Locals recount train-hopping across America
By Cal Colgan | email@example.com
Photos By Aaron Beasley
Rane Harrington’s favorite method of travel doesn’t involve shelling out gas money or cash for an expensive plane ticket. Instead, Harrington hops trains.
Harrington packs an extra set of clothes into a big bag, in case he gets covered with the filth from the dust of the box car or the airborne debris flying past the train. Popularized in the Great Depression by hundreds of hobos looking for out-of-state work, train-hopping still has a loyal following of people across the country.
Harrington said he was prompted to see what it was like to jump on a cargo train when he was 18, when a group of travelers walked into the now-defunct Back Street Cafe on Spanish Street.
“There was like eight or so of them,” the St. Augustine local said. “There was this one dude [who was] probably like six-foot-five. He sat down, and he was like right next to me on the couch.”
When Harrington asked the man what brought him and his friends to St. Augustine, the tall traveler replied that they travel by jumping on freight trains.
“He told me about one of his rides and I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” Harrington said.
Unlike Harrington, his friend Aaron Beasley is new to the lifestyle of “traveling kids” – the name for the group of mostly young people who choose to travel by hitchhiking or hopping freight trains across the country.
“I pretty much heard stories from Rane and everybody, and it sounded like a whole lot of fun,” Beasley said.
Last summer, Beasley joined a group of his friends who were trying to travel to Richmond, Va. for Best Friends Day, an annual weekend of activities, cookouts and concerts for the punk and alternative subculture. A photography major at Daytona State College, Beasley saw the opportunity to record the journey in a photo series on train-hopping.
But both Harrington and Beasley said the train-hopping lifestyle is not always fun. Since the act of boarding freight trains without being authorized to get on them is illegal, traveling kids frequently run into the less friendly side of the law.
“I got arrested the first time I ever tried to jump on a train,” Harrington said.
He said he and his friends got in a boxcar that was being moved around the train yard.
“We got pushed and pulled into the yard, and the cops were chasing us,” he said. “We ended up running into this giant, abandoned parking lot that was completely empty, so we had nowhere to run. I was running around in circles around this cop car, trying to get away from the cop.”
Harrington’s brush with the police on his first train-riding adventure would not be his last. He said rail cops are a serious source of worry for hoppers, and occasionally, these “bulls” come armed with Tasers, ready to shock illegal boarders off the boxcars. And even if they don’t have Tasers, rail bulls do have the authority to haul travelers off to the local jail, like they did when Harrington and one of his friends were trying to travel up to Massachusetts to visit his friend’s girlfriend.
“We were trying to hop out of Rocky Mountain, North Carolina,” Harrington said. “Nobody there was nice to us at all.”
Harrington said a rail officer found that one of Harrington’s fellow hoppers had a small amount of marijuana. “He was like, ‘Tell me where the rest is! If you don’t tell me where the rest is, I’m gonna beat the s— out of you right now!’” Harrington said.
Fortunately for the group of train-hoppers, one of Harrington’s friends persuaded the rail cop to forget about the pot, and the group managed to reduce their bails from the local jail from $500 each to $36 between the three of them.
“We were automatically broke, and we had to make it back for court a week later, so we made it up to Massachusetts and back,” Harrington said. “And we made it back that night, before we had to go to court [the next] morning.”
Rail bulls are not the only threat to young people seeking to travel by slipping onto moving freight trains. Beasley said the weather and the wilderness can sometimes make it difficult for hoppers.
Beasley said when he and his friends were trying to make it to Richmond for Best Friends Day last summer, they wound up in Birmingham, AL. They had to hitchhike from the deep Southern city to Atlanta, where they thought a train yard ran from the Georgia capital to Richmond. At around four in the morning, yard workers drove by the site, and Beasley and his friend Rican quickly hid in a ditch.
“It turned out the ditch had a bunch of fire ants in it,” Beasly said. “I was pretty alright, but I guess Rican is allergic to fire ants, so he had a really, really bad reaction, and his throat started swelling up and he was having a really hard time breathing.”
When Beasley and another friend tried to help Rican to a gas station so that he could purchase an epi-pen, the group was stopped by a rail worker, who informed them that the train to Richmond was leaving in an hour. The group could either take their sick friend to the hospital, or hop the train. Beasley said Rican decided to withstand his allergic reaction and hop the train with them.
Although Harrington is a seasoned hopper, he said he does not consider himself as thoroughly immersed in the lifestyle as some of the out-of-towners who occasionally pass through St. Augustine.
“I was on a different train for at least once a week. I guess I was doing it for about a year straight, and then I stopped doing it as frequently,” he said.
Part of the reason why he stopped, Harrington said, is because those who live by the train-hopping lifestyle have to rely on a certain amount of panhandling and begging when they travel from city to city. Harrington said that although he used to panhandle for money, he doesn’t like the practice, even though it can lend to “flying” funny signs.
“My favorite [sign] was [his friend] Kyle’s: ‘Smack my a– for a dollar.’ Old ladies would kill [for] it – they would give you like 10 bucks a pop.”
But Harrington said that although some people view the traveling lifestyle with disdain, they shouldn’t criticize it until they’ve hopped a train.
“It doesn’t even cross people’s minds that you can travel for free,” he said. “Everybody thinks that you have to work ridiculously hard to leave and travel across the country. But if you have the motivation and the know-how to do it, it’s awesome. It’s definitely worthwhile.”