Hobo News, from Bo Keely

July 12, 2018 |

 Reading of two freight hoppers who called 911 while hanging between two cars after they became scared the train was moving too fast and are now in custody, puts me in mind back on the rails hoboing a ladder.

Across the Great Salt Lake I swept one year, with a forehand and a backhand on the six-rung boxcar ladder that didn't quite reach the lip of the top. I had latched on in desperation after the train had paused in the middle of the causeway for some mysterious reason, and started a few seconds later with a jolt leaving me separated from my pack and hanging by fingertips and toes. It's a cardinal hobo sin to leave the pack behind or I wouldn't have been suspended by these threads.

The technique of riding a ladder is pretty simple, which I had rehearsed mentally and physically for muscle memory many times on stationary trains. First, you climb to the top rung to try to reach the catwalk. On a short ladder, you philosophically pull out gloves and make sure rope is handy. You quickly run through a half-dozen positions using different muscle groups, tie on your hat, and prepare for the ride of your life … you hope. Don't forget to crane your neck out for branches, signals, and tunnels.

The vicissitudes of hoboing a ladder are exhilaration for the initial ten minutes, with the wind in the face and bucking the rung like a parachute in a whirlwind. This fades to boredom during the next ten minutes, and you fall to gazing between your feet at the wheels rolling with the same hypnotic stare of buying time watching the laundry spin at the laundromat. The next time a commuter train or subway car rolls into the station, sneak a peek at the large metal wheels. You'll see that instead of being perfect cylinders, they're actually angled. It's a clever design to allow the train to roll around corners without flying off the tracks. The wheel flanges holding the rails are tapered to thicker on the inside, as the wheels hug the inside of each track, it is self-steering to veer slightly left and right toward the rail. If I were to tell you a rolling stock wheel is 3' in diameter would be incorrect because the diameter changes an inch or so depending on the lateral swing. This is the motion that puts a hobo to sleep, which is the great peril in the next ten minutes of the ride.

I slapped my face, and splashed water on it. This fatigued the holding hand. But as long as I was about it, I switched hands, and tied on with a Boy Scout bowline on a bite around my waist and two-half hitched it to the ladder rung to lean on legs out from the boxcar like a lineman on a pole with free hands. I have called this the Daniel Leen in honor of the author of the first book Frieghthopper's Manual to North America that inspired me to catch my first train out of, coincidentally, Ogden, Utah.

For this is the First Transcontinental Rail completed in 1869 on the same historic right-of-way that opened the West! I recalled from my hobo sociology class that the original track looped around the lake, of course, with the golden spike pounded midpoint at Ogden, Utah, an hour ahead of me. Thirty-five years later the Southern Pacific created a shorter route of lesser curvature and flatter grade directly across the lake called the 12-Mile Cutoff. When the lake was diced in two by the causeway the northern became more saline than the southern because all of the three major rivers flow into the south arm. Water level also rose some feet higher on the southern end. The salinity difference has curiously created two distinct ecosystems on the lake. The south arm is dominated by blue-green algae which colors the water green, and on the northern arm the higher salt content allows the growth of a beta-carotene alga that gives the water a wine red color.

My ride was in 1985, three years before the company rectified the ecological effect of the causeway by installing a 30-meter breach to allow the salinity and elevations to equalize to an extent. However, you can still see on Googlemaps the disparity in the overhead view of the murky north and clear south arms of the lake.

Picture the earth and rock filled embankment as a narrow strip a few feet above the water so looking down at one's feet into the blue is like sailing! The train kept a 20mph sail for twenty minutes until the east shore began to approach. For the final mile before land tens of thousands of birds floated and frolicked along the shrimp rich causeway on my south side of the causeway, but few on the north. There were gulls, pelicans, many fall season migrants, and the black specs in the sky may have been eagles. The birds were inured to the passing trains, rising in a tide as it approached to hoover above me in a cloud, and then settling behind the caboose. Trains had cabooses then.

I waved goodby to the causeway as the train picked up speed on solid earth. The hands had grown weary, the legs fatigued as in the last miles of a race, and the neck stiff from reading too long. I hung like an animated pretzel for ten minutes each of the various rehearsal positions, until finally locking elbows around the ladder like the stay apparatus of a horse to keep it from faltering, and hung on and hoped. The thought to reach and pull the brake hose for an emergency stop arrived too late for I was in the final stages of exhaustion.

Rolling into the outskirts of Ogden, the train sided for an Amtrak, and I fell like a slug to the track, grabbed my bag, and snailed into the yard.

You can catch a freight train ride to freedom, but stay off those ladders.


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