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A fraught ride on a freight train, San Diego to Kansas City

Tales from the Rails, Part One

Santa Fe Train Engine
Santa Fe Train Engine

One morning, after surfing at Imperial Beach, my friends and I were hanging out and bragging about one thing or another. Someone shared a story they had heard about how easy it was to catch a freight train from San Diego to the Midwest. That got me thinking: that sounds like a great adventure and a lot of fun. It wasn’t long before I had my journey planned. I would start in San Diego and go all the way to Chicago on Santa Fe freights, a three-day journey on the produce train. I tried to get my friends to go with me, but they all seemed to have an excuse. What could go wrong? I was 18 and had never been out of California, so this was a good chance to see more of the country. But most importantly, what a great adventure this would be to brag about when I got back.

Within a few days, I was ready to begin my journey. I bought a small shoulder strap bag at the Army surplus store. I really liked that khaki-colored Army bag, because I believed that a soldier must have used it on the battlefield during World War II. I packed a change of underclothes, socks, a T-shirt, and a lightweight sweater. It was summer, so I didn’t need much. For food, I brought a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two apples, and a small water canteen. For bedding I secured a tightly rolled up blanket to the bag with an old belt. I also took a small pocketknife, which had a little bottle opener, hid about $50 in one of my socks, and put a few bucks in my pocket, along with my driver’s license.

My good friend Gary took me to the Santa Fe passenger station in downtown San Diego at about 10 pm. Catching a freight train during the day was too risky, because you could easily be spotted by railroad workers. I remember when Gary dropped me off, he said, “People die doing this type of thing.” But it was too late for me to change my mind; I was way too fired up.

An unlucky start

The freight trains that passed the Santa Fe station were going too fast to hop on, so I walked south down the tracks about a mile to where a freight yard was. I didn’t see any people, but the freight yard was busy. That’s when I got my first sense of the noise and power of those big steel cars as they were pushed around the tracks. I crouched down by a fence on the perimeter of the yard and watched for about an hour. Finally, I spotted a slow-moving train that looked like a good option. I said to myself, Either go for it, or walk back to the Santa Fe Passenger station and call Gary.

With my bag over my shoulder, I began running. I jumped over a couple of tracks, then caught up to the train and found what looked like a good freight car to jump into — later, I found it was called a gondola. I grabbed the little metal ladder on the front-end, pulled myself up, and jumped into the car, which was empty. The inside resembled an enormous metal bathtub with five-foot sides.

I got on just in time, because the train immediately started to pick up speed. We passed the Santa Fe station, and after that, the train started to pick up even more speed. The noise of the train and the lights and bells from the train crossings as we passed through North County were intense, but I felt safe, and was excited that I was on my way. I started to feel like this was going to be a real kick, and not dangerous at all.

One of the first things I realized was how bumpy the ride was. I mostly had to stand, because if I sat down, I would just bounce around. After a while, we left the cities behind, and it became totally dark — only an occasional signal light. I lay down on the floor of the car, put my blanket over me, and used my shoulder bag for a pillow. Somehow, I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, it was light out, and everything was quiet and still. The train had stopped. I looked over the side and I didn’t see anything except sagebrush and rolling hills. I grabbed my stuff and climbed up and out of the car. I stepped back from the train and saw that there was no engine or caboose. It appeared that some cars had been uncoupled from the bigger train — including the one I was in.

I ate everything that I had brought and tried to figure out what to do. It was too soon to bail. I had just gotten unlucky. Then I noticed a big fat rattlesnake close by. It was time to move on before I got unluckier still. I walked down the tracks, and after a few minutes, they crossed a road. I put my thumb out on the side that was headed north. Within a few minutes, a guy stopped and asked me where I was going. I figured I must be east of Los Angeles, and knew where I wanted to go: the San Bernardino freight yard, where I had been told the produce freight trains assembled before heading to the Midwest. Hopefully, I could find one going all the way to Chicago.

Good advices

The guy that picked me up was very friendly, so I shared with him what I was up to. It turned out he had ridden on freight trains himself, and he confirmed my San Bernardino plan. He gave me a bunch of tips about riding on freight trains. First, don’t get caught by the train police, the Bulls, because “they take the law into their own hands.” Second, watch out for my fellow riders, as they would most likely be thieves or worse. Third, because it’s easy to fall off of a moving train, always hold on and lie down — and don’t ride on flatcars that have nothing to hold. Fourth, never get into a boxcar, because if the door got closed, I would most likely suffocate. Fifth, never ride in cars that have cargo, because a sudden shift could crush you. Sixth, don’t lie down in the wheel path of big truck trailers on flat cars, because they can move. Seventh, never cross under a stopped train or between coupled cars, because freight trains are somewhat unpredictable as to when they’ll move and in which direction they are headed. Seventh, watch your step in the freight yard, which is crazily full of tracks. Finally, if possible, ride on a passenger car carrier. Supposedly, they had better springs than other freight cars, and so they weren’t as bumpy or loud. (That one turned out to be my favorite.)

My ride went out of his way to take me directly to the freight yard. He even stopped at a little store and bought me some candy bars and a couple of bottles of Coke. He let me off just outside the freight yard, shook my hand, and wished me luck. I recall he looked me straight in the face, and said, “Remember: always hold on.”

Freight yard

It was about 10 in the morning. I began to watch the trains coupling and uncoupling, and soon figured out which ones were going east. These trains had a couple of engines and a caboose, were very long, and had a variety of freight cars — mostly boxcars. It was hard to see each train, because there were several sets of tracks, and the trains that were constantly crossing in front of each other. The yard was much bigger than the one in San Diego, but just as in San Diego, I didn’t see many people at all, just trains moving back and forth and a few rail workers tending to cars and switching tracks.

Soon I spotted what looked like a passenger car carrier moving east very slowly, a very long train with a lot of boxcars. I figured it must be headed to the Midwest somewhere. I thought, that’s my ride, and off I went. Sure enough, I tripped on the very first set of tracks I crossed, but I didn’t completely fall down. I learned from my mistake, and within seconds, I had crossed several tracks and made it to my train. It was barely moving, but I could see and hear that it was picking up speed.

Once again, I grabbed the little metal ladder and climbed. Once I reached the cars that were being carried, I lay down alongside the tires of one of them. The car carrier had two levels, with three cars on each level. The train immediately started to speed up. As the scorching summer air hit my face, I thought, In three days, I will be in Chicago.

Rich and The Bulls

As the train began to pick up speed, I noticed someone else lying down near another car. Then I saw a couple more people. As it turned out, there were five of us on that car carrier. Soon the train was moving fast, much faster than my first ride. I remember thinking, Hold the hell on, because this thing is really moving. Also, who are all these other people?

When the train got into a mountainous curvy area, it slowed down quite a bit. One of the other passengers came over to where I was and asked, “Where are you going?” I said Chicago. He replied, “Me too.” Of all the people I encountered on my journey, he was the one who scared me the most. He sat down and told me his name was Rich. He told me he had traveled all over the country on freight trains but lived in Los Angeles. He looked a few years younger than me and a little smaller, but as I found out later, he was a lot stronger and a whole lot more fearless. I learned a lot about riding freight trains from Rich, but I never figured out why he traveled around so much.

During that slow-moving stage, my fellow train-jumpers started moving around on the car. I said hi to whoever approached me and tried to be as friendly as possible. They were all young guys like me, and they all had a destination. Mostly it was Arizona or Texas, but I remember one guy said he was going all the way to New York. No one seemed especially threatening, and everyone had a little bag with a stash of food. Then, as the train hit the desert and the terrain flattened out, the train sped up again. The wind against my face was hot and fierce. Everyone except for Rich laid back down and held on.

We didn’t slow down until late afternoon, when we pulled into a small town — a sign beside the track identified it as Needles, California. I spotted a two-story building decorated with columns that looked out of place; Rich told me later that it was an old hotel. I also spotted a small grocery store, and decided to hop off and stock up on supplies. Some of my fellow passengers had the same idea. But as we got off the train, suddenly, from out of nowhere, two railroad Bulls pulled up in their car, jumped out, and hollered, “You are all under arrest!”

Locomotive engine on the move.

They walked us to a nearby office building and took down our names, but didn’t ask for IDs, which I thought was odd. Then they told us to get out of the area where the trains stopped, and said if they saw us again, we would go straight to jail. I thought the Bulls didn’t seem to be especially mean after all, but I kept my head down and mouth shut. Rich, on the other hand, was making all kinds of wisecracks. And as we left the building, he turned to us and said, “We are going to get back on that train.” I just nodded. We hid behind some bushes. Rich said, “When the train starts to move, we will run for it, and get right back on our car carrier.”

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“Won’t we get caught by the Bulls again?” I asked.

“No, once the train starts to move, it won’t stop for anything,” he replied.

When the train started to move, Rich said, “Let’s go,” and all five of us took off running. Within seconds, we were next to the car carrier. I could hear the Bulls yelling for us to stop. We started climbing the car’s two ladders, and all of us made it except for one guy who tripped and fell. He got back up, but the train had picked up too much speed, and we saw the Bulls get ahold of him. Rich hung over the side and shouted some swear words in Spanish. The guy that tripped had thrown his bag on the car carrier, and I thought we should throw it off in case the guy could possibly still get it. Rich grabbed it, opened it, took out what he wanted, and then tossed the bag off the train.

When the train got up to speed, everyone lay down again — everyone except Rich. I watched him walking around, climbing the ladder to the car’s second level, and thought, You are not long for this world.

The cars on the train

The sun began to set over the desert; it was spectacular, like a beach sunset without the ocean. As I watched it, Rich slipped up beside me and said, “Come on. I opened one of the cars.” I followed him to the ladder leading up the second level, gripping everything I could along the way. When we reached the ladder, he just hopped on and climbed. I followed, but it was a scary experience: climbing up the side of a freight train going full speed, with a strong wind blowing against you, on a thin metal ladder, fighting the constant shaking of the train, and carrying the extra weight of a shoulder bag. When I made it to the second level, I crawled to the car Rich had opened, a two-door Chevy convertible. He sat in the driver’s seat, so I took the passenger. The other two guys had followed us, and they got into the back. One of them said, “What’s this?” and produced a rack of keys for all the cars on the car carrier. Rich immediately determined which one fit our Chevy, started it, and turned on both the A/C and the radio. Soon Rich had opened all of the cars, and each of us found the car we wanted to ride in. Mine was a big Caddy on the lower level. The A/C was great, and I stretched out and blasted that radio. What a sweet ride this was going to be.

Santa Fe in San Diego: where the journey began (sort of).

Occasionally, the train would stop, and I would hear someone walking around the train and the sound of banged metal. I found out later this was a railroad worker checking the metal wheels and other parts of the cars using something called a wheeltapper, to make sure everything was intact. This noise reminded me of the way bus drivers on long haul bus journeys in Mexico would bang on the tires during stops to make sure they were all well inflated.

We always ducked down in the cars when the train slowed down and when it was stopped, which wasn’t often. Hiding in the cars meant I didn’t see any signs, so I wasn’t sure where we were, but we had traveled all night and a full day, and it was starting to get dark again. I had finished all my food, and my canteen was empty. I knew that I would have to get off the train the next time it stopped to stock up, even though it meant I might lose that sweet Caddy, with its cool air, comfortable seats, and great music.

It must have been midnight when the train stopped in what looked like a small town. I quickly opened the door of my Caddy, grabbed my shoulder bag, and jumped off the car carrier. Everyone else did the same. We all stood there for a few seconds, waiting for Rich to tell us what to do. Rich gave all of us a big grin and said, “Come on.”

The moon was out, so we could easily see where we were walking. I could also see that there were only three of us. I asked Rich about the missing guy, and he said, “I think he got off somewhere.” I remembered that he had showed us a metal bar he was carrying, “in case I run into trouble.” I also remembered the advice about being careful with people I met. From that point on, I never let Rich or anyone else get behind me, and did my best to sleep with one eye open.

A rough night in Clovis

The three of us followed Rich out of the small freight yard. The sign on the depot read Clovis. That was a rough night in Clovis. We found a spigot for water, but nothing was open, so we couldn’t buy food, and we had to sleep on the ground. In the morning, we stocked up on food and water. I asked the clerk where we were. He replied, “You are in God’s country: Clovis, New Mexico” — right on the Texas border. Our train had left in the night, and we had to wait all day for another one in unbelievable heat. At least we didn’t see any Bulls. Around sunset, a new train stopped, and happy day, it had a car carrier. Just like Needles, we waited until the train started moving and made a run for it. I went for the front-end side ladder on the car carrier and the other guy caught the rear-end side ladder, but Rich didn’t get either. I thought he must have missed out.

Soon the train was going full speed. We both just lay flat as the train sped along. Then someone kicked my foot — it was Rich. He managed to catch the boxcar directly behind the car carrier and somehow worked his way to where the cars were coupled together and crossed over to the car carrier. I thought, that’s crazy, but then again, the whole thing was crazy. It wasn’t long before Rich figured out a way into one of the cars, prying down one of the windows and unlocking the door. Soon all three of us were riding in style again, even if there were no keys — so no A/C or radio. It was a four-door Chevy, and I got the back seat. It wasn’t long before we were all asleep — me with one eye open.

I recall waking up at least once because there were a lot of lights. Rich was also awake, and he said, “Stay down.” I heard voices and banging on the rail car wheels. Then the car jerked back and forth, and I figured out that they were uncoupling our car. I heard the hiss of air brake hoses being disconnected, then reconnected. I whispered to Rich, “Where are we?”

“Amarillo, Texas.”

I realized that my plan of “three days to Chicago” had been foolish. It had already been three days, and Amarillo was not even halfway to Chicago. Too many train changes. But it couldn’t be helped; I needed food and water. At least our new train was still heading east. All night and all the next day we stayed on our new ride. I think Rich hopped off once or twice but the other guy and I just stretched out and rested. We rolled down the windows because it was extremely hot — a damp heat that was nothing like what I was used to in California. As it started to get dark, I could tell we were coming into a big city, because we were crossing a lot of roads with signal bells. Soon the train stopped. Rich said we had reached Kansas City. It was time to get off for food and water. I figured we would probably lose that ride, and I was relying on Rich to figure out our next train.

There is such a thing as a free lunch

There were a lot of lights in this freight yard, so I could see that it was much bigger than San Bernardino’s. There were tracks everywhere, with trains pushing and pulling cars all over. When we hopped off the car carrier, I followed Rich as he crossed several tracks and headed toward a little shed. When we got to the shed, he said, “We will stay here tonight, and catch a freight in the morning” — one that would go all the way to Chicago. The shed was locked, but that didn’t stop Rich; he kicked the wooden door open. Inside, we found a couple of canvas cots, some wooden chairs, and a pot-bellied stove. I thought it must be where the rail workers would hang out when they took breaks. Despite all the noise, I got a decent night’s sleep — with one eye open. But I woke up to the sound of Rich arguing with someone. When I looked out the door, I could see he was in a shouting match with a railroad worker. Luckily, it was not a Bull. Rich was telling him to basically get screwed, and I thought for a minute they were going to start to throw blows. But Rich turned to me and the other guy and said, “Let’s get out of here.” That was fine with me.

Once we made it out of the freight yard, Rich noticed a supermarket and said, “Come on, we will get some food there.” I followed right behind him with the other guy. Inside the store, Rich asked one of the clerks where the manager was. I wasn’t sure what Rich was up to. We stood there by one of the checkout registers for a few minutes, and finally a guy came up to us and said he was the manager. Rich looked at him and said, “We are hungry and need some food.” I thought, This is it, the cops will be here soon, and we are all going straight to the Kansas City jail. But instead, the manager grabbed a big cardboard box, handed it to Rich, and said, “Follow me.” He walked us all around the store putting various food items in the box: milk, bread, oranges, and some lunch meat and cheese. The box was nearly full when he started to walk us to the door. As we got close to the door, we passed a big display of packaged cookies on the end of one of the aisles. Rich, holding the box with one hand, reached over and took not one, but two packages of cookies and tossed them in the box. The manager saw this but didn’t say anything. When we got to the door, the manager looked us all straight in the face and said, loud and clear, “I don’t ever want to see you again.”

We found a restroom, and for the first time since leaving home, I changed my underclothes and brushed my teeth. Riding freight was not a hygienic endeavor. Then we hunkered down outside of the freight yard and ate most of what we had been given. Those cookies were so good. But Rich seemed a bit agitated, and the other guy barely said anything. Maybe Rich was mad about his encounter with the railroad worker. I was glad that it hadn’t escalated into a fight, because I don’t think it would have ended well for the worker. But I was happy. I was now over halfway to Chicago, and I got a second wind. I believed I could do this.

The AT&SF San Diegan reaches the end of the line at Santa Fe Depot in 1963.

Late in the afternoon, Rich started scouting out our next ride. I was all in on whatever he wanted to do; I was afraid of him, but it was clear that he knew his way around when it came to riding freight trains — and hustling for free food, too. As evening approached Rich told us, “We will get a train soon.” We worked our way toward the area where freights were leaving the yard heading east, and stayed crouched down near a fence, waiting for what Rich decided would be our ride. Several trains passed that looked good to me, but none had car carriers. Rich would say something like “too fast” or “not big enough.” I figured that “too fast” meant that by the time we got alongside, the jump would be too difficult, and “not big enough” meant the train probably wasn’t going very far.

Soon Rich spotted our ride, and said, “Come on.” Without any hesitation, we all took off, but I wasn’t sure what car we were going for, because it looked like mostly all boxcars. Then I noticed a big flatcar with a big truck trailer on it. Rich had spotted this car, and although we were all running in front of it alongside the boxcars, the truck trailer car quickly caught up with us. Rich jumped on first, using the front-end side ladder. I quickly followed on the same ladder, and the other guy caught the ladder on the rear-end side. We all laid down flat as the train began to accelerate. Some rail workers spotted us and yelled at us, and that’s when I noticed Rich flipping them off.

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Santa Fe Train Engine
Santa Fe Train Engine

One morning, after surfing at Imperial Beach, my friends and I were hanging out and bragging about one thing or another. Someone shared a story they had heard about how easy it was to catch a freight train from San Diego to the Midwest. That got me thinking: that sounds like a great adventure and a lot of fun. It wasn’t long before I had my journey planned. I would start in San Diego and go all the way to Chicago on Santa Fe freights, a three-day journey on the produce train. I tried to get my friends to go with me, but they all seemed to have an excuse. What could go wrong? I was 18 and had never been out of California, so this was a good chance to see more of the country. But most importantly, what a great adventure this would be to brag about when I got back.

Within a few days, I was ready to begin my journey. I bought a small shoulder strap bag at the Army surplus store. I really liked that khaki-colored Army bag, because I believed that a soldier must have used it on the battlefield during World War II. I packed a change of underclothes, socks, a T-shirt, and a lightweight sweater. It was summer, so I didn’t need much. For food, I brought a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two apples, and a small water canteen. For bedding I secured a tightly rolled up blanket to the bag with an old belt. I also took a small pocketknife, which had a little bottle opener, hid about $50 in one of my socks, and put a few bucks in my pocket, along with my driver’s license.

My good friend Gary took me to the Santa Fe passenger station in downtown San Diego at about 10 pm. Catching a freight train during the day was too risky, because you could easily be spotted by railroad workers. I remember when Gary dropped me off, he said, “People die doing this type of thing.” But it was too late for me to change my mind; I was way too fired up.

An unlucky start

The freight trains that passed the Santa Fe station were going too fast to hop on, so I walked south down the tracks about a mile to where a freight yard was. I didn’t see any people, but the freight yard was busy. That’s when I got my first sense of the noise and power of those big steel cars as they were pushed around the tracks. I crouched down by a fence on the perimeter of the yard and watched for about an hour. Finally, I spotted a slow-moving train that looked like a good option. I said to myself, Either go for it, or walk back to the Santa Fe Passenger station and call Gary.

With my bag over my shoulder, I began running. I jumped over a couple of tracks, then caught up to the train and found what looked like a good freight car to jump into — later, I found it was called a gondola. I grabbed the little metal ladder on the front-end, pulled myself up, and jumped into the car, which was empty. The inside resembled an enormous metal bathtub with five-foot sides.

I got on just in time, because the train immediately started to pick up speed. We passed the Santa Fe station, and after that, the train started to pick up even more speed. The noise of the train and the lights and bells from the train crossings as we passed through North County were intense, but I felt safe, and was excited that I was on my way. I started to feel like this was going to be a real kick, and not dangerous at all.

One of the first things I realized was how bumpy the ride was. I mostly had to stand, because if I sat down, I would just bounce around. After a while, we left the cities behind, and it became totally dark — only an occasional signal light. I lay down on the floor of the car, put my blanket over me, and used my shoulder bag for a pillow. Somehow, I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, it was light out, and everything was quiet and still. The train had stopped. I looked over the side and I didn’t see anything except sagebrush and rolling hills. I grabbed my stuff and climbed up and out of the car. I stepped back from the train and saw that there was no engine or caboose. It appeared that some cars had been uncoupled from the bigger train — including the one I was in.

I ate everything that I had brought and tried to figure out what to do. It was too soon to bail. I had just gotten unlucky. Then I noticed a big fat rattlesnake close by. It was time to move on before I got unluckier still. I walked down the tracks, and after a few minutes, they crossed a road. I put my thumb out on the side that was headed north. Within a few minutes, a guy stopped and asked me where I was going. I figured I must be east of Los Angeles, and knew where I wanted to go: the San Bernardino freight yard, where I had been told the produce freight trains assembled before heading to the Midwest. Hopefully, I could find one going all the way to Chicago.

Good advices

The guy that picked me up was very friendly, so I shared with him what I was up to. It turned out he had ridden on freight trains himself, and he confirmed my San Bernardino plan. He gave me a bunch of tips about riding on freight trains. First, don’t get caught by the train police, the Bulls, because “they take the law into their own hands.” Second, watch out for my fellow riders, as they would most likely be thieves or worse. Third, because it’s easy to fall off of a moving train, always hold on and lie down — and don’t ride on flatcars that have nothing to hold. Fourth, never get into a boxcar, because if the door got closed, I would most likely suffocate. Fifth, never ride in cars that have cargo, because a sudden shift could crush you. Sixth, don’t lie down in the wheel path of big truck trailers on flat cars, because they can move. Seventh, never cross under a stopped train or between coupled cars, because freight trains are somewhat unpredictable as to when they’ll move and in which direction they are headed. Seventh, watch your step in the freight yard, which is crazily full of tracks. Finally, if possible, ride on a passenger car carrier. Supposedly, they had better springs than other freight cars, and so they weren’t as bumpy or loud. (That one turned out to be my favorite.)

My ride went out of his way to take me directly to the freight yard. He even stopped at a little store and bought me some candy bars and a couple of bottles of Coke. He let me off just outside the freight yard, shook my hand, and wished me luck. I recall he looked me straight in the face, and said, “Remember: always hold on.”

Freight yard

It was about 10 in the morning. I began to watch the trains coupling and uncoupling, and soon figured out which ones were going east. These trains had a couple of engines and a caboose, were very long, and had a variety of freight cars — mostly boxcars. It was hard to see each train, because there were several sets of tracks, and the trains that were constantly crossing in front of each other. The yard was much bigger than the one in San Diego, but just as in San Diego, I didn’t see many people at all, just trains moving back and forth and a few rail workers tending to cars and switching tracks.

Soon I spotted what looked like a passenger car carrier moving east very slowly, a very long train with a lot of boxcars. I figured it must be headed to the Midwest somewhere. I thought, that’s my ride, and off I went. Sure enough, I tripped on the very first set of tracks I crossed, but I didn’t completely fall down. I learned from my mistake, and within seconds, I had crossed several tracks and made it to my train. It was barely moving, but I could see and hear that it was picking up speed.

Once again, I grabbed the little metal ladder and climbed. Once I reached the cars that were being carried, I lay down alongside the tires of one of them. The car carrier had two levels, with three cars on each level. The train immediately started to speed up. As the scorching summer air hit my face, I thought, In three days, I will be in Chicago.

Rich and The Bulls

As the train began to pick up speed, I noticed someone else lying down near another car. Then I saw a couple more people. As it turned out, there were five of us on that car carrier. Soon the train was moving fast, much faster than my first ride. I remember thinking, Hold the hell on, because this thing is really moving. Also, who are all these other people?

When the train got into a mountainous curvy area, it slowed down quite a bit. One of the other passengers came over to where I was and asked, “Where are you going?” I said Chicago. He replied, “Me too.” Of all the people I encountered on my journey, he was the one who scared me the most. He sat down and told me his name was Rich. He told me he had traveled all over the country on freight trains but lived in Los Angeles. He looked a few years younger than me and a little smaller, but as I found out later, he was a lot stronger and a whole lot more fearless. I learned a lot about riding freight trains from Rich, but I never figured out why he traveled around so much.

During that slow-moving stage, my fellow train-jumpers started moving around on the car. I said hi to whoever approached me and tried to be as friendly as possible. They were all young guys like me, and they all had a destination. Mostly it was Arizona or Texas, but I remember one guy said he was going all the way to New York. No one seemed especially threatening, and everyone had a little bag with a stash of food. Then, as the train hit the desert and the terrain flattened out, the train sped up again. The wind against my face was hot and fierce. Everyone except for Rich laid back down and held on.

We didn’t slow down until late afternoon, when we pulled into a small town — a sign beside the track identified it as Needles, California. I spotted a two-story building decorated with columns that looked out of place; Rich told me later that it was an old hotel. I also spotted a small grocery store, and decided to hop off and stock up on supplies. Some of my fellow passengers had the same idea. But as we got off the train, suddenly, from out of nowhere, two railroad Bulls pulled up in their car, jumped out, and hollered, “You are all under arrest!”

Locomotive engine on the move.

They walked us to a nearby office building and took down our names, but didn’t ask for IDs, which I thought was odd. Then they told us to get out of the area where the trains stopped, and said if they saw us again, we would go straight to jail. I thought the Bulls didn’t seem to be especially mean after all, but I kept my head down and mouth shut. Rich, on the other hand, was making all kinds of wisecracks. And as we left the building, he turned to us and said, “We are going to get back on that train.” I just nodded. We hid behind some bushes. Rich said, “When the train starts to move, we will run for it, and get right back on our car carrier.”

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“Won’t we get caught by the Bulls again?” I asked.

“No, once the train starts to move, it won’t stop for anything,” he replied.

When the train started to move, Rich said, “Let’s go,” and all five of us took off running. Within seconds, we were next to the car carrier. I could hear the Bulls yelling for us to stop. We started climbing the car’s two ladders, and all of us made it except for one guy who tripped and fell. He got back up, but the train had picked up too much speed, and we saw the Bulls get ahold of him. Rich hung over the side and shouted some swear words in Spanish. The guy that tripped had thrown his bag on the car carrier, and I thought we should throw it off in case the guy could possibly still get it. Rich grabbed it, opened it, took out what he wanted, and then tossed the bag off the train.

When the train got up to speed, everyone lay down again — everyone except Rich. I watched him walking around, climbing the ladder to the car’s second level, and thought, You are not long for this world.

The cars on the train

The sun began to set over the desert; it was spectacular, like a beach sunset without the ocean. As I watched it, Rich slipped up beside me and said, “Come on. I opened one of the cars.” I followed him to the ladder leading up the second level, gripping everything I could along the way. When we reached the ladder, he just hopped on and climbed. I followed, but it was a scary experience: climbing up the side of a freight train going full speed, with a strong wind blowing against you, on a thin metal ladder, fighting the constant shaking of the train, and carrying the extra weight of a shoulder bag. When I made it to the second level, I crawled to the car Rich had opened, a two-door Chevy convertible. He sat in the driver’s seat, so I took the passenger. The other two guys had followed us, and they got into the back. One of them said, “What’s this?” and produced a rack of keys for all the cars on the car carrier. Rich immediately determined which one fit our Chevy, started it, and turned on both the A/C and the radio. Soon Rich had opened all of the cars, and each of us found the car we wanted to ride in. Mine was a big Caddy on the lower level. The A/C was great, and I stretched out and blasted that radio. What a sweet ride this was going to be.

Santa Fe in San Diego: where the journey began (sort of).

Occasionally, the train would stop, and I would hear someone walking around the train and the sound of banged metal. I found out later this was a railroad worker checking the metal wheels and other parts of the cars using something called a wheeltapper, to make sure everything was intact. This noise reminded me of the way bus drivers on long haul bus journeys in Mexico would bang on the tires during stops to make sure they were all well inflated.

We always ducked down in the cars when the train slowed down and when it was stopped, which wasn’t often. Hiding in the cars meant I didn’t see any signs, so I wasn’t sure where we were, but we had traveled all night and a full day, and it was starting to get dark again. I had finished all my food, and my canteen was empty. I knew that I would have to get off the train the next time it stopped to stock up, even though it meant I might lose that sweet Caddy, with its cool air, comfortable seats, and great music.

It must have been midnight when the train stopped in what looked like a small town. I quickly opened the door of my Caddy, grabbed my shoulder bag, and jumped off the car carrier. Everyone else did the same. We all stood there for a few seconds, waiting for Rich to tell us what to do. Rich gave all of us a big grin and said, “Come on.”

The moon was out, so we could easily see where we were walking. I could also see that there were only three of us. I asked Rich about the missing guy, and he said, “I think he got off somewhere.” I remembered that he had showed us a metal bar he was carrying, “in case I run into trouble.” I also remembered the advice about being careful with people I met. From that point on, I never let Rich or anyone else get behind me, and did my best to sleep with one eye open.

A rough night in Clovis

The three of us followed Rich out of the small freight yard. The sign on the depot read Clovis. That was a rough night in Clovis. We found a spigot for water, but nothing was open, so we couldn’t buy food, and we had to sleep on the ground. In the morning, we stocked up on food and water. I asked the clerk where we were. He replied, “You are in God’s country: Clovis, New Mexico” — right on the Texas border. Our train had left in the night, and we had to wait all day for another one in unbelievable heat. At least we didn’t see any Bulls. Around sunset, a new train stopped, and happy day, it had a car carrier. Just like Needles, we waited until the train started moving and made a run for it. I went for the front-end side ladder on the car carrier and the other guy caught the rear-end side ladder, but Rich didn’t get either. I thought he must have missed out.

Soon the train was going full speed. We both just lay flat as the train sped along. Then someone kicked my foot — it was Rich. He managed to catch the boxcar directly behind the car carrier and somehow worked his way to where the cars were coupled together and crossed over to the car carrier. I thought, that’s crazy, but then again, the whole thing was crazy. It wasn’t long before Rich figured out a way into one of the cars, prying down one of the windows and unlocking the door. Soon all three of us were riding in style again, even if there were no keys — so no A/C or radio. It was a four-door Chevy, and I got the back seat. It wasn’t long before we were all asleep — me with one eye open.

I recall waking up at least once because there were a lot of lights. Rich was also awake, and he said, “Stay down.” I heard voices and banging on the rail car wheels. Then the car jerked back and forth, and I figured out that they were uncoupling our car. I heard the hiss of air brake hoses being disconnected, then reconnected. I whispered to Rich, “Where are we?”

“Amarillo, Texas.”

I realized that my plan of “three days to Chicago” had been foolish. It had already been three days, and Amarillo was not even halfway to Chicago. Too many train changes. But it couldn’t be helped; I needed food and water. At least our new train was still heading east. All night and all the next day we stayed on our new ride. I think Rich hopped off once or twice but the other guy and I just stretched out and rested. We rolled down the windows because it was extremely hot — a damp heat that was nothing like what I was used to in California. As it started to get dark, I could tell we were coming into a big city, because we were crossing a lot of roads with signal bells. Soon the train stopped. Rich said we had reached Kansas City. It was time to get off for food and water. I figured we would probably lose that ride, and I was relying on Rich to figure out our next train.

There is such a thing as a free lunch

There were a lot of lights in this freight yard, so I could see that it was much bigger than San Bernardino’s. There were tracks everywhere, with trains pushing and pulling cars all over. When we hopped off the car carrier, I followed Rich as he crossed several tracks and headed toward a little shed. When we got to the shed, he said, “We will stay here tonight, and catch a freight in the morning” — one that would go all the way to Chicago. The shed was locked, but that didn’t stop Rich; he kicked the wooden door open. Inside, we found a couple of canvas cots, some wooden chairs, and a pot-bellied stove. I thought it must be where the rail workers would hang out when they took breaks. Despite all the noise, I got a decent night’s sleep — with one eye open. But I woke up to the sound of Rich arguing with someone. When I looked out the door, I could see he was in a shouting match with a railroad worker. Luckily, it was not a Bull. Rich was telling him to basically get screwed, and I thought for a minute they were going to start to throw blows. But Rich turned to me and the other guy and said, “Let’s get out of here.” That was fine with me.

Once we made it out of the freight yard, Rich noticed a supermarket and said, “Come on, we will get some food there.” I followed right behind him with the other guy. Inside the store, Rich asked one of the clerks where the manager was. I wasn’t sure what Rich was up to. We stood there by one of the checkout registers for a few minutes, and finally a guy came up to us and said he was the manager. Rich looked at him and said, “We are hungry and need some food.” I thought, This is it, the cops will be here soon, and we are all going straight to the Kansas City jail. But instead, the manager grabbed a big cardboard box, handed it to Rich, and said, “Follow me.” He walked us all around the store putting various food items in the box: milk, bread, oranges, and some lunch meat and cheese. The box was nearly full when he started to walk us to the door. As we got close to the door, we passed a big display of packaged cookies on the end of one of the aisles. Rich, holding the box with one hand, reached over and took not one, but two packages of cookies and tossed them in the box. The manager saw this but didn’t say anything. When we got to the door, the manager looked us all straight in the face and said, loud and clear, “I don’t ever want to see you again.”

We found a restroom, and for the first time since leaving home, I changed my underclothes and brushed my teeth. Riding freight was not a hygienic endeavor. Then we hunkered down outside of the freight yard and ate most of what we had been given. Those cookies were so good. But Rich seemed a bit agitated, and the other guy barely said anything. Maybe Rich was mad about his encounter with the railroad worker. I was glad that it hadn’t escalated into a fight, because I don’t think it would have ended well for the worker. But I was happy. I was now over halfway to Chicago, and I got a second wind. I believed I could do this.

The AT&SF San Diegan reaches the end of the line at Santa Fe Depot in 1963.

Late in the afternoon, Rich started scouting out our next ride. I was all in on whatever he wanted to do; I was afraid of him, but it was clear that he knew his way around when it came to riding freight trains — and hustling for free food, too. As evening approached Rich told us, “We will get a train soon.” We worked our way toward the area where freights were leaving the yard heading east, and stayed crouched down near a fence, waiting for what Rich decided would be our ride. Several trains passed that looked good to me, but none had car carriers. Rich would say something like “too fast” or “not big enough.” I figured that “too fast” meant that by the time we got alongside, the jump would be too difficult, and “not big enough” meant the train probably wasn’t going very far.

Soon Rich spotted our ride, and said, “Come on.” Without any hesitation, we all took off, but I wasn’t sure what car we were going for, because it looked like mostly all boxcars. Then I noticed a big flatcar with a big truck trailer on it. Rich had spotted this car, and although we were all running in front of it alongside the boxcars, the truck trailer car quickly caught up with us. Rich jumped on first, using the front-end side ladder. I quickly followed on the same ladder, and the other guy caught the ladder on the rear-end side. We all laid down flat as the train began to accelerate. Some rail workers spotted us and yelled at us, and that’s when I noticed Rich flipping them off.

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