Editor’s note: The names of students in this story have been changed at their request due to the sensitivity of this subject. We all have dreams. Some dream of fame, fortune, a big family and success. But for one Castleton student, his dream is this: To travel across the country to California, without even spending a penny.
Sophomore Robert Laird is a train hopper, riding the rails from Rutland to Castleton, Fair Haven and even Whitehall, NY.
“My older brother hopped the train to school everyday in Worchester Mass.,” said Laird. “That’s where I first heard of it.”
After that, the next time Laird heard of it was from Andy Moss, his crew leader at the VYCC. This got him thinking. What started out as a group of friends going on a risky, stupid adventure ended up as an obsession for Laird.
“I don’t even know why we did it. But after I was hooked.”
Laird has been hopping for over a month, and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. As long as the weather permits, and he has a ride to and from the train’s location, he will continue. Laird knows most of the routes, the times the trains come and where exactly is the best place to get on and off.
“I just guessed the first time. Every time I’d hear a train I’d mark down the time.”
To hop a train you must have patience.
“If you don’t like waiting, it’s not good,” Laird warned.
The train can be on time, late, or even early, when there are no passengers there are no limits. That is why you must get there early and sit around for the best opportunity. And the only ones you hop are freight trains, because hopping the Amtrak, or a military train is just asking for trouble. Getting onto a train is called “catching out,” just one of the “hobo lingo” that Laird has picked up.
First you wait for the first four cars to go by; these cars carry the conductor and other freight workers. When they go by, you run out and find the car you want to get on. You grab onto the ladder and rung along with the train. When the train first starts out, or it is about to go through an intersection, it travels at about 5-7 miles per hour. Once you grab on, you must pull yourself up onto the last ladder rung. Then you can climb up and onto the train, he explains.
The “grainer” is where you sit when on the train. It is sort of like a cubby hole which makes a perfect place to hide from police and is where many hobo’s sleep.
Laird believes that in this area he is the only one truly dedicated to this adventure.
“It’s like my own special thing. You see everything.”
Laird tried to explain why he loved this dangerous hobby so much.
“It’s as if the track is its own separate state in America. The cool part is when you’re on the train it’s like you’re on the outside, looking into the world. You see things you would never see on a road walking,” he said.
Most train hoppers are “hobos” or homeless people. They ride the train from place to place because it is a free ride to anywhere they want to go. The term hobo does not always mean disgusting bum. Most hobos chose not to have a home. Laird has learned about the lives of hobos and has embraced the name himself.
“It’s not that we don’t have a residence to sleep in, we just don’t consider that our home,” Laird said about his connection to these hobos.
Hobos are dirty people, but not without cleanliness. They have clothes, but they don’t care about fashion. Every piece of clothing they own is worn until it can’t be used anymore.
If you type “train hopping” into a Google search, you will come up with more than 15,000 hits. You’ll find sites about the techniques of train hopping, information about the hobo lifestyle and stories of those who have ridden the rails. One Web site, www.hobo.com out of Britt, Iowa, is completely dedicated to hobo living. A woman named “Mama Jo” runs this site. There is a Hobo Foundation and even a National Hobo Convention that is held on the second week of August every year in Britt.
“The appeal is the fact that you don’t have to worry about taxes, rent or bills. You don’t have to vote because the laws don’t apply to hobos,” said Laird.
Although riding free to anywhere you want is wildly appealing, there are a few downfalls that those who hop trains are faced with. Not only is jumping onto a moving train dangerous, it is also illegal. Most train yards have “bulls” — police officers who work for the railroad companies. These officers are there to arrest hobos if they are caught jumping the train. Some bulls are crueler than others, and many hobo bloggers write about their experiences with tough bulls who would beat up hobos for not cooperating.
According to Perry Martel from Vermont Railway, hopping trains is considered “criminal trespassing.” In Vermont, the problem doesn’t seem to be as big as in many of the other states across the nation.
“There are not a lot of railroad police in Vermont. We see people along tracks and ask them to leave, or we call the local authorities,” Martel said. Criminal trespassing is a federal offense, weightier than a state offense. If you are caught on railroad property it is a federal matter. Martel said that he wasn’t sure of the punishments, though he knew you could get arrested for the offense, and then go from there.
“We haven’t had any incidents, even in the yards. It seems like we would hear about it,” said Sergeant Tarbell of the Rutland police.
Since the railroad company has its own police force, they only go to the local police if needed. Martel doesn’t agree with Tarbell about the severity of the problem, however. He sees it in the area between Proctor and Rutland especially.
“Kids have a tendency to think it’s the best way to get to Rutland,” Martel said.
Laird is not the only one at CSC who has attempted this adventure. Student Issac Smith went with some friends, including one who ended up getting hurt. Smith, like others, is easily influenced by friends, even when they thought it was a stupid idea. Most just want to try it once, for a cheap thrill, though some would ride the rails again.
“Yeah, I’d do it again. I want to go to Montreal on the train, that’d be sick!” said Smith after little thought.
“It’s like one of those dangerous things to do when you’re feeling rebellious,” said Julie Adams, another student.
Others however, do not think that hopping a train is something that you need to experience in your lifetime. A few students who were asked said that it’s a weird hobby and might be an adrenaline rush for some, though they would never do it themselves for safety reasons.
Samantha Cate, a junior at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, is completely against the idea.
“I think there are too many risk factors of getting hurt, people should take care of themselves instead of putting themselves in that situation,” she said. “Don’t do it, your life isn’t worth the danger.