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Pinback’s Keyboardist Makes Alternative Travel Arrangements

by Katherine Sweetman

Jumping Fucking Freight Trains to SXSW

Friday 1:39 PM:

Braden is hiding in a four-foot, steel, triangular compartment inside a freight train in Tucson, Arizona. The train is stopped, and he’s hunched over his iPhone quietly typing responses to my questions.

Train car couplings while underway with tracks moving below.

“…trying to lay low until this or some other train leaves toward El Paso, TX,” he types.

I am in San Diego in an over-air conditioned office, at my desk job, typing my questions to Braden through Facebook’s little, blue, empty message box and trying to imagine what it would be like if I was jumping fucking freight trains with him. I spend the time between his answers looking at YouTube videos of people riding these trains, and I get a little shot of adrenaline each time I imagine running along side a train and having to commit to the act of grabbing on to the rusty bars and hoisting myself onto the moving car–at least that’s how they seem to do it on YouTube; they jump into the trains when they are still moving.

Here’s the kicker. Braden is not your typical “train jumper”. And he’s not what you might imagine when you conjure up an image of the hobo riding freight transit. He’s a well-known artist and musician in San Diego who fairly recently completed a double-major degree in cognitive science and computer music at the University of California, San Diego. AND he’s the keyboardist for the local music sensation Pinback.

I had recently read one of Braden’s tales of riding freight trains from San Diego to Portland last year. I thought I would ask him about it and then write a little something about this musician/artist/adventurer. I imagined our interview would be conducted over coffee or drinks somewhere in San Diego. Little did I know that he was at it again and at that very moment, while I was wondering how to get a hold of him, he was sailing through Arizona somewhere in the back of a passenger-less transport train.

At the time of my first email inquiry he was in Yuma:

“Hey Braden, wondering if you are around and if you would be interested in being interviewed? I wanted to ask you about the train jumping thing as well as your work. Up to anything else?”

He’d responded, ” Hey! I’m actually in Yuma right now, on my way to sxsw. Rode freights from LA all day and just got kicked off/ticketed/stranded here.”

That was Wednesday. By Friday 1:39 he had made it to Tucson. I ask him what happens when you get busted– like in Yuma, what happens when you are discovered illegally riding freight trains? Do you get arrested? Beaten up by wrathful train transit cops? Attacked by dogs that are turned loose on you as you run? Because all of these things seem to happen in the movies, and that’s about the end of my experience with the subject. It turns out that what Braden got was a ticket, for misdemeanor trespassing, and a mandatory court appearance to find out his real sentence at a later date.

“I’ve never been busted before two days ago and have been hopping trains on and off for seventeen years,” he wrote.

32 hours later, he had hopped another train heading out of Yuma.

Braden en-route. Photo credit: Doug Wagner.

“I attempted to heed the railcop’s warning, but found myself conveniently flying a hitch-hiking sign for Phoenix right next to the east end of the Yuma train yard. After watching train after train pass, I began to test the waters to see if there were cameras and sensors in that location.”

The cameras and sensors, if there were any at that location, didn’t catch him, but when he finally escaped from Yuma, he was traveling solo.

Braden left LA in a group of four, himself, two friends, and a documentary filmmaker. After getting busted, they had split up. He was now riding the great rusty transit on his own. But for a veteran rail rider, who has been riding 17 years, he’s used to it.

17 years! I thought perhaps this had been a typo in our correspondence. But it wasn’t. 17 years of riding freight trains is an awful lot for a 35 year old. It was strange, for me, since I had known Braden for at least a handful of years, but I only found out about his fascinating pastime a few months ago when I happened upon his blog.

“How did this Freight Train Riding tale begin for you?” I ask him, via Facebook.

“There was a local freight train that ran through the neighborhood I grew up in, and one day I became intrigued with where that train was coming from, and more importantly where it was going.”

“So you are all alone now?” I ask.

“If so is it lonely? Do you meet other strangers doing same thing?”

But he didn’t respond for a couple days.

Sunday 2:22pm

“Sorry batteries ran really low and my phone working is crucial to some aspects of getting around,” Braden wrote.

We continued our interview in this strange format. This time he was “riding in a trailing engine unit” that he caught that morning out of El Paso.

I was still trying to imagine what it would be like to spend so many hours on the back, or maybe in the belly, or perhaps just under the skin, of a huge, cold, steel, fast-moving, unforgiving, machine. Stowing away, hiding when the train came to a stop, and having to figure out what train track you were riding was so far removed from my reality that I didn’t understand how you would even know where you were on the planet. Perhaps that’s why the iPhone was so important?

“Just cleared an INS checkpoint by hiding in the toilet compartment. Heading toward Albuquerque.” Braden wrote.

Toilet compartment! I hadn’t even thought about the toilet yet– or the lack thereof. Pissing off a moving freight train, I can imagine, especially for someone with a penis, but what happens when you have to take a dump? There is “a toilet compartment”?

Later he explained:

“The train stops all the time, and rarely does more than two hours pass that it doesn’t… Another option would be to use the toilet in one of the trailing engine units, if you feel brave enough to get that close to the crew. Sometimes you might just use a bag in whatever car you are riding in, and then huck it over the side somewhere. Some people just go right on the floor of the boxcar, but those are likely the same people who just go right on the sidewalk. If you’re resourceful enough to get aboard in the first place, you can usually figure something out, though.”

All of a sudden I felt stupid for asking. But at least I now knew that you didn’t just hang over the edge and shit down the side of the train. I imagined peeing off a moving train would be difficult for the female of the species.

Braden also responded to my query on loneliness:

“Most of my trainhopping experiences have been while alone. Some people might get lonely riding (or simply BEING) alone, but ive cultivated somewhat of a lifestyle out of it. I did a ride last year (and started this ride) with two great people that share my enthusiasm for adventure, so they really make it a joy, but a totally different experience. Some of the quick moves I’ve made since everyone went home wouldn’t have been feasible if multiple people were involved.”

Tuesday 7:36 pm

Braden is “resting comfortably on the floor” of a friend’s house in Taos, New Mexico.

“Indeed, the original plan was to go to SXSW, though the ‘goal’ had more to do with riding the rails out there, ” he wrote.

He now had some time to fill me in on the details of some of my previous questions. For instance, the iPhone, can be extremely handy not only for determining where you are, and even what track you are on, but also for schematics and overhead photos of rail yards. Braden used to have to rely on maps of transit systems from local libraries. Once you roll into a rail yard, you might have to get out and run – and you want to know which way to run. Also, there are some rail yards that are locked down, so you want to get out before you roll into those.

Also, he did jump on to moving trains.

Although Taos was his final western destination, his journey was still only half way over. He visited with friends, rested up, and began the trip home.

“I’m leaving Taos tmrw morning, but it’ll be a few more days of train hopping before I get home. I should be back by Friday or Saturday.”

Tuesday 7:58 PM (One Week Later)

Braden walks into the Starlite lounge in San Diego. I am sitting at the bar with my laptop typing these words. We move to a table where he shows me his journal, his maps, and some of the lists of things he carries with him on his trips. Since the weight of his traveling pack is very important, he uses a list to check off things he’d used and hadn’t used on each journey. This time he didn’t end up using his can opener or his pepper spray so next trip he will probably not bring the can opener. The pepper spray, however, he feels is still going with him.

I make him describe the train hopping process, and he draws out the different types of trains that, although designed to carry freight, can accommodate the human stowaway.

He also describes the acoustic sensations of being on a train.

“There’s always noise,” he says.

“But it becomes very musical.”

The rhythmic sound of the train traveling over the metal tracks, becomes the beat, the constant, repeating beat track. The variations of creaks, wind vibrations, and moving train parts become the layers of the song. As a musician he finds the aural experience of train travel a very interesting part of the journey.

He’d sent me a handful of photographs, and he explained some of them to me as we sit and eat at this trendy food and drink spot that’s only about two-blocks from the train tracks.

Read more about Braden at his blog:

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