The Dangerous Lives of Train-Hoppin' Hobos

For some people, seeing the country from a boxcar is the ultimate freedom. But as an October fatality indicates, it can come with a price. By Nina Shapiro

At 4:40 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 8, a freight train making its way south through Chehalis suddenly stopped. A sensor had gone off, indicating that the train was dragging something. It was still dark when Chehalis Detective Jeff Elder got there at 5 in the morning. Firefighters, also at the scene, set up lights so Elder could see. In the glare, Elder was able to make out a body lying between the tracks, now dead, a young man wearing blond dreadlocks, a nose ring, and tattered jeans. The deceased was Jason Litzner, age 25.

While he took measurements at the scene, Elder asked another officer to talk to the conductor. The officer found not only the conductor but two women—one of whom was Litzner's wife. They had all been riding on what is known by those who frequent the rails as a "suicide car," whose only floor is a row of crossbars with gaping holes between them.

The trio had spent a lot of time hopping trains over the last year or two, as the women told Elder back at the police station. The detective asked them if they were hobos.

"They said, 'Yeah, you can call us that,'" recalls Elder.

Railways have been cracking down on hobos of late, says Gus Melonas, Seattle spokesperson for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. But when Melonas was growing up near a major Eastern Washington way station in the '60s, he remembers watching trains go by that were full of hobos. Later, as a train inspector in the late '70s, he once came across a professor from a small New York college hanging around a Vancouver, Wash., train station, looking to hop a ride. As they got to talking, Melonas discovered that the professor spent his summers hoboing.

Nowadays, BNSF regularly sweeps out hobo camps, or "jungles," which were tucked into pockets of greenery that lined the tracks. In 1995, the company declared a "zero tolerance trespassing policy." As a result, Melonas says hobo sightings are now "extremely rare."

But they do happen with enough regularity that Marmie Edwards, spokesperson for the Virginia-based train safety group Operation Lifesaver, says that while she doesn't know how many of the 872 railroad injuries and deaths nationwide last year were hobo related, there seems to be a new surge in hobo popularity as young people seek out train riding for the sheer thrill of it.

"It's almost like an extreme sport," she says.

Litzner, however, was simply in love with trains, says his widow, Rose. As a child, Jason would dress up as a train conductor for Halloween. He immersed himself in the history, culture, and politics of hobos—stressing freedom and self-sufficiency—and started a Web site (myspace.com/hobocore) where he posted his own rap songs about railroad life. Taking on the moniker "Hobocore," he hit the tracks while still a teenager, traveling for years before he met Rose, two years ago, in Michigan.

He took her on many trains. Together, they crisscrossed the country, stopping to work or panhandle along the way. When they got to New Orleans, they stayed for a number of months to help the post-Katrina anarchist community rebuild. Later, in Kansas City, they hitched a ride to Seattle aboard a moving truck, helping unload furniture en route.

They had a full schedule in Seattle. One night, they went swing dancing at the Century Ballroom. The next day, they joined an anti-Bush march to the Federal Building downtown. That's where they ran into Whitney McCall, a 20-year-old from Tacoma who sported dreadlocks and Carhartt overalls. "She looked like a traveler girl," Rose says.

Striking up a conversation, the Litzners realized they had met McCall before—at a punk-rock music festival in Philadelphia—and decided to travel to San Francisco with her. The trio spent the night at Rose's mother's place in Tacoma and headed for a railway yard near the Amtrak station there the next afternoon. At 1:30 in the morning, a train pulled in that they thought was headed for San Francisco. As Jason hopped on to scout it out, the train started slowly moving. "Come on," he shouted to the others. Rose lagged behind to hand up their backpacks, guitar, and water jug. When she finally hopped on, she landed on the opposite side of a container from Jason and McCall, which explains why Rose didn't witness the fall that caused her husband's death.

From the accounts that McCall later gave Rose and Detective Elder, it seems that Jason had been cold and asked McCall to get a sleeping bag out of her backpack. He then got up to get a drink of water from his jug. As she was fishing out the bag, McCall felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around, but Jason had already fallen.

A train is rolling along the tracks by the docks in West Seattle. A few yards away, "Tommy From the Railroad," as he is universally known, is sipping a Coke at the Chelan Cafe. This is Tommy's element: an old-school diner with vinyl booths, big breakfasts, and a waitress who knows the names of the railroad workers and longshoremen who fill the place.

Tommy is a hobo, or at least he used to be, and is well-known among a tight-knit community of hobos across the country who keep in touch these days via e-mail and Internet sites. And what he wants you to know about hobos is that they are working men.

Holding forth before a couple of aging longshoremen, Tommy recites what he says are quotes from James Eads How, a turn-of-the-century railroad scion who became a hobo advocate and founder of "hobo colleges," part lecture halls, part social centers. "A bum is a drinker and a wanderer," Tommy says. "A tramp is a dreamer and a wanderer. But a hobo, he has the same spirit of a pioneer. He works and wanders."

Tommy points to the blue bandanna around his forehead that he always wears to signify his working-man status. Forty-eight years old, with dark hair and intense eyes that allow him to pass for a relative of Robert De Niro, he also wears a red-and-black checkered lumberman's jacket, hiking boots, and numerous tattoos, including one of a clown peeking out of his sleeve.

Hobo ethics are dear to Tommy's heart. A guy once came up to Tommy and told him he was going to grab a meal at a restaurant and skip out on the tab. "Don't ever do that," Tommy told him. A true hobo, Tommy says, talks to the manager and asks if he can earn a meal by, say, washing dishes.

Tommy also reveres hobo history. He can tell you that hobos did not first crop up during the Depression, as commonly thought, but in the days after the Civil War, when soldiers returned home to find themselves out of work and took to the trains in search of opportunity.

The hobo life is largely history for Tommy now, though. A Chicago native, he spent a good deal of his younger years hopping trains, but in recent years has found steady employment as a welder and mechanic at a West Seattle rail yard.

"You got a different group of people out there now," he says. "You got these road kids—wanna-be hobos—all drugged out." Of the era of the true hobo, he says: "It's gone. It's over."

"See that car? That's a really good one in the rain," says Devlen Dykeman, as he watches a freight train go by on tracks that skirt Commencement Bay in Tacoma. The car in question is loaded with two rectangular containers, the one on top slightly larger than the other, so that it creates an overhang that a hobo could conceivably seek shelter beneath.

The 24-year-old Dykeman thinks about such things as he watches trains because he, too, has a fascination with hobos. He was only 11 or 12 when he first found out about them. Already burnt out on school, soon to leave structured education for a looser home-schooling lifestyle, he was attracted to the independent life that hobos seemed to embody.

At 18, he bused and hitchhiked his way to a "National Hobo Convention" held every year in the small town of Britt, Iowa—a civic event that brings hobos together from across the country in what is surely one of the oddest bids for tourism ever. Dykeman was enthralled. At a big campsite, he slept on the ground by the fire, listening to hobo musicians who brought their guitars and fiddles, and met a guy named Joe with whom he decided to ride the rails to Chicago.

The pair hitchhiked to a Mason City train depot and hid in the bushes. They waited until a northbound train looked like it was getting ready to leave. "There'll be a rush of activity near the engine, and then people will start backing away," Dykeman explains. "You have a minute or two to rush in."

In they rushed, to an open platform connecting two cars. They held on as best they could, somehow surviving the hours-long journey.

Though he has not repeated the experience, Dykeman speaks of it in the fondest of terms. "It's just a real adrenaline rush," he says. "It's almost like flying."

But like many hobos, Dykeman concedes that "riding a train anywhere is always dangerous."

"It's probably not worth it," he says. "But it's real exciting."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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