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I've come twenty-seven hundred miles from Chi, Illinois.
May 7, 2013 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Incredible Images of Teenage Freight Train Hitchhikers, by Mike Brodie.

Previously, but the links are all broken and it's not apparent whether this set was included at that time anyway.
posted by invitapriore (47 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, I just listened to a radio story on San Francisco's KQED about this dude this morning! Awesome. Story is here. I'm excited to see the photos.
posted by purpleclover at 10:43 AM on May 7, 2013


I knew some kids like this in the early '90s. They always insisted that the boredom was far more their enemy than fear. Also it was pretty cool how smart they were about where to change trains to get to Seattle, for instance. It was quite a lifestyle, definitely suited only for the young.
posted by Mister_A at 10:51 AM on May 7, 2013


They are beautiful photos, and I love them. There's also something uncomfortable about how they kind of romanticize what must be a pretty harsh existence for these kids. I mean, in some sense it probably is a wonderful romantic existence of freedom for them, but also - I bet they are cold, hungry, tired and in danger a lot. These feel like book covers for a story about a coming of age adventure across the open plains of America. I'm not really complaining, I love the romanticizing, but I'm also wary of it.
posted by Joh at 10:56 AM on May 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


Pretty sure we've seen these photos (or ones quite similar) a few other times before, actually. And if those previous conversations were any indication of how this one's gonna go ... hoo, boy.
posted by barnacles at 10:58 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm thrown off by the huge gulf between the depth and grit the pictures portray and the tone of the quotes from Mr. Brodie in the story purpleclover linked to.

But the pictures are amazing and seem to capture a timelessness and an aspect of the world that I haven't seen in my life. I'm both grateful and somewhat saddened for the fact that I've never lived like that.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 11:01 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hopping freight trains is so romantic.
posted by Floydd at 11:02 AM on May 7, 2013


Here's an Archive.org view of the now-dead link from the prior thread. The collection there is varied, and not so thematic as this. Maybe in later years, he set up a more organized website, but the link I provided is from the (first?) prior thread.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:03 AM on May 7, 2013


Nice Partch reference there in the title ;)
posted by ReeMonster at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


W/R/T my comment about the tone in the article purpleclover linked to: I'd, like, totally love it if we could, like, remove the "likes" from our, like, collective vocabulary, y'know?.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've hopped trains. It's fun. It's romantic. It's cold. It's dangerous as fuck. I was young when I did it and I got arrested in the train yard in Sacramento, but, holy shit, was it fun.
posted by josher71 at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


I love the romanticizing, but I'm also wary of it.

An older relative of mine hopped trains for a summer. He and a friend didn't know what they were getting into, but they were lucky that an old-timer was there to show them the ropes, and to let them sleep inside a boxcar. His retelling was romanticized. I heard his story in my early teens, and I thought it would be awesome to hop trains.

These pictures? I see dirty, worn, tired, kids. I imagine that they're running from something or someone, whether they know it or not. There's the kid hanging on to the back of a train, flipping off the camera, and he looks the most alive of the bunch, but that still doesn't make me want to start hopping trains. It looks like a lifestyle that ages you beyond your years, and quickly. For me, there is no romance in those images. Perhaps it's a perspective that comes with age, and having a son of my own made the image of someone with a young, naked child cringe even more.

The image of the young lady with bloody underwear made me think of something I overhead at a clothing and supplies donation to the needy. A middle-aged lady was happy to get tampons, because she could "feel human again," or something along those lines. I realized then that you can patch together some clothes and stay covered, but keeping clean is a whole different thing when you're homeless.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:07 AM on May 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


I really like these photos (I don't think I have seen them before) and I like them because they convey a sense of adventure and taking chances, doing things I probably will never do, going to places in a way that I'll never do. They remind me of great adventure movies, such as Stand By Me. I also get a tinge of nostalgia and comparison between the photographer and myself since we are both from the Phoenix metro area. My friends and I had wanted so dearly to leave and go on adventures and take photos everywhere, but I guess we just never had that spark to find a rail map, jump a train and call it a life. I guess we were too content with driving anywhere out in the desert or going north to Flagstaff.

His Flickr account is gone now, but there is (was?) a well-known graffiti artist/photographer/train hopper named Swampy not too long ago who also took really incredible film photographs of his adventures. His photos were more about the environments he was seeing, and the fact that he got to see places most anyone else will not see if they are traveling any other way. I loved his photos and if anyone can find them I'd recommend checking them out too. It's a shame his Flickr is gone.
posted by gucci mane at 11:09 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also a great way to get places for free if you are broke.
posted by josher71 at 11:09 AM on May 7, 2013


Didn't we do this thread—with these same pictures—just a couple months ago?
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 11:17 AM on May 7, 2013


Also a great way to get places for free if you are broke.

As long as you hop the right train.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:17 AM on May 7, 2013


On a quicker thought, I found a website that hosted some Swampy photos. These are a tiny, tiny amount of all the photos he took (well over 100, probably over 200) and aren't even the best. I wouldn't be surprised if he knew Mike Brodie.

http://www.theohsnapproject.com/ohsnap_blog/2010/11/15/photos-by-swampy/

http://www.booooooom.com/2011/04/19/artist-photographer-swampy/

Photos such as this capture a certain quality of adventuring to me. Being on top of a train and seeing these impeccable sights must be exhilarating. Understandably, train hopping is extremely dangerous (as seen up-thread) but some people just have the itch, and I am thankful for them documenting their experiences.
posted by gucci mane at 11:18 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


As long as you hop the right train.

How true it is.
posted by josher71 at 11:20 AM on May 7, 2013


I've or my friends have hopped on plenty of trains I assumed were going one place and it ended up heading off in an entirely different direction and you don't find out until morning. One friend just kept ending up on trains that wound up heading in the opposite direction. I don't know how many times somebody either had to go pick his dumb ass up or wire him bus fare from Tupelo, always Tupelo!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:27 AM on May 7, 2013


A kid in my freshman class died by getting into a non-empty boxcar. Train picked up sped, load shifted. They found him when they unloaded the car.
posted by thelonius at 11:27 AM on May 7, 2013


The grime (of skin and clothes) apparent in the pictures reminds me of pictures of impoverished people in the nineteenth century.
posted by scratch at 11:30 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


What a bunch of lovely boys. Seriously. The freedom. The travel. What a way to live for a while.
When I was a teenager, my best friend and I spent a weekend hopping trains to and from St. Louis, up and down the Mississippi. We stayed in our neighborhood. It was a blast. One thing that I ALWAYS wanted to do, but was always to chickenshit was lay on the tracks with my arms flat beside me, and let a huge long coal train roll over me. I did measurements, making sure that my body would clear the underside, that wasn't the part that scared me, what scared me most was sometimes a train would have a chat-rock car with the under flaps opened, dropping fresh chat-rock onto the tracks, filling in between railroad ties. I was more scared of that then the potential fact that a train with a cattle guard could fork my ass.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 11:32 AM on May 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, sometimes they have a chain hanging down or something too. That might not seem so bad, but a heavy chain can do some damage swinging back and forth under a 40 mph train. I saw a guy get beamed by one in the back of his head just walking beside a slow moving train. Lucky for him it just gave him a concussion, I can't imagine what it would have done if the train had been moving fast.

The one of the pants in the bathtub reminds me of a buddy that came home after a couple of years on the rails and hitchhiking. We took his clothes to wash them and went outside to shake the dirt out in the yard and the first pair of jeans I shook just absolutely shredded to crumples on the first shake leaving me with just the waist-band in my hands. We ended up burning the whole trash-bag of clothes and taking him to wal-mart for some quick replacements until he could earn some cash for better ones.

He also needed EVERYTHING shaved immediately to get rid of the lice/crabs/fleas/critters! It was quite nasty. I think it took him like a month before his hands got unstained!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:42 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


ElDiabloConQueso: Oof, yes, agreed that the reporter did Brodie no favors by leaving in all the likes. It was a nice little piece to listen to, though. Brodie sounds (and is) shockingly young. As are the kids he photographs.
posted by purpleclover at 11:43 AM on May 7, 2013


More than anything else these remind me of jeans ads.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:48 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


More than anything else these remind me of jeans ads.

One more story I swear! One time my friends and I got bored at a bar in Jackson, MS, and decided to just hop a train , any train heading anywhere. Well, we didn't get far before the train pulled off in a siding and shut down for the night. Here we were in BFE Mississippi, god knows where, but we could see some lights and a road through the trees and we headed that way. Soon we came upon a gas station with a convenience store and decided to buy some beer and smokes to pass the time until we could hop a train back to Jackson. When we walked in, four skinny, young white boys, all greasy with our baggy jeans and shaggy hair at 3:00 in the morning, the clerk took one look at us and declared, "Damn, we got us a fuckin' CK-1 commercial up in this place!"
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


Nice Partch reference there in the title ;)

SERIOUSLY I WAS COMING IN HERE TO FIND PARTCH, WHERE IS HE, TELL ME NOW
posted by shakespeherian at 12:11 PM on May 7, 2013


As someone who was semi-homeless at the age these kids were......fuck your ideas of how 'free and romantic' such a lifestyle is. It's lonely, it's hard, it's demeaning.

It's only romantic if you're a tourist with someplace else to go.
posted by Windigo at 12:13 PM on May 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


It's only romantic if you're a tourist with someplace else to go.

That I was.
posted by josher71 at 12:19 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's only romantic if you're a tourist with someplace else to go.

Amen! Luckily I always had a place to go back to. Some of my friends didn't feel that way. At least in the case of the guy with the pants above who was working through a lot of abuse issues from his past, he learned that we were his surrogate "family" and would always help him get back on his feet when he needed it like a real family is supposed to. I think that "homecoming" with the pants and all was a real turning point of sorts to him. After that he never really "roamed" like before and now he's settled down with a wife, kids, and a steady, successful business of his own.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:29 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


CNN: Train to U.S. spits out mutilated migrants
Current TV's Vanguard story on it
posted by XMLicious at 12:52 PM on May 7, 2013


I see kids just barely hanging on
posted by KokuRyu at 12:55 PM on May 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm a bit puzzled what these photos are doing to romanticise, just snapshots from that life seems enough to hit all the buttons setup by ads and such. I mean, the one of the couple sleeping rough and there is an accordion. I wish that was a novel or something where I could enjoy instead of feeling really bad for them.
posted by yoHighness at 1:08 PM on May 7, 2013


There's a scene in the (very flawed) film "Into the Wild" which suggests that the railroad bulls (private cops) famed in Depression-era hobo songs are still with us, and so are their dogs. That alone seems like a major deterrent to using this mode of travel.

Also, boxcars seem to be disappearing in favor of flatcars carrying the increasingly ubiquitous shipping container.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:13 PM on May 7, 2013


Yeah, by the way, fuck flatcars.
posted by aramaic at 1:30 PM on May 7, 2013


Yeah, the traveler kids that've come through here say the bulls will still fuck you up, but they usually don't rob you at least. Baby-steps, I guess.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:46 PM on May 7, 2013


Ring of Fire zine: Microcosm Press description: "This zine is so f-ing cool. It's from 10 years ago, but is still relevant. Hellery was 18 when she wrote this zine, and had just lost both of her legs below the knee while trainhopping. This zine is all about how her life has changed since she became an amputee. It's also about being queer and celebrating her sexuality, despite the loss of her legs. Hellery decided that she wouldn't let her accident change her life, and that includes her sex life, so she sets out to become the sexiest amputee ever! Super positive and empowering for anyone who's been crippled, or dealt with long-term health issues. "
posted by larrybob at 3:10 PM on May 7, 2013


I see kids just barely hanging on.

In more ways than one.
posted by scratch at 3:13 PM on May 7, 2013


Whenever I read about train hopping I always think of Catching Out. Always wonder what happened to the guy who lived in the forest and had a zine. Previously on the Blue.
posted by stltony at 3:33 PM on May 7, 2013


I've said it in other threads, but these kids end up here in Victoria, BC - we're about as far west as you can go without drowning (to quote Margaret Atwood). You won't freeze to death in winter if you sleep rough ("camping" in the local street parlance) and there are fewer predatory ghouls walking the streets than much bigger Vancouver across the water to the east.

These kids, usually from Ontario and Quebec ended up panhandling on streetcorners, but panhandling is outlawed in the downtown core so now they head out to busy intersections to beg for change from passers-by.

What kind of life for these kids. What drove them out here. I don't think it's a class thing, rebelling against bourgeois conformity (or maybe it is the blue-collar approach to taking a gap year, I don't know), because there are more productive and secure ways of self-expression that walking barefoot through broken glass.

I would do everything in my power to prevent my kids from ending up like that.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:35 PM on May 7, 2013


There's a trick to riding trains in the US. There is a guide, published (photocopied) yearly, that contains a massive amount of information on train routes, schedules, and other important facts. Really detailed stuff like the names of the railroad cops in various train yards, and directions to specific sidings.

Using this guide, a friend and I freighthopped for two weeks through the pacific northwest and into Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and California. We never got caught by the cops, and we never caught the wrong train.

I don't know if this guide has made it on to the internet yet. When I received it, it contained many warnings to keep it off the net and specifically out of the hands of journalists, who for some reason really like to write about trainhopping. But every article written about trainhopping makes the train companies a little more vigilant, and the yard employees a little more strict. Trainhopping is a hobby for some and a way of life for others, but either way it is easier done out of the spotlight.
posted by ryanrs at 4:11 PM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


What kind of life for these kids. What drove them out here. I don't think it's a class thing, rebelling against bourgeois conformity (or maybe it is the blue-collar approach to taking a gap year, I don't know), because there are more productive and secure ways of self-expression that walking barefoot through broken glass.

Odds are, a lot of them are queer. Especially the ones who aren't local. (There's likely a subset of the homeless youth population who are in touch with their families and left home to relieve financial pressure on their family, but those kids are more likely to stay close to home and are presumably more likely to be representative of the larger population, so less queer.)
posted by hoyland at 4:11 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way, those kids are doing some really dangerous things on some really nasty trains. When I went on my little adventure, I rode in clean box cars and fast hotshots. These weren't hard to find if you were at all picky about which trains you boarded.

Heading from Ogden to Roseville, my friend and I caught a beautiful 48 foot well car with a 40' container in it, and a 53' container stacked on top. So we had a nice safe pocket to ride in, chest-high walls to keep out the wind, and a overhanding roof to keep out the sun. We were riding on a 60 mph metal porch, heading west on the causeway over the Great Salt Lake, just as the sun was rising over the water. The lake stunk, but the view was unforgettable.
posted by ryanrs at 4:30 PM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


it contained many warnings to keep it off the net and specifically out of the hands of journalists, who for some reason really like to write about trainhopping

It writes itself. Hey, this old-timey romantic thing that you associate with the 1930's is still being done!
posted by thelonius at 6:00 PM on May 7, 2013


Heh, yeah. And a lot of the hobbyists are tech people hanging out on private mailing lists to exchanging notes. I got my first copy of the guide from an Intel marketing exec who took me on a tour of Portland freight yards in his Mercedes. I got my second copy from a couple of grungy kids traveling through San Francisco that I met in an illegal warehouse squat. Trainhopping is an eclectic community.
posted by ryanrs at 6:45 PM on May 7, 2013


I wish we'd had that when I was doing it. We had a train timeline/schedule and that was about it.
posted by josher71 at 7:03 PM on May 7, 2013


"Train picked up sped, load shifted. They found him when they unloaded the car." There are so many rules like that. Dangerous, dangerous stuff. Mtv did a true life about train hopping. One thing that has always stuck with me from that episode: You always stay connected to the train with three points at all times. Two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand.

Creeper cars, silent cars traveling under momentum, yeah, that'll kill ya.
posted by Skwirl at 9:44 PM on May 7, 2013


Another good rule: wait until the train is stopped before getting on or off, or moving between cars. It's much safer that way. Besides, there isn't much point to wandering around a moving train anyway.
posted by ryanrs at 10:03 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


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