The First Time I Rode a Freight Train   6 comments

Hobo climbing a freight car

Back in July of 1980, I was house sitting for some friends in Ames, Iowa. They and their two daughters were gone for a month or so seeing relatives in Southern California.

One day I decided to hit the road and see how far west I could get. I took my backpack and some of my belongings and began hitchhiking west on U.S. 30.

I got a few rides to Denison. Then this young lady picked me up near Dow City or Dunlap. She had a can of beer in her hand and offered me one; I declined the offer. I went to enough beer parties in high school; my beer-drinking days were pretty much over. She was fairly drunk and she would swerve over into the other lane every so often and then correct herself.

Finally, I said, “Hey, if you want, I can drive for you.”

She said, “No. I’m doing just fine.”

A few minutes later she barely missed hitting this tractor-trailer coming from the opposite direction.

I had had enough, so I said, “Pull over and let me out.”

She pulled over onto the shoulder and I got out of the car. She gave me the finger and drove off. I was so glad to get out of that vehicle. That was the first time (and maybe the only time) I asked to get out of a car because the driver was drunk.

So I walked down the road and this guy picked me up. He had just graduated from the veterinary school at Iowa State University in Ames. This guy was going to Nebraska to take his boards for the state of the Nebraska.

He dropped me off someplace and I later made it to Blair, Nebraska. The sun was setting as I walked down main street. I walked past this gas station and this kid that worked there was sitting in a chair.

He looked at my backpack and asked, “Where ya goin’?”

“I’m heading out west,” I replied.

“Have a good trip.”


I walked through Blair and was a mile or so out of town, when a sheriff deputy stopped me. He asked me where I was going and then he checked my ID. At the time, I was a little annoyed that they would stop and check me. I was walking down the road minding my own business. What’s the big deal, I thought. That was probably the first time I had been stopped by law enforcement for walking or hitchhiking. I was a little rattled about the whole thing.

The sheriff deputy gave me my ID back and I continued walking due west on U.S. 30.

The sun was down, so I decided to jump over this fence and hightail it to the railroad tracks. It wasn’t long and I was walking down the tracks of the Union Pacific.

I had been walking for a while when all of a sudden this powerful light came around the bend behind me and this locomotive was bearing down on me! I didn’t even hear it coming! I took evasive action, quickly jumped off the tracks and ran into the ditch. The four or five engines roared past with its grain cars in tow. That was a close one, I thought.

I later learned that the sound of the engine travels out from the sides of the locomotive, not from the front. I had been hitchhiking in New Mexico back in the late 1990s, when this man and his wife and kids picked me up. He worked as a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad. He told me about the sound traveling out from the sides and not from the front. He and his fellow welder almost got run over by a train while they were welding “frogs” on the tracks. They never heard the train coming–just like in my case.

So I continued to walk down the tracks. I then camped out in some grass. It was hot and humid–it was probably in the upper nineties that day. The mosquitoes were bad. I don’t think I got much sleep that night.

The next morning I got a couple of rides to Fremont.

I was walking in downtown Fremont heading towards the railroad tracks (I was thinking about hopping a freight train) when a local cop stopped me.

“Where you going, son?” he asked.

“I’m heading west,” I said.

“You’re going in the wrong direction. Hop in and I’ll give you a ride west of town.”

“Sounds good.”

He dropped me off near this pond of water; it looked like a state park or campsite. I thanked him for the ride and he drove off.

It was now around a hundred degrees and I was getting hot, so I spent some time swimming in the pond. After a while, I lay down on this picnic table and took a nap for an hour or two.

Then I heard this low rumbling. I woke up and saw this freight train slowly moving westward on the tracks maybe a hundred yards away. I quickly put on my socks and boots and grabbed my backpack and ran to this brand, spanking-new flatcar. It had my name written all over it.

I climbed onto the flatcar and put my backpack against the bulkhead. I sat down and rested my back against my backpack. The train merged from the siding onto the main line and gained some speed. I was now in business.

It was exhilarating and free, sitting on that flatcar watching the green Nebraska countryside go past. Eventually, I took off my boots and socks and sat on the flatcar barefoot. I felt even more free. The train was now traveling at around fifty miles per hour.

The Union Pacific tracks ran parallel with U.S. 30. Cars and pickups would drive down the highway and people would wave at me and laugh. I would wave back and smile. Some people would honk their horns. It was a lot of fun.

The train rolled through North Bend and Schuyler and finally slowed down and stopped in Columbus. We weren’t stopped very long. They were switching out some cars, I’m guessing.

The train slowly moved out and we were heading west again.

My plan, when I left Ames, was to see some relatives in Ogallala, Nebraska. Well, I didn’t know their names and I didn’t know exactly where they lived in Ogallala. I just knew that I had some relatives in Ogallala and this is why I headed west. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense now, but back then I was twenty years old and all I wanted was an excuse to hit the road and head west. Relatives in Ogallala: sounds good to me. (I later did meet these relatives in Ogallala back in 1983–just before I hitchhiked to California for the first time.)

The train was now going down the tracks at a pretty good clip. I was absolutely enjoying everything about life on a flatcar when I saw this Nebraska Highway Patrol drive by on U.S. 30. I smiled and waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. He gave me a dirty look. It was then that I began to think that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be riding this freight train.

I didn’t think it was illegal to hop freight trains (but that maybe some people might frown on it). My great-grandfather, who was born in County Roscommon in Ireland, lived for thirteen years in Australia herding sheep and prospecting for gold. He came to America and settled down in southwest Iowa. He used to ride freight trains between Iowa and western Nebraska all the time. But that was back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I began to think that sitting on this flatcar in plain sight of everybody was not such a good idea.

The train rolled through Central City and soon began to slow down. As the train slowly made its way through the small town of Chapman, there was this cop in his car stopped at the intersection. I smiled and waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. Then I began to get this sinking feeling. Maybe I better get off of this train ASAP.

Well, the train stopped maybe a quarter of a mile from where the cop was sitting. I saw the cop car back up and drive down the service road that ran parallel with the tracks. He stopped his car next to my flatcar and motioned for me to get off the train.

I looked at him and said, “Who me?”

He nodded his head as if to say, “Yes, you.”

I put my socks and boots back on and climbed off of the flatcar. I didn’t like this one bit.

I got in the car and the cop told me that it was illegal to ride freight trains. He drove me to Central City to the police station. He said that he was going to contact the “U.P.” (Union Pacific) detectives and see if they wanted to prosecute me.

I sat at the police station as the officer phoned the Union Pacific. The guys in the jail asked me why I was there. I told them that I got caught riding a freight train. They howled in laughter. I sort of laughed, but not really.

The officer hung up the phone and told me that the Union Pacific didn’t want to prosecute. He told me to get back in the car and that he would drive me east to the county line.

As we drove east on U.S. 30, the cop asked, “So Tim, do you ever think about where you will go when you die?”

I answered, “Yeah, I think about it all the time.”

So he began to tell me about Jesus and the Gospel. We had an intense talk. I was not yet a Christian, but this cop definitely sowed some good seeds into me. I asked Christ into my life two years later. Getting caught on a freight train by a Christian cop was definitely the hand of God–but I didn’t know it at the time.

I was restless and seeking something: truth, beauty, literary aspirations, freedom from Adamic slavery. I dropped out of high school twice because it was so oppressive and unchallenging. I was hungry and desperate. Heaven was on my mind. I was looking for God, but did not know how to truly access Him. In July 1980, I was not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.

The cop dropped me off in the middle of somewhere. It was ten o’clock at night, it was hot and humid and I forgot to fill up my water bottle back in Central City. I was not a happy camper. I thanked the officer for the ride and he turned around and drove west into the Nebraska night.

The next town was six miles away. So I walked past the corn fields and the hay fields of eastern Nebraska. I was thirsty. The noise of diesel engines roaring away pumping water into irrigation circles could be heard as I walked back east.

Eventually, I made it to the small town of Duncan. I found a water hydrant and drank a ton of water. I then found a pickup parked next to the railroad tracks. I climbed into the cab of the pickup and slept there that night.

The next morning, I walked to the shoulder of U.S. 30 and began thumbing for a ride to Columbus. Within half an hour, some guy walked up to the pickup that I had slept in the night before and drove off in it. Sometimes it is a good idea to get up early in the morning.

I got a ride to Columbus. This guy took me to the bus station. I met a lady there that helped me pay for a bus ticket to Des Moines. I got on the bus and it went through Omaha. I got off in Adel, Iowa that evening. Adel is just west of Des Moines on U.S. 6.

I phoned a friend in Ames. He picked me up in Adel and drove me back to Ames. He thought that it was funny that I hitchhiked to Nebraska and hopped a freight train. He thought it was really funny that a cop told me to get off the train. I didn’t think it was so funny.

[Originally published by]

Iowa Blackie
The First Time I Rode a Freight Train & other hitchhiking stories
Hobo Shoestring–King of the Rails
The Life of a Hobo
Stobe the Hobo


6 responses to “The First Time I Rode a Freight Train

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  1. When the cop dropped me off, the last thing he said to me was, “Remember: pray without ceasing.”

  2. Pingback: Dubois, Wyoming | The Road

  3. I’ve been stopped by a guy in a pick-up truck in Columbus, NE, who took offence of me taking a photo of one of the buildings he owned, he thought I belonged to some gang and wanted to rob his house later that night, and he must have been following me for about 15 minutes. He wanted to call the cops and it took a lot of convincing him I hadn nothing of the sort in mind – he told me that he had been in Ireland where his ancesters where from and I had to remind him that he most probably took a photo of somebody’s house one that trip too – that seemed to convince him.

  4. People are funny, aren’t they? Some people are just too paranoid. I have hitchhiked through Columbus, NE a number of times over the years. I also did some hitchhiking in Ireland in the early 1980s.

    Here are some great photos of North Dakota:

    “A State of Existing, North Dakota”

  5. Pingback: The First Time I Rode a Freight Train & other hitchhiking stories | The Road

  6. Pingback: The Life of a Hobo | The Road

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