PORTAGE, Wisconsin It’s hard to be low-profile creeping up on a train with with four people and as many dogs. That was the lesson in a St. Paul (Minnesota) freight yard as a gaggle of trainriders tried to sneak onto an eastbound freight.
I’d been let off at the edge of the yard by my pantsuit-clad friend in her mother’s Mercedes SUV. The irony wasn’t lost on either of us, don’t-you-worry.
After skulking around the yard in broad daylight for 20 minutes, I decided to return to the trees and take cover. In the bush above me was a man in black fatigues, with an American flag patch. Definitely law enforcement, though I couldn’t see a weapon. I froze. Next to him stood a bearded tramp in a leather cowboy hat. It didn’t compute.
What appeared to be a U.S. Marshall was a familiar face; a gut-bucket plunkin’ young trainrider from a previous hobo gathering greeted me warmly and introduced me to his chums. They gave me the skinny on the yard and we hunkered down.
They were three strong with four mongrels. Most were well-behaved, but a few had a propensity to yap at shadows. Which is never good when you’re trying to evade the man.
As darkness approached, we scoped out a ride on one of the departing junk trains. After spotting a ride, we returned for our full compliment. Packs and dogs were strapped on and we carefully made our way over the strings. As I clamored over one, a work train sped by, the engineer leaning out the side and leering at me.
We pressed on, climbing aboard a gondola. Workers surrounded us.
One of us asked (politely) if the train was headed east.
“You guys are done,” the worker replied flatly.
He leaned into his radio to call in the law.
“We can leave, right now,” I offered.
“You can go out that way,” he said, gesturing toward the woods, “or in the back of a squad car.”
We followed the do-gooder’s advice and retreated to the canopy. Oaths were muttered. We all agreed that no one loves a hero. Sweating profusely, I took a “bird bath” in the polluted stream that parallels the tracks. They shared the last of their warm beer with me to lift our collective spirits.
Minutes later, seven more kids showed up, some of them familiar with a bundle of booze and a miniature chihuaha in tow. Our moods were lifted, but not our chances of escaping the yard. We were now a 10 strong with four-and-a-half dogs.
The homemade cider and Canadian whisky flowed freely, though as one rider asked drunkenly: “Can I have a sip off someone’s water?” I had the sinking feeling that this group wasn’t serious about catching out; water is the lifeblood of a serious trainrider.
Our earlier foray into the yard had spilled blood in the water; the bull circled the yard like a shark in a frenzy. We decided to split into small groups. One brazen lad charged into the yard, his form enveloped in the darkness.
Another young soul volunteered. I partnered with him, and we sprinted into the yard, vaulting over strings to get to our train. I lost him in the yard and after pacing back and forth for more than 20 minutes finally gave up. He didn’t resurface until the next day.
Hours passed as I sat on the front porch of a grain car. I heard sirens and the sounds of the long arm of the law, but didn’t dare investigate. As the train was pulling out, a dude with a pitbull ran along the string. I offered a place and he handed up the dog. The pitbull melted into this stranger’s arms, licking my face in greeting.
He shared his tarp as the rain fell on us and the pit kept us warm. At dawn, we rolled through the yard past a half-dozen workers. They stared, I waved and they looked away. The train stopped and we jumped.
As we walked down a residential street, two of Portage’s finest rolled up.
“Hey, c’mere!” the lieutenant yelled.
“I know you just came off the train — I don’t care about that,” he told us. He asked for IDs. We obliged.
As we were telling the police as little as possible, a hobo I recognized from past gatherings wandered up and asked directions to where other hobos might be gathering. With two cops standing there, holding our IDs and interrogating us, I decided to ignore him.
“Do you know each other?” the cop asked quizically.
We all agreed that we didn’t.
“Then please move along, sir,” the cop told the ‘bo.
Less than an hour later, we were camped and the rain began to fall.
I can think of no better way to spend my holiday…
Jaco (back) out (in the Midwest)