Good Company: A Tramp Life

Chapter One: Waiting for a Train

by Douglas Harper

I had been waiting for a train a year before, in the same yard heading in the same direction, but nothing seemed particularly familiar. The Minneapolis Burlington Northern yards stretch northwest from under the university and they go on for miles; ten, fifteen, twenty tracks wide; spurs heading north, spurs heading east; and somewhere in the maze a main line that carries the hotshot out of Chicago through Minneapolis to the west. I stood in the shadows of huge grain elevators, out of sight of the control tower, and I waited for a train due at midnight.

I’d been in the yards for a couple of days, peeking around, asking questions and making plans. Every time I’ve gone back to the freights I’ve had to cross an emotional hurdle – they seem too big, too fast, too dangerous and too illegal – and I get used to the idea by spending a few days in the yards, testing the waters. If the brakemen aren’t busy they’ll answer a carefully worded question. If there are railroad police around it’s better to encounter them just hanging around; no gear and no suspicious behavior. Then you choose the day: tomorrow you’ll catch out, tonight you’ll party and pack your gear and tomorrow you’ll be back on the road. When you walk past the No Trespassing signs into the yard your traveling clothes and your gear mark you clearly. You enter a world that has its own rules and few second chances, and you’d better know what you’re up to when you cross that line.

[Book cover of Good Company shows a tramp in an empty box car, sitting on the floor and looking out through the open door at the passing landscape.]

Good Company: A Tramp Life

Douglas Harper (Author)

Paradigm Publishers 2006
224 pages
9.7 x 6.8 x 0.7 inches

I was shift­ing back into a tramp world for the fourth or fifth time. I’d made cross-country trips on fre­ights, and I’d spent some weeks the win­ter be­fore liv­ing on Bos­ton’s skid row. These ex­perien­ces were trips into a life I ordi­nari­ly did not lead, and I brought back from them photo­graphs and scat­tered bits of wri­ting. But while my pur­pose was to de­scribe a tramp way of life, that was only a part of the rea­son I’d go back again and again. The taste of camp cof­fee and the view from a flat­car on a slow ride through the Rock­ies were mag­nets that pul­led hard in­deed.

I felt my gear in order and plans set. The Chicago hotshot would carry me across the Dakotas, Montana and the Rockies. As much as I had a destination, it was Wenatchee, Washington, the center of the apple country and a junction of major rail lines. I knew the jungles in Wenatchee, and I knew that there would be tramps there to steer me to a job. The Chicago hotshot, with the right connections, should get me to Wenatchee in no more than a couple of days. I mulled it over and relaxed. It seemed manageable; it seemed in grasp.

After perhaps a half an hour the activity increased in the yard. Strings of boxcars were pushed up and down the parallel tracks, shuffled into boxcars, flatcars, gondolas and piggybacks that were being pushed over the hump. The cars were slowly pushed up the man-made hill; then down they went, one at a time, zipped into one of the fifteen to twenty tracks at the bottom of the hump. They’d smash into the new cars and the couplings would snap shut. It was all controlled from the control tower that loomed above. The cars were shuffled and reshuffled – a few empties or bad orders set off and pushed aside; a string of piggybacks or gondolas pushed into place – like a carefully rehearsed play; a train in the making. I watched idly until I noticed a long string of empty grain cars and flat cars moving into place. I guessed that the grain cars would be going west, probably to Minot or Havre, and that the flats would go on to the lumbering country in the Rockies. As the train stretched out further and further I decided to find out.

I picked my way across the yard, climbing carefully over the boxcar couplings, moving from one track to the next. You don’t know when a car will slam into the one you are climbing over, snapping the coupling back into its tube-like mount, so you climb carefully. The coupling shaft looks like the natural place to step, but if the car snaps while you are climbing over your foot will be crushed and you’ll fall under the train. I once saw a tramp who had been dragged under a car; he lay in the yard, surrounded by rail police, waiting for an ambulance. There was a trail of blood, beneath the boxcar, that marked his path.

So I crossed carefully; throwing my gear over the couplings, then scampering across on the coupling. I moved first with hesitancy and then with more confidence as, once again, I found my rail legs.

I found the longest section of train and I walked down the narrow canyon between the cars. A tramp crouched near the door of the first empty boxcar. He did not see me coming and his face soured when I suddenly appeared. He smelled of booze, sweat and urine, and it looked like he’d slept in his work clothes for a week. His face was scarred and unshaven. He had gear back in the boxcar so I asked him where he was headed. It was clear he wanted nothing to do with me, but he answered that he was going west to pick apples. I told him that I, too, was going to the harvest; to Wenatchee where I’d heard there was work. He answered, not a little sarcastically, that there wasn’t any good work in Wenatchee, you had to go north, up the Okanogan River, to a town like Oroville. Before I could ask him where that was he’d slunk back to the corner of his car. I walked on to find my own.

I was nearly to the end of the train before I found another empty boxcar. It was old and battered, without wooden walls that would cool and quiet the ride. The wheels were mounted in old-style bearings that make an empty car jump and skitter, and the floor was covered with strapping iron and sawdust. It was, in all ways, a bad ride, but it was the only other ride on the train. I checked to see if it was a badorder on its way to a repair yard before I threw my gear in the door.

I found some cardboard sheets for a mattress and pushed some of the litter out of the car. A brakeman stuck his head in the door and he startled me, but he seemed friendly; even interested. He told me the train was due out on the highline – the old Great Northern tracks – as soon as it got its power. It would make the five-hundred mile run to Minot before breaking up and it should get me there a few hours before the hotshot which was still due at midnight, so I’d be able to catch a few hours sleep before continuing on. Then our conversation should have been over but he lingered. He told me he’d tramped all over the west when he was younger and he always tried to help a man out “as long as they looked like they knew what they were doing.” It was all going down hill, he said; the tramps had become bums, and there were hippies on the trains always getting into trouble. You don’t mind a rider, he repeated, if they know what they’re doing. But the hippie will lie around in the open smoking dope as though it’s a picnic, and then they’ll get hurt and sue the railroad. He shook his head, muttered that the world was going to hell, and walked away.

As my car slammed back and forth I pegged the doors open with old brake linings and railroad spikes. You try to keep the doors from jolting shut because there is no way to open them from the inside. Ruined brakelines, which lay around the yard, can be banged into the space between the door and the car, and even though they usually fall out after a few hours it is a job that is always done.

A yard engine lumbered by, engine racing and moving in an odd, slow pace. Two green Burlington Northern engines, attached back to back, idled alongside and past my boxcar. I caught sight of the engineer and our eyes met briefly, but his expression did not change. Just a minute later the air hissed down the brakelines of my train and the highball whistle blew. I was filled with a lonely sort of expectancy – an intense desire to be under way. Then the engineer snapped the throttle back, the jolt crashed down the train and the trip began.

As the train pulled out of the yard and gained speed the memories came flooding back. The noise and movement are more than I’ve ever experienced before. Nothing can be so loud! Nothing can throw me about with such abandon! The car, sprung for hundreds of tons, carries me as a tiny piece of flotsam bouncing, banging, swaying. The car rocks from side to side and I think of empty boxcars tipping and taking whole freight trains with them. You don’t live through those, say the tramps. The car bangs so hard on road crossings I hold my mouth open to keep my teeth from cracking together. I try to sit and my body leaps off the floor and my sleeping bag skitters away. Slack creeps into the mile long train, and as the car snaps ahead I find my body accomplishing the anatomical feat of moving three directions at once. I stand with my legs spread for balance, arm outstretched to the wall; using my knees for shocks. The train highballs and the tracks are bad and my car rides worse than any I remember. Or perhaps it just seems this way every time I go back. The eight hours ahead seem interminable but the train does not slow to ease my aches.

I spend the hours standing by the door. When the tracks parallel a highway I catch a glimpse of car travelers safely encapsulated. Sometimes they wave but more often they look away and shield their children from the sight of me. An outlaw so soon! I laugh aloud but I cannot hear myself above the din of the train. I am captured by the absurdity. I run back and forth through the car; leap, play, dash about. I’m back on the road, but the train moves on its own will. I’m a small grain attached, but I’ll make it. The hardest moment has passed.

I feel the land close at hand. With all the swirling grit my tip is cleaner by far than those on the highway for there is no windshield constricting my view, and no billboards to funnel my attention.

I pass through time as the train slices through pink and avocado subdivisions; belts of older, taller and paler houses; and finally stone-facaded down-towns. The train depots were the centers, the kernels from which the towns grew, but now only an old trainman stands on the platform and waves as the freight highballs through.

We pass for an hour through an area dotted with lakes before entering the Red River valley. The transformation is quick and complete. Fields of sunflowers stretch to the horizon; then comes quarter section after quarter section of corn with farm buildings and houses tucked into small tree-filled corners and straight and regular roads tying it all together.

Well into the evening the train slowed for the first time to a fifteen-mile-an-hour idle through the Fargo/Moorhead yards, and I watched ten or twelve tramps waiting to board. I stand in the doorway, looking as menacing as I could, and I was glad to be left alone when the train pulled into the North Dakota prairie.

As the sun set, the train turned due west. I looked around the edge of the door and watched the mile long train bore directly into the orange orb on the horizon. It got dark fast and I felt separated from all things familiar. I was nearly overcome with my tiredness before I crawled into my sleeping bag and went to sleep to the lurching, rocking and screeching of my freight car.

I awoke startled; the train had stopped.

I heard footsteps and stumbled to my feet. The steps neared my car, then the beam of a flashlight bore into my eyes.

“We in Minot?” I called out, but the confidence in my voice was a mask for my fear.

“Minot?” He turned the flashlight away and walked on. “Naw, hell, this ain’t Minot. Minot’s two hundred miles north on the old Great Northern tracks. You’re on the Northern Pacific, outside Bismarck.”

“Where’s this train headed?” I yelled, but he was already out of earshot. A few minutes later we were back on the road.

We changed crews during the stop and the new engineer couldn’t keep the slack out of the couplings. The engine would lurch ahead, sending a jolt down the long line of cars, and then snap back. I’d hear it coming; an odd sound in the din, and then my car would lurch forward and the sound would pass by. Then it would reach the end of the train and reverse, coming back up the train like a hump of whipped rope. My exhaustion finally overcame the crazy movements; I laid out my sleeping bag and fought my way to sleep.

I awoke in the red light of dawn. I came jolting back to consciousness and my situation seemed impossible – a master trick I’d played once again on myself. I shook myself awake, gathered my gear that was strewn about by the movement of the car, washed with canteen water, and ate.

The train sped along a cottonwood-bordered river still covered by an early morning mist. The land was wet with dew but the sky was clear. The pace seemed a bit slower and the rocking and bouncing more gentle. We came to the town of Big Horn, and then Custer, and I figured out that the river along the tracks was the Yellowstone. I was in Montana, on the Northern Pacific line, heading for Billings. At noon we entered Billings but rolled through the yard and continued west. I thought I’d get another division out of the ride, but fifteen miles down the track the train switched off the main line and entered a huge yard. It ground to a halt with about twenty tracks of cars on either side. I waited for a brakeman to find out if the train was breaking up or staying together, and I missed the only westbound hotshot leaving that day. When I finally got the news I threw my gear out of the boxcar and headed for the next unknown. I climbed through the cars, track after track, until I came to the edge of the yard, just under the control tower. It was a hot Montana afternoon.

  • American Ethnography Quasimonthly is published by the Intercontinental Institute for Awesome Anthropology and Ethnographic Excellence
  • © 2010, 2011, 2012