by Wes Modes
Originally published in Might magazine, October 1994
What to Worry About
Safety is a big deal on the railroad. It is real easy to get good and hurt. You are made of soft, breakable stuff, while railroad equipment is made of very hard, very heavy stuff. A rolling boxcar won’t even flinch as it quietly rolls right over you in a sneaky surprise attack.
Furthermore, accidents make everyone look bad. You, me, the railroad gal who told you what train to get on, all the people who saw you and were too cool to call the bull on you. This is why, every time you talk to a rail, he or she will tell you to stay safe.
Don’t walk on the tracks. Don’t cross under couplers or cars. And watch for cars rolling quietly through the yard. Be careful out there.
Some yards have a railroad cop. The railroad cop is referred to as the Bull. The only way to get caught by the bull is being stupid. The bull typically sits in some office somewhere until someone calls him with a problem, which is seldom. [Not at all true anymore. -ed] Occasionally, the bull will make a foray out of the office to cruise around in the bull-mobile, a white pick-up or bronco, typically. The bull may traverse all the roads through the yard before they retire back to their den. To avoid the bull, stay out of sight of the roads within the yard. Walk between strings of cars. Watch for the bull-mobile. Watch for flashlights. Stay out of danger. Steer clear of the office.
What to Bring
Keep everything dark, dark clothes, dark pack, dark sleeping bag or blanket. This will make it harder to get caught by the railroad cops as you blunder around the train
You’ll be walking a lot and throwing your pack on and off of trains, so pack small and light — under 25 pounds. If you have something in your pack that can break, it will. Leave your valuables at home.
And think about warmth. Dress in layers. You may end up on an open car in the middle of the night with a 60 mile an hour wind blowing in your face. Your clothes and your sleeping bag should keep you warm and comfortable and dry. If you’re cold and wet, freight-hopping will be a miserable experience.
Bring some sturdy gloves and boots to keep you safe as you scramble around on freight cars. And if you prefer not to sunburn your ears and nose off, bring a hat.
Its nice to know where you are. An atlas can come in handy, both for finding where to catch-out and for finding out where you’ve been left. You may be able to round up a railroad map. Call up the railroad business office and pretend you are doing a study on rail transportation. Ask for a map of American freight lines.
Bring something to drink. Exposure to the wind sucks the liquids right out of you. Bring something that’s not going to spill when you throw your pack on and off of cars.
Don’t forget to bring your patience. Freight-hopping involves as much walking and waiting as actual riding. You spend most of your time waiting for information, waiting for a train, waiting for your train to get under way, waiting, waiting, waiting. For this you’ll need flexibility and patience.
A quick checklist:
- dark clothes
- dark pack under 25 lbs
- sturdy gloves
- sturdy boots
- railroad atlas or map
- a headlamp or flashlight