As a teenager, I had a photograph of Hemingway riding a boxcar. It looked fun. It was free. It was different. It was 1973 — me and my brother wanted those things. So for a brief period in the 1970s we rode freight trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Death Valley, Salt Lake City. We were 19 and 21. We didn’t feel naive, but we were.
Why did we do it? We weren’t looking for work; we weren’t migrants; we weren’t on the run. I think we liked the romance. We read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums: ‘Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon[…]I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.’ And we devoured The Road by Jack London.
There was music too. Our grandmother taught us ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ and ‘Freight Train’ and ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ and ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’. And then there was Chatto, our grandfather. ‘I’m going out to buy some milk,’ he’d said to our teenage grandmother in 1933. Later someone saw him hop a train and no one heard from him again.
This was the first real-life story that pricked my imagination. I wrote several stories guessing about Chatto. He’d been 20, with two babies, unemployed. His mother Celia ran a boarding house by the tracks. Probably Chatto watched those railroad men come and go, and hobos come and go too, with envy. Or maybe as he walked to the store he heard about a good job and grabbed that train impulsively — not a planned abandonment but a hopeful leap. At any rate, Celia gathered in our grandmother with her two babies, and no one blamed Chatto after a while. There wasn’t the shame in being a hobo that there is with homelessness now. It was The Great Depression. Though of course, it didn’t have capital letters yet.
All our train rides had slow starts. The first time we waited six hours in a dark freezing yard, then climbed onto a flatcar, lay down and wrapped our arms around some cables. Despite the noise, vibrations and wind, I fell asleep. (Writing gives me that same delicious self-obliteration, releasing me from my tiresome self.) Riding freights became old hat. Not really, but we affected nonchalance. I developed strategies. I packed peppers and carrots, because I wanted to stay healthy and you never knew when you’d see a grocery store. Riding freights was no excuse to look like a slob; I packed wet wipes, hairbrush and toothbrush. I brushed my teeth nightly, even in cattle cars. I severely edited my belongings — as, in writing, I reduce a story to the shiny hard gist. It’s good to travel light, and even better to write that way. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’
I remember waiting. Waiting for trains to appear, to go, to stop. I learned patience, which came in handy later when I was writing and hit that saggy middle bit of a novel. My characters would stop sounding real and I’d have to wait for the story to come right again. It’s hard to get going sometimes, when you’re in that flat space. Writing and hopping trains can begin to feel like stupid ways to spend time. But then the heart of the story will rise up and grab you round the throat, and that train will come rolling in too.
Girls don’t belong on freight trains, so I wore a man’s jacket, big boots and a flat cap. I felt safely hidden, and I discovered a truth that still astounds me. I feel my truest self, unseen. I prefer strangers reading my work; perhaps my stories clash with the persona I show my friends and family. As for my male guise, the advantage was being able to observe men when there are no women present. Being close to my brother also helped me understand the male psyche. I sometimes write from the male point of view, as if I’m still wearing my flat cap and man’s jacket. Androgyny is a good thing when writing or travelling.
Writers and hobos need to be liars in order to persuade a backdoor housewife to feed them, or a reader to carry on reading. Jack London said, ‘I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story. After all, art is only consummate artfulness.’ He understood intuition: ‘The successful hobo must be an artist. He must create spontaneously and instantaneously — and not upon a theme selected from the plenitude of his own imagination, but upon the theme he reads in the face of the person who opens the door.’ I imagine his eyes softening, listening to these women, figuring out the best line to exploit their good hearts. Unknown and hollowed, he was poised to become anybody.
Jenny Diski, in Stranger on a Train, talks about a discovery she made after weeks on her own. She describes experiencing a kind of vacancy. She was touched by what she saw and heard, but found herself an outline containing dark space. ‘Insubstantial’ is the word she repeatedly uses, yet this is not depressing. Once the busyness of our lives falls away and there’s no one who knows us to tell us who we are — who are we really? Of course, we are nothings. But we are, for the most part, benevolent nothings.
You rarely end up where you think you will, hopping a train or writing. You think you’re going to Watsonville, but you end up in Portland. You think it’s a story about death, but it’s about marriage. This is a curse and a delight. Having one’s assumptions proved wrong can be oddly exciting. Rigid planners make cranky travellers and thrive more as genre writers than literary writers.
That first ride, I slept the whole rackety way. My brother woke me up with
‘We’re slowing down. Got to jump.’ He did a cartoon leap with his legs cycling the air before he landed. I followed less gracefully. ‘Where’s your bag?’, he asked. My bag had our passports and our money. I looked up at the train. He had to run fast, then pull himself onto our flatcar, throw off my bag, then leap off again. Because the train was faster now, he tumbled down an embankment. He became, in that instant, my hero. The following weeks were full of getting lost, sleeping on Mexican beaches and building sites, eating tacos rolled by street vendors. I remember tiny sweet bananas and swimming in turquoise water with giant turtles. We had a trip as Kerouac-like as we could wish for.
But what stuck, and what later became a story, was that first night. The car suddenly moving, then juddering into clanking rhythm. The moon on the Sierra Nevada. The Pacific Ocean as we neared the coast, a tang in the wind. It’s a lesson in what counts. Not getting there, but the ride. Being in motion is a place of wonder. Writing and travelling are both mental states which keep one world at bay, and another aglow. They are also intense ways of experiencing transience. Moments that stretch into eternity nevertheless disappear in the blink of an eye. Life is brief. Hence travel; hence art.
The last lines of my story:
The speed, the racket, the darkness, the cold — she felt a rising surge of something akin to how people must feel before succumbing to death or love or a strong drug. She liked herself. She and the train were one unthinking animal, ripping through the night.
We were lucky. Nothing terrible happened to us. And I suppose the memories we have, the ones that rise up clearly despite the detritus of the years, are worth noting. Much has been said about train whistles – lonesome, melancholy, thrilling – I can’t add anything. Except to qualify the claims of this article by remembering Jack London’s book is called The Road, not The Rail Road. Travelling itself formed his literary prowess:
I told a thousand ‘stories’ to the good people of Quincy, and every story was ‘good’; but since I have come to write for the magazines I have often regretted the wealth of story, the fecundity of fiction, I lavished that day in Quincy, Illinois.
Living by his wits taught him the art of lying — what more can any novelist aspire to? I didn’t really have that photograph of Hemingway, but I did go train-hopping with my brother one summer a long time ago.