Railroaded

America's spawned a new brand of hobo, but train hopping's as romantic and dangerous as ever

The long-limbed rocker behind the cafe counter knows who I'm looking for before I finish the third of a string of descriptive words I was given over the phone.

"You're looking for Lee," he says, swinging his hair out of the way and leaning over the scarred countertop of the arty hangout. "The hose clamps gave it away."

"Lee comes in here every time he comes through town," he continues. "We've both been here a long time. We're both photographers. He's a cool kid."

Lee: Forest squatter, political activist, and hobo train-hopper.
Paul Trapani
Lee: Forest squatter, political activist, and hobo train-hopper.

The "kid" arrives only a few minutes later than our arranged time, apologizing with soft-spoken sincerity that is cordial enough to seem out of time and place. As promised, Lee is dressed in varying shades of overwashed black. He is short and solidly built, with a prominent nose and thick, coarse skin that gives him a slightly Middle Earth air; his hair, too, is coarse, and dusty, but kept short and trim. An article of clothing, which may once have been a pair of black chinos but now is worn so thin that the crotchless legs flutter with the slightest movement, hangs from around his waistband like a post-apocalyptic Gypsy scarf, along with a small utility knife hidden in a homemade sheath.

Almost immediately, the large hose clamps that shine dully around Lee's neck and arms draw the attention of the cafe crowd, which is an odd mix of arty kids and blue-collar hippies. Lee answers the litany of questions with gracious good humor ("No, they don't hurt." "Yes, I can leave them on when I sleep") and he obviously enjoys the predictable jokes ("Yes, I'm a good person to have around when your car or your washing machine breaks down").

"I couldn't get more attention from a $5,000 tattoo," says Lee, chuckling as he slides onto the bench next to me. He asks me to buy him a cup of coffee but demurely refuses my offer of food.

Lee will be 47 in eight days. He grew up on a mountain range in Southern California where his father was a ski instructor. He came north and went to community college for a while, but for the last 16 years he has lived as a squatter, eating out of restaurant and bakery dumpsters, doing odd jobs, occasionally visiting missions and food banks, and camping on public land. Among the growing number of forest squats on the perimeter of this midsize coastal town, Lee's shack is considered a good place to entertain family and friends.

Lee is also a political activist -- with a lengthy police record as such -- and a hobo train-hopper.

Contrary to popular opinion, which would have us believe that rail riding is the fading pursuit of hardened derelicts and that hobo travel has been curtailed by heightened security concerns, the train-hopping population is being fed by a fresh incursion of young riders: Crusty punks and anarchists, dropouts and activists, professionals with a taste for adventure, art students and runaways and disenfranchised youth of all kinds, weaned in the information age and driven by a DIY aesthetic, are jumping freights right along with migrant laborers and other, more traditional types of tramps. In these widening hobo circles, Lee is known for being generous with his time and knowledge and open to first-time riders, including the many women who, according to longtime tramps, are taking to the rails in unprecedented numbers. Lee's biannual zine, There's Something About a Train, which began 12 years ago as an eight-page newsletter of rail-yard tips, practical advice, and helpful lingo, has expanded into a 125-page literary journal with poems, diaries, travelogues, drawings, photographs, stories, songs, and legends submitted by full-time and newbie riders alike.

For issue No. 6, Lee traveled 1,200 miles by rail to Tucson to use a friend's offset printing press. It took three months to lay out and print, but, because of the weight of the new issue, Lee could only carry a quarter of the print run back to California. In a couple of weeks, he and a friend, a fellow forest-squatter named Monkey, will (they hope) hop a freight out of Richmond (a pretty "hot" yard) headed to Arizona. Once there, Monkeywill attend a wedding in Phoenix and Lee will collect the rest of his zines in Tucson. But first, Lee has agreed to put me on a beginner's train.

"Some of the old-timers are suspicious of the kids," warns Lee as we follow the railroad tracks into an unpopulated area between two dirt cliffs. "But everyone's suspicious of the press. I don't know how many people will come out once the word has gotten around. We'll see. The train may not even come. That's something you have to be prepared for: With trains, you never know."

We stop at a bend in the track, and before long, a pale, slender, young forest-squatter going by the name of Woodrat approaches and greets Lee while effectively ignoring me. The four-year rail veteran drops his rucksack and sits on the dirt bank, staring gravely at his feet and giving me a good glimpse of the jagged scar running down his chin -- the consequence of a fast-moving train, an overstuffed backpack, a minor miscalculation, and a lot of luck, considering he escaped with all his limbs. Soon Helen Wheels, a recently laid-off journalist who thought hopping a freight might be better than sitting in her apartment all day drinking, arrives, as does Gem, a very somber college student with ginger-red hair who sits a good distance from everyone, reading the morning newspaper. Ballast, a powerfully built 31-year-old with heavy boots and a fierce countenance, arrives with both hands dug deep into her pockets and a wool cap pulled low over her eyes. She greets everyone by name, then sits down glowering at me.

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