FOLLOW YOUR BLISS
“I awoke in a sweat from the American Dream…
I screamed into the wind my goodbye to the world”
—Amebix, “Nobody’s Driving”
ONE SUMMER EVENING BEHIND OAKLAND’S KMART and under the 880 overpass, I sat with two friends, Karen and Jen, waiting for a northbound freight train. The air smelled of creosote, car fumes, and cigarette smoke; at times a marshy, low tide smell wafted off the San Francisco Bay, intensified by the heat of the day. It was summer solstice of 1997, and we’d been waiting so many hours the shadows had become long. None of us gals had permanent homes, jobs, school, or lovers. Roots were shallow and wanderlust ran deep. I was twenty-two and in love with certain concepts, like those the Pogues and Misfits sang about, of living “the free life of a rover” and going “where eagles dare.”
I was recently single and had never hopped freight trains with only women. My ex had been my partner for two years, and we had traveled thousands of miles on freight trains. We had fantasized about having a baby, and although we didn’t know any train-hopping parents, we figured it could work—according to Errol Lincoln Uys, author of Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression, there’s a story of one mother who had to have someone hold her baby while she hopped onto a moving train before reaching out to take the baby back. But we didn’t become parents, or stay together.
While sitting and waiting with my girl friends, I fiddled with an empty soda bottle, cutting the bottom off at an angle, and threw away the cap. “I’ve just discovered the Port-o-Penis,” I said, trying it out, delighted to discover that I could direct my stream while standing up with my pants still on, just like a guy.
“Dude, you’re dripping,” said Karen, snatching away her Walkman and Neurosis tape. She was twenty-five years old, tattooed from fingers to clavicle, a Hawaiian transplant, and new to train-hopping though she’d squatted in San Francisco for years.
“I was hoping to pee out the boxcar door,” Jen said while I winced. She was a twenty-eight-year-old Midwestern transplant who looked a little like Betty Page in combat boots and a gypsy headscarf, who lived in a feminist household in Oakland where she and her housemates were “womyn” and “grrrls.”
“Dude,” Karen said, putting on her headphones. “Where the fuck is the train?”
Our plan was to hop freight trains to New York City, via Seattle—we figured it would take a few weeks, but with the unpredictability of a train, who knew. “I wait, I wait, I wait / My time is water down a drain,” sang Fugazi, a band I liked, and the words imparted a zen-like feel. I thought back over the last four years, or attempted to. Places were clear, like New Orleans, Portland, or Los Angeles, but dates were foggy; I couldn’t keep track of the days of the week anymore, and I didn’t care. Jack London once wrote in The Road: “The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment.” After dropping out of a high-pressure university, quitting my job as a janitor, and giving up my apartment, the hobo lifestyle was the best one for me.
Four years earlier I was eighteen and on my first freight train ride, twenty miles between Oakland and Benicia (unbeknownst to me at the time, the latter was where Jack London first hopped trains out of when he was eighteen, a century beforehand). My midnight joyride was a pivotal experience. The train clattered over a steel bridge crossing the San Francisco Bay, with tankers below and city lights beyond, and I had the revelation that life could be free and unpredictable. Joseph Campbell, the preeminent mythologist, author of The Power of Myth and many other books, said to “follow your bliss,” which up until that moment I couldn’t figure out what the hell he meant: “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” By the time I was sitting with Karen and Jen in the summer of 1997, I was fully immersed. Rand-McNally railroad maps covered in clear tape were sewed like a liner on the inside of my hooded sweatshirt, but even if I didn’t have them, I felt unable to get lost. I also didn’t want romance—I wanted to travel with these girls.
Close to sunset, a northbound freight train came thumping by, applying its brakes before leaving Oakland’s jurisdiction. Our position was perfect, and we were lucky enough to find an empty boxcar with a wide-open door, which we claimed. Jen pulled a stick of incense out of her backpack and Karen did a double take. “What the fuck—incense?”
Jen started saying something about making the place feel like home, but the air brakes popped and the train jerked, and all along I was thinking, Wow, I’m finally traveling with women. How about that?
JEN, KAREN, AND I RODE THE FREIGHT TRAIN ALONGSIDE A COOL GREEN RIVER IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA. Was that the Sacramento at our doorstep? The sandy, rocky bottom was visible under the reflections of pines. We passed Redding and Dunsmuir, and Black Butte, driving through a volcanic landscape into lush forest with mossy trees and waterfalls. The temperature soared over eighty degrees Fahrenheit, yet Jen surprised me by going topless. Seeing boobs was a revelation after two years of traveling with men; I was like Victoria Howe, this one female Punk hobo who wrote in northbankfred.com about a hot day where “the boys took off their shirts . . . but I didn’t really feel comfortable breaking out the bikini just yet, so I just wore my vest and jeans and dealt with it.”
At some point, Jen squeezed her legs together and looked wistfully at the open doors where trees whipped by sixty miles per hour, and then at far corner of the boxcar. “Should I?”
A female Punk named Leonie once wrote in a zine called There’s Something About a Train, created by a hobo named Lee, that “There comes a moment in every hoba’s life when she has to pee . . .” Karen and I told Jen to go for it—pee and poop at will. “Just use a Ziploc bag if you’re gonna take a dump,” I said to Jen.
In There’s Something About a Train, the self-described “hoba” named Leonie describes how she relieved herself out of a boxcar door while gripping a friend’s hands: “With legs bent I stuck my butt out as far as I could manage and let ‘er rip.” The truth is, if you are riding in an empty boxcar it’s probably a low-priority train, so it will frequently pull over into sidings, a parallel section of track. Once it’s in a siding, it waits until an Amtrak and “hotshot” can charge unimpeded down the mainline track.
When sunset came, the crowns of the pines lit up like torches, and Jen chose to pee in the far corner of the boxcar, which seemed sensible. When we pulled over at a siding, we all jumped outside. This was prime pooping time; only idiots or captives would shit in their boxcar. I crouched in the bushes and my pants bagged at my ankles. Once relieved, I crunched across the ballast, noticing the crowns of my friends’ heads peeking above the bushes.
ONE MORNING ABOUT DAWN WHEN KAREN, JEN, AND I WERE HALFWAY TO SEATTLE, I saw someone laying in the middle of the boxcar. I didn’t have my glasses on, and started crawling over to say hi and sit in the sunshine. As I got closer I realized it was a strange man, and I scooted back to my friends right away.
The stranger was a white hobo in his forties, drinking from a plastic vodka jug. He looked as down and out as they come. I felt like I was in a skiff with a sea monster swimming under the keel. Suddenly he pounded his fist on the floor, yelling, “Arrggghh!” I reached for the crowbar in my backpack, but kept it out of sight, fearing he would try to wrestle it from me. When the train stopped, my friends and I jumped off and ran down the line, looking for another empty boxcar. We weren’t scared he’d follow us—he just needed his space, as we did too.
JEN, KAREN, AND I TOOK LONG, HOT SHOWERS IN SEATTLE. We stayed in a punk cooperative household, the Animal House, where we had friends. We sat by the main market while I played a penny whistle and Jen danced with long fake fingernails on fire, and Karen covered her eyes. (I also carried self-published books to trade, made crappy jewelry, and begged). Once we acquired food stamps with fake names and affidavits, we left Seattle.
I always wanted to take the Highline, a train route which crosses Washington, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota, and I finally did, riding mostly 48s, freight cars that are like a rectangular bucket with a shipping container in most of it, except for a cozy, walled, roofless space on one end that could fit three. We couldn’t stick our Port-o-Penises above the rib-high walls, and peeing in the corner would mean peeing on our gear. We could stick the Port-o-Penises in small holes on the floor and squat over them, or wait for a siding.
At midnight we rode through Glacier National Park, shivering and huddling, with freezing wind and the metal floor wicking the life force out of us. Sleep was impossible, but the sky was amazing—a zillion stars and the sliver of a moon behind the mountains. By morning, we were coughing and shivering, and my foot felt hot and a little swollen from the rusty nail I’d stepped on in some train yard (I’d need a tetanus shot in Minneapolis, for sure). I also got my period and had to safety-pin crusty socks into my underwear; when the fabric got too bloody I’d chuck it overboard.
Sweeping green prairie spread out in all directions and iridescent insects splattered our faces and arms. Thunderstorms rained on us, but the landscape was so beautiful the hardships seemed worth it, if only for a minute. Perhaps it was the fever.
We were passing through Fargo, North Dakota, when a railroad bull driving a white Bronco radioed for the train to stop. He looked surprised to see we were women. One time I tried to hop freights out of New Orleans when a bull chased me and pulled out a gun. He had me up against a warehouse wall with a gun shaking in his hand. He ended up just telling my boyfriend and me to leave the yard, and that was it.
“If I see you girls in the yard again I’ll take you to jail,” said this bull from Fargo as he wrote tickets for stolen services. Behind him, our train was pulling out. “Appear in court or you’ll get a warrant.” Later, Jen and Karen ripped up their tickets, and I stuck mine in a journal as a souvenir. We hoofed it to the nearest gas station and hitched a ride to Minneapolis on a big-rig.
ONE LESSON WITH RIDING FREIGHTS IS FLEXIBILITY. Destinations change—as do ideas. “I’ll never stop hopping freight trains,” I once swore. “If I have a baby, I’ll take it riding trains too.” And when Jen, Karen, and I reached the Midwest, we split up. Jen fell in love with a Punk guy living in a trailer in Minneapolis; Karen took Greyhound back to California to start a job; and I hopped freight trains to New Jersey with two Punk boys I’d met on a sidewalk in Minneapolis.
I woke up in Manhattan’s East River Park with a group of homeless Punks and their dogs, hoping some junkie’s needle hadn’t pricked through my cardboard. My hangovers for the past half-month lasted until cans of fifty-cent Laser beer took them away. I felt parasitic and physically ill, and even wondered about dying on the streets, a thought that hadn’t occurred before. Jack Black, the hobo author of You Can’t Win, wrote: “Nobody wants to live and die a criminal.” I had been inside three jails, had a warrant for my arrest, a persistent cough, and was starting to feel kind of crazy, the kind of crazy I didn’t like. Guitar Whitey, a hobo since the Thirties and author of Ridin’ Free, wrote: “The rain that falls on the just and the unjust alike, falls just a little bit more on the hobo.” By the end of 1997, I realized that the hobo lifestyle was not one I wanted anymore. I was still naïve enough to be embarrassed about wanting a garden, a bookshelf, and a typewriter, but that was part of the process of understanding that one’s definition of bliss can change.
FOURTEEN SUMMERS LATER, in June of 2011, I was on a road trip with my daughter, a twenty-month-old with a fascination for trains. We stopped in Black Butte, California, so I could say hi and catch up with a hobo named Northbank Fred, and we watched freight trains pass by. “Choo choooo!” my daughter cried, flapping her arms.
I doubt I will ever take her hopping trains because I would die if she got hurt, but who can predict her or my future? I imagine there will be traveling of some sort. Like Woody Guthrie, “I wuz born travelin,” on a renovated WWII ship to hippie parents who shipped tallow between Central America and Florida, and nursed by a mother who wiped black grease off her breasts before nursing. If wanderlust is nature, I was born with the bug in my bones; if it’s nurture, I sure had the right role models.
On my road trip up the California interstate, I listened to Joseph Cambell’s PBS recording of The Power of Myth and was reminded about following my bliss. It amazes me every day that a human comes from one sperm and one egg—there’s nothing more important than the caduceus of life and death, and a baby reminds me of our transience. Being alive is what is important, as is following one’s bliss, however defined. It was a great day to be alive fourteen years ago on a freight train with the wind in my face, as it is now changing a dirty diaper and holding two kicking feet aloft from the mess.
Jessica Erica Hahn was born on a renovated WWII ship off the coast of Florida to globetrotting parents, but spent much of her life in San Francisco, where she lives to this day. She’s a special education teacher by trade, a mother of three, a spontaneous traveler, and an avid reader. Links to her recent and forthcoming publications in Peripheral Surveys, Prime Number, The Tonopah Review, Prime Mincer, Ontologica, Wordrunner E-Chapbooks, and Holy Cow! Press are found on her writing website www.jessicaericahahn.com.