February 2016 Archives

Riding the Rails


Riding the Rails

I'm writing this blog more for my children's sake than for the general public. I regret that I never listened to my mom and other adults when they told stories about their childhood. I feel my children are making the same mistake; they don't want to hear my stories of the "old days." Therefore, I will save my memories until my children reach an age when they do appreciate my stories. But, at 62 years of age, my memories of my childhood and youth are becoming dimmer and dimmer, so now is the time to put my memories down on paper to preserve them until a time when my children and grand children are interested in reading about my life. This will be the first of several. Some, I may publish; others, will be just for my children's eyes.


In the spring of 1977, I was only 24 years old. My life was foot loose and fancy free. It was one adventure after another. It was at the height of my "Hobo Joe" years, my boozing and raising hell years. I didn't give a shit about anyone or anything. I truly believed rules were meant for other people. I thought I was invincible, and I figured I was smart enough to get myself out of any predicament I found myself in. I was the most irresponsible, worthless young man that ever walked the Rez.

 It was the summer my bro and I hitch-hiked and rode freights to California. My brother was living in Ukiah, California, at the time and had come home for an extended visit. (My brother was actually my first cousin. According to our Dakota custom, first cousins are looked upon as sibling also.) He was planning on catching a bus back to Ukiah when I jokingly told him I wanted to go with him. I had been recently fired from Sioux Manufacturing, for about the fifth time, a couple of months earlier and was doing nothing but partying day in and day out.

Alcohol was the drug of choice back then, and the majority of my family, relatives, and friends all consumed gallons of it; whether it was wine, beer, or whiskey, we drank it. Alcoholism was so ingrained in our lives back then you could say it was a big part of our culture. We observed it as young children and started indulging in it when we were 14-15 years of age, if not sooner. It was also the time when family and relatives stuck together and generosity as a value was still practiced by most Dakota (ndn). So, it was easy to get booze; whoever had it shared it with their friends and relatives.

 When I said I wanted to go with my bro/cuz, he immediately agreed. He said, "If you want to come, we can hitchhike and use the money I was planning on buying a bus ticket with to eat on." Since I was only joking, I was hesitant at first, but I was not doing anything anyway, so I eventually agreed to go with him. We put together a couple of pitiful knapsacks consisting of a few clothes and blankets.

I can't remember how we got to Bismarck; but once we arrived there, we went to a cousin's home who told us to if we would wait until Friday when she was going to the Iron Ring powwow on Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, she would give us a ride that far. It was on a Wednesday when we arrived at Bismarck, and we spent the next two days partying. Friday, we all jumped into my cousin's car and headed out to the Iron Ring powwow. We spent the weekend partying with relatives from Fort Peck, most of whom we had never met before.

Monday, our cousin went back to Bismarck and another, distant cousin of ours, who was living in the small Rez town where the powwow was held invited us to his house for some soup. After we finished eating, he took us a couple miles down the road and let us off to resume hitchhiking our way to Northern California.

For those who are not Dakota, our society was/is based on a strong kinship system. Wherever a Dakota travels in Dakota country, he or she will always run into a relative, who most likely will help them out in some way.


After a couple of rides we made it to Havre, Montana. We walked through Havre, and stood on the edge of town with our thumbs out. It started to get dark, so we decided to walk back into Havre and spend the night. We soon ran into some ndn who lived in Havre and upon learning we were going to California, they told us that freight trains leave from Havre every day, and we should consider catching one. We went to the freight yard to inquire about the freight trains. After visiting with one of the freight yard workers, who was very friendly, we found out a freight train was indeed leaving at 12:20 the next day. He called it a "straight shot" for it was going all the way to Seattle without stopping.

 We walked back downtown and soon found more ndn who invited us to a party. After several days of drinking, I was so hungover that I didn't care to drink anymore. I told my bro, if you want to go with them, I will sleep by the freight yard, and you can come and get me in the morning. The next morning, I heard him calling my name; so I sat up, and he took me to the house where he had partied the night before. A typical extended ndn family was living there. They offered us something to eat, and as most ndn tend to do, they treated us visitors very nice. At noon, we said goodbye and went back to the freight yard where a worker pointed out the freight train we were hoping to hop on.

 We jumped on a car which was basically a flatbed with containers that was modified to be pulled by semi truck. We made our beds between the tires and settled in for the long ride. The ride to Seattle was uneventful except for a couple of events. The first event was when we entered into a tunnel around six in the evening. Train tunnels have no lights, so it was pitch black. By this time, I was extremely hung over, my nerves were shot, and I was beginning to ask myself, "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?" The ride through the pitch black tunnel appeared to go on forever, so long, that my already raw nerves were compelling me to conjure up all kinds of scary scenarios. Thank goodness the ride ended before I lost it. The second event was when we stopped at a small town in the mountains. The worker we questioned said the train was going to be there for about 20 minutes. This would give us enough time to use the bathroom and fill up our water jug, or so we thought. We had not yet made it back to the car we were riding on when the train began to pull out. My knapsack was lighter than my bro/cuz's, so I easily caught up with the moving car and jumped on. I looked back and just when he was going to jump on the car, my bro/cuz's boot hit a stake, and he went end over end. He got up and began running again, but the train was picking up speed. I didn't think he was going to make it. I was almost going to throw my stuff off the freight car and jump off. I certainly didn't want to become separated from him when in a burst of speed he caught up with the car and jumped on.

 We rolled into Seattle the next day around four in the afternoon and quickly caught a freight headed south to Portland, Oregon. In Portland, we caught another freight train, but about 70 miles south, the darn train stopped in the middle of nowhere. After waiting for an hour, we thought it would be best if we started hitchhiking. So, we jumped off the train and begin walking.

I have to add at this point that we had heard that some workers at the freight yards were known as "Bulls," and their job was to throw off any bum who was catching a freight train. Apparently, there were some who enjoyed their job. However, all the freight yard workers we met were nice and actually gave us information about freight trains that was very helpful.


My memory has dimmed about this part of our journey, but I do remember an overpass where another hitchhiker was standing on the top talking about God. In the middle of nowhere, here was this long haired white dude preaching on the interstate, and we just happened to be hitchhiking by. To make it worse, it started raining, so we hurried to get under the overpass, and we wondered if we would have to share the shelter with the witko (crazy) person preaching on the top of the overpass. Fortunately, he must have found shelter somewhere else because he didn't join us under the overpass.

 The other incident I remember was toward evening an old hippy in an old car picked us up. He offered some hits off his weed once we started down the road. It was potent stuff because I soon couldn't tell if we were going up or down the mountains. We pulled into Grants Pass, Oregon, and he let us off. We were disconcerted to learn that Grants Pass was called the Big Foot capital of the world, especially when we were trying to hitch a ride with darkness fast approaching on the outskirts of a town known for its Bigfoot sightings. We didn't catch a ride, so we walked a few yards into the bush, made our beds, and prepared to spend the night. I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about Bigfoot. "It will just be our luck that Bigfoot will come stomping through the bush," I thought as I laid there trying to sleep.

 Thank God, Bigfoot didn't show up; and the next morning, we resumed our journey. The next ride, I recall, was when a van or small bus loaded with plants and odds and ends, picked us up. About four or five people, strange people were in it, but they moved some junk around and made room for us. They were kind-hearted people, in the bus, but due to the plants they were transporting, they were held up at the Oregon, California, border, so we jumped off and started thumbing again.

I have to mention, that most of the people who gave us a ride were a little strange and/or poor, except for a trucker who picked us up when we were standing in the rain. Generally, normal people don't give hitchhikers rides; it was always people who were unique in some way. At least, that was my impression.


Another ride I recall was with a car load of Caucasian males. By then, we had gotten fairly good at instantaneously judging whether on not it was safe to get into a car. They seemed okay, so we got in. The reason I remember this ride was because they had a jug of whiskey that they shared with us until they dropped us off right at the entrance to the Red Wood National Forest. Reinvigorated by the whiskey, a nice way to put it, we decided to walk the scenic route through the Redwood Forest. Today, my eyes still recall the wonder and beauty of those magnificent and amazing trees.

 After a few miles, we tired out and went back up to the main road and resumed sticking out our thumbs. After an hour or so of standing there and not getting a ride, my bro said, "We should split up. We are getting close [to Ukiah], so we no longer need to stay together." I agreed, and he gave me a dime and the phone number of his girlfriend's mother's home. I think he had something like 35ยข left. He told me which exit to take, and gave me directions to a phone booth from that exit. "They know we're coming, so call this number and someone will come and pick you up," he told me.

I walked several yards up the mountain, and sat down out of sight, wondering if I would survive a timber rattlesnake's bite if I was bitten. Sure enough, within 20 minutes, a car stopped and picked my bro up. Encouraged, I walked back down and took my place beside the interstate. Within 10 minutes, an old truck with a load of Redwood burls stopped and told me to jump on the back with the burls. A burl is a deformity that grows on trees. In the case of Redwoods, these burls are huge and are prized for making beautiful furniture. After the truck started, I became aware of another hitchhiker who was sitting on top of the burls. Skinny as a rail and wild looking, he started mumbling about a ndn he had met. "Another crazy white person," I thought. I made sure I kept my distance from him. As we were passing through one of the numerous small towns in northern California, I recall seeing my bro/cuz walking down the street. I had caught up to him and passed him by.

 We were about 45 miles from Ukiah when the truck broke down. The driver made into the next town, and I jumped off, walked through town, and once in the country, I started to thumb again. I wasn't having any luck, so I begin to look around for a place to sleep. I noticed a huge sign up the road, and I decided to go there and seek shelter for the night. When I was almost to the sign, a van pulled up and offered me a ride. It was a woman, a little older than me, who told me she was going to San Francisco which meant she was going through Ukiah. "Good, I made it," I thought relieved.

 As we visited, I began to wonder why a lone female would pick up a hitchhiker. Not that I minded, but it was unusual and several days of hitchhiking had made me extremely wary, so anything out of the ordinary made me suspicious. I soon felt a nudge on my elbow, and when I looked back, I saw a huge German Shepherd standing behind my seat, and I knew why she wasn't scared to pick up a hitchhiker.

 When we reached Ukiah, I directed her to which exit to drop me off at, and I followed my bro's directions. Sure enough, I came to the phone booth he told me about. I dialed the number he gave me; and when a female voice answered, I dropped my dime in the phone and asked the voice if she was the mother of my bro's girlfriend. The voice said, "No, she wasn't," and I panicked. "Sh-t, what am I going to do now?" I thought. But, before I hung up, the voice said, "Don't hang up. Are you Hobo Joe?" When I said, I was, she said she was a cousin of my bro's girlfriend, and she knew we were coming. Amazingly, I had dialed her number by mistake. I was so relieved. She gave me directions to a bar where ndn hung out. "They will let you use the phone in there," she told me.

 I found the bar she told me about, went inside, and asked to use the phone. As I was dialing, an old man sitting at the bar asked me if I was my bro/cuz's cousin? I told him who I was, and he introduced himself as an uncle of my bro's girl friend. He too had heard we were coming. "Don't bother calling (the mother); she is probably sleeping. I will get you a room where I stay," he told me.

 He paid for a room at the hotel he was staying at and fed me a meal of surf fish. Surf fish are small, a little bigger than sardines. He had a dozen or so, and I ate every single one; heads, fins and tails. While I was eating, he told me about his days of riding the rails. I think he felt some kinship with me due to us both being hobos. However, listening to his stories of when he rode the rails as a young man, I knew he was the real deal, a real hobo; my experience couldn't come close to matching his. The next morning, the girlfriend came after me. We went after my bro/cuz who had spent the night at the town where I had seen him walking on the streets.

 I spent the summer in Ukiah before I came home in the fall. At first, I lived in a tarp shelter I put up in the mother's back yard until my bro and his girl friend rented a cabin in the mountain. One day, we went swimming, and his kids caught a huge catfish that was trapped in tire that was at the edge of the lake. I took the catfish home with me, skinned it, cleaned it, wrapped it in tin foil, and roasted it in the fireplace in the back yard. It was the most delicious fish I have ever tasted, before and since. I was hired at a Masonite factory and bought a car which I promptly wrecked. I helped the girlfriend's family pick grapes one Saturday morning, but the Mexicans they hired to help filled up their boxes so rapidly and literally ran with them to the collection point, and there I was barely picking one box to their several. I quit after only picking a couple of boxes. "I already had a job," I said to myself, "Enough of this shit," and quit. I almost got in a fight with a Mexican in a bar over a pool game because he pissed me off for one reason or another. Turned out he couldn't understand English. After we moved to the cabin in the mountains, I started working the 3 -11 shift. My ride only went so far up the mountain, so I had to walk the last couple of miles in pitch blackness, which was spooky to say the least. One night, instead of going home, I stayed at the bar and played pool. I noticed a very beautiful woman in one the booths. She was an albino, white hair, pale skin color, heck of a figure. It didn't matter that the man at her side was her husband; I couldn't stop staring at her. I was smitten. I managed to strike up a conversation with them, and they invited me home after the bar closed. I went with them, and we drank beer for a couple of hours, but when they offered me a chance to sleep on their couch, my senses returned, and I told them I was going to sleep outside, which I did. The next morning, they gave me a ride back to the cabin. When I got back to the cabin . . . just like that, I decided to come home. I packed my clothes, walked to town, bought a bus ticket and 48 hours later, I was getting off the bus in Jamestown. This ended one of the most unusual summers of my life.

While walking around the Portland freight yard, a young kid came up to us and questioned us about how it was to "ride the rails." Didn't matter what we told him, he thought it was an awesome life. He wishfully said something like, "I wish I could do what you guys are doing." What he didn't know was that I would have traded places with him in a second. We were hungry, dirty, broke, with blisters on our feet, and uncertain if we would make it to Ukiah. There is nothing romantic about riding the rails. I only did it once, and I made damn sure I never did it again.


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