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Jumping Freight Trains to go Bouldering

Submitted by aaronblack on 2009-08-10

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by Aaron Black

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I am constantly throwing around ideas for trips, and though most of the time my friends don’t bite, but every so often they will.

March 2004: it was already hot. The climbing season in Bishop, California, had finished abruptly, jumping straight to sizzling summertime highs. Climbing was impossible. Sitting inside the Kava Coffee shop with two of my best friends, Todd and Johnny, I brought up a few places we could go to escape the heat. As a youth, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s yellow pick-up, driving south along the I-5. I remember watching the huge freight trains cruising beside the highway, matching our speed; I wondered what it would be like to jump on for a ride, or just where I could ride the rails to.

“Lets do a hobo trip to Arizona!” I exclaimed. Just outside Flagstaff, Arizona, at a much higher elevation (thus cooler) and hidden by a shady pine forest, you’ll find a bouldering destination called the Priest Draw. To my surprise, the boys didn’t scoff at the idea — instead, I noticed a strange glint in their eyes.

A few days later, we set off early with light packs that contained only the necessary climbing gear. The nearest train station was 100 miles south in the town of Mojave. We hitchhiked in the 100-plus-degree temperatures, arriving in the afternoon. Home to a few fast-food joints, a couple cheap hotels and a massive train yard, Mojave is nothing more than a hole in the desert. No fences blocked our passage from the sidewalk to row upon row of tracks. We saw a large freight train parked on one of the first tracks. We decided to inspect it, to see if it was comfortable enough or not, when off in the distance Todd spotted the bright light of an inbound engine car.

The train entered the yard, slowing down to the pace of a light jog. Still unsure of any plan, we started to run beside the train, seeing if it was going to stop or keep on moving.

Then, it was speeding up. My adrenaline kicked in and I shouted, “Lets get on!” And just like that, the three of us were on a train headed east! We crammed as tightly as we could into a cavity between cars, but were unable to pass undetected. As the train crossed a main street in Mojave, I linked eyes with an old lady through her windshield. Her mouth dropped, but there was nothing either of us could do at that point except look at each other dumbfounded.

After traveling for a few hours, our train pulled into a massive station at the town of Barstow. There, we had to switch trains, an all-night affair that involved running from train-station security, known in hobo terminology as “the Bull.” A yard worker who had spotted us jumping off the train quickly tipped off the Bull. Using the mile-wide yard formed by row upon row of parked trains to our advantage, we stayed out of sight of the Bull, who was seemingly confined to his white pick-up.

After two hours of cat and mouse, we noticed one of the parked trains starting to move. The Bull, assuming we’d jump the moving train, positioned himself along the tracks at the end of the yard with a flashlight. But we had a plan: we climbed atop the train and lay flat on the roof, passing the Bull undetected and exiting the yard. A few minutes later, the train stopped at the edge of town. Too exhausted to celebrate our little victory, we curled up in an empty car and quickly fell asleep. What felt like minutes later, I was shaken from my deep sleep by the movement of the train. It was midday, and the train was speeding through a barren Arizona landscape.

Unfortunately, we had not packed enough food and water for the journey. By the time we arrived at the outskirts of Flagstaff, we were thoroughly beat down from being in a loud, jolting train without food or water for 10 uncomfortable hours.

With the lights of the town approaching, we grew excited by the prospect of a warm meal. But then, the train passed on through town in the blink of an eye, without slowing down, leaving us drooling as we whipped past a couple restaurants.

The temperature had dropped below freezing, and it felt like we were in meat a locker. The severity of the situation was escalating quickly — we discussed our options. Because the train was traveling at 60 mph, jumping off would cause death or serious injury. Without supplies and with the temperature still dropping, we were concerned we wouldn’t last the night. Calling for help would not only land us in jail but, more importantly, would mean we’d failed. (Failing to be responsible for your own choices is almost the worst thing that can happen on any adventure, second only to dying, of course.) Fortunately, the train stopped an hour down the tracks in Winslow. One more day on that train and we would have been in serious trouble!

Aaron Black is an adventure writer and photographer. Find more stories like this plus learn how to take professional photographs and sell them in the complete book; Adventure and Travel Photography available through Aaron's website,


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22 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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Cool story. Where is chapter two?
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agreed.. wheres the rest of the it?
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5 out of 5 stars Yeah man! I live in Flagstaff. How did the rest of that trip go? Did you end up going to Priest Draw? If you get a chance, Kelly Canyon has amazing bouldering and it's just south of Flagstaff off the I-17 about 7 miles.
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4 out of 5 stars I too will be waiting for chapter 2...

Hearing the description of realizing you were along for the ride, brought a chill to me as I recalled other stories I've heard about riding trains that didn't end well.

I'm from Eugene, OR which is roughly the middle of the west coast railway system. Lots of hobos and other scruffy travelers, including lots of Grateful Dead fans. Back in the mid-90's a group of Dead-heads decided to hop the trains to get south for the next show. They weren't used to hopping trains and (like the author) just jumped one that was easy to jump. As they were rolling along in a boxcar, it got cold and they slid the door closed to keep the wind out. Those doors can latch or jam apparently, and they got stuck inside. The train rolled onto a changing station in the middle of the desert (maybe in Mojave for all I know) and no-one to heard them yelling for help as they tried to get the door back open. The train sat at the changing station for three days in the baking heat before getting picked back up and taken to its destination. They didn't make it.

A friend I went to high school with was drinking and riding the trains in his early twenties. He died of exposure.

The railway bulls are often chosen for brutality and joke about denting their night-sticks.

If you don't know what you are doing (and probably even if you think you do) stay off the trains! They make hitch-hiking look safe.
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nice story but what i like most is the stunning photograph. Really nice
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Great story, but you need to start alpine climbing. March in Bishop and the season is over?
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You are not Jack Kerouac
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I've always found the challenge with jumping trains isn't getting on one, it is getting home without paying money for the bus ride!
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5 out of 5 stars sounds awesome but did you get to climb?
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Yeah, let us know how the trip unfolded!
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My buddy and I hopped a freight back in the summer of '77
We went from Minneapolis, destined for The Canadian Rockies and got thrown off by a yard bull in Moosejaw Saskatchewan.
That we the first of many such freight hopping trips.
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Let's see... rail yards and tracks are private property, so are train cars- oh, but that doesn't matter, you're climbers, the chosen people of God/Allah/Buddha/the Universe! Property rights mean nothing in the face of your ability to crank (insert current median line climbing number here). Cool... one more reaaaaallllllly stupid thing that people who spend hundreds of dollars on climbing gear can do to attract public attention, increase negative publicity, and save the price of a bus ticket.... this should gain us a HUGE number of allies in the transportation industry......
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overreact much?
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there is no end to the climbing season in Bishop.
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There is little romance in riding the rails other than being able to say I did it and realize your level of resourcefulness. I did it three times after staying behind on extended climbing trips after my partners left and the money was almost gone. It is a rough, loud, dusty, vibratory and harsh way to travel. The definition of sleeping with one eye open. The bulls I encountered were nothing compared to my fellow travelers.

There is a hardcore communism practiced within the "traveler" culture that includes sharing everything. If you get mixed up with a group that strictly enforces this ethos, hold out on them at your own peril. They'll stomp someone for the heck of it if they think a rider is holding out. And that sharing extends to the female companions you may be stupidly traveling with.
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bustloose- if you think that is overreacting, you should see NTSB officials when they scrape someone out from under a train or pull a dessicated body out of a siding car... or face a 300 pound bull at midnight while trying to exit from private property with your climbing pack. Being overly cautious with regards to illegal activities and public scrutiny never cost anyone anything... what does your attitude lead to?
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awsome story, im a new zealander climber and have spent lots of time hitchin' around NZ and australia.. its not easy going at times but the uncertainty and unexpected things that happen keep the journies interesting and bearable. this story made me laugh, i havnt jumped a train before but have snuck into the baggage compartment of a intercity coach bus while no one was looking, not thinking of how i was going to get out again (minimal agression was needed) and it was sooo cold the entire trip from wellington to palmerston lol. keep the good stories coming dude!

umm P.S live a little "roninthorne", you sound like you are an up tight asshole.. its not my fault im saying this.. its yours.. what does YOUR attitude lead to?? insults and putdowns maybe?
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there isn't enough photo on here,, am i wrong ?
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I'm with roninthorne on this one...just as we climbers get our panties in a wad about jeopardizing access to places, we simultaneously spit on other people's property rights in an attempt to reclaim some romantic notion of being a Steinbeck-era vagabond. I still enjoyed the read, but just trying to keep it in perspective. With copycats, this could potentially make climbers look really bad.
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Train hopping is rad. I hoped a couple from Portland, OR to Grand Junction, CO. Anytime you're down to hop to climb, I'm in!
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What a teaser!
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Awesome story.

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