an interview with emily

Emily is a kid I met through the Net with an intense interest in trainhopping and hobo culture. She was working on a project she called the Petticoast Rambler. Here is the interview.

Emily, here are my answers.

1. How long have you been hopping trains? What motivated you to try it for the first time?

Like a lot of kids, I started hopping freight trains because I needed to get around and had no money. In my case, I had hitchhiked around, but it is exhausting. You have to stand by the side of the road for hours vibing people, saying with your smile, "I am not a serial killer, I am not a serial killer."

Then when you get a ride, people expect to entertain or be intertained. You have to stay awake to either talk to the driver or listen to him or her talking. I fall asleep easily in a car as a passenger, so it was always torture. I've met great people hitchhiking, but it was exhausting. Discovering trainhopping was a huge relief. That was in 1992.

2. What was your first hop like?

My first ride, I hopped a train to pick up a motorcycle. The year before, I'd been on a roadtrip in Oregon when my motorcycle died. I pushed it to a repair shop and they told me it would take several weeks and untold hundreds to fix. I had neither the time nor the money to fix it then. So I had to head home leaving the bike. Amtrak was mysteriously less expensive than Greyhound, so I took the train home. I'd never ridden a train. Even the passenger train was wonderful! I loved it.

So a year later, after I'd saved enough to pay for the motorcycle repairs, I was headed back up to pick up my bike. But I didn't even have enough money to take Amtrak back up, so I thought maybe I can hop a freight train. I'd read about doing that somewhere.

I hopped a northbound Southern Pacific freight right out of the passenger station in Sacramento. I was drinking good whiskey, smoking a cigar. The fireball sun was sinking into the golden fields as the train reached open country and picked up speed. I could not believe myself, what I was capable of. I was watching the world go by from the comfort of an open boxcar. I was on top of the world. I felt all-powerful and omnipotent. I'd done it. The words, "Did it did it did it," kept bouncing around in my head.

3. What about the lifestyle of hobos appealed to you? Why did you continue to hop trains?

I didn't know any hobos, and in fact, didn't for years know that anyone else still did it. As I began to meet people who hopped trains, the appeal of the hobo life snuck up on me. A lot of the people I met were not old crustie hobos, but young punk kids. They were traveler kids who didn't restrict their wandering to this country, but traveled all over the world, living on next to nothing, scrounging food, working odd jobs just to get by wherever they were.

4. What is the worst thing about riding trains? What was your worst experience?

Cold and wet is not very fun, but it gets better in retrospect. A few summers ago I went to a hobo gathering in Dunsmuir. I'm not a safety nut, but I am always pretty conscious. I jumped off a train that I knew was going too fast because I was in a hurry. I faceplanted directly into the gravel. I busted my glasses, hurt my leg, and opened up a cut on my head. It was just plain dumb, and on a positive side, quite humbling.

5. The best?

They are all the best. My first ride was pretty powerful, but my last ride was remarkably fun too and I haven't stopped talking about it since. And all the rides in between are memorable for different reasons. Sitting in a gondola with my shirt off in Ogden Utah on a warm sunny day on the way to Colorado fills me with a craving even now.

6. What kind of qualities do people who hop trains have that differ from ordinary people?

People who hop freight are curious and adventurous of course, but they also see a difference between what is right and what is legal. Riding trains makes you a toughie. After a while, you start to look at any hardship and say, "Well, that's not as bad as riding on a piggyback under the truck trailer wheels in a driving rain through the Rocky Mountains in a freezing downpour through the night."

7. What is the future of hopping trains? Will higher security and stronger laws eliminate the hobo?

Riding now is easier than its ever been. Cars now seem to be designed by hobo sympathizers. It's kind of weird. There are lots of good places to ride. Old-time 'bos used to ride the rods under the cars or the blinds behind the tender car. That's fucking crazy. The train companies can't spend enough money on security to defeat people's ingenuity. Security concern is like a pendulum and it will swing the other way soon enough.

8. What kind of discrimination do hobos receive from society? Have you had any personal experiences with being discriminated against because of your lifestyle choice?

Really, I've only experienced one incident. In Sacramento, they had a law for a while that there were no backpacks allowed in bars. What? When I first heard it, I thought, "What craziness is this?" I thought the bartender was messing with us. I was pissed and I walked out and went to the next bar down the street. The bartender there was a woman and she sounded very apologetic but told us the same thing. So we had to leave all our stuff on the sidewalk outside the bar to get a beer. I realized it was clearly a law to discourage vagrants from frequenting bars in downtown Sacramento.

Have fun, Emily. And I'm sorry it was late. Hope you can still use it and that I haven't let you down. Don't choose a hobo name. One will choose you. I'm called Big Cake because every year in Dunsmuir, I make pancakes for dozens of hobos at the gathering, usually with one big ass pancake at the end to use up all the batter.

Okay, now's the time for you to ride.

Big Cake