Stories  >>

Friends and Fireflies

1. To The Rainbow Gathering

There's never enough time to leave, and before you know it it's too late and all you've got is the memory of what you've left behind.

I started out on University Ave in the lee of a Winnebago, with an old guy trying to give me all kinds of unsolicited hitchhiking advice, when all he really needed to do to help was move his Winnebago out of the way.  Finally he moved, and I was off as well.

The day was full of Redwoods and lonely old mountain roads. Cold mountain air and disturbingly close patches of snow. So many short rides that it always seemed Reno was 59 miles away 59 miles ago.

The best ride of the day was with the "plant theifs." These guys picked me up in Truckee with a stolen truck full of stolen plants. They work for a lady who just opened a new casino/hotel in Reno, and she'd sent them to Sacramento and back stealing plants from other hotels for her hotel's lobby. Reno is funny that way.

When we got into Reno, I was helping them unload the plants (and one of those big brass luggage trolleys they stole as well), I realized "these are all fake!"

"Of course they are, this is Reno."

The plant theifs bought me a beer, and I decided to stay in Reno for the night. I hung out with some kids at the Blue Light Cafe, listening to goth-trip-hop, watching the trains roll through.

I climbed up to a nice roof and very quitely unrolled my sleeping bag.  I woke up around 4am when everything started shaking. Apparently I'd picked the roof of some after-hours nightclub, and the bass almost shook me off. Suddenly all my tiptoeing around seemed ridiculous.

The Casinos in Reno are a good resource. If you go to the swank restaurant on the roof, you can get a big breakfast for $0.99.

When I walked back out to the I80 onramp, there was already a guy there trying to hitchhike. He was pretty bad at it, so I had to wait almost an hour for him to catch a ride (he only made it one exit down). I caught a few rides before getting stuck myself. I had to walk 3 miles down I80 to the next exit. Three miles on I80 in the middle of Nevada seems incredibly long — blinding sunlight and two directions or dust, but a guy named Robert saw me and stopped.

He was headed to Colorado, so I rode with him all the way through Nevada and Utah to Evanston Wyoming. His truck made the trip somewhat exciting. The door didn't latch close, so it'd fly open every time we went around a curve or hit the brakes. The steering wheel was completely fucked (including a marginal fix using bungee cords), so we'd weave around on the road a lot (exacerbating the door problem). Here we are flying down the highway at 85 miles an hour with the door flopping around and Robert reassuring me that "he's not fucked up, it's just the steering wheel."

We didn't have a radio, so we'd sing.

I got into Evanston, WY around 11pm, and a few minutes after getting into town a couple of local ladies my age in a pickup truck introduced themselves and took me out with them. The rest of the night was crusing, small-town drag racing, and 2am offroading through huge puddles of mud. Nobody says they're happy there, but everyone feels like they're stuck.

The next morning I caught a ride up to the gathering. Unfortunately, it was snowing when I arrived. I didn't have a tent or any idea where Camp Crimethinc was, so a really nice lady named NikiBerry let me stay with her. I looked all over for Caren, but she wasn't there.  I ended up splitting wood and hoping the snow would stop. 

The Vanguard of the Hitchhike Army showed up after a few days, and we decided to start Camp CrimethInc ourselves. We hung up a tarp and put out a small zine library, which grew (through donations) to be huge. Eventually the entire Hitchhike Army arrived. We set up Against Me! singalongs, poetry readings, fireside mafia games, and big combat kissing turnaments.

2. Towards Detroit

I talked up Detroit a lot, so we started the Detroit Army, tattooed our arms with sharpie, and set off on the 5th.

Detroit Army

We caught a ride down to Evanston from the gathering - crashed the class of '65 highschool reunion, and laid out in the freight yard under warm stars and fireworks. No trains sided during the night, so we ended up sleeping in a disconnected boxcar and catching junk out in the morning.

enlisted army
heirs to moments unrealized
hope without discharge

Along the way we vowed to make all of our decisions (no matter how significant or how trivial) through ro-sham-bo (rock-paper-scissors).

our all-knowing god
we follow

The Boxcar
The Boxcar

We eventually arrived in Green River, WY — but were essentially run out of town. We walked out of the yard to a gas station, sat down on the curb, and started refilling our water. Within 4 minutes the cops were there.

Cops: "Hey guys, where are you coming from?"
Us: "Evanston."
Cops: "Cool, where are you going?"
Us: "Detroit."
Cops: "Oh, that's cool. Well, we've got these forms that we'd like you to fill out."
Us: "Oh, no thanks. We'd prefer to preserve our anonymity."
Cops: "Well it's no big deal. Just your information so that if something happens to you down the road we know you were here. So if you don't mind go ahead and fill these out..."
Us: "Actually, I think the thing is that we do mind."

...and on and on. We eventually had to walk away and leave the cops standing there.

We went and swam in the river, then met two nice kids who'd grown up there. We told them about our interaction with the cops, but they wern't surprised. In fact, one of them had just gotten out of jail. He'd stolen a CD player, but then felt guilty about it. The next day he wrote a letter of apology and brought it back. They arrested him!  When he went to court, the judge said "Stealing is stealing. 30 days in jail!" That's a metaphor for the whole town.

Someone had caught us going through the Pizza Hut dumpster and given us $20, so we went to the grocery store and spent all of it. When we came outside, there were multiple police cars waiting with their lights flashing. The cops checked our receipts, pockets, and bags. We hadn't stolen anything, but they couldn't believe it. Then they told us that we were banned from the store, and that they had to get our names as a component of the "tresspassing warning." When we refused, they told us that we would be "interfering with an invesitgation," which is a jailable offense.

We walked back out to the yard and ended up waiting 21 hours for an eastbound intermodal train. Shade pretty much doesn't exist in Wyoming, so it was a really hot day.

Food Shot
Intense Heat

Finally our train rolled in, and all four of us jumped in the well of a 53'. It was quite a relief to roll out of Green River after non-stop harassment and 21 hours of direct sunlight.

Us In Well
Zooming Along

Sometime in the night we stopped in Rawlins, WY for a crewchange. We heard gravel footsteps and cringed at the thought of being caught. Someone started climbing up the ladder, and our fate seemed certain. A lady poked her head over the side and started at seeing us: "Oh shit, sorry guys!" The train started to move again, so we motioned her in. It turns out that she'd been riding piggyback 2 cars down, and we hadn't even seen her when we hopped on.

twenty-one hours before
slack action jolts us
and dreaming hobos collide

Us With Jennifer

There was an 80% chance we'd go to Chicago and a 20% chance we'd end up in Kansas City. We ended up in Kansas City.

The way in was nice. The air grew sweet and lightning bugs appeared in the balmy night. The crickets greeted us when the train sided, and Kobalt didn't hesitate to jump off and russle some corn.

Kobalt With Corn

We walked from Kansas City, Kansas to Kansas City, Missouri - only to find that Kansas City, Missouri sucks. Kobalt is obcessed with bakeries and is always convinced that there's one near by, even if we're in the middle of nowhere. So here we are in the middle of down town Kansas City at two in the morning, and Kobalt is certain that we'll find a bakery if we keep walking. Kirsten and I laid down on the sidewalk with all our stuff while Alex and Kobalt set off for the elusive bakery. They walked about 12 blocks down before asking someone if there were any places that sold food around. The guy told them that the nearest thing would be 10 miles away. After that, Alex gave up and started walking back towards Kirsten and me. When he was two blocks away, he took his shirt off to cool down. At that exact moment, a sketchy guy stopped his car and shouted "Hey, do you have a place to sleep tonight?" Alex, totally clueless, yells back "Yah, but do you know where there's a grocery store around here?"

So Kirsten and I are laughing hilariously on the sidewalk, watching clueless Alex get propositioned, waiting for crazy insane Kobalt to get back from his wild 2am search for a bakery. Eventually Alex caught on, and when he came back he was all "I think that guy wanted to have sex with me?" We couldn't stop laughing, and unbelieveably, Kobalt showed up 5 minutes later with a huge box of dumpstered Focaccia bread.

Prayer Station

We walked back to Kansas City, Kansas and wandered around the yard looking for information until the sun came up. We got a few hours of sleep before discovering that nobody had ever heard of a north bound train to Chicago out of KC. So, we gave up and started hitchhiking. I went with Kirstin while Kobalt and Alex went together.

Our plan was to meet up in Detroit, but we kept running into each-other at on-ramps. We got stuck in central Missouri and ended up meeting a really nice guy (Alec) with his friend (Ox) in a small bar. Ox is a retired Hell's Angel / bounty hunter, and Alec is an alcoholic. We stayed at Alec's place and had ridiculous drunk times with him. He'd just fallen off his motorcycle while drunk driving, so he had a broken clavical and fucked up ribs. We drove all around Missouri in his Caddy and started disco dance parties in Wallmart parking lots.

Unfortunately, Alex's grandmother died, so he had to turn back and head home for the funeral.

Kirsten, Kobalt, and I kept hitchhiking East. We caught a good ride with a trucker to a truck stop just outside of St. Louis. While we were looking for a ride there, a truck hauling cattle pulled in. The trucker got out and went into a restaurant. "Let's free the cattle," I joked. I walked around back, and there was no lock on the door. I looked at the cows. The cows looked at me. But I didn't have the gall.

Nobody wanted to take us anywhere, so we decided to try the "hotel scam" for the night.

It was a particularly complicated situation, because the rooms weren't accessable from the outside. So when I went to "see the room," I walked upstairs, sprinted down the hallway to the staircase, went down, let Kobalt in while Kirsten held the door open, ran back up the stairs with Kobalt, sprinted back down the hall, through the upstairs lobby, down the hall on the otherside, hid Kobalt inside the room, and then went casually back down to the main desk to express my disinterest.

I went back outside to the door Kirsten was holding open, then we both went in and up to the room where Kobalt was hiding. We thought we were pretty clever, until some legitimate guests tried to get into the room at 1am. We had all our stuff ready to go, so we all jumped up, grabbed our stuff, and started to run out - only to find that the legitimate guests were still standing around in the hall! Foiled by the too-fast escape...

So we tried to play it off as if we were just coming into the hall to see who had been trying to get into 'our' room - but it was pretty silly because we all had our backpacks on.

We finally got out of the building, though.

Kobalt: "Well guys, I think we need to work on that getting out too fast thing."

Eventually we made it to St. Louis. There we discovered CAMP (The Community Arts And Media Project), and a host of great people. St. Louis is actually a lot like Detroit. The city is fairly bombed out, and you can buy condemned builings from the city for $1. So there are a bunch of activists who are buying space and starting bike libraries, computer labs, community gardens, fair trade coffee shops, indymedia offices, and community centers. Instead of pressing on to detroit, we hung out in St. Louis for four days.

By this time Kirsten needed to start back towards Denver, and I needed to make it all the way back to San Francisco. Kobalt was headed for Boston.

3. Homeward Bound

MollyPocket drove Kirsten me to the 18th St. overpass in St. Louis, where we waited all night for our train. Once again, we ended up sleeping in the yard. In the morning we asked a worker about westbound trains, and he confirmed that the crewchange actually happens in East St. Louis (Illinois). We didn't know how to take the bus there, so we just hopped a train east out of the yard. Actually, we ended up napping while waiting for one of many sided eastbound train to move. When the slack action jolted us awake, we had to run after the train all groggy-like. Kirsten even missed the stirrup on her first jump and almost got sucked under.

We rode across the river to what we thought was East St. Louis, but was actually Brooklyn Illinois. Nobody on that side of the river seemed to know anything about anything. None of the workers even knew where the yard was! Finally we ran into a guy who said that he'd just built a GM string, and that they should be backing a unit out of East St. Louis in 1 hour that would take it to Kansas City.

Five hours later we were still waiting for the unit to show up.

We decided to head back to West St. Louis and investigate sneaking onto AmTrak or buying a ticket to Kansas City. We walked out into Brooklyn proper and sat on the corner waiting for a bus. In our final flourish of defeat, a 10 year-old kid rode by real slow on his bike and said "You guys stink."

We made it back over to the West St. Louis yard and were standing in the AmTrak station when we glanced outside to see a four-unit intermodal train rolling through right in front of the AmTrak station! We ran outside just as the last of the train was passing, and balked at hopping piggyback on the fly directly in front of the AmTrak station.

We couldn't believe our luck, and sat down in the middle of the yard to open a can of beans and eat a burrito. When I looked up, a not-too-junky Westbound GM train was starting to roll through. We hopped the back platform of a hopper on the fly.

There's something satisfying about catching a train on the fly. You don't have to lay motionless, fearing the sound of gravel footsteps. You don't have to wait with anticipation for the relieving sound of slack action rolling towards you. You're just moving - in this case towards the setting sun.

That night was a beautiful ride. There were so many lightning bugs out that at least 50 were illuminated at any given moment. It was almost like someone had sprinkled moonlit glitter on the woods. We rolled past ultra-still starlight lakes and gushing rivers accompanied by the sound of crickets. You could even smell the honeysuckles. It was all pretty overwhelming, and I almost wanted to cry.

I slept out on the back platform in my t-shirt, under the warm breeze.

We rolled into Kansas City just as the sun was coming up. Our train stopped in a KC yard called KCPL - just east of KC, Missouri. There was tight security, no good place to hide, and no easy way out of the yard. They unhooked the first 5 cars and took the rest of us west. Since KCPL didn't look too friendly, we just stayed on our GM train and hoped we'd stop again in the KCK yard. Unfortunately, we just zipped right through the rest of KC.
Thus it came to pass that we were riding junk into North Platt.

North Platt, Nebraska is the biggest railyard in the world. It is said to have overhead cameras, an arrest without warning policy, and an infinate number of yardcops.

Kirsten and I couldn't both hide in the foxhole of our hopper, so I ran back to the next hopper in our string and hid there. If all went according to plan, I was to meet Kirsten back at our original hopper during the next crewchange. Of course, nothing went according to plan.

Luckily, the sun had just set as we rolled into the yard. Our train sided next to a bazillion others, and I hid the best I could. There's barely enough room for me in the foxhole of a hopper, so it's not possible for me to move my legs out of the fetal position. The workers set off on checking our string. Apparently my car had a broken part, so there was a swarm of activity followed by an excruciating 45 minute period where a single worker was waiting for someone to deliver a part. Eventually my muscles started to spasm, and I wanted for our train to move more than anything. After 2 hours, I almost couldn't take it any more.

Our train finally started moving, and everything went wrong. It should have been obvious that they were humping the train, but I was too blinded by my agony and impatience. The car behind me was a hopper too, so I couldn't see what was happening when they cut both of us loose over the hump. All I thought was that the train was reversing astoundingly fast.

When my car hit the others at the bottom of the hill, my head slammed into the wall, I bit through my tounge, and everything flashed white. When I woke up I asked audibly "Where am I?" and crawled out of the foxhole just as another car came careening down the hill and slammed into mine. The shock threw me off the car and into the train next to us, where I bruised my shoulder and landed hard on my wrist. I was with-it enough to realize that I was in a bad place, and so stumbled away from the hump, spitting blood.

At this point it still hadn't occured to me that they were humping the train.  For some reason I assumed that they had just disconnected my mini-string, and that Kirsten was zooming across Nebraska with the rest of the train.  So I managed to find the east-bound gate and sneak up a treeline until I found the west-bound counterpart.  I climbed into an open boxcar and blacked out again.

In the morning I could barely move, but managed to rip open the packet of "Emergen-C" that Alex had given me. I poured it into the 5 swallows of water that I had left, and passed out again. When I woke up the second time, I found that my boxcar was a part of a 2-unit 800-car string moving west. I didn't have any food or water, so I looked up at the clouds and hallucinated for the all-day trip to Cheyene.

In Cheyene my kidneys were hurting, and I drank water as if I'd never tasted it before. I got some food out of the Subway dumpster and had a feast - laying out on the warm asphalt and feeling happy to be alive.

I guess it was obvious that I'd just gotten off the train, because some kids walked up and started asking me about the yard. They'd heard about some "hotshot" train coming through on Friday that they were waiting for. I told them that IM trains to Oakland should probably be rolling through every few hours, but they were set on waiting until Friday.

I walked back out to the yard before the sun set, and a nice three-unit doublestack train showed up after only 10 minutes of waiting. Unfortunately there was not a single piggyback or mis-sized 48' on the train, but I was determined to ride it out. I took a trick from Jennifer's book and squeezed under the walking grid of a blue Pacer 53'. I fell asleep as we rolled into the setting sun.

When I woke up we were headed into Evanston. I saw the grassy hill that we'd sat on and the class of '65 reunion that we'd crashed so long ago.

At the crew change in Ogden I checked with a worker to make sure my train was headed for Oakland. I thought we'd go north around the great salt lake, but Union Pacific has actually built a land-bridge all the way across!

The Great Salt Lake

I started to run out of water again, but a really nice Union Pacific worker in Elko Nevada threw me two six-packs of those water bottles they keep in the units. We dropped half the cars there and REALLY started moving. In fact, I've never been on a freight train moving that fast. I was even having a little trouble holding on.

When I woke up the next morning we were rolling through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We twisted slowly along the river and through big cavernous tunnels. Eventually we broke out on the other side and started a mad dash across miles of farmland.

I jumped off as we rolled through Berkeley, and walked right over the tracks onto Dwight and 4th. Just in time for Food Not Bombs in People's Park.

© 2012 Moxie Marlinspike