Riding the Rails
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/cuz and I hitch-hiked and rode
freights to California. My bro/cuz was living in Ukiah, California, at the time
and had come home for an extended visit. 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.
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
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/cuz, 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
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.
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
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/cuz 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 35¢ 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/cuz 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/cuz'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/cuz'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
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.