I mistype a Web address that results in a visit to the Sports Authority website. Their opening ad reads, "Lionel Riding the Rails Hobo Train Set. Our Price: $259.97. During the Great Depression, many men had to bend the rules to make ends meet, including hopping a free ride on an outbound freight. This train set celebrates the adventuresome life of the carefree hobo." Next to the ad copy is a photo of Lionel's ordinary five-piece train set resting on four feet of track, alongside five stick Hobo figures and one "Hobo Campfire."
I lean back and laugh. Figure $300 with tax and shipping. Perfect.
* * *
"See you in a month or so." I lean down to kiss Rhea. She's sitting behind the wheel of my rusted Ford pickup truck. We left our rented farmhouse at 5:00 a.m., got here 45 minutes later. Here, by the way, is the Burlington Northern yard in Pasco, Washington. I'm looking to catch a train for Sacramento or the Bay Area.
We've been living in Pasco since August, going to trade school. I'm taking carpentry; she's doing engine repair. Neither of us would amount to much in the trades, but we didn't know that then...then being early December 1972. My carpentry teacher required a hernia operation so he dismissed class early. Rhea had planned Christmas with her family in New Hampshire, so I decided to go traveling.
There are all sorts of ways to jump a train. Some places in the country -- Texas -- it's a big criminal deal. Other places, criminality depends on what the crew thinks when you happen to show up. Burlington Northern had a stellar reputation for being easy on hobos, and their route ran through Pasco, across the Columbia River, down to Bend, on to Klamath Falls, continuing into California. I finish Rhea goodbyes, pick up my backpack, walk to the dispatch office, ask the man behind the desk, "Which one goes to California?" The man smiles and, sounding as if he were a ticket agent and I a customer, points to a long line of boxcars, says, "Over there." Simple as that.
I walk along a long line of boxcars, spot an open door, throw my backpack in, and hop up. Now, the wait. I unroll my sleeping bag and assume morning-nap position. Two minutes pass. BOOM! I'm thrown forward like a pebble skipping over a still lake. Feels like the boxcar has run into a wall. Actually, it's the crew hooking other boxcars onto this train. The crashing and booming and shuffling goes on for another hour.
Finally, there is forward movement with no boom, and the train slowly makes its way out of the yard toward the main line. Just at the far end of the yard, two duffel bags land on the floor, followed by two men. This is an unwelcome development. There is no law west of the Pecos; in this instance, no law in a boxcar. You're on your own.
The two men are in their early 40s, which means this is probably it for them. Whatever opportunities they might have had -- family, wives, careers -- didn't work out, and this is what's left. The tall, thin guy wears a ski cap, army field jacket, jeans, and boots. His partner is six inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter with jaundice-colored skin and rotting yellow-and-black teeth. We say howdy.
The tall man says they're coming down from Spokane, gone up there last summer to pick apples. They were headed to Arizona for some farm work and to winter in the sun with a stop-off in Sacramento to forage a new book of food stamps.
It's near impossible to stand up while the train is moving. The train jerks and sways and jerks and sways. The normal riding position is to lay in the center of the boxcar so you won't bust your bones against the wall if there's an emergency stop.
The little bad-teeth guy has been slowly moving to my right, which causes me to move toward the wall so he can't get behind me. Fifteen minutes pass. He's moved another six feet to my right. And that's enough. Don't like the two-to-one odds. I study the angle between me, him, and the open door. The next time the train comes into a right turn I'll rush forward and push him out.
The bad-teeth guy begins to burrow into his duffel bag. I move into a squat position, primed to charge at the first glimpse of a weapon. Bad teeth pulls out a miniature chess set, the one where all the pieces have little pins on their bottoms made to fit into holes on the chess board. He asks, "Do you play?"
I lean back and laugh. "How much?"
"Five bucks a game?"
I knew he'd beat me. We played into Klamath Falls. Best 20 bucks I spent that year.