Freedom Riders: How These 'Train Tramps' Found Their Own Personal Freedom on the Road
Would you have the courage to leave it all behind and live one railroad stop at a time? Meet a new generation of train tramps who did.
It could be you’ve never taken the time to look them in the eye. Seeing their second-hand clothes, their skin a patchwork of dirt and tattoos, maybe you just carried on with your day, your gaze awkwardly focused anywhere but toward them as you walked by. Maybe, in either a fit of charity or looking to alleviate yourself of surplus pocket change, you deigned to slip them some money. Or, bless you, a cigarette.
But what you’ve probably never done is sat down with any them. Which is a shame, because for these four “train tramps,” there’s a wonderful story of freedom behind the tattoos and the tatter. There’s something we can all learn about what it means to be free.
To explain who these people are that you’re trying so desperately to avoid eye contact with, it’s important to explain what they are not. They are not hobos.
On this point of distinction, the oldest of these tramps, Phil, is remarkably straightforward. “A hobo rides trains to find work. A tramp rides trains so they don’t have to find work. “
Sitting down in the sunlight of Wright Square, the three of them enjoy a moment of reflection as they pass around a wrinkled soft pack of Marlboros. There’s Barnyard, 29, a grungy baseball cap tucked low over heavy-lidded eyes, a Harry Potter “Death Eaters” T-shirt draped over his frame. His first ride on a train was years ago with Phil. As he puts it, “I got sick of working and stuff and wanted to do something else.”
He shares the pack with his girlfriend McKenna, whose blonde hair frames a cherubic 22-year old face. She handles the cigarettes carefully, favoring one hand’s injured finger which is splinted with three wood screws and duct tape. She was 18 when she started riding the rails, after a year of couch surfing and working odd jobs.
Phil is running solo today, as his girlfriend Emily opted to stay back with their 80-pound brindle pit bull Demus. He carries his 33 years in lines that crease his facial tattoo, four Xs, beneath a trucker cap overgrown with a greasy mop of hair.
"I USED TO BE A REALLY BIG HEROIN ADDICT. I LOST ALL MY JOBS AND MY APARTMENT. I DECIDED TO GET INTO TRAIN RIDING TO GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE. AND I JUST NEVER STOPPED DOING IT."
“I used to be a really big heroin addict,” he says. “I lost all my jobs and my apartment. I decided to get into train riding to get the hell out of there. And I just never stopped doing it.”
The three of them are enjoying a beautiful day in the South, one of their favorite places to take a break from the trains, especially during the winter.
“This is kind of our vacation home here, where we don’t have to carry our stuff,” McKenna says. When they’re not out panhandling, the group shares a home within a tent city over by the Greyhound station.
“Yeah, we like to winter here,” Barnyard adds with a laugh.
While they might winter in one place, they are part of a large and growing generation of young people who make their home at railyards from Maine to San Diego. By the time you read this, Barnyard and McKenna will be out West somewhere, riding the long rail across the Mississippi River to the West Coast. They plan to bum around out that way for a while, then visit McKenna’s family in Colorado, then make their way back East to visit friends in Maine.
Phil is on the fence about coming with them. Both he and Emily hate crossing the Mississippi. “Trains are a lot of fun,” he says. “But staying on a train for more than a day… My longest ride was from Minneapolis to Spokane. I sat on that thing for three (expilcit) days.”
It can be a hell of a life, if you don’t know what you’re doing. The three of them share their stories in an overlapping free-for-all of run-ins with authorities, nights spent huddled under a tarp to keep the rain out and the trials of life spent criss-crossing the country.
They tell of being pulled off of trains, just to have their photos taken and be allowed essentially right back on. “Then they can say we’ve been warned so if we fall off and our hurt ourselves, we can’t sue,” Phil explains. “Like I’m going to fall off a train.”
They talk of the perils they face riding the trains. “I was on a three-day train with three dudes and a dog and we ran out of water. And we ate all of our food the first day. We just had dried dog food,” recalls Barnyard.
They talk of days spent just waiting for a train, which don’t run with the kind of precise scheduling you’d expect. “You get a bunch of supplies and you just sit there and wait,” said McKenna. “Sometimes you don’t have anything left when the train shows up. You just kinda have to get on it anyway.”
But no matter how hard they make it sound, or how many horror stories they share of being starved, left out in the elements and harassed by police, they always talk about the life they lead with reverence.
“It’s comfortable, but if you’re comfortable with being a little bit uncomfortable, it’s fine,” Phil explains.
It’s not for everyone, but for these three, to hear their stories, the life they lead sounds an awful lot like freedom.