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Tough Times for Wandering Luddites

March 16, 2023

From the author: “Tough Times for Wandering Luddites” comprises a modified version of half of a longer piece that ran under the same title in the Summer 2021 issue . (The other half is a sort of fable that ties in with this part; part of the editing I did was to make this half stand more independently.) In this form it also ran in Dark Mountain #21.

All around me rises downtown Portland, Oregon. Arcing through the air fly the grumbling, asphyxiating lanes of Interstate interchanges; across the river the skyscrapers of the business district ascend, with raggedy tent cities mushrooming about their feet; fifty feet directly above my catchout spot by the Union Pacific tracks, a bridge carries a road that leads a couple blocks north to the convention center. But I’m not in downtown Portland.

Although I’ve been through this city several times, and have friends here, my geography of Portland has little in common with the city as it’s intended to be read. My geography, a trainhopper’s map, is a world of negative spaces: all the places that the eye slides past. I arrived last night on a mixed-freight (junker) train that I’d bagged a few hundred miles south in Klamath Falls. Before it could pull into the switchyard and dump me into a floodlit game of cat-and-mouse with rail cops, it stopped for a signal in a dark corridor of nowhere. I got off and followed along it until I found a high-speed intersection where the crosswalk signals seemed to have been broken for years. Dressed as a shadow, I carried my huge dark backpack north for miles along a four-lane road, on grass seldom trodden. I was just yards from the drivers, but they had the tunnel vision brought on by a major thoroughfare, and I was entirely invisible to them. I stole a two-station-long ride as the only passenger on a 2 a.m. light rail train, then slept on the sheltered porch of a mural-covered warehouse where I’ve never seen a soul walk in or out.

In the morning I emerged into Portland long enough to find a coffee and a burrito, before climbing over a fence into a slope of waste ground and vanishing again. I waited for a few hours in the dusty gravel under the overpass. No one was there. But plenty of people had been. I read their tags, written in grease pencil on the bridge pillars: Poorboy, Sun Bum, Railien, Great Northern Grandma, dozens of others — each with a date, many with a cryptic drawing. I recognized some of the tags from other places, and even caught one or two names I could connect a face to. In northern California a few days before, I had enjoyed a few days and a few beers with some of them, and together we’d looked at tags dating back to the 1930s on an ancient wooden water tower. Towers, walls, pillars — the trainhoppers’ history books.

The unmistakable rumble of a slow train sounds from around the corner. I step behind a pillar until the locomotive passes, then put on my backpack and come out to size up the cars. It’s a unit intermodal: all double-stacked shipping containers, from beginning to end. Some container cars are better than others, so while the train keeps coming around the tight curve at its 6-mph speed limit, I climb onto a few promising ones to have a better look — and, to be honest, for a few shots of that amazing high, the feeling of grabbing onto a moving train. It’s like seizing a thunderstorm by the mane.

Finally I find a car with a good well — the four-foot space between an under-length shipping container and the car’s wall — and the train and I rumble slowly out of town. Except to one barista and a take-out breakfast place’s proprietor, I was never there.

Why ride freights? I have a number of reasons. One of the top is that it takes place in this alternate world, a realm that crisscrosses obscurely through the everyday world of stores, restaurants, and roads — charted at least by omission on maps, but only occasionally seen, rarely touched, still less explored. There’s no help for it, I guess: I’m American, and 130 years after the frontier closed, something in me is still searching for the unexplored edge.

But another side of me knows the ruin that comes from following that hunger, and I have no interest in the oil-chugging tourism machine. It smells of cheaply packaged pseudo-experiences sold to help bury the feeling of hypocrisy. And this side of me, as it happens, also loves riding trains. Short of sailing, trainhopping is probably the most carbon-efficient way to cover long distances, if you’re going where the train is going.[1] Well-meaning family have offered to buy me plane tickets so I won’t have to ride trains. That’s thoughtful — but they’re the same family who tell me how powerful Greta Thunberg’s speeches are, while I’m the one who gets across the country on a dollar’s worth of diesel.

And there’s also the fact that it’s just fun as hell. There is nothing quite like booming across Montana on a grainer top or riding along a river where the only human structure is the rails and the only humans besides train crews who ever see the craggy bluffs are myself and the invisible fellowship of other trainhoppers. “I became a tramp — well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest … because I couldn’t keep away from it,” Jack London wrote.[2] After years of this, I still lean off a moving train for a face full of wind and to yell like a lunatic, and I still watch every mountain and wheat field as though I’d never seen one before.

But there’s at least one other important thing that gets me out on the rails. In a way that no other kind of transportation does, trainhopping satisfies my Luddite sensibilities.

Let me be square about this: It’s a bit embarrassing that I can purport to call myself a Luddite. I have electricity in my home, a working pickup truck, a cell phone, and a computer. But the fact remains that by U.S. standards I’m, by choice, almost hilariously retrograde. The electricity is low-wattage solar; the pickup is a ’98 two-seater; the cell phone isn’t smart; and the computer is nearly a decade old. I haul my water from a well, have no internet at home, and get a little nervous when I see a smart speaker. As concerns technology, I’m in the camp that older ways are usually better. But I also grew up in the age of the iProduct, in the world’s richest country, and I’m still working my way backward a decade at a time.

Since I don’t get out of my northern Wisconsin holler much, though, it’s easy for me to lose sight of how difficult it’s gotten to be even a mild technological refusenik in the U.S. at large. My freight trip last summer finally brought that point back to me.

I meant to take a cell phone on the trip. In fact, I technically did. But it was my old, deactivated phone: an indestructible tank of a flip phone that I’d finally replaced when a few too many messages came through as garble — everyone else’s phones had been riding the upgrade treadmill. I’d just lost my newer, flimsier one, so I brought the old one, planning to just reactivate it. But when I got the chance to try, I was informed that that model had been “sunset … back in 2019.” “This device cannot be used ever again I am afraid,” wrote the guy from my phone company in our text chat on a library computer. It was less than ten years old and working perfectly.

So my summer jaunt, from Wisconsin out to the West Coast and back, was to be mostly low-tech: nothing electric but a pawn-shop digital camera. Not only would I be invisible to most humans, but now not even the cell grid would know my whereabouts. The fact carried with it an odd sense of coming unattached. Since I was born there’s almost always been something tying me to The Grid. Now, suddenly, I could be almost as anonymous as a wild coyote, rambling through the night. Once, I visited the steppe of Mongolia, where for hundreds of miles there are no fences and no property lines. Standing and turning in a circle I could see the land all open, in every direction, to the horizon, with more horizons beyond. The freedom was exhilarating, but also terrifying. Leaving the land of the charted and the connected carried a similar feeling.

Trainhopping low-tech should have presented no problem, though. People have been hopping trains since at least the 1860s, when the first boomers abandoned their homesteads to sneak rides to end-of-steel on the still incomplete Transcontinental, then laid rail until they couldn’t stand any more, and rested up while catching free rides to the end of some other line. They weren’t unduly inconvenienced by the lack of cell phones. If they needed to find each other, they just left their moniker on a water tower with their date and heading, and met up eventually. A great-great-uncle of mine rode a few freights in 1937 and kept in touch by sending postcards home. I had a stock of postcards and stamps in my pack, ready to do the same.

But I soon began to discover how many things are now either very hard or impossible if you don’t carry along the standard equipment of the modern day and age. A cell phone, particularly a smart one, is now a key, without which you can’t open the locks that an increasing number of things have been put behind. Whenever I stepped out of the apparently timeless corridor of the trains and into the modern world, I almost instantly hit friction.

For example, finding my way in an unfamiliar town. A couple weeks into the trip, I got to Council Bluffs, Iowa. I had hitchhiked there, feeling dejected after my train broke up in North Platte, Nebraska, where trains have always broken up; I was looking for the switchyard. All I knew was that it was on 29th Street. After some walking around, though, 29th Street seemed to be doing a fair job of not existing. This is when I made the discovery that in a city of medium size or smaller, it’s now impossible to find a printed map of where you are. Obviously we can forget about using the map in the back of one of those phone books hanging on a cable from a pay phone. But now, it seems, there are no local maps at gas stations either, not even rudimentary ones. Some places have a rack of whole-country road atlases, some nothing printed at all — but in Council Bluffs I was unable to find a map of Council Bluffs, despite schlepping my huge backpack to four different gas stations. Who needs them? Everyone gets directions from their phones. You can’t even ask directions from the clerks anymore — like everyone else, they haven’t plotted their own course to an unfamiliar location in so long that they’ve lost the knack. Eventually a high-school-looking kid working at one of the stations deigned to let me use his smartphone to look around on Google Maps, and I found my way. It only took me two more hours than it would have with a phone book map. O modern miracles!

It was even harder to keep my promise to call home on the summer solstice. Since even the truck stops have taken out their pay phones, I was reduced to asking businesses to lend me the front desk phone, something I last had to do when I was a child. But a change has come since then: the phones have all been hamstrung to local calls only, on the theory, I guess, that everyone working there has a cell anyway. Even the Motel 6 had no front desk phone: office use only — though I was able to talk my way into a call as short as a prisoner’s (which went to voicemail anyway). I walked downtown to the library, where I suddenly thought I’d happened across the answer to all my prayers: a full-on phone booth, with folding door and everything. I had to look closer to figure out the punch line: it was an art installation, Dial-a-Poem — call a number, hear a poem.

Perhaps a phone call was asking for too much. Perhaps I should be content with those postcards. Yet even there I ran into problems. Wandering around the unfamiliar streets of Eugene, I asked where I could find a mailbox — but these days no one you ask has ever used one, and I had to stumble upon one myself.

As these little inconveniences stacked up, I began to have the feeling that they were telling me something, something about the country I was traveling in. It had to do with progress or the future, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. While I waited for it to come into focus, I kept an eye out.

And now I noticed that modern wrenches seemed to have been thrown into the process of trainhopping itself. When my uncle Ernie rode freights in 1937, he had some advantages over me. In New Mexico he was booted off a train in the “two-horse town” of Rincon, and when encouraged to scram by the local bull (rail cop), just walked seven miles to the next town and picked up a train there. Now trains don’t stop in those little towns: they go to enormous industrial installations in the middle of nowhere, or they blaze until they have to change crew, 200 miles or more. Riding across Oregon and Wyoming, I passed dozens of old industry spurs, some merely rusting into oblivion, some torn up entirely and recognizable only by the old grade. “We used to say there’d always be the railroad,” an old-timer in Dime Box, Texas, told William Least Heat-Moon.[3] “Can’t live off a toot and a whistle unless you can eat steam.”

And Uncle Ernie probably saw boxcars on every train, too, full of hay and packing paper, with room to sleep eighty-five, if not comfortably (so asserts London). A good modern intermodal car has room for two twosomes, with a forty-foot can between. And even those keep getting harder to find.

Of course, trainhopping has changed in plenty of ways since the ’30s, some to the rider’s advantage and others not so much. I don’t yearn for the old days, necessarily. By all accounts the bulls were many times more numerous back then, and some of them were perfectly willing to shoot hoboes; a ’bo riding the blind baggage also had to look out for the crew showering him with water or lumps of coal. But the changes I judged to be for the worse seemed to have a common theme, and the theme held for more recent changes too. If you get shut out, for instance, there’s mostly no option left of resorting to a passenger train; those died in the ’60s and ’70s as the Interstates took over. Now on my ride through most small towns, I can spot a beautiful, solidly built depot, in good repair, and dead to passengers for decades. More recently (in the last two or three years), the big train companies have started up a “modernization” scheme called Precision Scheduled Railroading, which inevitably means fewer jobs, less job security, and more unpredictable schedules. (The jury is still out on whether it in fact gets the trains where they’re supposed to go.) The trains keep getting longer, too — in places where there was once a daily train, there may now be two or three giants per week. My train across Oregon and Wyoming was a two-mile-long mega-behemoth of an intermodal, a shit lifter, bringing consumer junk over the Rockies, with Chinese- and Danish-branded shipping containers from horizon to horizon; I never succeeded in seeing its last car.

Late in the trip, the puzzle pieces finally came together for me in a way that should perhaps have been obvious from the start. The U.S., and the rich countries of the world generally, have for decades now been sacrificing their past as feedstock to build the shining futures they’ve taken as foreordained since the heady days of the turn of the 20th century, when motorcars, light globes, phonographs, and telephones were just a few of the gizmos heralding a brave new world.

Much of the time, I’m sure it’s made at least proximate economic sense to do that: it costs too much to keep up the infrastructure of both the past and the World of Tomorrow. And we know which one has to go, and damn the consequences if we ever need to remember older ways — anyway, that’s never going to happen. By this point it’s easy to suspect the reasons are less of economics and more to do with faith in the notionalized, shining future (especially if any news — really almost any — reaches you from the yearly gizmo-fest of the self-appointed avant-gardians at Apple). But it’s still happening anyway.

If infinite growth could be sustained on a finite planet, there would be no problem with any of this. But the future is falling apart. The resource extraction is coming up short for the grand plans of moon vacations and Hyperloops. The upgrades are mostly bugs and spyware. The space junk is accumulating too fast to keep all the satellites out of the way. The age after oil, an age of consequences, looks certain to arrive, and quite possibly soon. When it does, the atavistic skill of growing a garden will be worth more than all the likes ever given.

Which is to say, there’s never been a better time to be a Luddite than right now, when it’s hardest. The skills and ideas that are most out of style are exactly the ones that will be most useful as the future keeps rolling in, serenely heedless of fashion. Riding trains isn’t all fun and yee-haws. It means whole days spent waiting under bridges, endless walking from one switchyard to another, dehydration and hunger, and a tapestry of other frustrations shared with all train riders through history. But it’s taught me, too. How to see the forgotten spaces and disappear into them, how to evade, how to skip some meals now and then, how to travel thousands of miles on the cost of some sausage and bread. It’s knowledge that will serve me in good stead. We stand, always, at the intersection of what’s been and what’s to come. It looks right now like the past has a lot to teach the future.



[1]    I include even bicycles in that comparison. Having pedaled some long trips, I can testify that the food that’s to be found to keep one’s legs pumping in out-of-the-way little towns is almost without exception raised, processed, and transported with oil.

[2]    The Road. 2016 (orig. 1907), Dover Publications, Mineola, NY.

[3]    Blue Highways. 1999, Little, Brown, New York, NY.


Teaser photo credit: Hobo sitting on a fence, ca.1920. C. C. Pierce  (1861–1946) California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960. Wikimedia Commons image,_ca.1920_(CHS-1428).jpg. This media file is in the public domain in the United States.

Nathanael Bonnell

Nathanael Bonnell is editor of New Maps, the premier magazine for the growing genre of deindustrial fiction: stories that take place during and after the world's energy descent and climate upheaval. His work has also appeared in Into the Ruins and Dark Mountain. He lives in northern Wisconsin just up the hill from the shore of Lake Superior, in a small cabin with his partner and their son.

Tags: Luddites, powering down, train travel