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Profile of a Modern-Day Adventurer: Train Hopping & Hitchhiking in America

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Ever wanted to just drop everything and go? Ever wanted to run away and join the circus, live a life on the high seas, train hop, hitch hike, explore abandoned buildings and have the greatest adventure of all?

Adventure, along with a problematic lack of patience, is what entices me to move from country to country. Despite what you may think, though, I am by no means a nomad. Yes, I travel, but I also live in an apartment, I have a steady job, and I have an EU passport. The life I lead is usually sedentary, and when it isn’t, it’s a chaotic upheaval of boxes and suitcases and plane tickets and too much useless junk.

There are those select people, though, who seem to do the impossible. This is an effort to remind you that you can do it, too. With the right preparation and with the right priorities you can leave your comfort zone and go exploring. What’s more, being a woman doesn’t make it any less doable.

Kelly is a dear friend of mine from high school. She is an artist, a musician, a train hopper, a hitch hiker, and the exemplification of the modern-day American hobo. Despite the murderous look in her eye, she’s actually a big ‘ole softy. Here’s what she has to say about train hopping, earning money, and traveling for FREE (or at least for very, very cheap):

When did you first train hop? Why?

KELLY: Little over a year ago. As far as trains go, I’ve always had kind of an obsession with them. I spent most of my early childhood growing up in a tiny ghost town called Pinecliffe in Colorado, which is essentially just a few cabins, a post office, trains and a river. The lower cabin was built out of an abandoned train car, and it would shake when the trains would roll by. Us kids weren’t supervised out there, so we spent a lot of time hanging out on the train tracks, playing chicken with trains and flattening anything we could under their wheels. There was a short train tunnel that went through a section of the mountain that we would sometimes go to and just stand flat up against the walls when the trains would rush by and scream with them. 

What’s the most challenging thing about train hopping? What’s the most rewarding?

K: Cops. Ha, they make things really challenging at a pretty constant rate. Also, a lot of stories and movies told about train hopping and the hobo lifestyle are highly romanticized, and it’s hard to really explain the extent of harshness this way of living can truly be. It really takes a toll on your body and emotions sometimes. You will be dirtier, hungrier, sicker, colder, hotter, wetter, frightened, lost, exhausted, in pain and more miserable than you could have thought possible at times. BUT, with this, you have ultimate freedom to go and be whoever, whenever, wherever. You are able to see unbelievable scenic parts of the countryside that very few people get the option to see, you do it for free, and you do it for the rush. You also have this new found family of other travelers wherever you go. Some of the best most important friendships I’ve ever made in life are the friends I met on the road or through the lifestyle, which is an insane thought to me now knowing that if I hadn’t done any of this, none of these beautiful people would be in my life.

Is train hopping as dangerous as people say it is? Can you really get shot/beat up/squished by a train?

K: Definitely. I mean, from what I know, it’s mostly a myth that you’ll get shot or beat up by the bull, but I have heard a couple stories here and there of kids getting slapped around. However, trains are huge, heavy, fast, illegal, and extremely dangerous. You can lose limbs, be sucked underneath, you can get crushed by cargo sliding around in the car you’re in, or crushed under several tons of coal as it’s being dumped off at its destination. You can fall off. You could be crossing the tracks and an automatic switch will take place, closing on your foot like a bear trap. You can freeze to death, or get heat stroke easily. Idle train cars in the yards are often drowned out by the sounds of other ones, and if you aren’t constantly looking around, BOOM. Done for. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been riding the rails, these things can happen to anyone, and they do. We’ve all lost far too many friends. And that’s all just yard and train safety, there are a lot of other dangers in this lifestyle to be wary about on top of that.

Can you think of a specific moment that pushed you towards a nomadic life, or was it a combination of events?

K: I had a rough home life growing up and never really felt there was much for me where I was. I couldn’t figure out why this was the way life was, or why we were “supposed” to do all of these routine things that I could never manage to deal with. I felt like I was a societal outcast because I couldn’t learn the same way as others in school, and I couldn’t conform to standard routines for longer than a couple weeks. I wanted to see the world and learn everything there was to learn about it, and eventually find a place that really felt like “home” to me. I started reading all the old beat poet novels and things, and delved more and more into that kind of culture through literature, documentaries, music and anything I could get my hands on related to the subject of wayfaring strangers. I knew it was the life I was meant to live and I became obsessed with the idea. I never really got the full push to go for it until I met my current best friend, who had just hitch hiked into town to pass through. I went on my first few major adventures with him, and he showed me the ropes. Up until then I had always felt restless, depressed, and hopeless growing up, but I couldn’t really figure out why until the first time I left–and then all those feelings were just suddenly gone, like magic. 

What do you do for money?

K: I tend to look for odd jobs/gigs or move around for seasonal work, which works for me since doing the same thing too long makes me go crazy anyway. A lot of times I get lucky and I get commissioned to make art for others, which I love to do, or busking if I actually bring an instrument with me. Sometimes we will just sell art, jewelry and embroidered items we make ourselves on the street. I’ve done a lot of random work since I started traveling: Farm work, factory work, marijuana trimming, construction work, line-cook, dishwashing, bussing, bartending, barista, bike delivery, landscaping, house-cleaning, putting up flyers, paid focus groups. Been a black jack dealer, event security staff, a hypnotist assistant (for demonstrations), and essentially a snake-oil salesman for a moment. I’ve done some research studies (in fact, I’m writing this out from a sleep study right now), the list goes on. Even a few silly things that I probably won’t mention on here, haha. Next I am heading to Alaska in a few days to try and find fishing boat work for King Salmon season, and will likely be doing the sugar beet harvest in MN and more NorCal trim work in the fall so I can have money to leave the country.

What’s the worst situation you’ve ever been in due to lack of money, and how did you get out of it?

K: I honestly haven’t really been in many situations where lack of money affected me that much in this way of living. It’s hard to go hungry on the streets. People throw away a lot of food for no reason, or there’s places that hand out food (churches, many restaurants, Food Not Bombs, etc), I’m also a huge fan of urban foraging. Dumpstered food may not necessarily be healthy, and it may not be what you want on any given day (ah, the nothing-but-bread diet…), but you ain’t gonna starve. And when you do happen to come across that magical white-box in there that is your favorite meal, it’s incredibly exciting. Other traveling kids help each other out too, because we are all essentially a family. If they have extra food or if they find something good in the dumpster but don’t necessarily need it, they’ll kick it down to the next kids or hungry person they see. Same with clothing, sanitary items, etc. There have been a couple times where I couldn’t stand to eat another bagel, so I asked a restaurant if I could take out the trash or mop the floor in exchange for a small amount of food. Really though, as long as I have my gear with me, money doesn’t matter too much, aside from a few essentials every now and then (feminine products, SOCKS, etc). Otherwise having money mostly just helps you pass the time.

What piece of advice would you give people (in particular, women) in regards to the safety/ money?

K: Traveling as a woman is not any different in my mind than walking home alone at night from work. Just trust your gut, keep your wits about you, and don’t do anything traveling you wouldn’t do normally. If someone seems sketchy and offers you a ride or place to stay, decline. Sleep with one eye open. These things can sound easy to remember, but when you’ve walked 10 miles in the blistering sun or pouring rain down a highway and not one person has stopped to pull you over, and you’re exhausted and sick, it’s easy to give up and just want to jump in the first car that pulls over. But you can’t, you have to do everything you can to remain alert at all times. Women get picked up far quicker than men do, so there are perks, but sometimes there’s a reason for that. Also, don’t get too fucked up around a group of traveling boys or strangers that you just met. Learn to read people. There are a lot of bad ass girls out there that travel solo, and they all make it just fine. Carry a weapon or two. I carry a smiley made out of a freight hook and mace for this reason. Knives are good to have but I wouldn’t recommend that being your weapon, just more of a tool. If you are ever in a situation you feel that may end in danger, going into “crazy bitch mode” works pretty well, too, ha.
As for money, again, odd jobs and seasonal work are your best bets. As a woman though, if you are traveling, it is likely if someone picks you up hitch hiking, they may offer you money or to buy you food because they are worried, or people will see you walking on the street with your pack and do the same — it is all up to you if you choose to accept it or not. Sometimes people get offended if you say no. These kinds of things happen to everyone, but generally more often to women. Note also that as a traveling woman, some things may be easier for you than for men, but you will also be solicited almost daily, because people assume you have nothing left to lose, and you really need money, and they know they won’t see you again. I’ve never had anyone be forceful about any sort of thing like that, and they usually are just embarrassed they even asked after you turn them down.

 I think most people’s initial reaction to adventurers/travelers (mine included) is to ask oneself through what witchcraft you manage to do it – from the outside, it seems impossible. What’s the first thought that pops in your head reading this?

K: I’ll just say what everyone else always told me when I was on the outside looking in: Just fuckin’ do it.

Is it worth it? Why?

K: It’s not supposed to be easy. There is an insane amount to see when you are at the bottom looking up. That’s what makes the freedom and the people and the places and experiences all worth it. Everything is so much more beautiful at the end of the day when you go through the hardships just to get to that one perfect sunrise. All of the upsides far outweigh the bad. What we live is pure, unfiltered, untamed, unpredictable adventure at its finest, and I would not trade it for the world.


Portrait photo credit to Carly Carpenter Photography and to Kelly herself!

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Rae Bathgate - Down and Out and Overseas

Rae Bathgate - Down and Out and Overseas

Rae, known also (depending on the country) as Rachelle/Raquel/ Rachele (and often sadly mistaken as Richard, because biblical names are hard you guys) is an aspiring writer and now sort of a dick for having actually defined herself as such. She was born and lived over the first half of her life in Italy; she then moved to the States and lived a good ten years there (including in SF). Currently back in Europe, she is neither a hapless American tourist nor a snobby European jerkyjerk; luckily for you, she is some weird ungodly combination of both. Also, she’s broke and is probably stealing bread crumbs from pigeons.