There is an America that has slipped from our ken, a place of freight trains, shadows and hoboes, a past in which the land itself seemed to be in motion.
Most of us, of course, knew this place only from movies or books inspired by the Depression. For a few strange and hardy souls, though, that shifting place continues to be their odd reality.
Yes, hobo culture lives, and writer Lucius Shepard found it. The result of his quest is a remarkable new book, Two Trains Running.
The trains of the title refer, of course, to those mighty engines of hoboes' dreams, but also to Shepard's approach. In these pages do run two narrative trains, one fact, the other fiction. The book begins with a piece of participatory journalism in which Shepard rode the rails himself, risking his life for his essay. Not content, Shepard also turned his experiences into a novella and a short story.
Shepard's fantasy work has become a cornerstone of the genre. Since 1985, when he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he has bagged every major honor in fantasy and science fiction, including a Hugo, a Nebula and two World Fantasy Awards. Thus, the brawny fiction here comes as no surprise.
Fewer are familiar with his journalism. In 1998 Shepard was commissioned by Spin magazine to do an article on the Freight Train Riders of America, a loose group of tramps that some law enforcement officers were blaming for murders and other mayhem in rail yards and freight cars across America.
For several months, the writer, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., took to the rails. "Catching out" on a moving freight train is a dangerous enough business — many have lost lives trying to do so, and others, limbs. Hobnobbing with hoboes — including those reputed to be running afoul of the law in ways more serious than trespassing in train yards — added to the danger.
Shepard's article appeared in the July 1998 Spin, but it was cut and edited. The version that appears in Two Trains Running is an expanded, unedited version, and it's a marvel.
It's not that Shepard solves the mystery of the "hobo mafia" in "The FTRA Story." He comes away with the belief that both lawmen and hoboes have distorted the facts. No, what's remarkable about Shepard's story is that he has rediscovered for us the fusion of romance, peril and exuberance of riding the trains and living life on one's own terms, outside society's rules.
In the book's introduction, Shepard laments the tendency to mythologize hoboes:
"Surrounded by violence, generally in poor health, afflicted with psychological difficulties resulting from the stress of their day-to-day existence, they all passed a significant portion of their time in states of aggravation, fear, anxiety, and delirium."
So why, Shepard wonders, do they choose such lives?
"When I would press them as to the reason they continued to live as they did, the vast majority responded in kind: the trains."
"The FTRA Story" is at its best not when striving to sort out the facts about the organization, but rather when it examines what makes a man or woman (yes, there are female hoboes, who face even more perils than their male counterparts) drop out of society and into a boxcar bound for nowhere.
Freights go places that no automobile, no passenger train, no bus can go — through isolated canyons, mountain passes, or along rivers known by all but not knowable in certain ways except by the rail rider.
"I'm riding in a boxcar south along the Columbia River," Shepard writes, "which must be nearly a mile wide at this point, and it's hard to tell which is the reflecting medium and which is the source of light — the river, every eddy bearing a captive glint, or the starry sky above. The towering hills that follow the watercourse show dark and nearly featureless, all but their lowermost reaches in shadow, making it appear that the curtain of night has been gathered into great black folds at the edge of the bright stage it delimits."
In addition to such beauty, Shepard finds violence. He himself is threatened, and he hears stories of brutality. Whether the FTRA truly is a "hobo mafia," its members aren't exactly bankers (or even writers). One recent phenomenon that draws the wrath of the true hobo is the "yuppie rider," a person who lives in the real world and holds a regular job, but joyrides the freights in his or her spare time.
As one hobo explains to Shepard, " 'People are setting up Eddie Bauer tents in the (hobo) jungles. Walking around with scanners and hiking boots. You take a stroll through a place where everybody's starving, and you're packing a bag of groceries, what you expect's gonna happen? The rails is where we live, man. It ain't a . . . theme park.' "
For all their grimness (hoboes will turn on each other, too), Shepard finds in them also an innocence in their love of the trains. Shepard captures that love not only in his nonfiction piece but also in "Yonder." In the novella, a hobo with the aptly colorful moniker of Billy Long Gone catches out on a freight one night that proves to be a different kind of train — maybe an analog of that "Mystery Train" Elvis sang about.
Whatever it is, this train is sinister, and it takes Billy out of life itself — maybe to another dimension, maybe into hobo purgatory, and ultimately into a kind of afterlife both more awesome and less defined than any story of heaven or hell Billy ever heard.
Shepard's descriptions, in Billy's voice, are superb in this long yarn, but they are descriptions in service of explicating, once again, why someone would choose to live on trains:
"The scale of the mountains, the strangeness of all else — it was too grand to breed fear, too foreign to inspire other than wonder, and too startling to allow the formation of any plan. Hobos, for all their degenerate failings, have an aesthetic. They're scenery junkies, they take pride in traveling through parts of their country few have ever seen, and they memorialize those sights . . . they'll swap stories about the natural beauty of the world with the enthusiasm of kids trading baseball cards."
Or, as a rider in Shepard's "FTRA" piece more succinctly puts it: "Man, ain't it fun!"
Well, perhaps — provided one doesn't get one's head busted open with an ax handle or get hauled off to jail by a railyard "bull."
Shepard's final piece, "Jailbait," is a good short story, but coming after "The FTRA Story" and "Yonder," it can't help but feel like anticlimax. And that's despite its saucy heroine, a teen rail rider named Grace who proves much tougher than one might imagine.
"Yonder" has its flaws, too. Though Billy's movement between worlds or life stages is supposed to make him "smarter," it's still hard to reconcile his bad grammar and coarse patter with the lofty musings that are supposed to be coming through in his voice.
Overall, though, Two Trains Running is a tour de force that captures all the untamed life of hoboes and their beloved machines. I wouldn't choose such a life; few of us would.
But that's what books are for: to give us visions of other worlds.
— John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, Sunday, March 14, 2004
Two Trains Running, by Lucius Shepard (112 pages; Golden Gryphon Press; $22.95)