Contemporary freight-train drifters have found the unlikely antidote to America’s problems

I’ll take the high road.
I’ll take the high road.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A couple of years ago in the muggy heat of early summer, I found myself stuck in the rain in the middle of the night on the edge of some west-Texas rail yards. I was trying to stay dry by wrapping myself in a scrounged wool poncho, my belly full of the cold beans and warm beer I’d just had for dinner. As a middle-aged professor of sociology at a big American university, this wasn’t exactly business as usual.

A freight train had gotten me into this situation. I’d spent the day riding a mile-long “double stack,” which is one of those vehicles with the big shipping containers stacked two-high on each car. And what a ride it had been: The overwhelming power of the train, swaying and switching like a mile-long conga line—buck, glide, clank, creak, twist, glide—with the hurtling open-air motion bouncing my body both inside and out. Finally, the train had pulled to a stop in this rail yard in the western deserts of Texas. And then it pulled away again, without me.

In all fairness, it wasn’t actually the freight train that landed me in this soggy situation—it was Zeke. A veteran train-hopper, Zeke was letting me ride with him while introducing me to his underground world. Zeke is a self-identified “gutter punk” and a proud practitioner of do-it-yourself living. Carrying on the DIY punk culture of music, art, and fashion that first emerged in the 1970s, contemporary gutter punks like Zeke have also rekindled the train-hopping tradition of North America hoboing—a custom that embraces mobility, self-reliance, and in-your-face independence. Many of the gutter punks I’ve met began as runaway kids, or “throw-aways,” as they call themselves. Cast out from broken families or fleeing their parents’ troubled lives, they may have been forced into homeless circumstances, but they have since learned to embrace their situations and to happily live by their own rules.

This sort of self-reliant survival draws not just on train hopping, but also on panhandling (known as “flying a sign” within the gutter punk community) and dumpster diving (which Zeke calls “running trash cans”). On one level, these three endeavors fulfill different needs: Train hopping provides mobility, flying a sign generates cash for beer or a friend’s bail money if arrested, and dumpster diving dredges up practical necessities like clothes, water cups, and food for both themselves and the big dogs with whom they regularly travel.

At a deeper level though, these practices coalesce. In each case, they allow train hoppers to make do with what’s available, and to do so on their own terms. Hopping a freight, diving into a dumpster, or hustling for a dollar are all ways of navigating the ocean of contemporary commerce while withdrawing from it as well. Abandoning the standard valences of sedentary work and daily consumption, gutter punks consciously remove themselves from the grind of long work hours and low pay, the debts accumulated by student loans and endless shopping, and from the ever-expanding authority of rules and regulations.

In this way, they are responding to and rejecting the societal mores that so many people—from Trump supporters to Bernie Sanders enthusiasts—find inadequate and dissatisfying. But rather than take to the ballot box or to the streets in protest, gutter punks carve out their own communities and their own undercurrents of survival. Author Chris Carlsson calls this “assertive desertion;” an escape from “the enclosure of human life within the boundaries of buying and selling,” and “desertion from an entire web of exploitative and demeaning activities.” For gutter punks, the price may be cold beans and physical discomfort, but the payoff is a big dose of existential freedom.

Even the language of gutter punks suggests ongoing motion and uncertain results. Train hoppers hop trains, but first they must wait for trains that may or may not arrive; dumpster divers scrounge for goods that, given the occasion and particular can, may or may not be available; panhandlers seek money that may or may not be proffered. In this sense, all of gutter punks’ essential endeavors are shaped by the dynamics of drift, which is a mercurial mix of self-determination and abandonment within situations beyond their control. Theirs is a sort of survival surfing: The ocean of straight society generates the wave, but they figure out how to surf it. Upon wiping out, as they always do, they simply figure out how to catch the next one.

Gluing this subculture together are alternative sorts of community. As they travel, train hoppers leave behind “sign-ins,” a specific kind of graffiti that can be used to provide local information and to denote the direction they’re traveling for the benefit of other train hoppers who come behind them. Often they sign-in using the name of the train-hopping crew to which they belong and their nickname within the subculture. (For example, Zeke is part of the Slow Drunk Krew—SDK for short.) Sign-ins operate as an alternative network of communication—a parallel universe to the modern world’s social media that links the lonely autonomy of drifting and turns it into a shared experience.

Train hoppers’ continent-wide web of sign-ins also suggests something about the nature of their community. The world of train hoppers sticks together, goes bad, falls apart, gets lost, and sometimes reunites. For as long as a group holds together—or when long-separated friends find each other again on the rails—the visceral pleasures and pains of train hopping are shared (along with whatever food or beer is available). When a group falls apart or friends get lost, a train hopper travels alone for a while, signing in now and then in hopes of reconnection. In this way, train hoppers may not be so different from the rest of us. We may use social media rather than sign-ins, but contemporary digital life involves a similar interplay of deep connection and pervasive dislocation.

One distinct difference between train hoppers and more mainstream society has to do with self-presentation. Train hoppers readily embrace the dirt that inevitably accumulates on their clothes and bodies. They sometimes even proudly refer to themselves as “dirty kids.” For them, grease and grime function as a form of subcultural identity—it’s an identifying aesthetic, much in the same way that colors and styles of clothing function to define music fans, bikers, cowboys, and gang members.

Train kids invert—and subvert—the usual cultural hierarchy that privileges cleanliness over filth. Female train hoppers—of whom there are many—even talk about how their dirtiness makes them feel sexy, while also providing a barrier to sexual objectification. I’ve noticed this more than once myself—with their matching dirty, disheveled black clothes and matted hair, it can be hard to tell gender from gender until well into a conversation. This gender ambiguity strikes me as an important subcultural accomplishment; built from filthy clothes and boxcar grime, it serves the purposes of both gender equality and gender protection. It produces a “hoboerotic” sexuality in which gender is allowed to drift, too.

For train hoppers, their shared “veil of darkened railroad skin”—as Allen Ginsberg’s lovely phrase so well put it—has become a proud stigmata, a dark mantle of honor. Out of the necessity of independent survival has emerged an inclusive tolerance for the oddball and the offbeat, and an informal meritocracy based less on individual identity than on hard miles travelled. This is the democracy of the down-and-out, where the usual differences of ethnicity or sexual orientation are subsumed in the practicalities of survival and the shared lust for open-ended adventure.

Out of little more than dirt and dislocation, train hoppers have pulled off some serious cultural magic. Just as their act of dumpster-diving converts the negative connotations of “trash” into the treasure of material freedom, they see possibilities in their independent survival. In a society pervaded by digital calendars, advanced planning, and the panicky pace of everyday life, train hoppers live a life of laggardly disorientation. They even have their own term for this life: the drift. This drifting life isn’t wholly devoid of plans or decision-making; it’s one in which planning and decision-making lose their linearity as they collide with immediate problems and the excitement of new possibilities. Here a plan serves less as a detailed map of the terrain than as a vague compass direction, itself vulnerable to the volatility of emerging situations.

Within the drift, time and space come pleasurably unstuck. Riding a speeding freight train is as natural as waiting days for one that never departs. Most importantly, the drift suggests that being lost doesn’t mean you’re looking for a map, and that missteps, failures, and detours are actually fleeting signs of successful desertion from the lock-step of conventional life.

In this way, train hoppers and gutter punks may have picked the lock on the cage of contemporary life. Dirty and disheveled, digging in dumpsters and dodging railroad police, they may have in fact engineered the sort of escape many of us secretly seek. It is a down-and-out escape, certainly, but an escape nonetheless from bad jobs, big bills, and the relentless rush of the clock and the calendar.

So, stuck with Zeke in those dark, West-Texas rail yards, suspended somewhere between interrupted travel and warm-beer inebriation, I realized something: We hadn’t failed as train hoppers—we’d succeeded.