The Underground World of Real Life Vagabonds

Years ago, over drinks one night, my clean-cut yuppie roommate turned to me and said: “F**k it. We should just quit our jobs and ride the rails around the U.S.”

He was rarely serious about such ludicrous, idealistic off-the-cuff comments. But the sincerity in his voice told me that if I was on board (so to speak), we’d leave tomorrow.

We were both 22 years old and it was one of those ideas that, at the time, made sense and seemed without real consequence. But I told him he was nuts and we both raised our beers and got up the next day for our morning return to cubicle hell. Part of me wondered: do people really still do that? I pictured Boxcar Willie in stained corduroys, a tattered wide-brimmed hat, and the requisite bottle of Old Granddad.

As it turns out, the vagabond lifestyle is alive and well.

Railway Vagabonds

Railway Vagabonds

Railway Vagabonds

Railway Vagabonds

This intriguing, heartbreaking and poignant photo essay tells the tale. (Warning: contains some graphic photos)

All photos © Ziza.es

About The Author

Mike Richard
Founding Editor
Google+

Mike Richard is a Rhode Island native, professional web designer and travel junkie with an unhealthy addiction to backpacking, hiking and seeing the world. He enjoys knit hats, small, declarative sentences and speaking in the third person. His other professional credits include "Woman's World magazine contributor" and having once been interviewed by Tyra Banks (seriously).

77 Responses

  1. Ben

    I too have always wondered whether people actually still hopped trains, and I was really enjoying the set – then the last shot killed it for me.

    Seriously, a f*cking possum?! They’re going to eat a possum?!?!

    Reply
  2. Crystal

    I hang out with train hoppers and squatters at times.. but they’re usually crust-punks. The kids in these pictures look like gypsies lol

    Reply
  3. al "hopper" costantopolous

    ive been thru the mill. train hopping myself for 10 yrs. “hopper” was known by, bridgeport, ct. spent most of my misery in new orleans. that was my bi-polar without meds journey. yes, its real. very real. gutterpunks, runaways, vagabonds, whatever u callem. its just a way of life thats been around as long as the freight train.

    Reply
  4. Charles

    Hello All,

    I have been back and forth to Richmond,VA and am by no means a hopper. Whenever I am on Carey St. in Richmond. I see a group of these “Hoppers” and most times I hand them a few bucks. I became curious and found this site and others with the same photo essay. Does anyone know who took the photos and where they were taken . One of the guys in the set was in Richmond this weekend. There should be more about these modern day vagabonds. They seem like very interesting people. Maybe a little on the edge but it seems like that is what life’s about, especially that particular life style.

    Reply
  5. Emily

    Of course it is.
    The thing is is that you have to be very discreet and not ruin it for other hoppers.
    Once you hop….you’ll never stop

    Reply
  6. matt

    Hey, these guys are just surviving, you might think it strange but its just another lifestyle different from the large group, and I respect them for the decisions.

    Reply
  7. Coyote

    I’m finally picking up and going nomadic/vagabond myself. Maybe I’ll run into some of these folks one day, who knows?

    For all the nay-sayers:

    Get over yourselves. They’re not forcing you to live like this. For some it’s a conscious choice, for others it’s merely the best/only option available.

    Live and let live. :)

    Reply
  8. Daniel

    This seems as though these were once privileged kids who decided to try hoboing it for a while. Indications being the nice guitar, the pots, and some expensive attire despite the fact that it is covered in filth. I can understand the curiosity but don’t understand the shack as the whole point of hoboing is to have no ties and to be one place one day and another the next.

    Reply
  9. possum

    hope you all learn how to hit a bn hotshot on the fly ive been ridin 25 years it gets in youre blood be careful dont try to hop the silver bullet its no fun ha possum alias critter

    Reply
  10. amber

    i admire everyone that hops trains,
    id like to try it someday i think but i havent really decided.
    i hangout with trainhoppers and street kids sometimes,
    and they’re my favorite people to be around.
    they have the best stories and you can tell they are happy about what they do.
    It seems addicting and for some reason i find myself attracted to these people.
    if i could surround myself with them all the time i definately would.
    (:

    Reply
  11. Terry the Troubadour

    I know that train hopping is commonly associated with being a vagabond. But it is much more than that. A vagabond is a drifter, someone who travels a lot by any means-hitch hiking, walking, biking, caravan/rv and of coarse train hopping. We are artists, musicians, and even just aimless wanderers who live on the fringe of society doing what ever comes our way. A Vagabond has no job or anything to tie them down, we live in the moment and are ready to travel at a moments notice. Adventure is our life and enjoying the journey is the purpose. Cheers everyone – to Life

    Reply
  12. Andr0id

    I have been vagabonding around the country for a while hopping trains and hitchhicking… it has been amazing and I would highly recommend it. Just go with poeple who have been doing it and road dog it with them

    Reply
  13. same mine

    i ranaway very young from the USA. spent years on the streets. eventually broke away from the people that sold me.
    i met other street kids, i found it easier to survive on my own.
    made it to the east coast …. for about 4- 5 times.. lost count, went everywhere.

    i stayed with the rainbow tribe for awhile, lived out of a purple school bus, did alot of LSD.

    i got into hopping trains and hopped from St. Lawrence Kansas and ended up in Regina Saskatchewan Canada.

    Now im a Canadian citizen in the Northwest Territtories and i may go to Nunavut this July.

    Reply
  14. Jerome Peterson

    I hitchhiked across country with a dog and guitar. Met so many interesting people. I even met a rodeo cowboy who hitchhike from Canada to Dallas every year. I lost my stero-type thinking and found myself. I also hopped the freights. It was great–sometimes scary but so is driving freeways. From these experiences I wrote a book and it has been published. If interested email me at jeromep21303@yahoo.com. It’s in the journey.

    Reply
  15. Jesse Chaos

    Yeah its real you fucks!!!!!!!!!
    “Gutter punk Rock n’ Roll” I wrote the song

    Reply
  16. jazz

    i love this
    i live in a very popular
    street kid town

    its the portland of the south
    asheville NC

    New kids come every summer
    many of them just left last week
    and its hard spending all summer with such interesting unique individuals only for them to leave

    some come back next year
    and some i’ve never seen again

    keep wandering kids
    lost colony!

    Reply
  17. Reptilicus

    But what about lack of showers? Oral hygiene? Hunger? The cold? Man, what a tough life it must be at times.

    Reply
  18. Jesse Chaos

    Yeah and the bugs down in San Fran. really suck!!! You should try them sometime

    Reply
  19. girrard mandraft

    i think this would be a good psychological experience. understanding what its like to have nothing but fleeting friendships that parallel this impermanent existence.

    however–
    this type of lifestyle is extremely unhealthy. what is one to do if they develop cancer and tumors. am i being naive? are they to be left behind like a sick wolf? to suffer and die in the forest or may i say train yard?

    Reply
  20. Josh

    Hey everyone, I’m thinking about wandering around for a couple years next fall. I’m sure it’ll be tough, and I don’t really know what I’m getting into. But I suppose that’s the way it is. I just want to go. my main concern is that I plan on taking my guitar, and I plan on going alone. I was just wondering how I could not get my guitar stolen when I’m sleeping. Any advice would help. Thanks. :)

    Reply
  21. Jerome Peterson

    Hey Josh, I’ve hitched myself with a guitar and I’m telling you it ain’t easy. However in answer to your question what I would suggest is to sleep in areas where there isn’t a lot of people. If that isn’t going to work then consider tucking it in with you at night. You could also tie a rope from you to the instrument. Conceal the rope of course. Hope these suggestions help and good luck. If you don’t mind carrying a bit more baggage take along a tape recorder. You never know what the creative juices might conjure up. Hope these suggestions help. Good luck. thumbflagging.blogspot.com jeromep21303@yahoo.com

    Reply
  22. Josh

    Those ideas were something along the lines of what I was thinking. But I hadn’t thought of tucking it in at night. Thanks alot for the suggestions.

    Reply
  23. Kenneth Casper

    This type of thing is the future–unhealthy, exciting, interesting, nowhere else to go, not chosen, just accepted, not new; but when you got no job and no hope, you’re stuck.

    Reply
  24. dza

    dont bring your guitar, you’ll end up pawning it for crack rock. if you see a white truck driving around the train yard. flag them down, they’ll give you great information on where the trains are going and where you can hide. also make sure you wear the lightest colored clothes you have so you are visable for the train conductors at night. safe travels!

    Reply
  25. chuck

    Hahaha Dont flag down the white truck they are rail police a.k.a the bull, they will kick you off the yard, as well the one time i have worn light clothing i have got busted and spent two nights in jail… not fun i suggest wearing dark clothing. There is no real good way of finding out the trains destination except some of the rail workers kickin cars will give you some idea. It can get really cold on a freight train even in the summer sometimes, always be prepared to go through mountains. You should bring a cloth to wet and cover your mouth when going through a tunnel, diesel fumes can be intoxicating. And lastly, if you dont think you c can make it on the train, you probably cant. Be safe!! nont walk on the trax and ont jump umder cars

    Reply
  26. chuck

    haha bad spelling (if you dont think you can make it on the train you probably cant. be safe and dont walk on the tracks , or duck under cars or jump on the coupler, train can start moving at any minute and you dont want to be in the way of some 25,000hp

    Reply
  27. Angel

    One of the kids in those pics is a friend of mine. I traveled with him for a while.

    Reply
  28. Trainrider

    Rhode Island brings back memories.

    It was in Providence waiting for the bus to go home to Greenwood. I stopped at a dinner in front of City Hall for a cup of coffee and piece of pie and as I paid realized I just spent my bus fare. The guy on the next stool saw my dismay. He told me what to do. Leaving the dinner I went past the bus stop up to the railroad station but followed the street under the underpass and then scrambled up the back of it. There was a chain link fence between me and the tracks. I walked along it and right where the diner guy said it had been cut and you could pull it apart like a curtain. I could see the slow freight approaching, stopping to wait for a passenger train. I tossed my books into a box car and climbed in. After a while the train began to move. I stood in the door way looking out and after a half hour or so I recognized a red tower and knew we were coming to Hillsgrove. The train began to slow down. When it was really slow I threw my book bag ahead of me, sat on the floor and pushed myself off. It seemed like the train was slow but I still fell down and scratched myself a little but I was wearing blue jeans and my jacket was buttoned and I was OK. The train continued on, more slowly at first and then picking up speed. I cut across a field to Jefferson Boulevard and then walked a couple of miles home. As I got to the Greenwood Bridge I saw the bus I would have taken if I had the fare. I was cold and dirty but home and safe.

    Reply
  29. Kenneth Casper

    Like Fred Sanford told his mother about his choice of vocations–”That’s where the future is, Mama.” “Where Freddie?” “Junk.” The trouble is that during the 1930′s everybody had a sense of kindness. I don’t sense that in people willing to use the “F” word at everyone and everything.

    Reply
  30. chris

    THE NAME OF THE AUTHOR IS THE POLAROID KID, A HOPPER WHO FOUND A TEN SHOT CAMERA NEAR THE RAILROAD AND PICTURED HIS FRIENDS AND LIFESTYLE

    Reply
  31. Andy

    Doing this soon. One year and I’m dropping off the grid with a backpack and living the life

    Reply
  32. sancho

    i have bee though some hard times
    you yuppies suburbanite throw your happy lives into a shit storm go ahead get raped and stabbed and jacked for frost
    ive been hitch hikeing for over 7 years and train hopped once and spent alot of tiem at a yard

    Reply
  33. jim

    I’m from New Orleans and spent the years of 2005-2009 on the street as a junky. I’ve since gotten sober, however, New Orleans is a mecca for trian hoppers. I’ve met, and slept with these kids. They are, for lack of a better word, scum. And this is coming from an ex-junky. They are, believe it or not, superficial, unaccepting, and they will tell you that they hate junkies, but then when they catch you by yourself, they want to know where the good smack is at. They’re liars, thiefs, etx etc. I know this because i was one. They’re all trust fund kids. Very seldom do you see old hoppers or gp’s. They experience it, then go back to mommy and daddy and their money. Poor saps. fuck em.

    Reply
  34. James aka VegaS

    Very well done!! I rode the rails as well when I was 16 for a while. Drinking spacebags of wine and hiding from the bull.. I count my blessings everyday for my escape..They call themselves ‘kids’ and for good reason.
    Troubles and other factors made me rebel into punk rock and soon I turned to the streets. That is a lifestyle for sure..but not if you want to live by god..

    Reply
  35. James aka VegaS

    James again.. Jim you pretty much sumed up all there is to say about the self proclaimed ‘Scum Fucks’.
    I was jumped in philly by the same crew who taught me to ride the trains and they took my boots, my leather, my sweater, and my fucking hat. I was left bleeding and drunk. Dude that sucked but thats when I seriously realized that god was right there gettin his ass kicked (so to speak) alongside me. I found my way back home and got a job.

    Reply
  36. Housy

    its a fun way to get around. i have been stuck in the same town for a couple of months now just wanna get on a train.

    Reply
  37. Jordan Rae

    Mike, you’re an answer to prayer. I haven’t read all the comments. This is your only post I’ve ever read, but I’ll keep reading. Wish I had more time to share, but I’m actually running late on my lunch break to cubicle hell.

    Reply
  38. Vince

    “Liars, thieves, scum, addicts, perverts, drunks…” Clean them up and dress them in expensive suits and you have Wall Street Banksters, lawyers, and Congresscritters. Thanks to these “Street” (Wall and K) people many more of us may be trying out this way of life. I’m 58….not a good time to start.

    Reply
  39. Vince

    There’s a reason that “professional” drifters such as the Roma and native tribes travel(ed) in groups…you need someone you trust to watch your back. What chance does a loner have to even get a good night’s sleep?

    “The trouble is that during the 1930’s everybody had a sense of kindness. I don’t sense that in people willing to use the “F” word at everyone and everything.”

    And I’d bet that most of the “jungles” of that time are gone, too.

    Reply
  40. dirty kid bob

    of course people still hop freight. we’re dirty kids. we’re vagabonds, nomads, train riders, hoppers, lost boys, and adventurers. it can be hard, but its always worth it. as soon as i left my small hometown in new hampshire, i was hooked, and i’ll travel for the rest of my life. the road and the rails are my home.
    scumfucs are like that man, but if your a kid, and you meet just about any kid on the road, you know your family. i love seeing other hoppers and travelers on the road. we always talk and share where we been and stories, and help eachother out anyway we can. of course there are assholes, but theres assholes in every group. don’t let the few shitty kids make you think we’re all like that. we’re family. we help eachother anyway we can.

    Reply
  41. dirty kid bob

    and i think dza was talkin about the crew change van, not the bull. you can usually talk to workers and crew change drivers.

    Reply
  42. kevin

    It’s been sometime since I’ve last traveled. My life sill hasn’t come close to what it was like then. See ya soon!

    Reply
  43. E.C. Bill

    I Know its real, Its a life style my Familys for decades ,some of us are even born into it with storys of our parents and Grandparents. allthough The rail is no longer where im living right now When im on the main land I meet many still riding freight trains and for having Insterments and what not, thats the way of the busk when your in town

    Reply
  44. Jason

    Ive recently been hitchiking the eastern and soutern usa but im geeting tired to wait hours and days to get rides so Ill jump trains for western usa thats for sure!!
    By the way im really upset to those traveller that beg and show sign like(homeless please help),FUCK THAT! Stand up and look for jobs damn they are every where(maybe minimum wage) but better than nothing.And if you dont find nothing go to the next town it always work I swear .You can be homeless with class and dignity.Come on have more self respect for yourselves.

    Reply
  45. shere

    I’m very intrigued by this sort of lifestyle. I’m interested in the sorts of experiences female’s have had at this? Who did you go with or did you travel alone, would you recommend it?

    Reply
  46. Jp bnsf junkie

    Hey dirty kid bob i got hop my first ride was last summer went to seattle from akron ohio met lots of kids mouth was the coolest props to eli in seattle too ,,caught a bnsf hot shot out of the interbay yard rode to white fish montana then in that yard got off the train at a clip and move threw the yard it was 6:00 am so no bull around but a csx ds with two d9s pulled in wbd and i climbed in the first red well i saw haha which was two big mistakes kinda cus why is csx in montana and i should of rode a grain shuttle west and ds east right? Ha fun shit got back to washington made the switch to seattle not pasco which was good cus we were out of water for three days cus trainwreck threw his fuckin gallon of in spkane any way im back in akron got new gear going down south to flordia, asheville, tennesse , nola, texas then mayb back here to the base then cali for winter n portland eugene olympia n seattle again

    Reply
  47. lee

    hey, i am curious, what do street kids generally think about God? i think there may be a few that would like to be right with God and know Him personally, but feel too ashamed, or like they have gone “too far” for them to have that chance…but i am reminded of the criminal who hung on the cross next to Jesus…feeling remorse for his lifestyle, and believing in Christ, he said, “Remember me when u enter Your kingdom”, and Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise!”

    Reply
  48. James aka VEGAS

    OI Lee, I have posted here before, look up a bit and you’ll find my name..
    Very young I chose this way of life. I was there. Gutter punk. Traveler. Train hopper. Whatever the hell you wanna call it. I did it. No regrets.
    But the most beautiful thing happened to me one day. God saw me. Pist. Drunk. Young. Angry. Dangerous. And in danger.
    After having the clothes forcefully ripped off my back he showed himself to me, when I had nothing more to lose and that night I realized that God is here to help me, not hurt me. If I hadent made the decisions I made ats a youngster, I wouldnt have such strong faith. I constantly say to myself “for me to deny you now would be pure apathy”. I will never forget what I learned on the streets… How to live…

    Reply
  49. James aka VEGAS

    OI Lee I hope that answers your question. I’m doing quite well these days..
    To this day when I see a traveler hitching or flyin a sign I pull over and offer my help in any way I can.
    Take a little, give a lot. Some people are selfish, I see that. No worries, I’m living the best I can and doing my best to help others do the same, however they choose to go about it. Cheers
    OI OI M.P.K, STRAIGHT GUTTER!!!!!!! OI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    (Something I would chant when I was in the crew lol)

    Reply
  50. Gator

    I miss it ridding, i don’t miss going to jail for 30days at a time. There’s nothing like the smell of train oil, or waking up in a box dehydrated ’cause you drank 2 handles of whiskey and you can’t tell if you’re near a town or in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. It’s getting harder these days ’cause of Home Land Security n’ what not. The last time i got caught they said it was ’cause they have these new sensors that xray the whole train. That’s when i stopped doing it so much. I already do enough stuff to harm my body, i don’t need CSX adding more.

    Reply
  51. Juli

    I honestly love train hopping. it’s been my life for about a year now and i really never want to do anything else. In regards to shere, I started out with a kid who had been traveling for quite some time and he showed me the ropes, and no, i don’t generally travel alone. It’s definatly getting harder to hop, i still do, it’s just all about being smart and hidden, but I love what I do!

    Reply
  52. Rooster

    I’m only 16 but I’ve been train hopping around with my buddy and my pet rat. It’s the life man.

    Reply
  53. 48-er

    For sure FTRA rode with them couple of years Some are highly inteligent , just wanting to get out of society for a while. Some fun and a lot of heartaches.

    Reply
  54. AlphaOmega

    Are these for real? I looked this up after looking at this blog :http://crustypunks.blogspot.com/
    What is interesting is if you click on the pic link on this site, I’m reposting here: http://ziza.es/2007/07/23/page,1,3,La_vida_de_vagabundos_americanos_42_fotos.html
    If you look at the man in the top right of the 1st pic, and compare him to the 3rd man down on crustypunks with the title: “I don’t know what these cops are doing. Fucking assholes.”, it’s the -same dude-!! He just has the full on beard in the pic on crustypunks.
    The main issue I have with the credibility of many of these pics- the way they have such a strong aesthetic- I believe either these are the more exceptional looking crustys or that this is a project in fiction by the photographer who is very accomplished and taught at numerous colleges.
    The posters at the top of the boards ask the same,so I’m assuming this really is an exaggeration of reality as I highly doubt you could train hop in this day and age especially with the security needs.
    IF you could do this, no doubt terrorists would chose to exploit it and attack a train as it rolls into a major metro area.

    Reply
  55. AlphaOmega

    @Vince well, basically we have mass sociopathic behavior among the elite class which treats everyone else as scum. They say they don’t have slavery anymore, yeah right, just look at any service based industry. If you work in one of the lower paid customer service jobs,if you make one mistake and get upset at an abusive customer, you can say goodbye to your j o b!
    The upper-class has decided all of us lower-class “peasants” are replaceable, that we won’t complain about all the tax breaks to the wealthy,and we won’t do anything about the wars.

    Reply
  56. Jerome Peterson

    The photos are outstanding capture in the moment depicting an alternative lifestyle that many of us turn away from or simply think it is cool. What gets me is a majority of these vagrants have enough money to smoke, drink, and get tattooed. Their language as well as their perception towards police and working society is typical; elementary. Their views and opinions are those of victims. Traveling and being a bum is fine but don’t blame people for their reaction towards a choice.

    what life

    Reply
  57. Bakka

    I think a lot of people here have misconceptions about these people, For example Alpha Omega. I promise you train hopping is still possible and is practiced widely throughout the country by these people (I plan on hopping trains at some point) And the pictures are real as well as the people in them, Some photographer with a fancy camera decided these people need to be documented. These people are referred to as “Crusties” and are an interesting fringe culture hybrid falling somewhere in between a Punk rocker and a gypsy. Check out this website, lots of crusties post pictures of themselves and their friends and make fun of them. It’s sort of like “Punk” humor so most of you probably wont understand the jokes but there’s LTOS of interesting pictures. More than any site listed above. http://www.latfo.com
    The term “Oogle” basically means someone who is “homeless by choice” or have a house to go back to. The thing most people miss is these people aren’t trying to “pretend to be homeless” or anything of the like, they simply want to travel the country in the most amazing way imaginable, as well as free.
    http://www.Latfo.com

    Reply
  58. Abia The Cat

    When the autumn winds blow,
    then I have to go
    and find what it is I’m yearning for.
    ———————————————–
    Taking care of my old, dying mother keeps me under an asphalt roof sleeping in a bed with a mattress. Once she’s gone on to Jesus, I hope, I’m getting back to the one life I was truly happy living. I didn’t own much, only had one key (my car key), and there was always enough money to take care of what needed taking care of. The less you own, it owns you less.

    Reply
  59. Eight Year Old

    About the whole “Cancer, poor dental hygiene,” etc. etc… That isn’t what a lot of us are concerned about, man. The way I look at it, riding the rails, hitchin’, roaming, and living every day as it comes is a better alternative then going to school, so i can get into college, so i can get a job, so i can make money, so i can buy shit i dont need, just so they can make enough money to make more shit to buy. then, at 65, you die of some stupid cancer or shit. Thats not for me, id rather live on the rails til my body is done for. Consumerists can live to be 65-90 yrs. old b/c months and years fly by, but for vagabonds, every day is like a week, every second is an hour. life slows down when you HAVE to survive, instead of just go to work and the grocery store. ***DUMPSTER YOUR FOOD/CONSIDER VEGANISM***

    Reply
  60. astupidbum

    It would probably be best to avoid riding with strangers in the same car, once you get into a boxcar with people you dont know you are in there with them until the train stops so you could easily get robbed or killed or even raped by a homosexual.

    Definetly carry a folding knife of some kind and maybe a decent size stick, At least then you have a fighting chance unless the creep has a gun then your pretty much screwed anyway.

    Main thing is if you run into other people hopping the same train as you feel them out first and just use your instincts, If you get a funny feeling about someone then trust your spidey senses and stay away from them.

    Reply
  61. tjaxon

    im looking to trian hop this summer for the first time and i need someone to show me the ropes. where do i find these people locally, or online???

    Reply
  62. jp

    tjaxon what state you near ,and
    email me i might be able to take you
    or hook u up with some kids

    Reply
  63. Time

    (Some of the comments in the album there, I laughed hysterically at).
    I really liked the album. The vagabond lifestyle has a seriously misunderstood beauty. It’s a raw freedom that the bravest of us have to, (or sometimes choose to), embrace. Waking up and having you’re day be just for yourself and those you love, every day. It’s a privilege that most people very seldom experience in their work-a-day lives. I’m surprised there’s pictures like this on the internet, I thought this was virtually invisible.

    Reply

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