From the back window of my bedroom during my high school years, I had a clear view of the tracks that carried the Illinois Central from Chicago to New Orleans. I liked to watch the trains rumble by. Most of them were freights and I was always on the lookout for hobos. I only saw a couple in three years, but that didn’t stop me from believing others were there huddled in the corners. What I saw just couldn’t compete with an imagination created by train songs and the old black and white movies from late night television.
Catching a south bound train, like hitching a ride down the line, conjured up a world of freedom. Whatever they were, Southern small towns were not citadels of freedom and that was particularly so if you were a minister’s son. And so I dreamed often of the varied ways to “get out of this place.”
“Freight Train,” an old Elizabeth Cotten song Peter, Paul and Mary polished up in 1963 knew my world.
Freight train, freight train, goes so fast
Freight train, freight train, goes so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know where I’ve gone
I had a headful of train songs by the early 1960s, many of them plucked from the folk tradition, a few from the pop charts: “Casey Jones,” “John Henry,” “Chattanooga Chou-Chou,” “Midnight Special,” “500 Miles,” “Rock Island Line,” “Wabash Cannonball” (courtesy of Dizzy Dean), “Night Train,” and “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” These songs built a fantasy world of riding the rails whether it be first class or boxcars.
The train song that got stuck in my head, though, was by one of those Greenwich Village guys that emerged just behind Dylan. Eric Anderson’s “Dusty Boxcar Wall” had all the liberation of “Freight Train” and the loneliness of “500 Miles” and seemed just the song for me:
I’m going away my baby
I’m gonna leave you pretty gal.
For a train passed by while you lay sleeping.
I’ll write you a letter on a dusty boxcar wall.
The idea of hopping a freight started with the songs. My friend John Gurley sang in a trio that played many Peter, Paul and Mary songs. John and I lived on the same floor in the dorm, and a bunch of us would sit around at night and sing folk songs. What took the idea from being a mere fantasy to a possibility was John’s connection to someone who actually worked for Illinois Central. John took our fantasy trip to his brother-in-law and came back with real information about how to hop a freight. At that point, the group thinned a bit. Four or five of us remained committed, but when spring break came and it was time to go, it was down to John and me. On the night before we were to leave, a couple of other guys jumped in out of nowhere.
Our plan was to ride the IC to New Orleans and then hitchhike from New Orleans to Panama City. Panama City had not yet become the citadel city for spring breaks, but there was a little action and it was a lot closer than Fort Lauderdale. We never stopped to think we might be over doing it, that riding the rail to New Orleans, spending a couple of nights there and then catching a ride back would be adventure enough for one spring break.
There were problems to be faced. Right before our trip, Illinois Central went out on strike. This meant we had to take a smaller regional line that would have the added burden of picking up Illinois Central’s load. We didn’t translate this change into hours and we should have. A 12-hour trip stretched to 24. John did go down to the train yard and scouted out what the change would mean in terms of boarding a train. The greatest barrier to hoping a train, at least back then, were the inspectors in the train yard. If you got by them, you were home free. That being said, those guys were scary.
We got to the train yard mid-morning. John did a remarkable job of steering us through a complex network of tracks to our train. We hopped onto a floor that was a deep carpet of dust. And then we sat for about three hours before the train moved. When the train finally started the run, it started slowly to wind its way out of the yard. We were tucked in the forward corners to avoid being seen. Finally, we moved through town and out into the countryside that would so dominate the trip. We were taking the best back road in America. The engineer knew we were on the train and stopped once to tell us to put our legs in. And later at a crossroads, some train inspectors, whose job was to watch the train as it passed, spotted us. They checked our IDs and asked if we had money. John was smart enough to assure them we did. One of our group who seemed to still be drunk from the night before almost tried to yell out no, but John and I knew we would probably get arrested for vagrancy if that were true. We showed them our IDs and we were on our way again.
We hadn’t brought food for 12 hours, much less 24. John knew through his brother-in-law that the train made a short stop in Louisville, Mississippi. He used the stop to make a run for some supplies–milk, cheese, and Vienna sausage. As the minutes ticked off, we became nervous. He stepped onto the train just as it was starting up again. When a small group of black children saw him, they shouted, “Look at the hobo, look at the hobo.” John was certified.
We had been on the train most of the day and traveled only about 200 miles. Between Louisville and Jackson, the sun went down, and we became cold. We came dressed for the beaches. We didn’t even have sleeping bags. Someone got up and partially closed the train door, and we all fell asleep. A couple of hours later, we were awakened by an abrupt bumping of cars and the slamming of the train door. I had never seen darkness this black. I got up and made my way to the door only to discover there was no way to open it from the inside. At this point, three of us were about as scared as you can be. Mr. Wrong Advice must have been nursing a bottle through the day because our situation didn’t bother him at all. “Just leave it alone. We will get out in the morning,” he advised. The rest of us had darker imaginations. I thought we could have been left on one of those side tracks in the middle of nowhere with no one around for miles to hear our pounding. Weeks later they would find our decaying bodies or maybe just our bones.
If yelling and beating on the door were an indicator of who was most afraid, it was me. I beat that door till my hands were bruised and we all joined in a ragged chorus of “Help, Please Help.” After a time that seemed endless—the whole incident probably lasted 15 minutes—we heard some noise outside and the door opened. We weren’t on a sidetrack in the wilderness. We were in Jackson, Mississippi. A brakeman had heard us and was opening the door. He was a very kind man. He entertained us with tales of discovering just the kind of bodies we had feared we would become. He also offered us practical advice on how to avoid that happening. The door had slammed shut while the train was coupling up. The train door could only be locked in two positions—fully open and closed—so we had tested the fates when we tried to improvise a middle. He showed us how to brace the door so it wouldn’t slam shut. He also told us how much time we would have and pointed us to some bathrooms. That guy was a saint in our book. We laughed hysterically for a bit, but all of us felt a little more alive because we thought we could have been dead.
We weren’t bold enough to brace the door. We just locked it in the open position and shivered ourselves to sleep. When we woke up it was dawn and we were coupling up again, this time in Bogalusa, Louisiana. We still had three hours ahead of us, but we would be seeing country we weren’t accustomed to and then crossing Lake Pontchartrain. All we could see as we crossed the lake was water. It was easy to imagine that the train was floating to New Orleans. Eventually we started into the city and began to see signs of urban life. We had no idea where we should get off. We knew we didn’t want to wait until the train stopped and have to deal with the complexity of the railroad yard. The train was slowing down. Thinking we were nearer downtown than we were, we decided it was time to jump. We knew enough to jump with the movement of the train and then roll. Everyone did it smoothly and no one got hurt. We were proud of ourselves.
We were a long way from downtown, but very luckily we were right on the highway we were to hitchhike out on the next day. We had no idea how filthy we were until we left the train and walked among normal people. My hair was so dirty I couldn’t I move it from my one side of my head to the other. The people at the first motel we approached were visibly appalled at our filth. When we inquired about a room, the clerk told us the vacancy sign was an error and directed us a short ways down the road to a motel built in the 30s or 40s. It was clean, with no frills. The motel accepted us with open arms and mostly cold showers. We were just too dirty for the small hot water tank in the little bungalow units. It took us hours to get clean, even with some of us using the shower by the tiny swimming pool to get the first layer off.
We had a great night in New Orleans. We wandered the French Quarter a bit. I had been there the year before and the burlesque acts were shrinking. Lilly St. Cyr was still queen of the French Quarter and novelty acts such as “the woman who changes from stone to flesh” hadn’t disappeared. But we train hoppers settled down in a folk club for nearly the whole evening and enjoyed it enormously. Probably the most fun night of the trip. We were still into the adventure and the next day didn’t disappoint. We hitchhiked along an old coastal highway in pairs on a sunny day. We went through Biloxi, Mobile, Destin—just a little fishing village then—and finally just after dark arrived in Panama City.
The rest of the trip was an anti-climax. The party culture of the beach was pale compared to the adventure of the rail and trail. The two worlds were so different. It would be difficult to find people who liked both. I still clung to the notion I was one of those people, but was losing faith fast. The Beach was just a big boring version of the Frat culture I was coming to loathe–propelled by business majors, Ivy League fashions and a shallow predictability that knew nothing of the adventure of the road. I was glad when it was time to go home.
Hitching proved a different kind of adventure on the way back. John left early and I split off from the other two along the road. I cut across Mississippi to US 51, was propositioned for the first time in my life by a man who took rejection well, I thought, until he dropped me off at Starkville in the dark. When I finally got to 51, I haunted a truck stop until I found a trucker who took me into Memphis, where I called a friend.
The freight train came out of mythology and for a short time it made us feel like mythical adventurers, guys onto the search for some other life untethered by all the collegiate norms that in one way or another tied most of us in knots. It represented possibility for something else, something I couldn’t name yet, another way of life where I would feel at home with the world around me. I was busy being born, but it felt like a slow birth. The songwriter Butch Hancock captures the sense of possibility the freight can have in a song I heard many years after our trip, but provided a better soundtrack for why we went than any of the songs I heard before the trip.
Now if you ever heard the whistle on a fast freight train
Beatin‘ out a beautiful tune
If you ever seen the cold blue railroad tracks
Shinin‘ by the light of the moon
If you ever felt the locomotive shake the ground
I know you don’t have to be told
Why I’m goin‘ down to the railroad tracks
And watch them lonesome boxcars roll