Adventures in Train Hopping
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Just outside Granger, Wyoming, train tracks fork west and the other set fork north. A voice yells “IF THIS TRAIN FORKS NORTH, PREPARE TO JUMP!”
I’m not reciting a line from a movie or popular TV series, this is real life: an actual experience of mine, on the steel rails, hopping freight trains, hobo style.
That voice was my buddy John. He introduced me to Freight Hopping, a lifestyle that's been around for 100 years. In fact, Ernest Hemingway jumped freight trains in the early 1900's. To some it’s a hobby; to others, it’s a transient way of life, with a common denominator of adventure.
I’ve known John for 25 years, but didn’t know he hopped freight trains until several years ago on one of our road trips. On this particular road trip, from our car, he pointed to a train we were passing and said “That train is headed to Elko, Nevada.”
When I asked how he knew that, he proceeded to tell me about freight trains, where they go based on rail lines, knowledge of train schedules, and numbered train cars. This was fascinating to me, and we spend a majority of our road trip discussing his freight hopping experiences over the past 20 years. John told me if I ever wanted the experience of a lifetime that I should join him.
And so I did...
Riding to Wyoming
We set off for a weekend, hopping freight trains from Utah to Wyoming and back again, all within a two day period. John told me what gear to bring and told me the rules of train hopping. Train hopping is a very unforgiving adventure, full of dirt, grime, axle grease, and steel. You need good gear, and what you wear is important. You need good boots, gloves, and men's pants. I wore the KÜHL RADIKL Pant, and it performed admirably.
We started our adventure at a rail yard in Utah around 12:00 am, looking for a Wyoming bound train. Night time is best for train hopping because it's easier to elude Railway Police or "Bulls" in the quiet of night. We hid in a grove of trees at the edge of the rail yard, and once the coast was clear, we made a break and ran across the yard to the train bound for Wyoming.
Rule #1: Avoid Railroad police aka “Bulls” at all costs. You do not want to get caught.
We found our train and hopped on a "rideable" grainer. Then we waited. Not knowing when our train was leaving the yard, we simply laid low on the platform of the grainer and waited patiently, hoping we wouldn’t be discovered by the railroad police. This was intense. Trains can take hours to depart. We didn’t know if the train would depart in 20 min or 2 hours, so we simply had to wait.
Rule #2: Exercise patience. You will wait and wait for trains.
Side Note: Grainer or Hopper is a common car used for transportation of loose materials or goods such as coal, gravel, or grain. A cadillac grainer is one with an improved skirt of steel that surrounds the platform of the rail car. This enclosure of steel surrounding the platform creates a space where you can hide from railroad police and the general public.
We finally left the train yard, in the quiet, early hours with a cold night ahead of us. We pulled out our sleeping bags and tried to sleep as we headed up a very high elevation canyon in Utah at crawling speeds. On the deck of the grainer with a cold hard steel floor. This was our home for two days.
I woke to the sensation of the train stopping on one of the coldest nights I can remember. We were somewhere near Granger, Wyoming, pulling off the main rail line, yielding to a high speed priority freight train called a Double Stack or "Hot Shot" sharing the same rail line. Our train came to a stop, and we had the opportunity to jump off the train right as the sun was rising. Perfect timing!
Rule #3: Keep your arms, legs, and head inside the car at all times. Oncoming trains pass within feet of the train you’re riding without warning.
Our train must have been a mile long with train cars as far as the eye could see. John told me the train was on the move, and it was time to hop. The early sign of a moving train, starting or stopping, is the thunderous sound of slack action between cars. If you’re on a train, and you hear slack action, the transfer of energy is coming your way and you better brace yourself as you’ll receive quite a jolt. The noise is amazing, and the anticipation of the jolt is nerve racking.
Side Note: Slack Action occurs when train cars are coupled loosely together, and when the train starts, the slack or play between two cars tightens and the energy transfers to the next car, all the way down the line. Like a ripple effect..
Back on the train, we were on our way to Green River, Wyoming, and the scenery was beautiful. Wildlife everywhere: antelope, deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs.
As we approached Green River and our stop, we hoped for two things. One: the train actually stops. Two: when our train stops, we’re far enough down the line our car is outside the train yard. Our hopes were realized, and we hopped off the train unnoticed.
Rule #4: Never let the public see you. In the year 2016, everyone has a cellphone, vigilant citizens will report you.
Walking along the stopped train, we crossed a bridge into Green River, and, like any hobo, we set up camp underneath the bridge, cooked a meal, slept a bit and prepared for the second leg of our journey.
Returning to Utah
Early afternoon, we arrived at the edge of the rail yard in Green River, Wyoming. Separating us from the rail yard was an 8 foot high fence. John described the type of train to look for that would take us back to Utah. Hours passed, and trains entered and left the train yard with no sign of the train he described.
"What if our train doesn’t come?" I asked.
John's replied, "We wait until tomorrow."
At that moment I came to understand the concept of patience and waiting when it comes to train hopping.
Finally, two long trains pulled into the yard that were headed to Utah.
Since we were hopping the train during the day (super risky), we devised a plan to get on our train as soon as possible and undetected. Our plan was simple: Wait for the train to stop, wait for the bulls to make their rounds, scale the fence, run to the trains (this was about 200 feet), find a rideable car, hop on and hide.
We ran full speed, the fastest I’ve ever run, across the yard to the trains. We found a grainer, climbed on, hid out of sight and waited. Climbing over trains in a heavily patrolled railroad yard to find a Utah bound train, was intense. An adrenaline rush I’ll never forget.
Rule #5: Never crawl under a train car when scrambling through a train yard. Climb over the cars or climb over the coupling that fastens two cars together. Never under.
Side Note: When riding the trains, it’s loud, and you can’t hear anything. There is no casual conversation or small talk. I can’t imagine train hopping without ear plugs.
Leaving Green River, we settled in our car and headed west, back to Utah. As we approached Granger, Wyoming, the train tracks ahead of us forked West, and the other set forked North. John grabbed my attention, and our conversation went like this…
John: I’M NOT 100% SURE THIS TRAIN IS GOING TO UTAH. IT MAYBE GOING TO IDAHO, AND WE DON’T WANT TO END UP IN POCATELLO. THE BULLS IN “POKEY” HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING UNFRIENDLY. SO IF THIS TRAIN FORKS NORTH, IT’S GOING TO IDAHO, AND WE’LL NEED TO JUMP. BUT DON’T WORRY, IT WILL SLOW DOWN, BUT PREPARE TO JUMP!
Me: I THOUGHT YOU WERE SURE THIS TRAIN WAS GOING TO UTAH?! AND YOU SAID WE SHOULD NEVER JUMP OFF A TRAIN WHILE IT’S MOVING?
John: YEAH I’M PRETTY SURE IT’S GOING TO UTAH, BUT JUST IN CASE, GET READY.
Rule #6: Don’t jump on or off a train while it’s in motion.
As we approached the fork in the tracks, we breathed a sigh of relief when our train continued heading West towards Utah. Now we could relax.
I enjoyed our ride back to Utah. With the quiet, muffled sound of all the freight train sounds coming through my ear plugs, it was just me enjoying the surround landscapes of Utah like I’ve never seen it before.
When I travel through Utah by conventional means, I familiarize myself with the scenery and surrounding interstates, highways, and freeways. Travel by train was unique and presented different landscapes, aistas, rivers, and canyons, all new to me.
Descending Echo Canyon, we encountered a series of tunnels. Train tunnels are a little different than street tunnels. These tunnels are tight, pitch dark, and have no ventilation. Our longest tunnel was 5 minutes. That is a long time passing through a smoke filled space.
Leaving Echo Canyon, the train yard we departed two days earlier came into view, and I let out a sigh of relief. I was ready to hop off this train!
Trainhopping, a way of life for some and the ultimate adventure for others. My experience was a rush, full of adrenaline-filled moments. My wife was not happy with this, and I told her it was my first and last time...
But, now I want to hop a train to Colorado.