11. Hobos

Published on 7 September 2022 at 21:48

© 2022 Robert Sickles

In college I knew a guy named Frank who wanted me to go with him and rent an apartment off campus—that promise of freedom from the rules and limitations of dorm life. I knew nothing about looking for an apartment, paying utilities bills, grocery shopping and everything, but Frank said he had all that stuff covered. He lost his parents when he was very young and went into orphanage and foster care for a time, then lived on his own for the last couple of years. He was willing to show me the ropes and I trusted him. He knew the little things I never thought of before, like the how to find the best deals on groceries like four-for-$1 pot pies, how to make “Spanish Rice” out of Uncle Ben’s, a green pepper and tomato sauce, where St. Vincent’s and Salvation Army stores were, how to call the research desk at the public library for answers to just about any question, and how to speak like a responsible adult when talking to a landlord. Wow, I had so much to learn!

I knew that he took off on his own for “walkabout” from time to time. I learned to roll with it, but would never know if he’d be gone for a day or a couple of weeks. He had no job and he had quit school, but was freewheeling thanks to some kind of trust money or insurance payout he drew on. Once, he returned after several weeks looking tan, wild and woolly, and wearing a copper pendant on a leather cord. I think he enjoyed being unpredictable because he wouldn’t say where he’d been and what happened. I said “You look like the high desert of New Mexico.” And he just grinned. That Buddha grin, by the way, was like his signature reaction to any problem, question, compliment or accusation.

It was one damp and chilly day in early Spring when he started packing a knapsack and I knew it was time for him to leave again. But this time he asked if I wanted to come along and hitchhike to California for the fun of it. I looked out the window at the afternoon drizzle, and considered how late a start we’d be getting, and how miserable the weather was, especially if he meant to leave right now. I said “Yeah, sure, but can’t we go in the morning? Looks nasty out there.”

All he said was “If you’re coming, get your boots and coat.” So I threw some warm clothes, apples and crackers in a backpack, rolled up my sleeping bag, and off we trudged to the Seattle southbound freeway on-ramp. This would turn out to be a trip more memorable than I could have foreseen, both for misery and exhilaration.

It was before hitchhiking was legal in Washington, so we had to watch out for the police and cautiously hold our thumbs out only when it was safe. What other reason would two guys with backpacks be standing in the drizzle at a freeway entrance? But it’s all in the thumbs, if the cops saw you with your thumb out, they could bust you—otherwise you were just a pedestrian.

The drizzle let up and we quickly got our first ride—a big rusty, gun-racked pickup truck driven by a beer-chuggin’, chain-smokin’, obnoxious speed demon. He thought we might trade him some grass for the ride. We had none, but he said to get in anyway. Then he floored it and careened onto the highway, merging into traffic without a glance to the side, and swerving jerkily to the fast lane. I felt my heart jump into my throat. Frank looked at me and I wanted him to show some level of concern of dying like I was having, but he just had that ol’ calm grin of his.

Our driver had two views of the world: syrupy mellow alternating with disturbingly pissed-off. He could turn between moods on a dime. He spouted off about all sorts of things for miles down the highway, eventually asking where we were headed. “Oh man, you guys gonna groove in Californicado? Shit, I’d love to go down, so beautiful and warm. I’d take you all the way myself if I could. Get me some hippie beach bunny surfer love and some o’ that serious LA med for my head, you know what I mean?”

I looked at Frank with widened eyes, mouthing “No, no!”

To my relief, the driver continued, “Trouble is, amigos, I gotta do this thing here—some court case with a total bitch redhead who says that I, back in that alley, you know, behind the Blue Goose, was “doin’ whatever to her” What the shit?” He shook his head, snorted and spit out the window. Dammit, “I’ll admit I was feeling frisky… I had a few, you know? She may claim she was sayin’ ‘no’ but she was sure givin’ me the go-ahead. And that miniskirt and all, whoo yeah! Too bad she had to get all uptight on me… we coulda had a real good time that night.” The only time he stopped yacking was to light another cigarette or suck his beer. And frequently there was an “oh shit!” or “fuckin’ asshole!” comment about some other driver on the road.

He covered a wide range of topics, but always starting with “You know what’d be cool?” ending in “Fuck this shit, man!” Suddenly he veered over 3 lanes, skidded to a stop at the top of a cloverleaf and said, “Gotta shake you loose, ride ends here, amigos.”

I said “Vaya con Dios” as I grabbed my stuff and opened the door.

He squinted up his face as if to say “what-the-fuck-are-you-callin’-me?” then shook his head like “whatever...” The instant we jumped out of the truck, he peeled out, spinning up gravel over us.

By now it was dark, but we were on a busy intersection with good street lighting, so very shortly we got another ride. This was a young couple who looked pretty nice so I thought we’d have a safe ride with them. Unfortunately, they were only going 20 miles further down the interstate. When we reached their exit, it was a pretty dark and lonely spot. The man suggested we stop for the night at their place and start out early the next day. He said they’d give us a meal and a spot on the floor to roll out our sleeping bags. Sounded fine. In the morning, he drove us a little way south to a busier on-ramp that was better for hitchhiking. “All right! We’re doing OK,” I thought, “this must be Frank’s fine art of Zen hitchhiking!”

At the spot we were dropped, I wondered if there was a deli or diner around, but it was strictly an industrial area. I remembered I had apples and crackers in my pack, so we found a good spot to munch and stand with our thumbs out, watching the stream of vehicles approach in big groups when the traffic lights turned green. The sun was showing, it was going to be a fair day! On to California!

Actually, the early traffic was mostly big trucks and delivery vans, and it wasn’t until late morning when a long-hair guy in a funky VW van stopped. No matter how far and in whatever direction he was going, we were in. Turns out he was heading about 100 miles south to Kalama, so we sat back and enjoyed the scenery and his stereo. I don’t recall the driver or any conversation with him, and that was definitely a good thing compared to our first ride.

Our driver exited I-5 at Kalama on the way to his cabin in the hills. Actually, we were at the exit for The Port of Kalama, a rail terminus about 50 miles north of Portland. It’s home to a sprawling grain loading facility for large vessels that move down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.  Adjacent to the port was a stretch of wild shoreline on the Columbia River which looked like a secluded place to camp for the night. It was still a little early so we walked over to find Kalama’s grocery store to buy food and water. The town looked a little red-neck back then, and guys who looked like us hippies were fair game for hassling, so we picked up what we needed at a mini-market, then went back to the river to spend the night.

I should remark that at the end of day two we had made it only ¾ of the way from Seattle to Portland!  And now we were going to be camping in April on a damp sandy beach. I was concerned about the noisy bar near the mini-market, and those small-town hippie-haters who might have seen us walking over to the river. “OK Frank,” I said to myself, “I’ll enjoy the journey, smell the roses, savor the moment. But I’m keeping this chunk of 2x4 near me tonight. Tomorrow will be grand if we don’t get beat up in Kalama.” After the bar closed, things quieted down around town and I slept well for a while.

The lower Columbia, we didn’t realize, has tides. At 3 a.m. the high tide, plus the wake of a passing freighter, washed up to our camp. With our feet aimed downslope, it was fortunate that just the bottom edges of our sleeping bags got swamped. Laughing and cussing at our poor choice of a campsite, we hauled ourselves higher up the bank, started a little fire and somehow fell back asleep.

At daybreak, there was considerable train movement on the rails up the bank and through the trees. Frank went up for a look and called out his idea to hop a freight car. I said “Whoa, are you serious? That could be dangerous. What if it’s going the wrong way, or doesn’t stop until it gets to Chicago or something? We could freeze or starve, or run into really bad guys.”

This was the only time I saw Frank sit and scowl and scratch his chin—he was actually mulling over the pros and cons of riding the rails. And, wait for it… he admitted I had valid concerns! Oh wow!

Before I could think of the next thing to say, he grinned like he had a lightbulb flip on over his head, and was striding over the tracks to talk to a man who was walking along a row of boxcars on a siding and writing on a clipboard. Frank waved at me to come up, and I found the nice guy was showing Frank how to identify a freight car’s origin, cargo and destination by the color stripe code on the side. He knew that was too much for us to remember, so he just pointed to a train stopped on a track near us and said it was leaving for Portland shortly.

“You’ll want to climb in one of those open gondolas over there, you’ll have a nicer view than if you get in a boxcar! Plus, you don’t always know if there might already be someone in there—someone you might not want to share a non-stop train trip with!” Portland was only 50 miles, but from there he said we could find a train that was going south or east or wherever. “Sure, there’d be one bound for California—anywhere you want.” He did indicate he was breaking all kind of rules giving that kind of information. “You’ll be OK once train starts rollin’.” Our mentor added some warnings. “Watch out for thieves, mean dogs and con artists, and when you get to Portland, be real careful of those Pinkerton guards when you’re movin’ around the railyard. If they can’t catch you and club you, they might shoot!” 

I quipped “Sounds like Charlie Chaplin or Keystone Cops.”

He looked serious. “I’m, not foolin’, kid. You watch your step down there!”

It was a beautiful day so we chose an empty gondola that had a chest-high wall all around. We could see everything while standing and have some protection from wind by hunkering down. As the train made its way down the line it was thrilling to have the sun and wind on my face. The scenery was spectacular too. I saw the river and wooded areas from such a different angle. Not boring for the nose, too, the waterfront and its inhabitants giving up smells of woodstoves, bacon frying, cottonwood, factories, backwater, fish, pulp mill. And, of course, the train itself emitted diesel smoke, and we enjoyed wafts of fir and cedar wood—yeah, ahead of us were at least four cars filled with wood chips and bark. A nice bonus: my sleeping bag dried out nicely in the sun and breeze. We were pulled to a siding while a passenger train glided by at low speed, and we waved to some surprised faces in the windows. That too-brief train ride was the high point of our trip! Spring was in the air. I smiled and closed my eyes.  “Yeah, today again, I get what Frank is about.”

That ride lasted only two hours, a lot of which was taken up as we slowed to enter the Portland railyard, or waited for other trains to pass. When our train did come to a full stop, it seemed like we needed to sober up from the joy of our morning ride and get going. But how to figure out where to find our next train? It was a dizzying scene of moving and standing trains on a large network of tracks. I couldn’t see anyone I’d trust to ask for help in finding a train to California. We guessed a direction to walk, when suddenly we head “Stop right there! Police! You can’t be in here!” and two uniformed guys with batons and sidearms were jogging towards us.

“Cripes! Pinkertons!” I clenched my teeth—we were in a tight spot! “Which way, Frank?” He pointed to a driveway and gate so we made a run for it. It literally was a Charlie Chaplin movie! We outran the cops by dodging and zigzagging around boxcars, piles of oil drums and small buildings. After a bit, I don’t think they were really chasing us anymore since it was clear we were heading out of the yard. But once you start running like that it’s all adrenalin to the exit!

Once outside the railyard, we had opposite reactions. Frank was smiling and sniffling a little giggle. I was winded and traumatized. I wanted to throw something.

We sat on the curb to catch our breath and consider what to do. Not knowing exactly where we were in Portland, I was feeling frustrated. The extreme ups and downs of the last few of days were more than I could handle, and, I apologized, my heart just wasn’t into continuing on. Frank was not deterred, so we agreed to part ways. I asked if he was still thinking of getting to California, and his response was as expected—a wave and a grin. Then he walked off.

I asked around and found my way to the bus depot, bought a ticket back to Seattle and went home to a lonely apartment. I shut the door on the noise of the world and flopped on the couch—it was like being held safely in a muffled cocoon. Home felt so good! I had a bed and hot water! Remember me, that guy from the previous stories who is all about loving serendipity travel? I had met my limit.

Months passed and there was no sign of Frank. Eventually I got a letter from him, inviting me to come down and see his place in San Francisco. Frank was in Haight-Ashbury, working and living with a beautiful young woman who owned a gift shop. I had started a summer job as a lab tech at UW Department of Medical Genetics which I thought could lead to something steady, so I declined his invitation. I assumed we’d cross paths again, like when hiking the Camino de Santiago or discovering him working on a tramp freighter bound for Africa. (I would actually have had to go on those adventures if I was going to find Frank!)

Meanwhile, I never got an answer for what to do with his things that he left in the Seattle apartment. His few possessions besides clothes and toiletries were mostly books, art and drafting supplies and sketch pads, a lot of which I kept and used. He liked Hermann Hesse, James Joyce and Joseph Heller, and doodled and sketched in ink, pencil and charcoal. He had started out in college studying German and engineering, and he had a taste for very fine drafting tools. Years later, I remembered Frank when I used his T-square and inking pens in graphic design and production art classes.

If I add a curly wig and wire rim glasses to the serene Buddha statue, I can see a likeness of the unflappable Frank.  OK, I’m exaggerating, but that’s the way I choose to remember the spirit of the guy.


Add comment


2 years ago

Maybe Frank will see this and get in touch with you. Surely he will have another adventure to share.

2 years ago

Frank had good taste in literature; not so much on travel.

Kathy M
2 years ago

What an adventure! I would have been scared to death, but not our Robert! (Well, maybe just a little...) Frank sounds like such a character and I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that he is now an attorney or in some government job. Great story!!

Carol Christiansen
2 years ago

What an adventure! Fabulous read, Robert.

a year ago

This one should definitely go into the finished book. Great little story!