Lost and Found
"While most people settle for a road more commonly taken, a group of uncommon young adults travel around the United States by hopping on freight trains and hitching rides in cars. Reminiscent of children of the 1930’s Dust Bowl era blended with roots in the punk squatter subculture, these kids have left home to find a better life and sometimes work."
“We have secrets about traveling you wouldn’t believe and we share with no one but ourselves.” - Huck
They are often lost and driven by wanderlust, escapism and adventure. Some have no choice but to run away from an intolerable family situation while others leave supportive families to find the people they fit in with most. A Traveler dons a handkerchief or “skank” around his neck, takes to the open road and rail in search of something better and often in search of himself.
You may have passed by these “dirty kids” sitting out by the Mississippi River in New Orleans, “flying a sign” in Harvard Square, or enjoying the overflowing live music on 6th Street in Austin. You may have been intimidated by their facial tattoos, piercings, unkempt beards, scabs, scars, open wounds, dreadlocks and dirt that separate them from mainstream society. Or, you may have not noticed them at all.
Guided by a “road dog” or mentor, ways of the subculture are assimilated. Rail maps and instructions found in a covert book called a “crew change” guide them from point to point through the four major rail systems that span the US. Often traveling in packs or sometimes preferably alone, they disband, meet new fellow Travelers and then reunite. New Travelers, often called “greenhorns,” will find themselves a new family, and like any family, there are rules that govern how members treat one another. Money earned by busking or separately panhandling becomes common money. Leftover food found in “white boxes” by one is to be shared by all. But, betrayal of the group leads to punishment of the individual often by physical violence.
Riders give each other nicknames or “handles.” Shamus becomes “Shameless” because of his quick-witted, acerbic personality. Richard becomes “Knuckles” because of his past experience with mixed-martial arts and willingness to defend his new brothers and sisters. Their names are often found tattooed across their knuckles or inscribed as a tag on the side of a train. Like graffiti on the walls of the city streets they inhabit and the trains they ride, the bodies and faces of the Travelers become the visual storybooks of their lives.
Travelers give each other tattoos by “stick and poke,” a method of using a pin or needle with India ink to inscribe a memory from their travels. Symbols standing for squatter’s rights, anarchy, and chaos are among the more common markings. Traditional hobo communication symbols are rarely used anymore but one might spot a few such as “get out quick,” – a circle with two horizontal arrows drawn through it. Special symbols often represent a specific pack or group of travelers. Sometimes ashes from a deceased Traveler are mixed into the ink, and each member of the group is tattooed as a blood-brother tribute. Their clothing is often a mismatch of found items. Jackets and vests are self-made, sometimes using fabric pieces of a fellow Traveler’s clothing like a patchwork quilt. Punk band T-shirts and logos are common, representing both a current taste in music and a nod to the past. Metal bottle caps, buttons, safety pins, patches and inscriptions are embellishments to hats, hair and clothing.
The kids travel with dogs as companions and “packs” that hold their belongings. A far cry from the hobo’s stick and handkerchief, they carry cell phones, clothes for all degrees of weather, first-aid and health items, old travel radios, card games, mats to sleep on and other found items. But as one Traveler points out, “Americans are wasteful,” and Travelers make do with what others leave behind. To live one doesn’t really need that much. “I have nothing really, but I have everything at the same time,” a Traveler recounts. “Less is more and frees us.” Their concern is to find what they need to live each day rather than to worry about the future.
Life on the rail and road is freeing, but also hard and unsafe. Finding a place to sleep or “squat,” can lead to arrest even though it is on public property. One Traveler recounts how he was imprisoned for “imitating a sidewalk” in New Orleans. Yard “bulls” or watchmen often drag travelers from freight trains at gunpoint after being discovered by cameras or heat sensors. An encounter with an older Traveler group called the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA) is rumored to be like running into pirates of the rail. Kids have been pulled under the rails and killed while catching a train “on the fly,” or moving. Accidentally hitching onto a car with no floor or “riding suicide” presents obvious dangers. Jumping off a moving train also proves to be deadly when a pack gets in the way and pulls the traveler under. Infected wounds can lead to loss of limbs.
Drug use and addiction for many becomes an inescapable trap. Unsupervised alcohol detox leads to seizure and death. Some avoid drugs and alcohol, but the adrenaline rush of exploring endless new terrain or jumping on the train itself, likened to riding a roller coaster by many, proves to be the real addiction. As one Traveler stated, “riding trains is my drug of choice.” Another stated, “It’s terrifying but exhilarating at the same time; it’s the best feeling in the world…like you are flying for a minute.”
Among all this risk lies the payoff. Some have traveled to all reachable 48 states and the backdrop of their lives could be anywhere at anytime. Some revel in watching the luminous sunset from a moving gondola train car across the plains of the Midwest. As the years progress, the impressionable lost soul of the young man turns into the hardened survivor, gaining more experiences than most accrue in a lifetime. They have traded in the rat’s treadmill and suffocating office cubicle for open air and freedom. They have avoided a prescribed way of life that society has laid down for them. They are happier because society doesn’t dictate what they should do and what they should have. They have time to figure out who they are before the world tells them who they should be. They invest in new friendships, forged by helping each other survive. These friendships are intensely strong in ways that new adult friendships simply cannot be. Some decide to travel for a short period of time, while for others, this becomes the way for life.
At what point in time a Traveler decides to stop and re-enter society varies among individual circumstance. Social media has influenced a contemporary population of younger travelers who although armed with cellular technology, may quickly find themselves lost on the road. They find that Google Maps or “how to” videos on YouTube do not take them as far as word of mouth does and discover that the lifestyle can be darker and more dangerous than perceived though online images. As an older Traveler points out, “they don’t know what to expect and find themselves in over their heads. They go running back to where they came from if they are lucky. Maybe they can’t run back because they messed it up before they left.” Some have supportive families they can return to, and so travel for shorter periods of time. Some female Travelers stop to raise their children.
Those who often refer to themselves as “traincore” are fully committed to the lifestyle. Their facial tattoos prove their commitment and a disregard for what society thinks of them. As one points out, “I am experiencing my life as strongly as I can.” Another admits, “Once you’re in it, you’re in it.” They have seen their friends die in the process, but rather than fear death, accept it. Most who continue to travel and live past their late twenties are considered to have made it far. For some getting out first means getting help for their addictions. But, going to rehab means being put back in a box and travelers thrive on their freedoms. Shelters or youth drop-ins such as the Sox Place in Denver or the Larkin Center in San Francisco are safe-havens and offer help. Many who do rejoin society find themselves still wanting to get out and often return to the road. One traveler who suffers from depression noted, “I hit the road every few months just to keep myself sane. It’s really hard to go back to a house after being on the streets for so long.” A minority rejoins their old families, rejoins society and leaves their handkerchiefs behind.
For the families left behind, the wait at home can be torturous and shameful. Some parents are lost and left wondering what they did wrong, why their child left, and if their child is safe. Some will hear from their daughters or sons on a regular basis whereas others do not hear from their children for years at a time. On rare occasion parents find acceptance of the lifestyle but for a majority, the lifestyle is incomprehensible. One Traveler explained that at first, her mother thought she was escaping work and adulthood, but after a period of time and acceptance, her mother would keep a map on the wall at home and document her daughter’s travel locations and stories. She was proud of her daughter’s found independence. An ex-traveler points out that in the mid-1990s, when she left, there were no cell phones or social media platforms, and leaving home meant a full loss of communication. She recalls how her parents thought she was dead. Another Traveler admits, “I’m not allowed in the house when I’m near home because my mother can’t handle the thought and sight of me,” and he was abandoned in turn.
These portraits are not a documentation of Travelers’ lives, but rather a collective, close-up look at individual souls. As one Traveler points out, “Perhaps every story is not important because every story is really different. It’s the sense of connection and free lifestyle that binds us.” They are photographed on the street, unplanned, in the space in which they are found. Because these kids are constantly on the move, to find them is mostly by pure happenstance. In some cases they have been photographed in different cities, at different periods of time and sometimes years apart. Their appearances are the result of their experiences. Despite their appearances, they are some of the kindest people one might meet. They are not to be pitied nor romanticized by the viewer. Perhaps their faces invoke fear or perhaps envy. They are to be viewed and felt as the person who lies somewhere between. Their souls are open and their gift is time. As one states “They will give you their time because time is all they have.” And in most cases, in the family they have lost, they have found each other.