June 23, 2000

Freedom Can Be A Hard Train To Ride

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's the season for conferences on youth and adolescents — this year's topics will no doubt include school performance and violence, and draw many worthwhile contributions. But few will include presentations by the objects of their attention — young people themselves. Rex (no last name) and Damian Eckhout offer two different accounts of the joys and costs of being free. Alaska native Eckhout, after being clean for two months, died of a heroin overdose shortly following completion of his piece. He was 22. Rex, 18, considers himself a nomadic train-hopper. Both contributed their articles to the Freedom Manual, a project of Pacific News Service by and about homeless young people living outside the system.


By Damian Eckhout

I was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska and started showing signs of independence — which I equate to freedom — early on. I remember at nine and ten constantly being scolded for being late because I was out doing my own thing and having fun. As any good parent would, mom got me a watch which I conveniently lost on my next adventures tromping through the woods and exploring mountains.

In high school, like any free-minded student, I began to rebel —smoking pot and drinking, staying out late and partying — cause I had the freedom to do so. However, my mom was always catching me high and sure as clockwork I'd be tongue lashed.

After 15 years of battling my mother, I said, "I'm outta here." My first real taste of freedom. I'm 15, young, smart, think I know it all, and I'm my own man. Woo hoo.

To be free I needed to take care of my responsibilities. First, I found find me a nice cabin up in the woods about a mile. I got a job at a coffee shop, partied when I wanted and had my humble 8ft x 8ft cabin, cooking stove and food.

Things stayed pretty ideal for the next few months but most of it's a blur due to my high level of intoxication of some sort. Eventually my mom asked me to come back, with promises of leeway, and I did but I didn't change my smoking and drinking and coming home late.

So, on the Fourth of July, 1996 I got my fourth Minor Consuming ticket and a court date July 25. My mom was sick of me and I was sick of her so she bought me a one-way ticket to Seattle. My friend Wes traveled with me and we ended up in Portland, Oregon.

We stayed with friends from Juneau, though we often slept outside. At this point in time Wes and I started shooting heroin. I could have got a place, a job, but I fell slave to the worst master there is. I was finding my freedom in a blissful dream world and complete oblivion.

For awhile I had cash to support my habit, but as any good junkie learns, it doesn't matter how much you have, with heroin you'll always hit rock bottom, or die first if you're lucky/unlucky — I don't know which cause I made it through and I'm better off for it, but some may not be.

For the next year or two, I was free to be a slave, as with anything that controls you — religion, politics, sex, drugs, food or whatever. I had my blissful freedom, but I had just as much pain, loss and loss of self. What I mean by loss of self is that you lose your passion, caring, reason, desire and want. That's too much of a price to pay.

As of this writing I've spent a couple months clean. I had no chains holding me down so I hopped onto a freight train, headed to sunny Cal with my dog Spazz and my at the time, but now ex, girlfriend. We hopped wherever the train may go.

I have the freedom to roam as I please. However, riding a train doesn't have it all either. From town to town I dig through other's waste for food to eat or panhandle for food and drink — and panhandling is not freedom, it's relying on others to help you out and being on the road I know not to count on anyone, unless they are my road dogs.

So I've been trying to find some sort of medium between riding and bumming. I'd much rather work than beg any day. But when from day to day you don't know if your basic needs will be met it can be hard. Every day I wake up with no food, water if I'm lucky, and the scary thought that it's a new day. I feed my dog cause he never goes hungry and pack up my gear. I'll hike to where people are to find food or sponge. Occasionally I'll eat at free food places but that's not always an option.

On any given day I'll eat, drink, write and occasionally look for work. I'd love to have the means to support myself and do what I want to do. That is real freedom as far as I'm concerned.


By Rex

As the sun goes down and the dark creeps in, I sit in a bush just the right size. I'm at the train yard in Kansas City, heading south to Dale Heart, Texas. It's a little cold out but not so bad.

By midnight, there's still no sound but the soft padding of a yard dog at the far end of the yard. I'm sick of waiting and reach into my pocket for my pint of cheap whiskey.

Just then old Uncle Pete blows a long slow whistle that fills the midnight air. I can feel the butterflies begin in my stomach as I see the three bright lights fill the yard. She's not going that slow, so I'm a little worried. For some reason things don't seem right. Just then a Jeep Grand Cherokee comes rolling down the road between the tracks.

Sometimes you don't make it on a train because the bull catches you and kicks you off — sometimes he'll throw you in jail. Sometimes you get to cross over from one still train to another and run and hide. One time I was seen and had to run and got past three still trains — but the bull busted me on the other side. And then he only gave me a ticket for trespassing on railroad property!

With the bull coming up, I get as low to the ground as I can. My heart is racing. The bull is now right in front of me, going real slow, as if he knows I'm there. Bangas, the knuckles crash together for the train to come to a full stop. I can smell the old familiar smell as the units go "clak, clak, clak, pissss," the air brakes on the train. Now the butterflies are real bad, I can almost taste the train, but I can't see the bull anymore.

I take a double look to make sure it's clear and spot a grainer about ten feet ahead. I grab my gear and enter the tracks, sweating bad, making a break for the grainer and asking myself, should I quit smoking? As I get to the ladder I feel the cold steel scratch my hands. It's quiet now as I get myself together on the train. Then it's the wait, where every minute seems like an hour as you keep looking down both sides of the train, hoping she's moving soon.

Then you hear "tick, tick" — the air coming back on, then "boom," as the train gives a good jerk and you hear the whistle fill the night air once again. She's off and all I hear is the sound of the wheels rolling down the tracks. As the train picks up speed, I lean back and smile and take another pull off my drink. See ya bull — I got one more ride.

At a good speed I feel myself getting more and more in deep with myself because I am now free, free of all troubles and worry. What I left in the last town is now in the past. I start to think about this one guy, Cobra, what I call a humbum, a troubled man but with a heart of gold. We were sitting around his campfire and he was telling me he had never rode a train. But you could tell he knew that I had seen lots.

Just when the train was slowing, my mind jumps back to reality. We're at a two mile, where one train stops for a more important train to go by.

Now I have finished off my pint, and I flick my smoke off the side. I can hear this hiss of the tracks next to me so I know the other train is coming. It's flying by. I look to see if there's another rider, but to my surprise there isn't.

I pull out the old sleeping bag and begin to get set for a long sleep until the end of the ride. Dale Heart, Texas. I've never been there before but from what I've heard it's a small town with a small yard so I don't have to worry about the bull.

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