By Erin Olds
Home for many is a place, or where their family resides – but some choose to carry it with them wherever they travel.
Imagine getting around by jumping a freight car. No tickets, or fees (unless you get caught) and the freedom to take off for wherever you wish. This is the life lead by Will from Minnesota, a 27-year old freight hopper. Will asked that we only use his first name.
“As far as being a freight hopper goes, I’ve enjoyed my time in Baton Rouge,” he said. “It’s a hub for people like me. There’s a sense of community here. People understand my lifestyle.”
Baton Rouge is a mecca for freight hoppers – not just because of its many railroads, but also the size of the city. Smaller cities means there is often less security on trains and rail yards. Still, it’s a dangerous lifestyle.
Historically, bulls, or freight security guards, have been known known to beat up freight hoppers and leave them on the side of the rails to die.
“The scariest time for me happened in Little Rock, Arkansas,” said Will. “I woke up on a stopped train. I heard the Bulls looking for stragglers and they actually got a guy about five cars ahead of me. I was looking for a way to escape when I realized the car’s floor was made of rotting wood. I dug my way out and [my dog] Franklin and I disappeared. I think they saw us, but they didn’t chase us for some reason.”
Nowadays bulls are more likely to ticket train jumpers, which gives them a few days in jail – up to thirty in some cases.
“If you’re caught on Federal property, you have to deal with the TSA and you are considered a terrorist,” said twenty-one-year-old Rob, who has been jumping freights for three years.
Rob also said that if a freight hopper is caught cutting the tag off of a boxcar to get in, they are held responsible for stealing everything inside that car, even if they have taken nothing.
Modern cameras can often catch hoppers before Bulls can, making the ride more dangerous than ever before. Still, hoppers find ways around the new tech.
“There are always gaps in technology,” said Will. “As a freight hopper, I’m always trying to find those gaps.”
So what is it that draws vagabonds and travelers to this lifestyle? For some, it’s the adrenaline rush or the sense of adventure. For Will, it comes from a childhood fascination with trains.
“In my life I’ve just noticed that there’s no way for guys like me to move. I’ve never been able to get myself places. I see trains as a force of nature that I can ride with… it’s not my decision. It’s going with a force of nature,” said Will.
The desire to move, to “get places” is universal. It’s an itch that every 20-something feels in the back of their brains, a desire to see and do things never done by anyone ever before – but we all know that scratching that itch comes with a price. Freight hoppers like Will and Rob pay what many would think as a steep price for their lifestyle. But to them, they are simply free.