Granny and the Freight Train Hoppers

In mid-June, my 28-year old grandson Aaron told me he was going to ride the rails for three months—just like the legendary railroad hobos. He and his girlfriend Crystal, her small dog Honey, and their 20-year old friend Diego are freight train hopping from Santa Rosa, California to see Crystal’s mom in New Hampshire and then back.

Hobo Aaron and Granny

Close up of Freight Train Hopper Aaron and Granny at the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture.

A Working Vacation

Aaron’s game company’s boss told Aaron he could send illustrations while he was on the road. He carries a laptop and smart phone in his backpack. That qualifies Aaron’s vagabond freight train hopper adventure as a ‘working’ vacation, and since the narrow definition of hobo is a migratory worker, perhaps Aaron could even be called a hi-tech hobo.

Aaron has the brains, stubbornness, wits, sweetness, and moral integrity of our family. He feels kinship with the poor, the blue collar and the disenfranchised and he has a terrific loathing of cops.

In riding the rails, Aaron is defying the establishment and courting the wrath of the rail cops. On the one hand I admire his courage; and on the other, fear for his safety. I know that he will learn a lot about how the poor and disaffiliated are treated.

As for me, I’m happy to see the counter-culture traditions alive and well. They were a large part of my life in my music biz days in San Francisco and my time spent living among the hippies in home sweet Jerome, Arizona.

Rendezvous with the Freight Train Hoppers

The freight train hoppers got off the train in Dunsmuir, California, a town near Mt. Shasta, where I picked them up for a short two-day rendezvous. It was serendipitous timing. We were visiting our friends Bob and Sue Swanson in Weed, Ca.

“How about putting up our grandson Aaron and his girlfriend for a few days, “ we asked.

“Sure no problem.” They were immensely gracious when two turned out to be three and a dog.

“So how’s it been so far?” we asked when we were together for dinner that night.

“We spent one of the worst days of our lives cooped up in open box car for ten hours a in 100 degree heat outside of Sacramento. There were rail workers all around so we didn’t dare get out. We kept hoping the train would leave. Finally Crystal had to break for a ‘whiz’. Not too long after, a rail worker came by and told us the train wasn’t leaving at all; and that we’d best beat it. He kinda’ knew we’d hop the next train going north”

“How did you keep the dog from hyperventilating?”

“We kept giving her drinking water and dripped water on her head the whole time.”

The freight train hoppers were icons of good guests. They helped. They weren’t underfoot and disappeared for hours at a time. They kept everyone joyful company when it was wanted. They made some repairs to the porch deck. As Sue said when they finally departed, “I never washed one dish.” They hid a card signed by all of them where Sue would find it along with a beautiful necklace and a lovely stone and crystal flower.

Sue wrote me an email: “It almost brought me to tears.  Please pass on my heartfelt thanks, along with my joy at having the opportunity to meet them all.  Even though I met Aaron as a teenager, it was a pleasure to see the fine young man he has grown into.”

Makes a granny proud!

The Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture

The next day, I took Aaron and the others for an outing to the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture (BBCRC) near Weed, California. The name is someone a misnomer for what is essentially a hobo museum set up in two refurbished boxcars at a former depot and siding for the Southern Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific). I knew about the center because when we were in Weed in 2010, Bob and Sue took us to its first art show, a soulful event for this little known subculture,

Interior Black Butte water tower

The Black Butte water tower is a marvel of railroad graffiti. Photo by Aaron Austin

Their web site describes their operations in terms that sound like they’re lifted from a Sierra Club brochure. “We combine our core focus on railroad culture with inclusive community-building, local ecological conservation, sustainable food cultivation, and habitat restoration.”

What we saw was a hobo center that is maintained by a skeletal scruffy-looking crew that lives in a few funky trailers. They run a transient commune, have an organic vegetable garden, clean up debris and plant trees. To raise money, they sell t-shirts, patches, zines and stickers.

As we looked around, a woman and a few dogs came out of the trailers to greet us. She told us there was a ‘work’ party in swing and walked us over to the museum, where she turned on the lights. Besides her, we saw was; a scruffy bearded guy that was lying on funky a couch outside one of the box cars; and a few others flitting in and out of the trailers.

Aaron and company offered to come back the next day and pitch in; the person who checks us out nodded and proceeded to leave us alone.

The BBCRC Box Car Museum

We explored the boxcar museum. One car had a photo history of the old Southern Pacific Railroad from 1901-2012 , including one showing a spectacular train wreck at the top of the Black Butte grade in 1901. Most unusual is a neatly arranged library of hobo culture—maybe a hundred books, magazines, videos, CDs—catalogued in a notebook bibliography.

The box car library at the BBCRC

Aaron (left), Diego. Crystal (right), and Honey the Dog. The two boys pick out some of the books from the extensive library of hobo literature. Aaron, far left, is reading American Nomad by Richard Grant, Deigo is engrossed by Rail Road Semantics and Crystal copies out some of the hoboglyphs, the symbols that were part of a written code developed by hoboes and painted on gate posts or telegraph poles to let them know if a place was safe, would provide food, etc.   Photo by Diane Rapaport

I picked up a book called Blackfoot Indian, which was published in 1935 by the Great Northern Railroad. It featured paintings by Winold Reiss, a German born artist. The paintings of Indian culture were the basis of the railway’s advertising for almost 40 years.Rare book at BBCRC

Frank Bird Linderman, an ethnographer and writer from Montana, who supplied the text for this rare book, wrote: “The Blackfeet instinctively opposed the coming of white trappers and traders.
Nevertheless the fur companies built forts on the upper Missouri in the heart of the
Pecunnie country; and nowhere has the white man stooped so low for gain as in the
fur trade of the Northwest; nowhere has he been so reprehensible as in his treatment
of the plains Indian. The enforced inoculation of a large band of
visiting Indians with the virus of smallpox taken from the pustules on the body of a
stricken white engages at Fort Union, whose blood was known to be otherwise unclean
is revolting enough, especially when one knows that the step was taken wholly in
the interest of the traders who hoped to have the scourge over with before the fall
trading began. It is even more revolting when one learns that all the vaccinated
Indians perished.”

I’m always outraged when an ethnic culture that has been subjugated and murdered becomes advertising fodder.

The BBCRC Work Party

The next day I dropped Aaron and his friends at the center. My husband and I and Bob and Sue took off for a mini vacation in Port Orford on the Oregon Coast.

Black Butte water tower

Aaron and Granny at the water tower of the old Black Butte depot and siding. Photo by Crystal Latsyrc.

Aaron sent an email describing the ‘work’ they did at the BBCRC.

“We built a Cob oven, chopped wood, cooked, dragged some kegs out of a spring fed pond where they were being kept cold and set them up for the punk acoustic show. Some bearded guys kept rudely ordering us around. The harder we worked, the more impolite they got. When the show finally started, the music was great.”

So much for the BBCRC’s claim to ’inclusive community-building.’

The Freight Train Hoppers Journey On

The freight train hoppers jumped a train out of Dunsmuir and made it as far as Eugene, Oregon where they picked up a homeless person named Moriah. A friend drove them all to Portland, where they all hopped a train to Seattle.

Black Butte volcano in central California

Black Butte is a volcanic spur of Mt. Shasta in central California. It is located between Shasta City and Weed,CA

“Beautiful ride to a town near Seattle where we were stranded for a few days. Right after the train stopped, a rail worker found us in the boxcar, told us train wasn’t going any further, and said that he “hadn’t seen us.” So we got into some shade under an overpass by the tracks, in full view of some construction guys. We didn’t think they’d have any reason to care about some bums lounging under a bridge, but they must have called the cops, because they showed up really fast. The overpass was out of the rail yard, so they couldn’t really prove that we’d been trespassing. They gave us written warnings. I assumed they don’t have much to do around here, if they can respond that quickly to some folks sitting under a bridge. Then later our friend Moriah got hassled for begging at a freeway on ramp. The town seemed generally unfriendly to the homeless. But we did find a nice, secluded spot to camp, and I think we’ll be fine, until we are ready to move on. We need to be somewhere else to catch the next train, because if we get caught here and already have written warnings, we’ll get ticketed for sure.

I told Aaron I hoped he was taking notes and photos so he could write a graphic novel. I’ll bet a nickel it would be a best seller.

Maybe they’ll get to the other hobo museum in Britt, Iowa.

Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa

The Museum started in the 1980’s with a box of artifacts. The reality of a hobo museum took hold when the Chief Theatre was purchased by the Hobo Foundation with money willed to them from an unknown hobo. Collections have come from all over the world.

Updates from time to time on my Facebook page.


1 thought on “Granny and the Freight Train Hoppers

  1. Diane, I hope Aaron never loses his sense of adventurous curiosity. And, like his grandmother what great stories he will tell.


Comments are closed.