Rail Travel Through Ogden the Hard Way

I found these two in Union Station’s grand lobby, pondering the murals and railroad equipment. I pondered them and was struck, visually, by the guy’s really cool tattoo.

“I just like trains,” he told me, but that’s not just any train, it’s a steam engine plowing along, armpit-to-armpit.

Travis Ripwell, 23, said he’s been traveling by rail without benefit of Amtrak or tickets or any other technicalities for the past six years. Emily Rothman, 19, said this is her first trip. Both have the brown and lean look of folks who’ve been living rough for a while. Their packs are huge, dangling boots and water bottles and other impedimenta.

Travis said they’re from the Tallahassee area of Florida, but started this particular trip in New Orleans.

He rattled off their trip-tic: New Orleans to Waycross to Savannah, then Baltimore, Richmond, Ashville, Knoxville, Nashville, Chicago, Pocatello and finally Ogden.

They did that all on freights. They did a little side-trip to Salt Lake City where they picked up a few bucks playing guitar and washboard on the street, climbed Ensign Peak just to look around, and then came back to Ogden. They hope to catch a freight here heading west to the Oakland/Bay area.

Travis Ripwell and Emily Rothman take

a break from trainhopping.

Riding the rails is tough, he said. The railroad bulls will throw you off the train or, worse, in jail, so he said they depend on word of mouth information to stay out of trouble.

In Pocatello “they have zero tolerance, they will throw you in jail for 30 days,” he said. The tactic is to get off the train before it hits town, go to the other end of town and get on again.

The grapevine is good for travel information, he said.

“It’s kind of just basic information, if you know where the train is running, you know where it goes.”

Riding the rails is safer than hitchhiking,  he said. The gangs that used to ride the rails, beating up and killing people, seem to have faded, so he said he feels reasonably safe.

I sure hope so.

Let’s be clear: Riding the rails is insanely dangerous. Getting on and off freight cars is beyond hazardous, especially carrying heavy back packs like these two are. The weight of the pack can pull you back and off, under those wheels.

Years ago I met a guy in the Ogden yards once who was missing a leg lost to a train. He said he watched the train wheel cut through it like a hot knife through butter.

Travis and Emily were in Union Station looking to pick up a few train-related souvenirs, asked the way to the post office so they could mail some stuff home, and set off again. When they get to Oakland, he said, they’ll “get a pizza and then go to northern California and look for work.”

“Be safe,” I told them, and off they went.