In 'Two Trains Running,' Lucius Shepard takes to the rails, for
journalism and for fiction
Reviewed by John Mark Eberhart
March 28, 2004
There is an America that has slipped from our ken, a place of freight
trains, shadows and hoboes, a past in which the land itself seemed to
be in motion.
Most of us, of course, knew this place only from movies or books
inspired by the Depression. For a few strange and hardy souls,
though, that shifting place continues to be their odd reality.
Yes, hobo culture lives, and writer Lucius Shepard found it. The
result of his quest is a remarkable new book, "Two Trains Running."
The trains of the title refer, of course, to those mighty engines of
hoboes' dreams, but also to Shepard's approach. In these pages do run
two narrative trains, one fact, the other fiction. The book begins
with a piece of participatory journalism in which Shepard rode the
rails himself, risking his life for his essay. Not content, Shepard
also turned his experiences into a novella and a short story.
Shepard's fantasy work has become a cornerstone of the genre. Since
1985, when he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he
has bagged every major honor in fantasy and science fiction,
including a Hugo, a Nebula and two World Fantasy Awards. Thus, the
brawny fiction here comes as no surprise.
Fewer are familiar with his journalism. In 1998 Shepard was
commissioned by Spin magazine to do an article on the Freight Train
Riders of America, a loose group of tramps that some law enforcement
officers were blaming for murders and other mayhem in rail yards and
freight cars across America.
For several months, the writer, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., took
to the rails. "Catching out" on a moving freight train is a dangerous
enough business – many have lost lives trying to do so, and others,
limbs. Hobnobbing with hoboes – including those reputed to be running
afoul of the law in ways more serious than trespassing in train
yards – added to the danger.
Shepard's article appeared in the July 1998 Spin, but it was cut and
edited. The version that appears in "Two Trains Running" is an
expanded, unedited version, and it's a marvel.
It's not that Shepard solves the mystery of the "hobo mafia" in "The
FTRA Story." He comes away with the belief that both lawmen and
hoboes have distorted the facts. No, what's remarkable about
Shepard's story is that he has rediscovered for us the fusion of
romance, peril and exuberance of riding the trains and living life on
one's own terms, outside society's rules.
In the book's introduction, Shepard laments the tendency to
"Surrounded by violence, generally in poor health, afflicted with
psychological difficulties resulting from the stress of their day-to-
day existence, they all passed a significant portion of their time in
states of aggravation, fear, anxiety, and delirium."
So why, Shepard wonders, do they choose such lives?
"When I would press them as to the reason they continued to live as
they did, the vast majority responded in kind: the trains."
"The FTRA Story" is at its best not when striving to sort out the
facts about the organization, but rather when it examines what makes
a man or woman (yes, there are female hoboes, who face even more
perils than their male counterparts) drop out of society and into a
boxcar bound for nowhere.
Freights go places that no automobile, no passenger train, no bus can
go: through isolated canyons, mountain passes or along rivers known
by all but not knowable in certain ways except by the rail rider.
"I'm riding in a boxcar south along the Columbia River," Shepard
writes, "which must be nearly a mile wide at this point, and it's
hard to tell which is the reflecting medium and which is the source
of light – the river, every eddy bearing a captive glint, or the
starry sky above. The towering hills that follow the watercourse show
dark and nearly featureless, all but their lowermost reaches in
shadow, making it appear that the curtain of night has been gathered
into great black folds at the edge of the bright stage it delimits."
In addition to such beauty, Shepard finds violence. He himself is
threatened, and he hears stories of brutality. Whether the FTRA truly
is a "hobo mafia," its members aren't exactly bankers (or even
writers). One recent phenomenon that draws the wrath of the true hobo
is the "yuppie rider," a person who lives in the real world and holds
a regular job, but joyrides the freights in his or her spare time.
As one hobo explains to Shepard, "People are setting up Eddie Bauer
tents in the (hobo) jungles. Walking around with scanners and hiking
boots. You take a stroll through a place where everybody's starving,
and you're packing a bag of groceries, what you expect's gonna
happen? The rails is where we live, man. It ain't a ... theme park."
For all their grimness (hoboes will turn on each other, too), Shepard
finds in them also an innocence in their love of the trains. Shepard
captures that love not only in his nonfiction piece but also
in "Yonder." In the novella, a hobo with the aptly colorful moniker
of Billy Long Gone catches out on a freight one night that proves to
be a different kind of train – maybe an analog of that "Mystery
Train" Elvis sang about.
Whatever it is, this train is sinister, and it takes Billy out of
life itself – maybe to another dimension, maybe into hobo purgatory,
and ultimately into a kind of afterlife both more awesome and less
defined than any story of heaven or hell Billy ever heard.
Shepard's descriptions, in Billy's voice, are superb in this long
yarn, but they are descriptions in service of explicating, once
again, why someone would choose to live on trains:
"The scale of the mountains, the strangeness of all else – it was too
grand to breed fear, too foreign to inspire other than wonder, and
too startling to allow the formation of any plan. Hobos, for all
their degenerate failings, have an aesthetic. They're scenery
junkies, they take pride in traveling through parts of their country
few have ever seen, and they memorialize those sights ... they'll
swap stories about the natural beauty of the world with the
enthusiasm of kids trading baseball cards."
Or, as a rider in Shepard's "FTRA" piece more succinctly puts
it: "Man, ain't it fun!"
Well, perhaps – provided one doesn't get one's head busted open with
an ax handle, or get hauled off to jail by a railyard "bull."
Shepard's final piece, "Jailbait," is a good short story, but coming
after "The FTRA Story" and "Yonder," it can't help but feel like
anticlimax. And that's despite its saucy heroine, a teen rail rider
named Grace who proves much tougher than one might imagine.
"Yonder" has its flaws, too. Though Billy's movement between worlds
or life stages is supposed to make him "smarter," it's still hard to
reconcile his bad grammar and coarse patter with the lofty musings
that are supposed to be coming through in his voice.
Overall, though, "Two Trains Running" is a tour de force that
captures all the untamed life of hoboes and their beloved machines. I
wouldn't choose such a life; few of us would.
But that's what books are for: To give us visions of other worlds.