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Personal Story: The day I hopped a freight train

I made my way to the yard on a sunny Monday in April and hid in some track-side bushes to await the Union Pacific train coming through at noon.

It is easy for a life to become unblessed.” So says the novelist Dana Spiotta, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my case, all it took was alcohol and cocaine, which wrecked my promising career in publishing and left me homeless on the streets of Manhattan. My life in New York had become so untenable by the start of 1987, I saw no way to salvage it, and in a desperate bid to make a fresh start, I hit the road like Jack Kerouac and hitchhiked across America, hoping to find somewhere on the west coast where I could begin to rebuild from scratch.

To my surprise, the daily grind of surviving on the road was a distraction from the discomforts I experienced while my body adjusted to functioning without cocaine and alcohol. I won’t say going cold turkey was easy, but it wasn’t as horrific as I’d feared, and with every mile I put between me and my old life, abstinence became a bit more tolerable. Eighteen days of hitchhiking and sleeping rough beneath highway bridges brought me to the Pacific Northwest, where I landed on skid row in Portland, Oregon, on the night of my 38th birthday. I was penniless but I was drug-free and sober for the first time in a decade. I’d also arrived with dozens of sketches I’d jotted down on bits of scrap paper during my journey, notes I hoped might provide the raw material for my own version of Kerouac’s On the Road.

I’d had plenty of adventures but I still hadn’t experienced the thrill of hopping a freight train like Jack did. Two months later, after I’d had no luck finding work in Portland, I decided to head north to Seattle to apply for a galley cook’s job on one of the Alaskan fishing boats that docked there in the off-season. This time, I was determined to travel by freight train, but the veteran tramps I’d got to know on skid row all warned me not to try “catching out” (hobo slang for hopping a freight train) from the rail yards in Portland because there were too many “yard bulls” (railroad cops) patrolling the tracks. The smarter move, they said, was to take a local bus to the outskirts of Portland and hike across a Columbia River bridge into Vancouver, Washington, where the rail yard was less heavily guarded.

I made my way to the yard on a sunny Monday in April and hid in some track-side bushes to await the Union Pacific freight train coming through at noon. I was excited but nervous: I had no idea whether I could successfully hop a train “on the fly”. Fifteen minutes before it was due, two tramps about my age came down the tracks, and when I stepped out of the bushes to greet them, I discovered they were planning to catch the same train. The skinnier of the two, whose name was Keith, had a wispy goatee. His black-bearded partner, powerfully built, went by the nickname “Bulldog”. When I admitted I was a rookie they promised they’d make sure I got safely aboard.

The train slowed down as it entered the rail yard but was still travelling at close to ten miles per hour as we ran alongside an empty flatcar. Keith lunged for the short ladder at the rear of the car and made it look easy as he clambered aboard. Bulldog followed and yelled, “Toss your duffle bag up, then grab the ladder!” I did as I was told, and when I reached for the top rung, he seized my wrist and yanked me on to the wooden deck. By God, I thought, I did it at last!

Soon we were hurtling through the countryside at 50 miles per hour. We hunkered down with our backs against the flatcar’s head-wall, which made a perfect windbreak, and settled in for the long ride north. The noise of the wind made conversation impossible, but I didn’t mind. I was happy to dig the scenery, which was flashing by faster than an auctioneer’s patter. I can still close my eyes and picture the sawdust-scented lumber mill towns and fern-choked gorges before we reached the salt marshes of Tacoma, 40 miles south of Seattle.

As we came to the outskirts of the city, Bulldog began coaching me on the proper technique for dismounting a freight train on the fly. “Throw your duffel bag off,” he said, “then lower yourself on the ladder, keep a strong grip on the middle rung, and let your feet dangle. As soon as your boots touch the ground, start running like a son-ofabitch to match the train’s speed, and then let go of the ladder and curl away from the train. That’s the crucial part. Those steel wheels will mess up your whole day if you let ’em.” If you’re running slower than the train when you let go of the ladder, the odds are you’ll stumble and get sucked beneath the wheels of the following cars.

When the train entered the Seattle yards and slowed to a speed Keith and Bulldog deemed manageable, they demonstrated the technique by dismounting before me. Then I took my turn, and when my boots touched the gravel, I was shocked by how fast I had to run to keep pace with the train. Thanks to a rush of adrenaline, I got up to speed. But I made the rookie mistake of watching my feet instead of looking ahead, and when I let go of the ladder, I came within inches of colliding head-on with a steel stanchion that supported a bank of track-side lights – a collision I doubt I’d have survived.

“Whoa, Pete!” Bulldog shouted, as he ran up the tracks to join me. “You cut that a little close, brother! I thought you were a goner!”

“So did I!” I shouted back. As I raised my eyes, I caught my first glimpse of the saucer-shaped Space Needle twinkling high above the Emerald City. In that moment, I knew my life was no longer unblessed. 

Peter Kaldheim’s memoir “Idiot Wind” is published by Canongate

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy