THE CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS
by Fofi Littlepants
III. OTHER PARTICULARS
The following information is provided because, of the people that learned of our hitchhiking / trainhopping venture across the country, a number expressed a surprising amount of interest in the details, making particular inquiries about this mode of travel such as: how did we pay for such a trip, where did we sleep, what did we eat, whether we weren’t afraid of serial killers, tattoed truckers, the police, and the KKK?
Joey and I were able to finance this trip because we were doing remote work with non-profit organizations part-time, on a flexible basis that could accommodate our trainhopping and hitchhiking schedule (and being the responsible little people we are, we adjusted our travels to our work demands of course).
I don’t know how most hitchhikers and trainhoppers make a living. Traditional hobos by definition hopped trains to look for jobs from town to town. Of those that might be termed “tramps” (who travel for adventure), like many of the kids that we would see on the road, begging seemed to be very common: one trainhopper/hitchhiker I met on the street seemed to assume that it was part of the package ~ when I asked for advice on train routes, he happily gave me specific information on those, as well as unsolicited advice on clothing, equipment, and the most effective techniques for begging (his advice was to try to make people laugh). In addition to begging, some trainhopping kids seemed to stop and look for work for certain periods. One we met was working on a record deal and spoke about his dream of finally having something work out for him. (We didn’t meet any recreational travelers like the professional computer geeks, doctors and lawyers that Duffy Littlejohn describes (we were probably the closest to that than all the other people we met); presumably they would use their savings while on the road.)
Throughout our journey, Joey and I received multiple offers from people that wanted to give us money. We never asked for it, people would just come up to us and try to hand us some, ranging from one to twenty dollars. I guess they assumed that nobody with any financial resources would be traveling in this manner. Some people looked at us mournfully and said that they had daughters our age. One girl, who seemed to be a teenager, thought we were runaways and really wanted to give us ten dollars.
We had a general rule against taking money because we were in the habit of obsessing about social and ethical questions, and didn’t think that it would be appropriate. Wouldn’t it be disingenuous of us to take money, we thought, because people made the offer thinking we were really poor, without knowing that we had jobs? And would it take that money away from another person that really needed it? Later I heard of the term “faux-bo”, which means someone who pretends to be poor for fashion or other reasons. I certainly didn’t want to be that, and one ethical line I felt we should draw was to not exploit the kindness and sympathy of people under false pretenses.
We never accepted any offers of cash, except for $1 from a mom who said she was a recovering co-dependent who would not let us out of the car without giving us some money and saying an extremely long, drawn-out prayer for us. Though later, I wondered if we should have accepted a tiny bit from a few other people too, just because it would have made them happy to be able to help someone.
Duffy Littlejohn recommends the following gear for trainhopping: dark clothing to sneak around at night in the trainyards; food that doesn’t require cooking; lots of water; sleeping bag; cardboard for insulation; layers of clothes for cold and heat; gloves (for grabbing onto trains); bandana (for dust in tunnels); and for women, a milk carton to pee in (!). All gear together should not be more than 20 pounds, because they must be thrown on and off the train. We did our best to collect such an assortment of things, all in black.
We did have more cheerful, colorful clothes for hitchhiking though ~ we thought we might scare possible rides away if we looked like practitioners of the Dark Arts. We also had realized, after trudging away many a morning from the trainyard after a night of failed trainhopping attempts, that walking around during daytime with completely black clothing and gear is a blaring signal that you were seeking to do something illegal.
Unfortunately, while we did assemble the gear recommended by Duffy Littlejohn, we had much more: we were definitely not the romantic Depression era hobos, but internet-age railriders ~ we were loaded down with a wide variety of electronics. In addition to my Mac, I had a Blackberry with phone, email and web service, which could also be used as a modem for the laptop, plus a camera (though just a small point and shoot ~ I decided to ship away my digital SLR early because it was really way too much), an assortment of cords and cards, two computer batteries, three Blackberry batteries, plugs of all kinds, and headset to be able to make international calls on Skype. (I had also explored getting roll-up personal solar panels to juice up all this stuff, but couldn’t afford the more reliable looking ones.) We did hear that some trainhopping kids have GPS systems (!), which I was envious of ~ we just had old fashioned compasses attached to our bags, which is probably why we were lost much of the time.
Our gear was the primary reason that we ended up hitchhiking more than trainhopping. We just couldn’t get ourselves on to even the most slow-moving of trains ~ it had to be completely stopped for us to laboriously climb on safely. It was a pretty obvious lesson in life ~ carting around too much baggage really limits your freedom and options.
While Joey and I felt guilty about begging for money, we had no qualms about exploiting every free form of accomodations in the country, including squatting. Land, we figured, could never really belong to anyone, and private property was a false construct. (Further, even if land could be put in the care of a particular person/family/community, all title in the United States is suspect because it was all basically stolen from Native Americans; the only exception of course being ancestral lands in the possession of American Indian tribes.)
But we didn’t want to encroach on, offend, inconvenience or scare anyone unjustifiably, so we tried to avoid intruding into tribal lands or anyone’s homes without permission, and were careful not to litter or destroy anything.
The most socially acceptable form of accomodation we used were couches of friends. We both had friends sprinkled throughout the country, and we visited them, bummed around in their places, and amused (or bored) them with our stories as payment.
We also relied on couches of strangers. The network we relied on the most was CouchSurfing, an online community through which people offer (and utilize) free couches for travelers. CouchSurfers consider this to be a movement ~ says its website: “We strive to make a better world by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives…CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world!” One musician that offered us a place in New York was a committed Buddhist, who considered offering his prime Manhattan floor space to others as part of his Bodhisattva service.
We also camped, in a tiny pup tent that Joey found at a thrift store. It was light blue, not waterproof, and would almost blow away in the wind, but it fit the two of us and our gear (barely). We did camp in some places that were permissible, such as national parks. However, the principal type of camping we did was “urban camping”, otherwise called squatting. The first time we pitched the tent was under a bridge in the park of a small town in Montana. Other places where we engaged in such camping included in a wooded area on the side of a hill next to an urban housing project, by a stream in a public park in a small alcove off the pathway, and in the back of a rest stop on the middle of the freeway.
We also at times slept in a car. Though “sleeping in your car” is often used as a phrase to denote that you’ve hit rock bottom, after weeks of squatting in tents amidst strange creatures (we would hear them scratching about outside our tent), this seemed luxurious to us. Some of the places we did this included a parking lot overlooking a rocky bay in Maine, in some national parks where we were paranoid about bears, and in the shadows of a tree in front of a house in Salem, Massachussetts, where we scared ourselves by wondering if we would get possessed by evil spirits during the night.
We also at times slept in open air, under big starry skies. This, like camping, sounds beautiful and idyllic, but in fact, was usually pretty absurd. Most such nights we so spent came about because we were in some ditch all night trying to hop a train. Once, after a sleepless night of foiled trainhopping attempts, we startled some people who had come out on their morning run: they stared as they jogged past us lying in a ditch next to the train tracks (we had failed to account for the fact that the tracks were right next to a suburban housing development.) Another time, we spent the night in an open wooden cart parked in front of some houses; it inexplicably tipped over onto one edge suddenly at 3am with a loud BANG! and almost catapulted us out of it. And of course there was the less than glamorous two nights that we spent while waiting for 30 hours at a trainyard. The complete glamourlessness of this was compounded by the fact that we had arrived there only after tromping around a hill covered with chest-high grass in pitch blackness, in the process of which I had suddenly landed in a humongous hole face-first, and after digging myself out of that, had immediately fallen waist-deep into a stream. In a sad, soggy state, we lay amongst scurrying rats at night, whacking occasionally at the bushes to scare them off, and then when day arrived, fried in the blazing sun in our black trainhopping outfits; when night returned, we again lay whacking at the rats.
Another memorable open air moment was when we got dropped off at a gargantuan truck stop in the fringes of Dallas at midnight, and couldn’t find anywhere outside of the truck stop to camp where it didn’t seem likely that trigger-happy Texans would be firing shotguns into our tent. We therefore snuck back into the truck stop and ended up sleeping behind a dumpster. We didn’t even pitch our tents, as it would have been too conspicuous; we just stretched out on a big plastic tablecloth I had brought along for possible deluges. It was actually not that bad, though I was awakened for a moment in the night when a big truck came barreling into the parking lot right next to us; I watched as the driver got out hurriedly, threw himself on the concrete and did a bunch of push-ups, then ran back up into the truck and roared away.
But the coup de grâce for us was in trespassing on corporaty property to spend the night in a tipi on the grounds of a Wild West museum in Wyoming. We snuck in, avoiding being seen by people in neighboring houses by waiting till darkness, darting between bushes to get to the tipi (which was in Plains Indian style), and diving in through the flaps; we laid our sleeping bags along its edges away from the opening. The next night we had fantasies about sneaking into another display tipi that was perched at the main museum entrance, smack at the main thoroughfare, painted in bright red white and blue and lit up with spotlights. But careful investigation, we figured out that the tipi was lit up from the inside and therefore all within its depths would clearly be visible for the world to see. We reluctantly decided against it because we concluded that while this would be fabulous for putting on a shadow puppet show, it would be equally conducive to getting ourselves arrested.
We were vegetarians and had some trepidation that we would starve to death in middle America, but succeeded in surviving with our veggie integrity more or less intact (though I periodically ate seafood.) There was surprisingly more meatless fastfood at truckstops than we expected ~ Subway Veggie Delight, Wendy’s baked potatoes, Burger King Garden Burgers, and the ubiquitous generic cheese pizza. But when we started smelling like that Subway sandwich perfume, we went on a boycott of the place; this made life on the freeway harder.
Good food, especially organic food, is non-existent at truck stops, and difficult to find even in many cities. In some cool places though, like Austin and Providence, there is lots of great, interesting veggie food, if one is willing to pay for it. But we didn’t want to spend a lot so we ate simply, popped our fish oil tablets and vitamins, and tried to cook when we could, either in friends’ kitchens, or on a Lilliputian camping stove we had brought along for the purpose. We also had a few nice truckers cook for us in the truck ~ there was a ton of Korean food from our Korean trucker friends, and another trucker baked us potatoes in his microwave.
An additional green challenge we found on the road is that in many states, recycling is not commonly available. Thus we carted around empty bottles and used paper from Montana through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota to Wisconsin (this surely did not help our trainhopping attempts.) When we reached Madison and saw a recycling bin in the middle of the sidewalk, with three different slots for paper, plastic and glass, we were so overjoyed that we almost hugged it.
Nomadic life has unparalleled joys, but we did realize that it lacks certain amenities. A fixed toilet is one of them. When you’re on the road, you pretty much take your toilet with you, or find it where you are.
In trainhopping, you could be on a train for hours or even days. In the train that we caught, it took about 12 hours to get from Washington State to Montana. For men this is an easier practical matter; for women, it’s more complicated. Duffy Littlejohn recommended women to take a milk carton, and open it up at the top. We figured out that this was really spoken like a man ~ we quickly figured out that a milk carton is too tall for women to squat over, so we ended up cutting ours in half to make it shorter, but in any case the opening is still way too small. We toyed with the idea of inventing a collapsible funnel of some kind for women trainhoppers, in fashionable black, of course.
I did manage to relieve myself on the train without falling off, but I didn’t survive all peeing episodes unscathed. One early morning, right around dawn, while squatting down to do my business in a peaceful alcove created by two giant pine trees behind a church, a sudden, strange noise started near me. Basically it was a long hissing sound, following by a series of clicks, like so:
I was frantically looking around, still in position, trying to peer through the branches to see what in the world was going on, when I realized that jets of water had started to shoot through the pines and were rotating toward me ~ the automatic sprinkler system on the surrounding lawn had gone off! Despite valiant attempts to hop away while my little pants were still shackling my ankles, I got my little butt sprinkled.
People talked to us endlessly about how scared they were for us, but we didn’t really feel that we were doing anything that dangerous. In trainhopping, we had done tons of research and were really conservative about safety. And hitchhiking for us, except for a couple of hiccups, felt entirely safe. In our belief, hitchhiking as two women was actually less risky than any other form of hitchhiking, because more normal people pick you up. Thus we didn’t wait around very long, and the people that picked us up were generally not scary. My opinion is that hitchhiking can be more scary for men, because more people are afraid of them and consequently don’t stop, and the people that do stop tend to be more freaky.
I should note though, that I do think hitchhiking alone as a woman is significantly different than hitchhiking as a pair. I had hitchhiked in my twenties across South America (from Buenos Aires to Santiago) with a female friend, and then back the other way alone, and the experiences were radically different. With a friend it was uneventful and smooth, as it was with me and Joey, but when I was alone, I was subjected to a constant barrage of sexual invitations and at one point, begging a rodillas (on his knees); but in order not to completely malign all South American drivers, I should mention that one person took me a very long distance and didn’t hit on me once.
Joey and I agreed to refrain from trying to hitchhike when we were apart ~ our guess was that U.S. truckers would be similar or perhaps worse than the South American ones. For us hitchhiking together, it was all fine 95% of the time, though we did get a handful of bizarre come-ons, which for the most part arose when one of us fell asleep in the truck. (These are described in Part VIII.)
I’m not discounting that there were potential dangers on the road. We heard about a few serial killers that have worked the trucking routes (one was a prostitute killing truckers; others were truckers killing hitchhikers); we also heard a horror story from a woman that said she had gone hitchhiking with a friend in her youth ~ they split up on the way home, and tragically, her friend got murdered by a truck driver.
And I should note that if we had had different gender, racial, class, or immigration status, there might have been significantly higher danger of persecution and violence by others, whether crazies from the KKK, the Minutemen, or the police. This is discussed in Part VI. Yes, we were afraid of the KKK and such, especially in the South. The nature of the South is visibly different than the West; some people glared at us like they positively wanted to kill us. And we didn’t even go through the Deep South, we only went through the Upper South, which is not even as bad. (We did get picked up by someone that we think might have been a current or former member of the KKK, but it was in the Midwest ~ see Part VII.)
With regard to the police, we were a bit worried in the beginning that we would be harassed, arrested and/or beaten up, but as it turned out, cops actually tended to help us more than anything else (a rather embarassing thing to have to report for lefty activists such as ourselves). This will also be discussed more fully in Part VI.
There was just once when we felt that we may have had a brush with some potentially real danger. But it might just have been frivolous imagination. See Part IX.
Objectively, probably the most undisputedly dangerous thing we did was tromping around blindly in the grass in the Plains, which we only realized later abounded with rattlesnakes and spiders.
But as Emerson said, “As soon as there is life there is danger.” We took it all as part of the journey. In the end, belying popular belief, I didn’t think that our lives on the road had much more risk than would have been present in any average city.
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CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS