Mardi Gras was coming up real soon, and there we were on a freight train to New Orleans. We would have a long ride ahead of us, which meant we’d have to take a break somewhere between Phoenix and Houston. Our plan was to go to Houston and hang out with our friends there for a few days before continuing on to New Orleans. I was really looking forward to going back to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
As the train was speeding along the tracks and as I was listening to the clacking of the wheels, my mind began to reflect on all that I had been through in the previous months. When I first met Hobo after landing in Tempe the previous October, I was very green and insecure while feeling very lost in myself. I didn’t have any real direction as to where I was going. I was now a very seasoned road head who had acclimated myself to this life on the road thanks to a great companion like Hobo.
Once the train came to a screeching halt, we jumped off and headed into town. Having been to El Paso recently, we sort of knew our way around and quickly headed towards the mission. It was still early enough that we would not be missing out on the evening meal. It had been a long ride and we were hungry!
The next morning we woke up and had a good breakfast and shower and were ready to continue our trip to New Orleans via Houston. Our plan was still to stop in Houston and see our friends before continuing on to New Orleans. We were hoping to see them once again by that evening. Unfortunately, it was late afternoon when our train left the freight yard in El Paso, which meant that it would be very late in getting into Houston. On this occasion we fell fast asleep and didn’t wake up until the following morning after the train had stopped. We discovered very quickly that we had missed getting off in Houston.
We had no idea where we were until we got off the train and asked one of the workers in the yard. To our surprise, we were in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Talk about being in the middle of nowhere! This was one of the hazards of riding freight trains, but we had learned to simply adjust to our circumstances and see where the next adventure would take us. We were still on our way to New Orleans and Mardi Gras, but now detoured. Our attitude was, “Well, we might as well enjoy the detour and see where it takes us.”
This was the type of thing Hobo and I had learned to thrive upon—going into a situation that was completely unknown to us, yet being very comfortable with it. It was simply the matter of allowing fate to be our guide. We soon discovered it was only about 35 miles to Little Rock where we would be able to catch another freight train to Memphis, Tennessee. We had never been to Memphis, so we were looking forward to the trip. It was another 140 miles or so from Little Rock to Memphis. This meant that if all went well we would be in Memphis by early evening. It was still early morning, so we had a good chance of making it.
We were able to hitchhike up to Little Rock in little more than an hour and by early afternoon we had spotted a train that was headed for Memphis. Because there were no open box cars to ride in we then found a car with Sea-Land Trailers on it. We realized it was going to be a cold ride, but we had our down bags, which we would crawl into as soon as the train was ready to leave. We had never tried this before, but we were game and decided to go for it. By mid-afternoon we were on our way. We had been traveling for about a half an hour when we realized this wasn’t going to work. We were freezing cold because of the wind factor. We decided the next time the train stopped to let another train pass by we would make a mad dash for the third engine, hoping we wouldn’t be spotted. We’d never done this before, but we were willing to give it a try in light of the fact that there seemed to be only two options: either continue to freeze or get off of the train in the middle of nowhere.
Within the next 15 minutes or so, the train stopped and we made a mad dash to the third engine without being detected. It was great! We were now nice and warm riding in comfort into Memphis, Tennessee. It was quite a sight coming into Memphis just as it was getting dark with all the city lights in full view as we entered the city. What had started out as a disastrous morning had turned into a great day with the promise of a warm place to sleep once we reached Memphis. Not bad for a couple of Freaks with nowhere to call their own.
Once we were off the train, we quickly found out where the Salvation Army was located and headed over there as fast as we could. We wanted a nice warm bed to sleep in after the long ride on the freight train. We were able to get there in plenty of time for a meal and a warm bed. As we were hanging out and getting to know the others who were there for the night, we discovered a couple of guys who had plenty of money. They were also headed for Mardi Gras. They had been hitchhiking from somewhere in the Midwest. Realizing that this could be a great opportunity for us to hook up with a couple of guys we would be able to mooch off of for a few days, Hobo and I began to share with them about riding freight trains and how cool it was. The more they listened to us and our stories, the more they seemed to get excited about the idea of riding a freight train rather than hitchhiking.
By the next morning, Bill and Joe, had decided to travel with us via freight train to New Orleans. We then talked them into buying a few bottles of wine to make the trip a little more fun. I’m now very ashamed to say this, but as we were leaving the Salvation Army, we peeked into the storage room where they kept all the food. We spied a big ham—one of those that come in a can. We decided right then to steal it along with a loaf of bread. I never got over feeling guilty about doing things like this, but I simply learned to live with the guilt as part of the “beg, borrow, and steal” code while living on the road. It was all about survival and what you had to do to survive while traveling as vagabonds and mooching off of whatever resources or people who happened to come your way.
When we got to the freight yard, the engineer who would be driving the train spotted us and came over to talk with us. We thought at first we were going to be in trouble and told to leave. It was just the opposite. He was very intrigued with us and invited all of us to ride in one of the engines. He just told us we would have duck down when going through towns. How cool! Two times in two days getting to ride in the engine and this time we didn’t even have to worry about getting caught. We then stashed all of our packs and stuff into one of the empty boxcars which was located not too far from the engine and found our place in the third engine.