Teens drawn to dangerous world of train jumping

The black-and-white photograph of Malcolm Parks looks like a relic of the Great Depression.

He’s dressed in patchwork jeans, a sleeveless shirt, black boots and a bandana around his neck; his dreadlocks are the only clue to the photo’s recent origins.

The picture says a lot about the 22-year-old Sacramento native. The last five years of Parks’ life looked a lot like a relic, too.

While his peers worked summer jobs, looked for dates and fretted over college credits, Parks rode trains. His Facebook page shows him checking in at various locations around the country: Savannah, Ga.; Grand Forks, N.D.; New York City. One of his last posts: a May 23 picture from Charleston, S.C., of Parks and a buddy at a table piled with blue crab.

“I was always worrying if I’d ever see him again,” said Parks’ sister, Sarah Kearney of Sacramento. She said she knew he was doing what he loved and that he felt he had found a family on the road.

Parks died June 30 in rural Georgia as a result of trauma suffered when he fell from and was struck by a moving train, according to the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office. He would have been 23 on Oct. 19.

For as long as there have been rails, people have been riding them illegally. In the gritty Depression years, folk singer Woody Guthrie mythologized America’s train-hopping hobos and the itinerant lifestyle he sometimes shared. The train-hopping continues, but nowadays the mythologizing has a modern spin. Websites such as squattheplanet.com and vagabond101.com chronicle the “traveler” or “train-hopper” lifestyle, touting the romance and providing plenty of how-to details.

“Squat the Planet is a unique online community exploring nomadic lifestyles, strange landscapes, and intentional communities around the globe,” the website proclaims. “Come see what the world has to offer when you torch the picket fence and set out for a life of adventure.”

The Vagabond101 site offers a tip-filled section on train-hopping, including a guide to the illustrated signs travelers use to communicate. The pictographs, supposedly developed by hobos in the 1930s, are sometimes still used, the site says, scratched or drawn on the backs of signs or on buildings near rail lines.

There are no official figures on how many people are riding the rails, whether as a lifestyle or as adventure-seeking hobbyists.

Dan Skaggs, 30, said he has spent the last 10 years in and out of the “traveler lifestyle” and the last two years on the rails filming a documentary called “Freeload.” Like a lot of struggling artists these days, he said he turned to Internet “crowdfunding” to get money for his Highway Goat Productions project, raising $7,000 in 30 days on the Kickstarter website.

The 65-minute film follows the lives of young train riders as they ramble across the country. The film has not been formally released, although Skaggs said he has submitted it to several film festivals across the country. Previews and trailers, posted at various websites, offer a glimpse into a world of sleeping outdoors, scavenging for food, drinking alcohol, using drugs and riding on freight trains.

While not one of those featured in the film, Parks was one of dozens of young travelers interviewed by Skaggs, who is calling Missoula, Mont., home these days. He called Parks a well-liked kid. He seemed more amused than angry when he noted that he and Parks had once had an alcohol-fueled fistfight.

Parks’ death and another fatality in Roseville show the darker, dangerous side of train hopping. In May, the decomposing body of 19-year-old John Alpert of Palmdale was found on the banks of Roseville’s Dry Creek, near the city’s railyards.

Unlike Parks, who lived for years riding the rails, Alpert was stepping outside his familiar world. Roseville police are investigating Alpert’s death as a homicide. They think he met up with some experienced train hoppers, possibly online, before joining them for his first and last illegal train ride. Alpert had never been in trouble with the law and attended a Palmdale community college before taking time off to help take care of his parents, his mother told The Sacramento Bee.

Cecilia Alpert described him as a devoted son, a big-hearted young man and a talented artist. Police suspect he was killed shortly after arriving in Roseville on March 17, the last day he sent his mother a text message. His body showed signs of blunt-force trauma. Detectives would like to talk to the train riders who were with Alpert but have not released the names of any persons of interest.

Skaggs said young people sometimes decide it would be fun to ride the rails without understanding the danger. “They don’t understand how serious it is,” he said. “There is a chance you can fall off a train or have your head beat in by a baseball bat or see your girlfriend get raped.”

Under the radar

With its 52-track, 6-mile-long facility, the Roseville trainyard – officially named J.R. Davis Yard – is a common stop for train hoppers, said Dave Flood, the Roseville police officer focused on the homeless population.

“Train riders are their own breed compared to Roseville homeless,” Flood said. He said that he doesn’t know how many of them pass through the train yard and that he only occasionally has contact with them. When he does, he advises them to stay off his radar by staying outside of city limits.

Posts on squattheplanet.com, likewise, advise travelers to avoid Roseville and Officer Flood.

Barbara Fleck, development director of Roseville’s homeless services center, the Gathering Inn, said she sees fewer of the train travelers since her program began asking to see county identification cards in 2012.

“If they use our services at all, it is for showers and the resource center, which are open to anyone in the community,” Fleck said.

They may strive to keep a low profile, but there is evidence of their presence. Recently, Flood’s patrol took him beneath an overpass near Denio’s Farmers Market and Swap Meet. The underside was covered with notes and drawings scrawled in felt-tip pen by travelers over the years. Some outline a journey or manifesto; some are self-portraits. The area was littered with garbage, waste and discarded blankets. On the streets nearby, some of the coded messages outlined on the Vagabond101 website, warning other travelers of threats, can be seen on Roseville stop signs and utility boxes.

Rail officials said they do what they can to deter trespassers of all types.

“Trespassing is a challenge for us at Union Pacific, whether the trespassers are walking the dog, using our tracks as a short cut, riding the train, or any other number of ways people illegally enter railroad property for a variety of purposes,” said Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for the company.

He said the company doesn’t keep any count of illegal riders.

‘Wild and free’

Train hoppers tend to congregate in a wooded area just outside Roseville city limits or across the tracks beneath an overpass behind the Antelope Walmart, Flood said, not far from where Alpert’s body was found.

On a recent Friday evening, nearly a dozen young men and women were gathered under that overpass, clad in dirt-smudged clothes. They declined to be interviewed but were friendly enough, offering a pull of their boxed wine.

Many of the young train hoppers keep one foot in the modern world by having a cellphone and maintaining a Facebook page. Parks’ sister said he typically used other people’s phones to post pictures on his page or call home. Flood said he occasionally sees travelers charging phones from a power outlet outside a convenience store near the tracks.

Parks’ Facebook page shows a young man often snarling at the world but often surrounded by friends. It reveals a talented musician, often slurring drunk. It shows his arrest after an auto accident and his love for his dog Tosha.

In October, a handful of his train-riding friends converged in Sacramento to say goodbye to Parks, whom they knew as “Hotboxx.” Parks’ mother, Carla Briseno, had summoned them with a posting on an online forum used by travelers.

At the gathering, Briceno reflected on her son’s life. He took to the rails shortly after leaving the foster-care system at age 18. She said she couldn’t handle him growing up, and, at age 18, his stepfather didn’t want him back in the home. She said they maintained a relationship, that he called every two to four weeks. The last time they talked she wired him $120, she said.

Last November, he became a father, his sister said. He and the baby’s mother stopped riding to deliver the baby girl and help select the baby’s adoptive parents, said Kearney, who like her mother lives in the Sacramento area.

Briceno said she felt her son was torn between being “wild and free” and wanting to come home for a more stable life.

“He always talked about having the time of his life,” but concern about the dangerous lifestyle hung like a dark cloud, his sister said. “There was always that worry that you would get that one phone call.”