Freight Trains and Hobo Dreams

There is just something about trains. The deep resonant sound of the whistle triggers a primordial instinct deep inside my soul and I am, in an instant, sent riding along the rails within my mind. I imagine the high-pitched sound of the steel wheels as they spark and race along the tracks, the abstract blur of the landscape as it whizzes past and the wind that kisses my face as I stare out from an open boxcar that heads towards destinations unknown.


Malcolm, who calls himself a modern-day Hobo, rests with his dogs before hopping the next freight train on his journey across the United States. ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

I have had the great pleasure in my life to know many who call themselves modern-day “Hobos.” Some turned to the rails out of necessity with no money and no way to get to where they needed to go. Some hopped trains to travel as far away as possible from the ugly pieces of their past. While others simply followed the stirrings of their hearts in order to fulfill their desire for excitement and adventure.

Split Trains

Trains from the past sleep on the rails at the California State Railroad Museum, Old Sacramento, CA. ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

Whenever I have the opportunity to do so, I catch a ride on a train. Though I am not in the open boxcar of a freight and am now seated in a comfortable chair in coach, I find myself giddy with that sense of adventure as we move along the rails towards our next stop. It’s in the rhythmic movement as the train cars snake along. It’s the clickety-clack sound of the tracks below. The deep, guttural hum of the engine as it pulls us along. The excitement I feel when the whistle gives its curt and persistent warning blow. I transform into that overall-clad hobo with all my earthly belongings on my back, not a care in the world, ready to abandon the comforts of this train and clamber aboard the next passing freight.

Emeryville Station

A freight train passes through the Emeryville Amtrak station, Emeryville, CA ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

Several years back I had the opportunity to ride the White Pass & Yukon Railroad from Carcross in the Yukon down to Skagway, Alaska. Several of the enclosed cars had an open porch where you could stand outside and take photographs of the breathtaking surroundings. I chose to stand on the open porch for the whole two plus hour duration of the trip. The train hugged the mountain with a steep cliff off the opposite side and I found myself hanging over the rail and the edge of the cliff, mesmerized by the feeling that I was flying. For me it was the experience of a lifetime. The cold wind on my cheeks, the smell of the steam engine in the air, the mournful echo of the whistle as we rounded the curves; it all felt so hauntingly familiar to me.

White Pass & Yukon

White Pass & Yukon Railroad heads down the mountain from Carcross, Yukon towards Skagway, Alaska. ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

Whether it is something embedded in my DNA or a flashback from some karmic past life, it feels as if I have done this somewhere, sometime, a million times before. So if the day comes when you do not hear from me for a while, take a pause from your busy lives when you hear a train whistle blowing in the distance and imagine me with destiny fulfilled, a pack on my back and a wide smile on my face as I set out on a long journey to destinations unknown.

About tracyth76

I am a professional photographer, obsessed iPhoneographer, freelance writer and website designer located in Northern, California. View all posts by tracyth76

12 responses to “Freight Trains and Hobo Dreams

  • Debra DeAngelo

    I love the train too. Except when it’s delayed for two or three or ten hours, in particular, when you are ON the train and in some abandoned part of the state, and there’s a screaming baby behind you…

    I WANT to love riding the train. I take it to San Jose from time to time. In all the times I’ve taken it, I think there were only two trouble-free trips. But… if Amtrak could get its shit together, it would be a great way to travel.

    Nice column! 🙂

  • Judy

    Enjoyed this a lot. I used to commute to Davis on the train and did my best thinking on it. Something about that forward motion really got to me.

  • Madge Woods

    I, too love the train. Your story highlights all the beauty and adventure of a ride on the rails. Lovely story, fabulous photos.

  • Hollye Dexter

    You are such a wonderful writer Tracy. And photographer. Just amazing.

  • Maxee

    Tracy, you did it again. You used wonderful words and exquisite photography to conjure up so many memories of our travels, not by train but by auto throughout Europe, Africa and Asia and…. the good ol’ USA. Not knowing where we would end up. Having no time restraints or responsibilities. So many adventures and having the time of our lives. This is such a beautiful piece and kudos to you, dear Tracy. What talent you possess. I am going to share this with my husband, whom I’m afraid, upon reading it, will immediately go get his backpack and essentials and off to ‘ride the rails’ hobo style, which he often dreams about. Onto another adventure, weeeeeeeeeee

  • hughmccormack

    Do you know Joseph Woby? He’s on fb and is from the UK. He’s a friend.

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