,’ he pipes. ‘It hasn’t left yet,’ I return. We hunker over the goals: First, to learn how to hobo a freight cross-country, and next, to return safely with a memorable adventure. Thirty minutes of staring at the four grungy walls later, I proclaim, ‘I’m going to hike to the units to talk to the crew, the bull be damned.’
I hop to the grit and trot eight cars ahead to the locomotives. The UP diesel-electric famous paint scheme is Armor Yellow on the bottom, a thin dividing line of red, and Harbor Mist gray on the roof. The 3’ red number #4714 on ‘dirty face’ is memorized for later use. The engines idle but the cabs are empty!
Back at the boxcar door, Rev reaches down and cheerily claps my shoulder. ‘We could have sat in here all night.’ Cold, wet and sleepy, he believes that no problem withstands an assault of sustained thinking, and vaults down. We ‘frisk the ‘drag’, or walk the mile-long freight including boxcars, curved hoppers with end platforms and ‘hotel rooms’, gondolas, lumbar cars, flatcars, a few piggyback, and container cars.
Rev, an analytical risk taker, wishes to try to catch the moving ladder of a shuffling freight next to ours. I caution that the #1 hobo killer is to ‘grease the rail’ while ‘flipping’ a moving freight, albeit persist, ‘Scale like a monkey with three of four appendages on the rungs.’ He grabs 2mph iron, and one wet boot slips toward the 3’ cookie cutter wheels. I gasp, unable to comprehend an explanation to mother why her son walks circles around Old Glory. But now he dangles safely, and shouts, ‘Two hands!’
The yard is dangerous, more so with remote-control locomotives whisking the rails. I shout above their rumbles, ‘This is hell, like a toy train set.’ My associate has boned up on Internet UPRR history to inform me that this yard recently became the last in California to convert to unmanned locomotives. The accident rate among yard employees and hobos using automated engines is 25% higher. Also, with no sets of eyes aboard the engines, it’s harder for us to glean train information.
We reach and peer around the tail of our freight for another automation called FRED (Flashing Rear End Device). This blinking red taillight is usually mounted on the last car to replace the venerable caboose and telemetrically relay the brake pressure a mile ahead to the engineer. A train is complete and ready to roll once the FRED and crew are added, but presently ours has neither. ‘Let’s walk until we find a living soul,’ I yell. We search the yard for a ‘brakie’ (brakeman) or ‘switchie’ (switchman), while evading the ‘bull’ (RR police).
The Colton yard handles about 1,500 cars per day and one can’t miss the 10% tally of brand new cars. I haven’t seen that many mint carriages in twenty years. There’s also miles of fresh ‘boxcar art’ murals by hobos depicting their faces and desert landscapes. ‘Union Pacific is a good investment,’ I tell my partner, ‘But hoboing is a better one.’ On finding no workers during the walk, we climb the Riverside Bridge over the west yard for a panorama.
The Union Pacific Colton Rail Yard has a typical configuration of two main rails entering both ends that widen into a bowl of some fifty tracks used for storing or building strings of cars. In the center lies a maintenance shed, diesel refueling dock for engines, and a five-story tower with the yardmaster who oversees traffic and sics the bull on tramps. Colton is the primary train building yard in southern California, so it’s more likely that we’ll catch a constructed freight here instead of a ‘through’ one changing crews. The tracks are numbered starting with the two mains on the north side. We squint down the overpass for infrared cameras, see none, and are studying the paved service roads stretching a mile to the Pepper Bridge when Rev exclaims, ‘I see three FRED’s!’
‘Memorize the vista!’ I answer. ‘We must know the three track numbers and car types.’ Seconds later, we clamber down the bank to pursue the standstill trains. We reach the first FRED on the tail of a parked freight of un-rideable oil tankers and sealed boxcars. One track over, we see another FRED blinking on a second freight of hoppers with mountable platforms. ‘I prefer a dry boxcar on a stormy night,’ objects Rev, so we press forward to the third FRED on the original #4714 train that sports plenty of ‘empties’ as well as our original sky blue boxcar.
Three freights stomping at the bit after five hours wait!
We stand like statues on the ballast between our blue boxcar train and the curved hopper freight, packs shouldered and on tiptoes to catch the first that moves. The hopper jerks and we scale the ladder, but it halts in fifty yards. The boxcar heaves and we belly flop 5’ onto the floor. Four locos roar like T-Rex’s, belch smoke through our door, and the couples’ drumbeat to our boxcar that pitches knocking us to the floor. We stand again as it rattles under the Pepper Bridge, and slides along Interstate-10 east for twenty minutes before entering a green tunnel of Salt Cedars for ten minutes to emerge into a colony of giant ‘Naked People’.
The Naked People of Palm Springs inhabit a wind farm of 4000 white windmills on the Gorgonio Pass of the San Bernardino Mountains. Each stands 150’ tall with blades half the length of a football field to turn turbine generators that power the Coachella Valley into which the freight plunges at 55mph. The boxcar, with a light load of two tramps, picks up a harmonic that rock and rolls us into the 70’s. I observe Rev’s face bounce in jubilation during the acceleration. One hand grasps the boxcar door and the other a Marlboro. ‘Smoke out a boxcar once, you’re hooked!’ I scream. This is Norman Rockwell’s America through a side-door Pullman, and there is no better history.
Jumping as if he’s touched a ghost, Rev yells, ‘Doc Bo! We forgot to stake the door.’ Yes, in the rush to choose trains I had discarded a 2X4 wood and he a RR spike to jam open our single sliding door. He reflects with the lit cigarette along the door hinge and gleefully reports it welded open. The boxcar is now sacred, the bread-and-butter hobo ride. It provides moving shelter from weather and bulls, or if you please to stand or sit at the 10’x20’ ‘window’ on nature. We forage cardboard from previous riders to fashion two bird nests a safe distance from the door on which to plop the sleeping bags to buffet the bounce. High on springs and nests, we sashay down the track with the added comfort that not a thing in the world can get us- telephone, tax collector or spouse.
I breathe easier that we’re sliding along the rails. The skies open to stars on the eastern flank of the Coastal Range as we glide down, down to the desert within thirty miles of my digs in Sand Valley, and then across the Colorado River into Arizona. The engineer whistles through night burgs for hours and Rev still refuses to leave his post by the window.
A train tramp has much time on his hands. We read by headlamp, sightsee out our bucking screen, chat very little, and every so often sit at opposite ends of the car reciting hobo poetry (flatulence).He seems preoccupied with the novelty of the trip. Sometimes I think like Voltaire and other times I am like Descartes, but when I ain’t I sleep. I awaken throughout the night to see him still at the door ‘getting into the world quick’, an old expression describing a young man bitten by wanderlust who takes the first opportunity to jump a freight out of town.
Our focus is the next ‘division point’ along the high iron where the crew changes and we will have options. The points are spaced about ten hours apart within big yards where the units pause for a minute to an hour to change the engineer and conductor in the lead unit. Before sunrise, our train brakes and stops at the Yuma Amtrak bench a tempting minute’s walk from the city skyline. We grab our gear to detrain but hear voices outside, and peek out the boxcar. The crew changes in a record thirty seconds, and abruptly the freight highballs. Should we leap to the concrete ramp at 3mph, try to ride like gentlemen a mile away to a mission to debark for free breakfast, or stay aboard? In five seconds, the 8mph freight is too fleet to jump with switches hidden in the morning shadows, so the train pulls away with its hobo cargo. ‘Sometimes you think and sometime you run out of time,’ I offer at the door, and Rev shrugs as the train accelerates, ‘I’ve never seen Tucson.’
He sits and wraps his boots in plastic sacks for warmth and watches the rolling tract. Miles later, a strange thing happens: the freight ‘goes in the hole’ for the first time, stopping. Rev looks up with a pinched face from zero sleep and multiple business texts on his cell. ‘What’s the scoop?’ he asks. A rumble on the blind side of our car shakes our feet on the floor, and I peek through a rust hole in the closed door where a westbound ‘unit container train’ races for the Long Beach container yard. It clears, but fifteen minutes later our freight goes ‘on the farm’ again for another priority train. Rev glumly surmises, ‘The other track disappeared.’ I echo in alarm, ‘We’re on a single rail. This freight just became a ‘dog’.’
The effect is halving the number of lanes on an Interstate route with laws that the slowest vehicles must stop for others to pass from fore or aft. Our mixed freight is the lowest priority that will pull onto side rails at thirty mile or so intervals across the Arizona desert. My cohort vows to buy a police scanner for the next trip and pre-program it with each RR and yard frequency to listen in to passing engineers and within the yards. We side 22 times in the stretch from Yuma to Tucson.
It’s Christmas time. Freight is on the move in America, with lots of toys for little girls and boys. Some container trains from overseas or intra-country are double-stacked, and all whiz by at 70mph. It’s the hobo season of disaffiliation.
Does everyone have to wear society’s tight shoes? In the town where I live the citizens fear thought like nothing on earth, more than death, so they squeeze into noisy blocks without an inkling of the city limit. One in ten-thousand steps outside and becomes a philosopher. The trouble with most people is they think with their clichés rather than options and fail to see the switches in life. Not Rev, and other executives I’ve met. There are sundry reasons for taking to the rails: Irrelevancy of modern society to a thinking man, seeking alternative explanations of an unorthodox lifestyle, quick discovery of self into the unknown, on the lam from John Law, a jilted lover, failed business, or doomed job like mine. I’m free, unchained, un-debted, got an itch to travel and the boxcars roll in all directions.
I’m also Rev’s exit counselor to ease him from a lifelong program of socialization and thrashing for the buck. Once he becomes aware of the obvious flaws in the place he’s from, and the benefits of another lifestyle, he may step out often as other executives have voiced, ‘to taste other realities’. His affiliation to family and business is fierce– I want to steal him to the hobo experience for two days, for balance.
‘Well, I used to ride this same steel road home throughout the ‘90’s for Christmas with my family in Dallas. Back then the line was called Southern Pacific. You never saw such surprised looks on faces, or willing ears to listen to stories of perspective on how I reached them.’
Rev dials the cell from the door of the dancing boxcar and looks west. ‘We’re ok, Mom. Eastbound…You too!’ He texts his dad, ‘We’re on a freight to Yuma, err…Tucson,’ who instantly answers, ‘You’ve done a great thing that few do!’
Later, the freight trundles to a stop at the Tucson terminus. I look regrettably down the UPRR overland route toward Dallas, and back to Rev, who gently says, ‘I haven’t slept a wink. I didn’t want to miss anything, but I have a business to run tomorrow.’ Yet the train jumps! I must order to stay or bail, so heft my pack, glance from the jiggling floor down at the light scattering ballast and then at Rev framed in moonlight leaping through the boxcar door, and chuckle at how the Superintendent got the damning Email. The district hung itself in public and I got out just in time for Christmas!