—I don’t mind hanging lonesome, ‘cause I’m a hobo myself sometimes, and it’s easier to hit the grit alone than to feel accountability for others, and jumpin’ from a cannonball ain’t no fun.—
The tracks in Fort Collins, Colorado, paralleled the main street, divided the town equally between east and west. My three band mates and I lived on Mason Street, one block west of the main drag. The rails ran through the center of our street. We always knew the time because the 2:30 northbound to Laramie, Wyoming, passed us every afternoon but Sunday’s. Funny, the whistle sounded so lonesome when the train made the city limit, four miles south of where we lived, but then sounded like a hell-chained dragon right outside the front door.
We spent a lot of time on our front porch, jamming and practicing for any gig we could scrape together. We got few, so we spent more time on the porch than anywhere else. We often hankered to be somewhere different, and so at 2:30 p.m. we’d step to the curb, wave to the hogger as he rolled by, and would then watch down the line for the first vacant flat, always on the lookout for the rare open boxcar.
The slowest man went first. If he stepped steady onto the stirrup, caught the grabiron, and made the flip, the next fastest guy would go. I went last. Two hours later, we’d be in Laramie, killing time until the 7:30 southbound came rolling. Being young, we never thought much about greasing the track.
I’ve forgotten how many runs we made in my alma mater–been over thirty years since I’ve hopped a train. But every morning and every night here in the heart of the Willamette Valley, the train runs through town at irregular intervals. I hear the whine just a mile away in Corvallis, and when the train hollers that close to my house I start feeling like a hobo.
Yet, all I want is to settle down, once and for all. In the seven years since moving back to Oregon, Corvallis has never really felt like home, even though I own one. I still feel as though I’m only passing through, mainly because I’ve yet to find a job that suits me well enough to stick around for more than a few years, and because I’ve yet to meet people who can fill the shoes of the friends I left behind in California.
I’m on my fourth means of employment, and am hoping to return to the Golden State and find permanent employment before summer. (Jobs do not define a person or create friends, but they do provide a solid rail that allows one a chance to concentrate on the journey, instead of how much coal gets shoveled into the boiler.)
I don’t think I’ve burned any local bridges. My visits to the stations I left behind here have been enjoyable, cooperative, and productive. I was consistently upfront about my intended goal to be more than what they could offer.
And at this moment, as I listen to the whine of a midnight train, I’m hoping my hobo thoughts go away in another week. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I get this new job, and that it turns out to be the steady track to a destination more suited to where I thought I would end up…
… ’cause I’m gettin’ older, and it’s getting harder to hop trains, though I can still shovel coal with the best of ’em.
Morgan Hill, California
Ten years after first writing of this blog post–thirty years since my years in Fort Collins)–I am still reminded of my days hopping trains in Fort Collins, Colorado. The whistle of the speeding train last night reminded me of my past “rail days,” and reminded me that at the end of this month, July 2020, I will return to the town where I learned to hitch an empty boxcar. I am going full-circle.
Of the seven times I have moved since leaving Fort Collins in 1991, I have always said, in every town, “This is finally where I will bury my bones.” I could have been satisfied to leave my bones here in Morgan Hill, but it just can’t happen. This return leg across the Great Divide… I hope my wish will someday come true. I will be happy to leave my bones in Colorado dirt.
Upon returning to Fort Collins, I will stand beside the tracks that run down the middle of Mason Street, and I will wonder if I am too old now to hop a train headed to Laramie or Cheyenne, Wyoming. I suspect I am, only in the sense that I no longer run as fast as in my youth, and it would be more than possible to grease the tracks at my age.
But I will dream as the trains through Fort Collins pass beside me, just inches away from where I linger beside the rail. Who knows, maybe on one of those days I will catch solid hold of the grip, will secure my foot in the stirrup, and I’ll toss my skinny ass into a rare empty boxcar, just because I want to test my youth. I want to set my pace alongside the train to find the right car at the right moment, to re;live the thrill of hopping a train. Who knows, maybe some day in the near future I will get a free ride to Laramie.
Highball: all clear ahead, proceed at full speed.
Roll-by: means just that (and it’s a might friendly if you wave while the train rolls on by).
Hobo: someone willing to work, but only enough to get what he needs or wants, always moving down the road, looking for the next thing. Most hobos are honest and trustworthy.
Hitting the grit – to be thrown from a fast moving train.
Cannonball: a fast train.
Stirrup: first step on a freight car, under the lowest grab iron.
Grabirons: handholds on all railroad cars for ascending onto or descending from the car.
Flip: the motion used to hop a moving train.
Grease the track: fall beneath the train and die.
Put in the hole: when a train is stored on a side track to keep the main track clear.
Boomer: someone who drifts from one job to another, staying only a short time.
Crossover: switching from one track to a parallel track.
Ditch: jump from a moving train.
Mileposts: markers along the line (at regular or irregular intervals) to indicate where the train is at different places on the line.
Big Rock Candy Mountain: hobo heaven.