Box-car willies: Modern hobos defy age stereotypes... but little else

Dinner nearing its end, Walter Lundwall smacks his keys down on the table. Managing a quick good-bye, he leaves abruptly, his feet slapping the pavement as he sprints in the direction of the train steadily crossing over University Avenue.

Unfazed, Lundwall's friends continue their conversation.

While they contemplate calling it a night, Lundwall's adventure is just beginning.

Running alongside the train as it slowly winds through the Corner district, he grasps the bottom rung of a ladder affixed to the side of one of the train's coal cars. In one graceful motion, he lifts himself up onto the train, disappearing into the car on a train heading west.

He thinks.

Walter Lundwall is a typical man with a very unusual hobby.

While he was growing up in Ohio, he hopped his first train at age 13. Boyhood dares eventually turned into overnight jaunts with friends between Dayton and Cincinnati. They often hitchhiked back, he says, "pledging never to do it again and then a month later finding the urge to go."

Lundwall says he still acts on those urges.

Now the owner of a contracting service aptly named "Freight Train," Lundwall has sporadically hopped trains for more than 30 years. Those aware of his pastime either "absolutely love the idea," he says, or think he's crazy for enjoying an activity akin to "jumping on a garbage truck."

With his steady employment and 20 years in Charlottesville, Lundwall, now 46, does not fit the image of the stereotypical train-hopper, the hobo.

Hobos have existed as long as the railroads, but they weren't canonized in American folk culture until the Great Depression, when hundreds of thousands of men and women, many of them teenagers, set out to find work by hopping the trains. A slew of movies produced in the 1920s and 1930s, like Buster Keaton's Go West, idealized hobos as loveable, their renegade means of transportation tolerable.

While hopping freight trains is as illegal now as it was then, Lundwall and many others consider it far short of criminal behavior. Lundwall derides the privately hired security officers, "the bulls," whom he describes as "just short of goons."

But in an online chat, one Union Pacific engineer excoriates those who trespass for kicks: "This is an industrial environment, just like an auto plant or a steel mill. Would you go wandering around in them unauthorized? Then don't do it in our place of work, either. Our jobs are potentially dangerous enough."

Despite the risk of death or arrest, Lundwall says train hopping can be "a transcendental feeling." Part of what has him hooked, he says, "is the total surrender of the body to something that you have no control over."

Unfortunately, news accounts indicate that some freight hoppers have been killed when their illegal rides derailed. Neither the government nor major railroads release figures on the number of train hoppers killed each year, according to the website deadtrainbums.com which, nonetheless, contains many stomach-turning color photos of people killed by trains.

Even when there are no fatalities, the joy of such reckless abandon has its limits.

"Riding is fun, but then it can also be torture," Lundwall warns. "The kids actually trying to get somewhere set themselves up for a lot of pain."

Judging from the weathered unwashed looks of four hapless travelers recently spotted panhandling on the Downtown Mall, life on the rails may not be quite the brief pleasure cruise that Lundwall enjoys.

The stereotypical hobo is a middle-age man with a Huck Finn kerchief on the end of a stick– the late Branson-based musician Boxcar Willie comes to mind. But hoboing has never been a lifestyle limited to old men.

"We're troopers," says Rochelle, 19, a striking girl operating the group's Bob Dylan-blaring boombox. "We follow the sun; when it's winter we migrate south."

Despite being the youngest member of the group– they call themselves "the hillbilly ruckus"– she seems to be the spokesperson for this crew made up of "Mutt," 27; "Jeff," 30; and "Holly," 26. They provide no last names.

Are they the new hobos? Is Charlottesville on its way to attracting hoards of rail riders? While Lundwall is knowledgeable in the fine art of hopping trains, these folks are each a walking how-to of not only catching a free ride, but of the more important survival in between. As fun as rail riding might be for a pure hobbyist, it's a way of life for these folks, "the kids" Lundwall refers to.

While the foursome came together as a unit only weeks earlier, all say they've been traveling the country on rails and squatting in strange cities for at least two years. Rochelle and Jeff met up in Colorado a few months back; at the same time she adopted a dog, Chama. Rochelle is adamant that group pictures include both Chama and Mutt's dog, Mira, insisting, "They are our equals– they eat what we eat." Holly and Mutt, who used to date, reunited around St. Patrick's Day in Savannah.

Holly wears an intricate "rock star" get-up that includes multiple steel accessories adorning variations of black mesh and lace. It's difficult to take one's eyes off Mutt. In addition to sporting a tattoo covering his face– he calls it his "warrior paint"– and a stick through his nose, Mutt shakes incessantly, the result, Jeff says, of his friend's "not getting what he needs."

It's difficult to discern which addiction is stronger in this ragtag group– the craving for movement and freedom or the alcohol that seems to make the insecurities of travel bearable.

"I grew into this lifestyle; it wasn't a sudden decision," explains Rochelle, only to abruptly end further conversation because of her need for an alcohol fix.

Not a problem: Thanks to the morning's activities on the Mall, the group is able to secure some Milwaukee's Best. While only a few coins appeared in the collection hat, my donation of 75 cents was enough to enable the group to call it a day. I was confused. It's true that the beer affectionately known as "Beast" is not exactly a premium brew, but surely a six-pack is not so cheap that they could possibly purchase it with a few coins.

No, the quick-witted group had been wisely storing the accumulating donations in a backpack so that the stash would not compete with their "Desperate– please help" sign. While they're neither completely desolate nor excessively comfortable, spirits are high, to say the least, when Jeff heads into CVS to buy the beer.

"Hey guys, doesn't this remind you of the time we got cuffed on the tracks?" Holly says, as the foursome plops down across from me on the track near their hangout under the Ridge Street bridge. I am the tragically unhip outsider, for a moment completely invisible in the shadow of the ceremonial opening of the 12-pack.

"To all my friends," Holly joyously toasts her fellow travelers, and all laugh, not at the absurdity of the moment, but because it's a reference to a similar toast in Barfly, a film tribute to one of their heroes, Charles Bukowski.

That gritty poet described the sordid underbelly of the world from the 1960s until his death in 1994. Covering topics from loneliness to love to sex to alcohol, his poems are uplifting in that they remind readers what great lives they have. If they don't do that, readers at least come away feeling part of a kind of isolating camaraderie, if such a thing is possible.

The poet is definitely good company for this crew, who claim to hold nightly Charles Bukowski meetings. While such devotion seems a little doubtful, it's obvious that Bukowski's storytelling strikes a chord. While Mutt likes Bukowski "because he's a scumbag," the others in the group take to him, according to Rochelle, "because insane minds think alike."

***

Chatting with Lundwall, I'm convinced that you have to be a little insane to jump on a train– even if the destination is only Staunton.

Lundwall says he has never been seriously hurt, but he concedes that freight-hopping is "extremely" dangerous. For that reason, he prefers traveling solo, which, he says, "is more comfortable because you don't have to worry about the other guy falling."

Just getting on a CSX train is a feat, as the empty coal cars that constitute nearly all the traffic on that line don't usually stop in Charlottesville. Last October, when a suicide was foiled near Rugby Road's Beta Bridge, CSX officials estimated the train speed at eight mph. Lundwall says it's a constant battle to watch two things at once: "the gravel below, and the train above."

If you're lucky to make it safely aboard, enjoy the view, but be prepared for the train to act unforgivingly in accord with basic principles of physics.

"The train has slack," Lundwall explains. "When the train slows down, the cars come together, only to stretch back out." That expansion is capable of delivering a serious jostle to an individual car; it's wise to brace oneself for this huge jerk.

Lundwall's adventures inspire mixed feelings of delightful horror and restrained longing that might just move you to beg to tag along. His first trip over (through, actually) Afton Mountain was particularly memorable.

Crighton Chase, a friend and newbie to freight-train hopping, was lucky enough, he says, to be a part of something akin to a "great Greek metaphor."

Chase describes the outward-bound view of "the backdoor of Charlottesville," the backs of familiar restaurants and shops, as part of the appeal. While the two meant to travel only as far as Ivy, any frequent train-watcher could have told them that coal cars crank up to around 40mph by the time they reach Ivy– with no apparent slowing as they climb Afton Mountain.

The jostling motion of the train, accompanied by its incredible noise, made Chase feel like he was riding an "amazing chariot."

But as they rounded a curve, it was all too obvious that this chariot was not headed over the mountain; instead they found themselves boring into a "gaping black hole" that symbolized for Chase the "inextricable fate" of the situation. Willing or not, they were "riding an express elevator straight to hell."

The two wanderers found hell pretty amazing.

"Halfway through the Afton Mountain tunnel," Lundwall sheepishly admits, "I realized how hot trains get." He remembers turning to Chase and nervously joking, "Man, I'm starting to really smell some diesel fuel." Despite the rising temperatures, Lundwall fondly remembers the experience of nearly a mile in the pitch dark: "I couldn't even see my hands in front of my face."

Even though the trip shored up Chase's adventure quota, hopping trains, he says, "is definitely not a good idea" because of the basic danger of falling under the train combined with its "highly illegal" nature. He would definitely never recommend trying it– at least not without a guide like Lundwall.

***

While Lundwall's self-guided tours are mostly planned, he admits that it is fairly easy to get stuck on a "mystery train." Sometimes these trains mean mystery tunnels, sometimes mystery fields or cities. Trains stop in some random places; it's not out of the ordinary for some cars to be unlinked, left sitting on a siding for a few days.

Not surprisingly, mystery trains are only a part of the experience of rail riding for Holly and her friends. When asked about their frequency, she merely shrugs, "I've been stuck in the desert, in Nebraska, and other places in the middle of nowhere; it's all really the same."

Amid all the alleged excitement of traveling and new destinations, no one seems to notice when an older Charlottesville man, cradling a bottle covered by a paper bag, randomly vomits clear fluid a few feet away.

Despite my doubts at the group's ability to amuse themselves sitting on a track, Mutt and Jeff are scruffier rail world versions of the title characters in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Mutt: So Jeff, what are you doing today?

Jeff: Well Mutt, I'm waiting to get hit by a train, what about you?

 Rochelle smirks as she catches me throwing a quick glance towards the closest bend in the rail; I have always been a wimp when it comes to rapidly approaching objects.

An hour into the conversation, they finally venture into the reasons they have chosen this lifestyle. Questions of "Why did you leave?" are quickly answered as if I have asked the more positive question, "Why do you ride?"

The girls are more eager to echo many of Lundwall's affirmations of rail riding.

"I love the way the train sounds– the mumbling, the metal," says Holly. "You also see parts of the country that nobody else gets to see." While Holly refuses to ride alone, Rochelle brags that her favorite way to ride is all by herself, "with my dog and a good book."

"Traveling is good for diversity," she asserts, stressing her newfound appreciation for different kinds of music other than the rap and hip-hop she heard growing up in New York City.

Jeff and Mutt, both from Louisiana, are a tad edgier. They seem to consider rail riding and squatting to be political statements. The men offer no romanticized accounts of the rails, but instead only conflicting reports told for shock value.

"I was born in a boxcar, with a needle in my arm," declares Mutt, glaring across at me. It sounds like a manifesto; he attempts to expose my assumption that some of them are indeed on drugs. I never get a straight answer related to possible drug use except for Rochelle's ambiguous, "Just like in the outside world, some people do drugs and some people don't– to each his own."

While the reluctance of professional trespassers to give last names is understandable, their responses to several questions sometimes sound as believable as the famous 1970s TV commercial that claimed that Boxcar Willie sold "more records than Elvis and the Beatles." Mutt does, however, give a brief autobiography.

"Born and bred in the dirty South," Mutt says he's been traveling for over three years, admitting that he rarely speaks to his adoptive mother who lives in Santa Fe. He plans on traveling the rest of his life, avowing that he, as well as others like him, will eventually come out on top. "We will," he says, "win the class war."

"What family?" Jeff asks, after I mention his home in Louisiana. "This is my family."

Unlike Mutt, Jeff admits that spending this past Christmas with his family back home was a great time "to kick back, drink a little, and go fishing." While none of the four speak elaborately about family life, all say that they keep in touch with loved ones through email accounts they access mostly at public libraries.

They carry a stack of photos detailing an already rich tapestry of experiences, and there's no end in sight to the group's travels. While Holly is unsure exactly how long she plans on traveling, she hopes to settle down in the next few years. Jeff and Rochelle want to head north to Canada and make their way hopping trains all the way to Alaska where they think they can get work in the fishing industry.

According to Jeff, "You end up where you end up."

Sometimes that's in a McIntire Road median near Market Street.

"We average anywhere from a dollar a minute to a dollar an hour," Holly informs me, while Jeff jumps up to gather a passing motorist's donation of a couple of bananas.

"Potassium!" shouts Holly, as she carefully stores the fruit in her army green knapsack adorned with two buttons that read "Hail to the Thief" and "I spent all day in a f***ing pub."

Despite their sign's forlorn message, "Traveling– Broke and Hungry," the group's financial situation is looking up. With $45 to their name and a free ride to Richmond the following day, both Holly and Jeff are in good spirits when I stop to talk with them days after our first encounter. The foursome is unexpectedly still in town; it is Holly and Jeff's turn to work the median.

"This is why Charlottesville has been so great– people really watch out for each other," Holly beams as another driver slows down to hand Jeff a five-dollar bill. "That's why I can see myself settling down here when I'm done with this scene," sighs Holly. "That or somewhere in Texas."

They are content with panhandling; Holly views it as almost giving back to the community. "I consider panhandling spreading good karma," Holly tells me while she slips a new can of beer into an oversized McDonald's cup. She fumbles with the top of the beer, trying to stick a fat milkshake straw through the hole.

Jeff almost leaps out of his unhooked overalls because someone has just slowed down to sneer, "Hippie!" In a moment of generational warfare, Jeff half-heartedly yells after the car, "We're not that bad!"

They certainly do not want to be thought of as mere "gutterpunks" either. While this modern slang term for street kids refers to a variety of different groups, gutterpunks– although they might also depend on the rails– are typically defined as young squatters.

"Gutterpunks are just stupid young kids," explains Jeff, "They don't travel as much because they're scared to ride the rail." While the group doesn't identify with them, both defiantly share a reliance on panhandling.

While Holly seems utterly unfazed by their panhandling, Jeff would rather be "working odd jobs here and there." According to him, to work these under the counter jobs, it's imperative that "you know people who know people." Holly cites a six-month stint washing dishes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as her most stable work experience.

That's partly why Holly is so eager to head back to her old stomping grounds, Richmond, where she's confident there will be plenty of "good work, good panhandling, and good partying."

Today's "new" hobos are just as much of a dilemma as their predecessors. They are infectiously optimistic while also seemingly incredibly irresponsible, with no real obligations except to each other. The borders of family and physical space are totally flexible, continually renegotiated by the foursome. They increased their "family" while they were here, finding acceptance and community from some kids in town who made them feel welcome.

Despite the dangers that face this group on the rails and in the places in between, it might be the buoyancy of youthful optimism, like Rochelle's, that sees them through.

"We go through a lot and we survive," she insists. "We believe life works."