How To Catch A Freight Train Ride To Freedom

How To Catch A Freight Train Ride To Freedom

Ever wanted to pack it all in, become a hobo and ride the rails? Dusty Blackthorn’s been doing that for the last 16 years. We caught up with the American in Guatemala and asked him how. He shared his best photos too. Don’t be an oog.

I was sitting on the side of a mountain — actually more of a volcano — in the western highlands of Guatemala, pointing a camera at stuff and climbing when a foreigner came into sight. Travelling with a troupe of Kaqchikel pilgrims, but sporting a shockingly white shaved head, backpack and cargo pants, he definitely stood out. I must have too because he walked over and introduced himself.

Dusty was heading south through Central America, hopping freight trains for transportation and ended up here because that’s just where the rails took him. We climbed some rocks, he gave me some advice when my girlfriend got pissed at me, then we had a chat about hitching freight trains.

I don’t know much about doing that, but I have read some Kerouac, London and Krakauer so, in my head at least, running alongside and jumping on one is about as American as apple pie.

IndefinitelyWild: Dusty! How’d you start riding freight trains?

Dusty Blackthorn: My first exposure to freight trains was in 1999, when I found an auto rack layup in my city and painted my name on it. As I got more serious about graffiti, well, the trains were always there and the more I learned about them, the more I wanted to know.

IW: Describe your first ride.

DB: I had a court date the next city over and no good way to get there besides my bicycle. I’d done that 50-mile ride a bunch of times, but it was hot and I didn’t feel like it this time. I knew that specific train pretty well — I’d watched it pull out of the yard a hundred times before — so I was pretty confident. I wore some one-size-too-big Timberland boots from a friend, caught the train on the fly at the yard throat, dropped my flip-phone in the mix, had a beautiful ride and got off on the fly when we passed through my city.

We were going way too fast, but I didn’t fall then and I haven’t fallen since.

IW: How can someone learn to do this?

DB: To be frank: don’t do it. Train hopping sucks and it gets a lot of people killed. Or, worse yet: maimed or locked up.

But, if you must, the act itself is quite simple. People all over the world have been doing it for hundreds of years. You get on, you go.

Finding a mentor is a good idea. They’re plentiful in North America. Whatever route you choose — solo or with buds — stay away from train hopping websites! Learn in real life. Turn off your iPhone. Better yet, burn it for heat. Better yet, trade it for a box of wine; it’s gonna be cold.

Travel light. Don’t cross over knuckles; ever. The ladder is there for a reason; use it, always. Avoid situations where you end up cut in half. Heavy iron has little regard for your well being. Stay low profile. And remember how you’re supposed to look both ways before crossing a road? Don’t be an oog, fucking do it. Siempre.

IW: Where have you traveled?

DB: Up and down both coasts many times, as well as 1100 miles (1770km) through Mexico, in Chihuahua and Sinaloa states. Other countries are on my list but I’m paranoid; check Flickr next [winter].

IW: Tell us about the people you’ve met.

DB: You meet all types. In the US, all you see these days are a bunch of oogles. The same kids who lived in the hills and their mum made them wash their mall-bought Crass shirt every time they wore it. They think being homeless is cool and generally fuck up everything for the rest of us, then have their mother bail them out when shit gets rough. “Don’t worry, we won’t tell daddy.” Either that or the rest are destitute drug addict street punks.

That accounts for about 98 per cent of people riding the rails in the US. The remaining two per cent are a bunch of cocky arseholes.

In Mexico, it’s quite different. You meet everyone on the trains. Cartel gangsters, cartel kids, 14 year olds travelling alone to the border, 80-year old men travelling alone to the border, migrants going to work the harvest, drug runners and just regular-arse folk who need a ride.

IW: Do you travel alone or with other people?

DB: I prefer solo. I don’t like people hurting themselves on my watch, makes me feel bad and fucks up my plans. If I do go with someone, it’s usually a good friend who’s experienced.

IW: What’s it like to photograph people on freight trains?

DB: In the US, you don’t really get the opportunity; everyone is hidden. I’m only ever photographing my friends there. In Mexico, things are the exact opposite; wide open. Roof riding through town, people wave and cops don’t even look. I shot probably 25 people and got reactions ranging from friendly, aloof or nervous; which are all A OK with me. I’ve also gotten outright violence when I photographed some cartel guys doing their job.

IW: What’s been the hairiest moment?

DB: Both were in Mexico. Both involved angry cartel guys. Drugs. Attempted murder. I’m not going into it further than that.

IW: This is a felony in the US, right? How do you stay out of trouble?

DB: In the US, you have one million laws, give or take. It depends on which city, township, county etc. they happen to stop the train in. Penalties range from no trouble to big trouble; it’s best to stay low profile.

You’ll spend the majority of your time hidden. I get away with my photos because I have years of experience and know the lines like the back of my hand. In that time, I’ve never been arrested, but that isn’t to say that they haven’t tried. I keep my shoes laced and my belt tight. They’re good at figuring out which train you’re on and they’re good at stopping them in such a way that there is nowhere to run.

IW: What’s better, travelling by freight train or hitchhiking?

DB: I like trains because you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. You aren’t relying on anybody else. Driving is fun and offers a lot more freedom, but you don’t get to take in the scenery like you would on a train. Also, trains go through places that roads do not. To see a lot of the landscapes I’ve seen, one would have to ride a freight rain or walk.

IW: Is the hobo life dying?

DB: Probably, yes. North America is the only place that had a hobo culture to begin with and it’s on the way out. Things are getting tougher by the day. New cars are unrideable and new rules are forcing railroads to retire the old ones. So, rides are getting tougher to find and, in 10 years, the cars we ride may be extinct. Plus, there’s more cameras and more idiots getting themselves chopped in half or arrested.

Mexico is still holding strong, but there has been a big push to criminalise this and police have been doing raids. A lot of people are afraid.

Only time will tell, but it will never completely die so long as the trains keep running.

IW: Tell us a story.

DB: Land of short trains, where “medianoche” means medianoche, not twelve oh one. Mexican bedroll, travelling light. Quality time with the milky way and cacti as big as your nuts. Cold nights and huevos con pico de gallo over so many fires. Speaking of fires: plastic smoke. Breath deep, friends, because this, this is it.

Accidentally photographing a cartel smuggling operation and not being executed. Collecting all the trash on the street and piling it on top of my camera, under a bush. Not to hide it from the kids, not the bums, not the paint sniffers, not the gangsters, but from the thieving and ruthless Policia Municipal.

Beans and tortillas every day. More Spanish than English. The confidence that, finally, one day, you’ll be able to speak that fluently. 1000 miles [1610km] of roof riding. Trading crushed tortilla chips for a baseball, then playing gondola baseball with the local tramps while blasting down a mountain. Making up time from stopping to unload a grainer of oregano bales into waiting pickups.

Cold hands. Diesel boogers. Camaraderie. Sharing, fucking sharing. High fives, fist bumps on the fly. Hand drawn maps. Kilometer posts. Crystal meth. Mezcalito. Laundry in the Rio Fuerte. And hella weed; I mean like train loads and you’d better be a mira para otro lado, guey!

And shooting the stars! Actual danger. Actual hospitality. The most beautiful canyons I’ve ever laid eyes one. La gente. Long steel rails and short cross ties and sunburnt lips.

Photos: Dusty Blackthorn. You can follow the author’s travels on The Amscray Travel Club.