Editor's note: Reporter Tim Speier met with Wes and Mason in Willmar, Minnesota, in June 2021, when these interviews were conducted. In the months since, both Wes and Mason have left Willmar for Illinois, where they were staying at the time of publication.
“But then for me, I'll just carry maybe one or two cans of food,” Wes continued. “I'll sip off that gallon of water, and then I have my sleeping bag.”
His bag was about 3 feet tall, sun-faded with a hue of grease and miles of hard traveling. It was priceless, everything he owned. A lifetime of possessions kept, based on usefulness, stuffed into one bag. Lifting his pack upright and urging me to grab it, it seemed Wes wants me to feel its weight to better understand his words.
“One line across the face represents 1,000 miles you've ridden on freight trains,” Wes said. “So I got that (tattoo), but then I also incorporate (the others) for my mom, my sister and my dad … They're not dead, don't worry.”
“I feel better if I (tattoo) myself. Like, it's not gonna hurt, at least mentally, if I'm giving myself a tattoo,” he said.
For some, being free is worth sacrificing the security and stability of a home. For others, it’s a necessity; survival means leaving to find work. A free, no-questions-asked ride that provided some with that opportunity is also the same one that could crush all hope from those tempting fate: trains.
Oftentimes, hobos or train-hoppers are looked at as “jobless” and “lazy,” but that notion is just as far from the truth today as it was in 1901, when Adolph Edsten wrote “On the road with ‘Jackie’ in harvest time,” in The Minneapolis Journal.
“The hobo is not easy either to classify or describe,” Edsten wrote. “Thus, when a freight train pulled into Casselton a fortnight ago and upward of five score men scrambled out from between the cars, dropped out of the doors, at the side or crawled painfully out from impossible places under the car, the townspeople said: ‘See that big crowd of hobos.’ As the train speeds along over the monotonous flatness and a knot of men is seen lounging about a little fire, everyone recognizes it as a ‘hobo camp.’ The hobo is not indigenous to any particular part of the country. He comes from everywhere and has as many places to go to. He has little money and therefore travels by freight.”
“While village marshals view the hobo with undisguised suspicion, yet many of the class are honest laborers, who stand to it manfully in helping the farmer gather his crop,” Edsten wrote. “The hobo of one year may be the respected harvest hand of the next and vice-versa. The line of demarcation is often not a clear one to trace; sometimes there is none to be detected.”
Learning to survive
Wes, Mason and their dogs just arrived in town by accident in June. They were aiming for Chicago and landed in Willmar, Minnesota. They clearly stood out from the crowd during Willmar Fests' Block Party.
For both Wes and Mason, troubles with life at home led them to the streets of New Orleans, where they met each other in 2015.
“I got a job in Ukiah at my buddy's legal pot farm,” Wes said. “Stacked up a couple thousand and then put my thumb out on the on-ramp and then that's when it really started. (I) went to San Francisco and then from there, I think maybe a month, month and a half later, I got to New Orleans where I met Mason.”
On the road at 13 years old, Mason said that he learned how to survive from his dad. Mason is a “second-generation” hopper, and “it's kind of all I know.”
“The things that I know are completely different from yours. A completely different version (of life). It's a whole subculture, and I belonged to it from the moment I was f-----’ 13. We all learn how to survive. You survive in society. I survive outside of it.”
Mason hopped his first train with a few friends out of Baltimore and headed to Chicago. From Chicago, he caught a train to New Orleans.
After meeting Wes on a train riding out of New Orleans, the two went their separate ways, but later found themselves traveling within the same group of friends. It didn’t take long before they both ended up in Denver and decided to travel together.
Wes said that some people can't go back into "normal society" and thrive because of mental disabilities and difficult upbringings.
“A lot of the traveling community, they don't do it by choice,” Wes said. “Even though there's the younger generation, where it's become trendy, that are doing it by choice. ... This is the only way that a lot of us know how to be happy or even just get by and survive and s---.”
Times they are a-changing
Moving from town to town in the late 1800s, hobos followed the work. They assisted with constructing the railroads and the towns around them.
“If someone walks up and they're like, ‘Hey, you want to work for like a week doing this?’ ... Well, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'll do some heavy lifting, watch you and learn something,” Mason said.
Mason talked about the need to be crafty and having a good head on your shoulders to make ends meet.
“We all have the same struggles. We just go about them in different ways,” Wes said. “If you need money and shelter, you go to work and pay rent; I'll go fly sign or play music on the street and then find a nice bridge.”
Hobos always had a set of symbols to share information with each other, including where to find food or crash safely for the night. But now, Wes said, they can just turn to the internet.
“I post on Facebook,” Wes said. “‘Hey, who's around who wants to hang out?’ And usually one or two of my friends (are) like, ‘I'm over here.’”
But for Wes and Mason, no matter where the road takes them, their dogs are the highest priority. If food and water are running low, it’s saved for the dog.
According to Wes, almost everyone on the road has an animal with them. “At the end of the day, it’s a companion” he said, and the animals are there for you. As long as you can feed them and get them on the train with you, the sky’s the limit on who or what you bring along.
“I'd say a majority do (have) some kind of animal,” said Wes. “I met this chick ... She has an iguana that she was traveling with for a while. It was called Aggro Train Lizard and he just lived on the road with her.”
Even rocks move on
“It's the highest highs but also the lowest lows that I've ever had in my life,” Wes said of life on the road.
Taking the road less traveled has its ups, such as seeing the starlight while riding a freight train through the “deserts of New Mexico.” It also has its downs, from carrying Narcan in case a friend overdoses, to learning how to use a snake bite kit to clean out MRSA before it becomes a staph infection, to giving your dog a Pedialyte enema to keep him from dying.
The road is less traveled because it is as unforgiving as it is beautiful.
The one thing always on the mind of a hopper is getting caught by railroad workers. Getting tossed off a train in a “yard” usually just means missing your ride or waiting out a shift change. Being caught and tossed far from town means walking. A lot of walking.
“It all depends on who's catching ya,” Wes said. “I've gotten tickets where if I ever get caught on (certain) property again, I go to jail. I've also had people be like, ‘bro, you can't be on here, get off,’ but then I've also made eye contact with people, like workers, and then just nothing comes from it. They just don't care; they don't snitch.”
Having all that freedom comes at a cost, and being on the road takes a toll on your body and mind. Wes talked about how people treat them as less than human.
“We constantly suffer through harassment,” he said. People always assume that “you're just a homeless drug addict.”
Both Mason and Wes said Willmar was the first town they had traveled to where they felt “humanized” and actually enjoyed talking to the mayor and the cops alike. They said it was the one time they were able to “meet people, talk to people, and have a good time without being looked down upon and judged and have the cops called on us.”
Both Wes and Mason talked about how they had both “romanticized being stable” in the same way that “normal” people think about traveling, though they still want to give “normal” life a try.
“My dad always told me not to be a lifer,” Mason said. “I think he understands the situation that I'm in, that he put me into. But he put a lot of effort into me knowing exactly how to survive at the bottom, that I don't really know how to make it at the top.”
Giving it a 'real' try
A few months after talking for this story, Wes and Mason said they were living with a friend in Illinois and had found “real jobs.”
“Traveling is just all the same,” Wes said. “Go to a new town, get drunk, get a warrant, find another town.”
Both talked about having the skills to live on the road and rails as a “backup plan” to life, used in case of emergencies. As with everything in life, time tells all.
“Maybe we don't all have the same problems or the same privileges that will help us through (life), but we're all still dealing with it and we're all going to get from A to B,” said Wes. “We're (all) going to the same place, and it's about the stories that you're bringing (with you) to the end.”
BNSF: Train-hopping remains illegal, unsafe
A BNSF spokesperson said that it is illegal to access private railroad property anywhere other than a designated pedestrian or roadway crossing. Freight-hopping or train-hopping is illegal and unsafe. When BNSF Police encounter a trespasser in Minnesota, they educate the individual on the dangers of trespassing on railroad property, they ask the trespasser to leave the property and engage the local police department if necessary.
In Minnesota, BNSF works with Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit safety education group, to educate the public on railroad safety. You can see more about their safety tips at oli.org/safety-near-trains/walking-safely-near-tracks.