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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 2) "The Sierras"
This executive hobo trip started a month ago amid a flurry of Emails at two financial-intellectual interchanges: Daily Speculations and Eris Society. Days later, the Cherokee Piper’s right wing dipped in reconnaissance to expose the Davis Freight Yard from 800’. ‘That clump of trees is the jungle,” Wiz hollered from the pilot’s seat. ‘Right next to the mainline!” I cheered back.
Then yesterday, hours before the freight catchout from Davis, those aerial photos wallpapered a den at Pronto’s nearby San Francisco home. His wife served the execs preparatory crackers and water. Hobo gear was strewn wall-to-wall, and with our tiny packs to fill like three Chinese puzzles: What to bring? What to leave behind? The Wiz, Apple, Pronto and I sifted carefully for four hours knowing this stage would structure the entire journey. Hobos are individualist packers: Most modern tramps go ‘streamline’ with just a day-pack for single city leaps, while old-timers lug 70-lb. homes with tied-on fishing rods. I urged the execs to compromise and drove the point home with a reading of a prior Email titled ‘Standard Hobo Issue’.
The upcoming 2500 mile rail journey will take about two weeks and includes America’s best scenery from the summer desert floor to the Rockies continental divide. Each member should bring a soft pack with items selected from the list below that totals less than 40 lb., and be able to carry it a mile at a time when hungry.’
The men grumbled inside the den, until I handed out complimentary three-pound ‘survival kits’. They eagerly pulled out RR maps, can openers, rope, garbage-bag ponchos, jungle condoms, and Gatorade powder. Then they stuffed these into their packs and circled for inspection around the bathroom scale.
Apple strained to lift his green rucksack to the scale- 50-lb.- and sorrowfully left behind six hardcover books and blue pajamas. Wiz was overweight too and hastily chewed double-chocolate brownies. Pronto’s newlywed requisitioned pink flip-flops (for mission showers) from his fireman’s pack. No one in the den would meet my eye.
Apple then conceded, ‘I’ve never put on a pack before,’ so after quick instruction he drilled fifty times in front of the bathroom mirror. Then the three bright recruits lined the wall for final inspection. I clipped short the dangling pack cords and tied square-knots in their bootlaces that might tangle in moving freight parts. Ultimately I pronounced, ‘Ready for the rails!’. The golden glow of electric light through the den window suggested a coming hobo trip with the better elements of technology and corporation heads.
America doesn’t know where to put its geniuses, so many like these break personal business trails. Arthur ‘Wiz’ Tyde III graduated in telecommunications from Michigan State University in 1985 and took my college hobo course his senior year. After dual diplomas, plus a visit to the National Hobo Convention in Brit, Iowa, he caught a solo westbound freight to the Pacific coast. There he founded Linux-Care and became the computer magazine cover boy of Silicone Valley. ‘I couldn’t see myself sitting in a boxcar nor an office cubicle for the rest of my life, so I became a private eye, learned some tricks, and after head-hunted the world’s best computer programmers. I tailed two Italians in Rome for three days and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse- shares of the fledgling Linux-Care.’ The company flourished to 140 employees with offices in San Francisco, Amsterdam and Hong Kong. ‘I delegated responsibility to competent people and traveled with a checkbook to write bonus checks. With so much free time I bought an airplane, and started playing with the freight trains again. Isn’t play the purpose of starting a business?’
Brian ‘Pronto’ Molver, the unemployed guy next door who played champion bagpipes at night, also monitored emergency radio frequencies through the late ‘80’s from his San Francisco apartment. He picked up calls and chased down accidents, crime and fire scenes. ‘I was looking for a suitable slot.’ He had been a cowboy, rodeo clown, firefighter, hotel dick, EMT, US Mint guard, and drumming champion. Finally, a year ago, he interviewed for Chief of Bay Area Disaster Response. He got the job by throwing a lighted match into a wastebasket before the startled hiring committee and asking who knew the location of the nearest fire extinguisher in the skyscraper. He has since wanted to hobo as a break from safeguarding millions of souls from chemical spills to tsunamis, and to investigate boxcars as a possible terrorist transportation. Pronto finds openings where others face barriers in life.
Omid ‘Big Apple’ Malekan has one cerebral hemisphere in the Middle East and the other in the West, providing an edge for the team. He was born and raised in Tehrah, Iran and left at age ten, in 1990. ‘My family moved from a dying and corrupt society that had been ravaged by war and offered no opportunities. Father, an entrepreneur, still loves the country but sought the financial and family advantages of America.’ Omid enrolled in Columbia University and while still a student worked as the head of business development of a small online brokerage and market company. ’I worked my way up through the minor to the Double-A leagues of trading until finally starting to manage my own as well as clients’ money, a peculiar rags-to-riches dream come true.’
They call me Doc Bo from a 1985 college course ‘Hobo Life in America’. I’m no genius like the others, but I am well-traveled. I used to blindfold hobo undergrads for ‘Pin-the-Tale on the RR Map’: Where it stuck, I opened class with a personal hobo anecdote. I’ve been a veterinarian, professional athlete, publisher, world traveler and, after all that, retired to an underground burrow near the Needles, Ca. railhead. Then this executive hobo trip popped up.
The executives don’t stop screaming to the Sierra summit.
Our two graincars at the train tail have a couple built-in amenities. At either end, each car’s 8’x10’ steel platform (called a front and back porch), is tops for sightseeing. A 3’-portal leads from the porch into a hobo ‘hotel room’ like a steel pup tent within the bulwark. Tramps cruise on the porch and hide in the room through yards or bad weather. Pronto and I occupy the front porch while Wiz and Apple hold down the rear porch. The pairs communicate with hand signals around the convex cars’ sides and with two-way radios. Wiz listens with the scanner to the crew in the lead unit chitchat with approaching yards, and puts the speaker to the radio mike for the other execs to hear.
Suddenly, our freight slows to 5mph in a yellow Sierras meadow where all mouths gape ahead at a fresh derail. Three overturned freight cars have gouged the rich, brown earth for a hundred yards along a sharp rail curve. The metal car sides are shredded and the wheels askew or upside down like dead bugs. Our cameras click. Our own 4’ wheels sing slowly and toss sparks along the bend that an earlier engineer had taken too fast. I radio the others not to worry; the freight derail is an exception and, ‘Nine-out-of-ten hobos prefer freight trains over Amtrak for safety.’ We slide past the meadow wreck and into a late-summer afternoon on the finest free mechanical ride in the world.
Once our freight crests the California Sierras, we settle for the long rail down to the Great Basin Desert. The diesel-electrics groan and brake like restrained dinosaurs down the extended eastern slope. Fifty couples jam tight on curves along the half-mile train. We sit back and watch the passing pines and exodus of birds. The glory of the railroads is this 20-yard swath through nature, and our right-of-way is 150-years old and fairly untouched by roads. We glide through dozens of old tunnels and snow sheds, some etched ‘1935’ on the concrete entries.
Because the mountain rail is single lane for stretches, our non-priority mixed-freight sides hourly for priority trains to pass in the same or opposite direction. When this happens we jump down and stroll ten minutes to stretch the legs along these mile-long sidetracks as the ‘hotshot’ approaches, whizzes and flees. Then the execs clap each other on the backs in the fresh mountain air and climb aboard the graincars chewing portions of ten-pounds of Texas Beef Jerky donated by New York speculator Laurel Kenner.
Toward evening the radios crackle, ‘What is that blue pool way down there?’ Pronto and I look around the fat cars to see Apple on the back porch leaning out and pointing. ‘Donner Lake!’ exclaims Pronto. ‘I fought a fire near there once.’
The sun sinks over our shoulders, cold air hits hard in the face at this altitude, and the executives enter their respective hobo hotel rooms to bed inside the wobble and sway. There is no better sleep than a freight car like a cheap hotel vibrating mattress- despite a premonition of tomorrow’s heat- as the rail twists down to the desert.
In the morning, abruptly, the Sierras edge away on a high overlook of the Great Basin desert. It lies like a white bowl under a larger blue one. We peek out the room portals. ‘Beautiful!’ shouts Apple. ‘The ride of my life!’ cheers Pronto. ‘Beats the office chair,’ delights Wiz. ‘It’s the hobo way!’ I join them on the radios.(Continued in Part 3)
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