THE CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS
by Fofi Littlepants
What follows are some reflections from my journey hitchhiking and trainhopping across the United States, from California to New York City. This was accomplished over a period of three months, together with a friend, one sizzling summer in the time of global warming.
It didn’t occur to me that these travels were of such incredible rarity or fascination per se that the interest of humanity requires that I write about them. Many people hitchhike and trainhop (ride clandestinely inside or outside a freight train), and quite a few have written on their experiences, most of which are much more colorful and interesting than mine. But I’m sending this along for three reasons. Firstly, because I was asked to give a history of the undertaking, by a friend who I discovered is hopeless to attempt to deny.
Secondly, most trainhopping and hitchhiking accounts are by men. I know that there are women out there that do it, but I don’t know how many there are, and certainly judging from the reactions of the people we met on the road, there didn’t seem to be lots. Apparently “small” women like my friend and I still aren’t supposed to be running around in this free country without the protection of [big] men. We were told over and over how shocking it was that we as women were hitchhiking and such.
Combined with this, the usually unspoken implication was that it was mind-boggling that cute little women of our socioeconomic background were hitchhiking. I guess the dominant mainstream attributes a variety of vices onto hitchhikers and trainhoppers, most of which are associated with the poor and marginal underclass, and we didn’t seem to fit into those stereotypes ~ we were not runaways, vagrants, alcoholics, drug addicts, sex fiends, felons, prison escapees, serial killers, mentally ill, or prostitutes. In contrast, we were squeaky clean: we didn’t have criminal records, didn’t even smoke cigarettes much less do drugs, barely ingested any alcohol or caffeine, and didn’t sleep around; we were also vegetarians, had completed higher education, and were gainfully employed in professional positions. This was all incredibly confusing for most people, because while we could accurately be classified as low-income (since we had a penchant for working at pitiful non-profit wages with organizations on the brink of bankruptcy), we were really glaringly “middle class” in most other respects.
According to many people we encountered, the only (middle class) individuals in their right minds that would stoop to hitchhiking are those whose cars have broken down. Thus we were treated to constant admonitions to be careful and to go take a bus. A travel book I purchased on the U.S., a British publication which compiles helpful travel tips and dry humour on the foibles of the country, provided but one paragraph on hitchhiking:
- The usual advice given to hitchhikers is that they should use their common sense: in fact, of course, common sense should tell anyone that hitchhiking is a bad idea. We do not recommend it under any circumstances. (Emphasis in the original.)
The book does not even mention trainhopping as an option to be disdained and discarded, presumably because it was unthinkable, being an even more illicit and potentially physically dangerous activity than hitchhiking. This, from the “Rough Guide” to the U.S.A.
But as the stated purpose of this venerable blog is “to encourage thought and action related to contemporary political and cultural matters”, and sometimes bad ideas can unearth new pathways for the imagination, here follow the Confessions.
It goes without saying that the U.S. is car country, and the presumptive method of cross-country transport for my socioeconomic strata (middle class professional) was to drive a vehicle of some kind ~ conventional American wisdom is that any adult without an automobile must obviously be a vagrant, indigent, and/or a general loser.
I may or may not be those things, but personally I’ve felt lucky to have so far managed to avoid getting a car ~ I consider them a burden and I’ve always wanted to travel light in life. And both me and my traveling companion, who I’ll call “Joey”, are lefty tree huggers convinced that cars are the earthly embodiment of evil. Well, not entirely ~ I do concede that things like ambulances and firetrucks are useful, but you get the point.
When we set out to get ourselves across the country, trainhopping and hitchhiking were our transport of choice for a number of reasons: As parasitic modes of travel, they (1) were cheap (mostly free); (2) didn’t increase global fuel consumption by much (the train or the cars were going that way anyway, and we were so skinny that the additional weight surely didn’t make much of a difference); and of course (3) were the most interesting.
BUT FIRST, here’s a disclaimer: I want to be very clear that I don’t consider myself an authority in trainhopping, in even the most remote sense of the word. In fact, I was an abysmal failure at it. There are experts out there that can give more useful information, and I try to provide some citations to them. Also, I’m not encouraging anyone to do it, though I’m not discouraging anyone either ~ I try to make few recommendations to others about their lives because I think every person’s road winds uniquely.
Also, all names of the people (and pets) we encountered have been changed.
Trainhopping is an activity infused with history and mystique, immortalized in literature and song (Steinbeck, London, Kerouac, Guthrie, Ellington, etc.), and indulged in by millions (famous hobos include Steam Train Maurie, A No. 1, and Jack Black (each of whom also wrote books about their experiences); Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclaire, and William Douglas (the U.S. Supreme Court Justice) etc. are also said to have train-hopped). While the dominant vision of trainhoppers in most Americans’ minds stems from photos of Depression-era hobos climbing onto traintops and boxcars in search of a better life, various waves of trainhopping had already been taking place since the end of the Civil War. But by all accounts, the Great Depression was the apex ~ at least one million and perhaps as many as three million people (men, women and children) were riding the rails in search of work.1
Since then, the activity has obviously declined, but people continue to hop trains, though at present the predominant stereotype of trainhoppers appears to be that of drunks and runaway kids. Many of the young trainhopping people we met indeed had been on the road for years from a very early age (and seemed to drink a lot); we might also have seen some of the old guys that people talk about, but didn’t have a chance to interact with any.
Most people have probably seen at least the young trainhopping kids at some time ~ they often have tattered attire, a dirty pack, tattoos and piercings, a piece of cardboard that they use for insulation on the trains, and often also a dog (for protection and company). They might be hanging out in parks or on the sidewalk; sometimes they ask for money at street corners, shopping centers, or intersections.
But Duffy Littlejohn, author of Hopping Freight Trains in America, claims that trainhopping is also increasingly a recreational pastime for other sectors, such as for yuppie professionals like computer programmers, doctors, and lawyers (Duffy himself is a lawyer, though he had been trainhopping prior to becoming so and continued thereafter). In the 1990’s, Duffy estimated that there were 5,000 to 10,000 people who made trainhopping a full time job, and an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people who rode the rails for fun.2 We also learned that it’s a popular anarchist activity.
Shawn Lukitsch, a 30-something trainhopper that created a traveling film exhibition about the activity in 2008, describes three types of trainhoppers: (1) hobos ~ persons hopping trains to travel between towns for work; (2) tramps ~ persons riding rails fueled by wanderlust or adventure; and (3) travelers ~ riders (often younger ones) seeking to escape the commercial aspects of mainstream culture.3
Under this classification, Joey and I were probably a combination of #2 and #3, even though we were slowly making our way to New York for a job, so could have perhaps tried to argue that we also fit into #1. But “hobo” culture has a very long history and is very specific; it developed its own heroes, ethics, songs, lingo, and code (pictographic symbols). There are some tensions between them and the newer generation of tramps and travelers; just one public example manifested during the National Hobo Convention (organized annually in Britt, Iowa by the Hobo Foundation) where there were problems last year that were blamed on drunk, unruly, young tramps. Steam Train Maury, who was one of the founders of the Hobo Foundation, had stressed hobo chivalry, and had spoken in his last years about “pretenders” at the Convention.
Duffy says in his book that recreational trainhopping is increasing, but the last edition of his book was published before 9-11, when controls started getting tighter. According to Shawn, trainhopping is dying in this security-conscious era. Statistics given by train companies seem to confirm that trainhopping is decreasing; for instance, Union Pacific director of Public Affairs Mark Davis reportedly announced that between January and July 2006, there were 20,000 people found, arrested or removed from trains and train yard property, representing a 3000 person decrease from the year before.4
How is trainhopping accomplished? Again, I’m the last person that anyone should ask. I would probably be called a pretender by other real trainhoppers, even though I wasn’t purposefully trying to pretend to be anything.
The definitive instructional bible on trainhopping is Duffy Littlejohn’s book Hopping Freight Trains in America. Also there is information online, such as “How to Hop a Freight Train” by Wes Modes at http://www.thespoon.com/trainhop/train1b.html.
If anyone reading this is actually interested in doing it, the book and all the information available online gives good information on safety, which is important because I guess it’s a fairly dangerous activity. According to statistics from the Office of Safety Analysis at the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 990 trespasser injuries and deaths in the U.S. in 2006.5 One of the truckers that we met on the road told us that he used to work for the railroads, and they would quite frequently find shirts, limbs, and bodies tangled up in the wheels. But again, I’m not recommending anything to anybody (or not).
There are also lots of books written by hobos that give more in-depth views of the traditional culture and life (see for instance books by Steam Train Laurie (Maurice Graham) and A No. 1 (Leon Ray Livingston).) For some beautiful contemporary photos of trainhopping, see Amelia Merrick’s at http://www.pbase.com/artandrevolution/travels.
Joey and I did not find trainhopping to be a simple matter.
We dutifully did all the research ~ we bought the Duffy Littlejohn book on Amazon (and received it with a personalized Post-It from the author), did lots of Google-searching, and interviewed trainhopping kids in the street, etc., We came to understand the general instructions, which seemed to go something like: Get to know where the trainyards are, and understand the routes of trains in order to identify which ones can get you to your intended destination; check out the target trainyard during the day if possible; go back, usually at night, dressed in dark clothing; find a train going to your destination; find a safe car to ride (you should have previously done your homework to understand the types of cars trains are composed of, and which ones are safe to ride); climb onto the selected car, and finally, hop off when you arrive at the destination.
However, while we understood the theory, we still struggled with various challenges in the reality of implementation. I’m embarassed to have to say that while we tried many times, we only successfully managed to hop a train once.
One challenge was figuring out how to avoid getting kicked out, arrested or beaten up by the “bulls”, i.e. railroad police who are guarding the sacred cow of railroad private property. The recommended method is to be smart, stay off paved roads (where bulls drive around in a truck), and wear dark clothing when sneaking around trainyards at night.
Joey and I were kind of excited to try to get black trainhopping outfits ~ we thought perhaps we would look like ninjas. I had a light blue backpack that I bought on sale, and Joey had a monstruous backpack that had a psychedelic collage of South American tapestry pieces sewn onto it, so we both bought black raincovers for the packs. Joey had black clothes, but light brown shoes, so she tried to color them black with a magic marker (they did get darker, but looked essentially like they had gotten run over by a greasy truck.) For myself, I pieced together a black outfit mostly from thrift stores, except for a khaki canvas shoulder bag that I ended up having to stuff into my black jacket when trying to trainhop. This made me look 6 months pregnant, and was rather cumbersome when I was running after trains in the dark, but I put up with it because I thought it might be advantageous in moments of potential arrest (“Please officer, I jus’ wanna get home to my mama to give birth to my baby!”)
We didn’t get arrested or beaten up, but we did get kicked out of more than one trainyard. The primary problem is probably that while we had the black gear, we failed to have the requisite amount of mental capacity (“smart”). Once, we were sitting in the middle of a trainyard in broad daylight looking so intently at a map that we didn’t notice the security wagon pulling up right in front of us. I’m sure the bull had a good laugh at the sight of us sitting in the grass next to the tracks, covered head to toe in black, holding onto a map with our mouths open. He ambled over to us, and said (rather paternally): “Now you girls wouldn’t be trying trainhop would you? Because if you are, I’m going to have to arrest you…”
All we could provide as a response, after we finally managed to stop catching flies with our mouths, was a pathetic “Nnnnnnnooooooooooooooooooooo…….”
He sat in his car, clearly amused, as he watched us gather up our backpacks and map and shuffle off.
A second challenge we faced was that it was very hard to figure out what train was actually going where, and when it was leaving. We were sometimes able to identify a train that was going basically in the right direction, but we couldn’t really figure out how we would know where exactly it was going ~ it could have been going to our intended destination, stopping much earlier, or veering away at some point to go somewhere else altogether. Duffy encourages us to go right up to rail workers and ask them point blank when the next train to such and such place is leaving, because rail workers are union members and would be happy to help you get one over on The Man. However, that advice was issued before 9-11. We heard through various sources that things have gotten stricter, and this seemed to be true ~ we think we were turned in to the bulls by employees. So we were totally baffled by this. On the train that we did get on, I had to keep checking the compass and the map incessantly during the 12 hour ride to make sure we didn’t end up in Alaska instead of Montana like we wanted.
Third, we realized that trainhopping requires a lot of patience, as you have to wait for the train to actually arrive or depart ~ sometimes this can take hours, or even days. Wes Modes described it thus:
- Train hopping is time out of time. You wait and you wait and you think and you fidget and you wait some more. You sit in the weeds and the dirt and you read and you smoke a cigar. You pull the seed heads off of grasses and pick stickers out of your socks. You write for a while. You watch the sun set. You put on more clothes. You watch the moon rise. You have one of those absolutely perfect moments and then it passes and you smile and wait some more.6
This is definitely not for ADHD people on a schedule. Once we waited for a train for thirty hours (30!) in some ditches. I guess this is not that unusual for trainhopping; Duffy considers such experiences to be good for building the life skill of patience, and Wes says “Train hopping is the closest thing to meditation that I do.”7 I struggled to build such life skills without tearing all my hair out. I wish I had been a bit better at meditation, because I might have reached enlightenment during all that time we spent waiting for trains. Instead, I was constantly checking my Blackberry and being annoyed by the rats scurrying about us in the tall grass.
(Later, it occurred to me that I might also have had more patience had I approached these situations as Whiteblack the Penguin, who leaves the comfort of Penguinland to see the world to collect stories for his radio show, would have. Whiteblack, in the face of an endless variety of bizarre misfortunes, invariably enthuses, “This will make a great story for my radio show! And besides, I’ve always wanted to [get shot out of a canon / be stranded in the desert / fall off the top of a plane / etc.] So following his model, I should have maintained equanimity thus: “This will make a great story for my AIOB blog entry! And besides, I’ve always wanted to wait for a train for 30 hours straight while battling flesheating rats that are probably carriers of bubonic plague!”)
The fourth type of challenge for us was that it really was not that easy to hop on a train. Prior to attempting it, we studied the different types of train cars (boxcars, hoppers, piggybacks, gondolas, reefers, auto racks, rear units, flatcars, engines, etc. etc.), so that we would know which ones were rideable, and where we could sit or lie safely without falling off, freezing to death, or suffocating. Duffy’s book has a helpful description and photos of each type of car. On our trip to our first railyard, we felt a youthful (rookie’s) pride at being able to point out and name the different types of cars.
But actually getting on a train was more difficult. The books and stuff say that you can board a train while it’s still parked in the yard, and hide yourself and wait till it takes off. But for us, since we never really figure out how to know what train was going where, we couldn’t tell which parked train we should get onto.
This left us with having to attempt to hop a train when it was pulling out of the yard (and we could tell that it was actually going in the right direction.) This meant, of course, that we were supposed to get on the train while it was moving. To do this, you have to be able to make split-second decisions to identify and select a rideable car. Then you have to hop on. You are supposed to run after it and throw your pack (and then your dog, if you have one) onto the train and then jump on yourself.
For ourselves, we ran around through many a night chasing many a train, but most attempts fizzled into failure: many trains did not have any rideable cars at all, and even when we finally found one that did, we didn’t manage to hop on very easily, so the train would just cheerfully chug by, leaving us in the dust. A large part of the problem was that we had too much stuff ~ Joey and I both had large, heavy laptop computers in our backpacks, along with other electronics and crap (yes, it’s ridiculous, more on this in Part III.) At least we didn’t have a dog we had to hurl onto the train.
The fifth challenge was that when you actually get on a train, you have to make sure that you are safe, i.e., that you don’t fall off, suffocate, get locked into a car, die of wind or rain exposure, starve or dehydrate to death, etc. And try to avoid being kicked off or arrested and/or beaten up. This wasn’t our biggest problem, since we didn’t get on too many trains (sad), but with the train that we did got on, we were lucky to find that we could sit comfortably outside, on the back of the cargo container, so we were shielded from the wind. It did get pretty chilly, but we had good sleeping bags so it okay, and we went through some tunnels (which can get pretty bad with exhaust ~ many hobos have historically suffocated from trains breaking down in tunnels), but we survived. The hardest part was trying to pee into a milk carton as Duffy Littlejohn recommended.
The final challenge was that, once we got on a train, we then had to get off it too. We were worried about whether we would have to jump off while the train was moving ~ it’s in the process of getting on and getting off that people seem to most frequently get hurt, losing limbs and sometimes life. Duffy’s book has various instructions about how you throw your gear and then yourself off in such circumstances, but they all seemed rather cryptic to us. But in the end, our one train actually stopped in the ideal position (slightly outside the trainyard, which helps you avoid the bulls), so we easily tossed our gear (I think this is must be how I got that mysterious dent in my stainless steel water bottle), and hopped off. But before that, while we were crouched on the train looking for the right moment to jump off, we spied a hobo on the side of the tracks, looking for his right moment to jump on. He looked like the real thing ~ he was sprouting hair from everywhere on his head and face, was pretty tattered, and had a dog. We had a momentary mutual thrill when we connected and waved at each other, and then the train rolled on and he was gone.
A different challenge we faced is that we had much difficulty picking cool trainhopping names, which we had heard was required.
Traditional hobo names are very colorful and long, like “Hard Rock Kid” or “Slo Motion Shorty” (see John Hodgman’s spoken word poem listing 700 historical hobo names ~ my personal favorites are #602 “Amesy Squirrelstomper, the Chipmunk Preferrer”, and #633 “Whistling Anus Mecham, Le Petomaine” 8); contemporary trainhoppers on the other hand seem to have mono- or bi-syllabic noms de guerre like “Dust”, “Bebop”, and “Vomit”.
What trainhopping name should we adopt, we wondered? And it suddenly occurred to us ~ was “Duffy Littlejohn” a fake trainhopping name??
We discussed this issue extensively. “Joey” (meaning baby marsupial) was the suggestion I eventually gave for my friend, because she liked fuzzy animalitos, and had a diminutive gray, furry, corduroy backpack (in addition to her jumbo South American tapestry one), which, when hooked onto to her shoulders, looked like a baby koala that had imprinted on her. She was pleased with this, and decided that “Sancochado” went well with it, thus forming “Joey Sancochado”. She also tried on a few other names, including “Fox Minestrone”, but discarded those. A Chicana friend later suggested “Punky Pozole”, which was my personal favorite but by then it was too late. (“Joey Sancochado” had already been written onto her luggage tag.) (And I don’t know why all my friends are obsessed with soups. (Sancochado is a Peruvian stew/soup. The word could also mean, if used as an adjective rather than a noun, “boiled”, but I’m sure that’s not the meaning Joey intended ~ she would have cried to contemplate the idea of a “boiled baby marsupial”.))
We were trying to think of a name for me, but never really could. In the end, after a few complicated transfigurations, the nonsensical “Fofi” arose (“Fofy” incidentally is an African mattress company, but the origins are more convoluted than that.) Joey decided that “Fofi Littlepants” would fit the bill ~ she had the bright idea of “Littlepants”, because then the whole thing would be a play on “Duffy Littlejohn”. I don’t know where she got “Littlepants”~ I certainly didn’t go through this trip wearing tight hotpants (and I refuse to admit that I’m kind of little so even my baggy pants might be too.)
And we didn’t end up ever using these names ~ I didn’t encourage it because I thought that rather than endearing us to other trainhoppers, they were so not cool that they might rather increase the likelihood of us getting our butts kicked.
But on one, special occasion, we did use the names: when we signed the wall outside of Graceland as “Joey and Fofi” (with a hearted “i”). We didn’t think the Elvis fans would mind having the extra little bit of tackiness, there in that Shangri-La of tack.
The One Train we did manage to catch came through the grace of a dear trainhopping friend we met in Washington ~ an 18 year old that seemed to have been on the road since he was 15. He had been back and forth across the country many times, and gave us tons of tips. He was very sweet, and we wanted to give him a hug (though clearly he had his edge ~ he was nursing a hand in which he had cut his tendons a month before, in the process of cracking a bottle over someone’s head (“the guy deserved it”)). He told us exactly the best spot to lie in wait in Spokane to hop a train ~ on the overpass where the trains pass above the city, coming often to complete stops.
And so they did ~ and after a bit of tribulation darting around in the dark in our railninja outfits, hanging off a billboard, and holding our breath behind a wall while hiding from a bull’s flashlight, we found that miracle moment, the opening in which we managed to climb aboard a piggyback (a car that has two freight containers stacked on top of each other.) There was a space behind the containers, a small indented platform where we could sit more or less comfortably, as well as stuff our backpacks underneath.
The act of clamouring onto that train, in that moment, was to us akin to climbing onto the back of a winged unicorn. We were in pure, magical bliss. And the ride was beyond anything we had imagined ~ clanking, rolling, and rhythming through pine forest mountains in Washington, following the edge of rivers through canyons, gliding over the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene in the Idaho panhandle, and into the majesties of Montana. It was resplendently breathtaking. It really was indescribable, and I won’t waste any more words on feeble attempts.
Alas, that was our first, and last, successful trainhopping exercise. But we consider ourselves lucky for having gotten a taste of this anachronistic, dying of arts, going rapidly the way of fax machines, film photography, newsprint, and hopefully, SUV’s.
1 Duffy Littlejohn, Hopping Freight Trains in America, 258.
2 Littlejohn, 260.
3 Colin Moynihan, “Train-Hopping Traveler’s Life, Captured on Film”, New York Times, May 18, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/nyregion/18hobo.html?_r=1
4 Saxon Baird, “Forget Greyhound, Hop a Train”, The Rearguard: A Monthly Alternative, accessed 26 August 2009, at http://www.therearguard.org/june-2007/forget-greyhound-hop-a-train.html
5 Melissa Hiebert, “The last great adventure”, Street Sheet Canada, March 3, 2008, at
6 “Seven Questions”, Interview of Wes Modes by Tom Mangan,
7 “Seven Questions” (Interview of Wes Modes by Tom Mangan)
8 You can see the names, and an ambitious project to illustrate all of them at http://www.e-hobo.com/hoboes/list
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CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS