The Freedom and Danger of Train-Hopping Across America

Adventurer and photographer Mike Ranta spent five months riding freight trains through the American West and documenting what he saw.

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Feb 12 2015, 4:53pm

All photos by Michael Ranta

I was 15 when I first hopped a freight train near Franklin Boulevard In Eugene, Oregon. An older friend of mine said it was easy: "Wait for it to slow down here, on the turn, as it's about to enter town." So I did. I waited for the middle of a train, until a freight-car's short, iron ladder swung near, and grabbed it as I jogged along side, jumped and swung my legs onboard.

It might not have been safe, but it was easy. And immediately, I felt the power of that train, felt the immovable force of it—felt the potential for adventure and travel.

I hopped on and off a dozen trains that year but never traveled very far, never took a long ride, never hid away and hoped not to be found. I still have a scar on my knee from the one time that I jumped off a train when it was moving too fast through town, but it wasn't serious, and other than that, I never hurt myself. A kid at my high school had his legs cut off by a train in the middle of the night during his sophomore year. Another friend of mine rode trains back and forth between two local towns, meeting people, exploring, then returning before dark, and nothing bad ever happened to him.

I was never good at understanding danger and have always liked urban adventures. When I was nine years old, I jumped off the unfinished freeway bridges into Lake Washington—40 feet of air and then water. Later, as a teenager, I loved climbing the outsides of buildings or construction scaffolding, getting 50 or 60 feet off the ground, and finding a way onto the roof of a building. I also enjoyed exploring city drainage tunnels, running through the storm drains from the opening I found at the riverbank north of town. But trains held a kind of mythical power in my mind, a power that scared me.

Air conditioning is a luxury in the dog days of summer on the Union Pacific lines, so people must find other ways to stay cool.

When I was 17, homeless and sleeping for a short while in a Dallas Greyhound Bus station, I met a wanderer who called himself Red Man, a guy with 12 Social Security cards and an army coat stuffed with Ziplocs of weed. Red Man invited me to ride trains with him into West Texas, then on to New Mexico. He had another Social Security card to pick up. But I was afraid of the violence I'd heard about in the trainyards. I was afraid of not being able to take care of myself. I carried only a knife at that time, and I knew that there were people out there whom I couldn't handle. So I let Red Man move on and didn't jump that train with him. I went back to the Greyhound station and slept under a counter all day. I ate free saltines and ketchup packets.

But I often wonder: What if I'd jumped that train? What if I'd started in Dallas and traveled the rest of that year? What if I hadn't eventually ridden a bus to Oregon and returned to high school? There were legal charges waiting for me, but what if I'd left those behind? What if I'd stayed on the tracks for the rest of that year? Would I still be the writer I am today? Would I be a better writer? Would I have incredible stories to tell my children and grandchildren?

Recently, I caught up with an adventurer and photographer named Mike Ranta who spent five months last year riding freight trains through the Southwest, the Northwest, and on into Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas. I asked him about his experiences.

VICE: Mike, when did you first hop a train? Where did you ride? How did it feel?
Mike Ranta: I think it was in 2012. I don't know, I could be wrong. I don't remember the date nearly as well as the anxiety. Without any guidance, I knew that I was in way over my head, but I really couldn't seem to stop myself—I couldn't find a reason why I should stop myself. Good thing I didn't. I have never made a better choice in my life. I could never have imagined the things I have seen since then. It was being a latchkey kid all over again.

I remember picking up on stuff pretty quickly, sink or swim. I would go through towns and see "Podunksville Family Liquor and Buffet" and then I would find it on a map and figure out where I was.

About a week after I first jumped a train, I made it to rainy-ass Portland and surprised a friend on his doorstep. I was really lucky I made it as far as I did in the beginning. Getting killed was pretty likely too.

Last year was the big adventure year, right? What motivated you? How'd you start?
The year was really about moving on and starting new things. I sold just about everything I owned other than some old cameras and a few pairs of Levi's that I couldn't throw away. Everything else went into a pack. I left both the good and bad memories back in Phoenix and headed north again. I don't really know how many thousands of miles I ended up going or how many trains I rode, but I remember just about everyone I met. Especially the guy I thought was going to knife me in my sleep in the woods, Hank.

Tell me about that.
I really thought Hank was going to hurt me. It was probably the first time since I had been riding that I had felt that way. He was the boyfriend that walks up to the bar and sees his girlfriend laughing along with you: Real nice, big smile, keeps smiling, too nice.

Except he was older, almost completely bald, and the hair that he did have was long and white. He approached me by the train tracks in Northern California right when I had rolled out my bag and was about to lie down. He started chatting me up about where I had just come from and who I was with. The sun had just set, and it kept getting darker and darker, but he wouldn't leave. Eventually I told him I was tired and needed to sleep, and he seemed to nod and then just wandered off deeper into the woods without a flashlight. I rolled out my bag and slept uneasily with a knife and all of my gear close because I knew he wasn't too far away. Funny thing is, I bet he slept like a baby knowing I was more afraid of him than he was of me.

Even though that situation ended just fine, I've heard stories of brutal violence in train yards: knifings, beatings, shootings... Did you ever have any run-ins with bulls (cops) or other violent characters? If not, how did you avoid those?
I had a really bad image of the people who rode trains until I started meeting people that were actually out there. Living in suburbia during high school, I managed to get in a lot of fights, saw two stabbings, and had a friend get shot. Riding trains can be as safe as you make it, and yes, people get beat up by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. But overall, with your wits about you, it's not a huge concern. The bigger dangers are the trains. They'll cut you in half. If you're too tired and take a risk on a bad ride because you can't stand waiting in that ditch any longer, I won't stop you, but I'll be waiting for the next one.

Who was the most interesting person you met along the way?
I've met a lot of really interesting people. Homeless guys who didn't start riding until their 50s and it completely changed their lives. Pretty girls, too. I've fallen in love a few times. I find the average person that you meet riding trains far more interesting than any person I've met in a bar or wherever else you meet strangers. People come from all over, for a lot of different reasons, but each of them has something that made them start riding at some point. Everyone has a damn good story.

What was the craziest thing you experienced or saw during your adventure?
There are a lot of things that happened that I can't talk about. I have a lot of stories that I will tell friends about: close calls, stolen pizzas, hobo handjobs, just some really bizarre stuff. Still there are a lot of really crazy things that I just don't feel comfortable telling a lot of people about.

On this journey, was there a writer or artist or adventurer with whom you identified?
I really tried to be myself. Everyone can be anyone out there, and I hardly knew my closest friend's real name, but everyone seemed to end up being themselves in the end. I identified with people's desire to do something that they once had only as a dream, like Chris McCandless [of Into the Wild] ditching his ride in that wash in Nevada and just continuing on no matter what, things that I thought other people did but not me. I think that looking back on it I could say I felt like all of them at one point or another, adrift at sea and standing on top of the world all at the same time.

So how did you know when to stop?
It's all about balance—when you feel like you're done, be done. This summer, a train came and I didn't want to get on it, and I just watched it roll out of the yard, and that's when I knew my summer was over.

Your photography from this time period is truly evocative. Was it a bi-product of the experience or an intentional outcome? Basically, was this freight-train journey adventure first and photography second, or was high-quality photography your priority all along?
The photography was really an accident that I let get out of control. I took my camera on my first ride with a bunch of black-and-white film because I knew how to develop it myself and was able to grab enough darkroom supplies at a thrift store for about ten bucks and get some chemicals online. Once I got going I really couldn't stop shooting. Everything was so amazing, and I wanted to show my friends how much more fun I was having. When I finally developed them, I realized that some of the photographs were actually worth showing some people. Since then I have kept shooting to show my friends how much fun I have, but I keep in mind that a few good photographs can come from it.

After two days of rain in Oregon, a train rider takes advantage of a break in the rain to hang his socks to dry.

In your train photography, even though these aren't nature scenes, I see Ansel Adams–like contrasts, a deep understanding of dark and light. There's also a little of Dorothea Lange. Is there a metaphor for your photography?
I try not to let my own interpretation of a moment influence my photography. I would consider the work photojournalistic and not fine art. But like Dorothea Lange and some other WPA [Works Progress Administration] photographers, I picked each moment that I captured very intentionally.

I struggled a lot with whether to show any of these photographs. A lot of people want this lifestyle to stay low-key. In the end, I decided that I was proud to be a part of an American heritage and I wanted people to see why. So I decided to show it.

This is what we were doing while you were working.

Peter Brown Hoffmeister is the author of three books, most recently the novel Graphic the Valley. He lives with his family in Eugene, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter.

Check out Michael Ranta's work here.

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