From left, Adam Blumenthal, Sean White and DJ Kist hold puppies given to them by a fellow rider, Aug. 10, 2014. They plan to travel and ride the rails with their newly adopted dogs.Eli Hiller
Fortin took to the rails after he was rejected as a volunteer for military service at the height of the Vietnam War. Decades later, the new generation of freight hoppers — who self-identify as dirty kids, gutter punks, tramps and new-school riders — also cited push factors driving them to hop trains.
Bethany, a 22-year-old from Norfolk, Virginia, jumped her first freight wagon three years ago after she lost her job as a night shelf stocker at a Target store and was thrown out by her mother.
“I lost my job, got laid off, and she booted me out the door. So I was like, ‘You know what? Screw it. I’m going to Richmond, and I am going to jump on a train, go wherever the hell I want, do what I want,’” she said, sitting among the tents and tarpaulins at Hobo Jungle as old- and new-school riders chatted and swapped stories.
All the young riders, wearing grubby T-shirts, patched jeans, neck scarves and baseball caps, had hopped freight trains to nearby Mason City and Boone, Iowa, then walked or hitchhiked the last miles to reach Britt. Some had tattoos of ladderlike tracks on their arms, while several were inked with initials marking affiliation to two rail-riding brotherhoods, the TV Set Kids and the Home Bum Slam Rail Punks.
Ben, a 25-year-old welder from California, said he opted for a life on the rails — surviving on casual yard work and panhandling — because he felt out of step with his peers and their more settled values. “Most people are content with their lifestyles, like settling down, going to college, paying debt and having a mortgage and all that s---and being happy with that ... but I feel like a real big disconnect from that as a person,” he said.
In Fortin’s time, hobos frequently hopped trains in freight yards. But new riders said that, ever since the 9/11 attacks, rail yards are increasingly patrolled and inspected by railroad police known as bulls and watched over by state-of-the-art surveillance systems.
“I’ve seen yards that have heat scanners, motion sensors [and] surveillance cameras,” said 21-year-old John, a Colorado native, of the increased vigilance. Now “you catch it as it’s leaving the yard ... Throw your gear on, get yourself on, stay down and hide.”
Freight riding has always been dangerous, and in 2012, 463 people were killed on the rails, according to the United States Department of Transportation. Young riders at Britt swapped tales of accidents — among them an ankle broken running to hop a train and a narrow escape from freezing to death on a long winter ride. Then there are the fights in the trackside hobo jungles and the perils of a culture of heavy drinking and drug use.
“Seriously, it takes its toll on you,” said rail rider Tommy as he celebrated his 37th birthday somewhat morosely at the festival, chugging back beer after beer from a Styrofoam cup. His calf bore a sketchy tattoo of a 40-ounce bottle framed by the words “F--- life.”
“I have had a stroke. I only have one lung, I’ve been stabbed a bunch. I’ve been shot — only a ricochet bullet. Alcoholism. I’ve hardly got a liver,” he said. “So there’s a lot of downsides to it.”