Learn more about this illustration at the bottom of Train Pirate.
On the way to where he is now, our friend Adam was once a train pirate.
To define a train pirate is to search for boundaries among a people that, by nature, defy them. But loosely put, a train pirate is someone who illegally rides freight trains across the country.
Adam’s tales from the train are fascinating and wrenching. His train pirate days are a clear manifestation of growing up in “mediocre-land” outside of Philadelphia and feeling that common urge to run out the back door. But the community and experience he encountered along the way highlights the uncomfortable fact that while Adam (and others) are able to resist putting down roots in the name of adventure, not everyone has that option. So many others are stuck, literally, on the rails of society, trying to hold on.
During his journey, Adam recorded his experience through a written journal and an eclectic scrapbook brimming with illustrations, poems, and some disposables. He’s graced us with several pages from the scrapbook and two written excerpts.
We’d like to preface this story by noting that neither Adam nor Skinny Dipper recommend train pirating. People die all the time. It’s incredibly dangerous.
Writing and photos by Adam Zapotok, pictured above
Abbreviated version previously published in Skinny Dipper Issue One
We got to the woods where we had waited for a train before. There were two men there. We got to talking. One was home-bum Pat who had ended up in Philly after his friend got drunk and fell off and lost his leg and missed their first train. The night before, an agro (aggressive) train hopper blamed him for something and bashed in the back of his head with a rail spike through his long hair. He asked me to feel the back of his head. It was matted with thick, dried blood. The other guy was gigs-tall and built in a black jumpsuit. He talked extensively about how he injected every drug from meth to acid. He was in a lot of confusion because he believed he had AIDS.
We waited for two days while meeting graffiti crews and a 50 year old graff writer named Kodak Kid whose tags could be seen on trains all over the country. But few trains were coming and none of them slowed or stopped like they were supposed to. One person in the graffiti crew who used to hop trains for a few years said there was another place we could go.
So we followed his instructions, walking through the industrial area and down the tracks until we found a homeless couple named Boston Bob and Zooz who had set up a camp near the tracks with their dog. We sat around for two days passing around vodka and waiting for a train. When the first train came my buddy was too drunk to run and get on the train.
Eventually we got onto two trains, all six of us and the dog. This junk train took 2 days to get to Baltimore. It started raining when we got there and Zooz slipped and fell off the train which is 10 feet high. She got hurt but was okay. I dropped my glasses and a truck ran them over. The cold rain stole the early summer heat and I didn’t have the right clothes but luckily Boston Bob and Zooz shared some with me. We searched for a few hours and found an underpass for shelter. The next few days were hell underneath a bad storm. There was fighting, drinking until blacking out, running out of money, running out of food. The underpass flooded. My southern friend kept saying “it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” We were neck deep in it. So after the rain let up my friend and I did some banjo playing on the street and made enough money for some canned food. We took some buses and searched for an hour and found the area outside the trainyard where we needed to be. We talked for the night and slept on the cold ground that robbed our warmth. My friend wanted to go to back to Philly to see a lady, and I wanted to go to down to Florida to get to the West Line. We decided to go in opposite directions and traded food, drinks, and banjo tuners. Just then two trains pulled up and stopped, going both directions. We hugged with no words and got on our rides.
Across The Country
I made it down the entire East Coast to Florida and then slid over to New Orleans. I needed to get on the line to California. I hid in some bush between two vacant houses for three nights, mapping and surveying the workers and trains patterns because I had heard that there was high security and if you got caught you could get beaten pretty badly. On the third night I had it all figured out so I sprinted with 60lbs of gear across the tracks and hid in the sweaty leaves of the Louisiana night. Finally, I saw the train; it pulled up to me like I had a ticket. I threw up all my gear and jumped aboard.
The train moved half a mile down the tracks and stopped. I heard footsteps on gravel and looked over and saw a light about 6 cars up where the engine was. I heard horror stories about how others have been pulled off trains into rocks and been seriously messed up. So I grabbed all my gear and went to jump off the opposite side but as I was stepping down I heard a train coming on the parallel tracks I was about to step down onto. So I scampered back into the train as the other one whizzed by me. I knew this was a good sign so I laid down and waited for my train to move.
The next day I woke up in another yard. I stayed on my ride all day waiting for it to be pushed to the front of the line as trains were being stacked and thrown down the tracks to be connected. My train got out of the yard and kept rolling west through Texas. The trees got shorter and shorter until they turned to bushes and cacti. They sank into the grass and the grass died and was enveloped by dried earth. It started to get really hot. I would hide my skin underneath what clothes I had. The cool breeze at night whisked me to bed. The next day at noon the train pulled into a yard with candy-colored shipping containers and menacing metal 15-foot-tall barbed wire fences. Soon my train was being surrounded on all sides by walls and barbed wire. I jumped off because you don’t want to be trapped like that. I looked at my map to see I was in po-dunk Texas and the line led back to the West rails. So as the train pulled away I ran and caught the side, throwing my gear and body up in a swift motion that busted my only thing to drink.
As I was passing through El Paso with the border control on my right and the border fence on my left, I remembered a good Mexican friend’s only rule for this trip being “don’t go to Mexico,” as the train took a harsh left toward the direction of the border. I ended up in a huge rail yard but it only had American flags so I was less worried. I set my eyes on the low browns and burnt tans that made up the desolate areas of Texas and the dark purple and red rocks of the mountains in New Mexico. I looked in the sky at night and the stars rotated in perfect circles as the train turned down winding tracks. I woke up the next day in the soft warm wind and realized how low I was on liquids from sitting through days of southern summer sun and my back ached from sleeping on the shaking metal floor. I could feel how thirsty I was in my skin but I believed I could make it to the West Coast but pretty parched. Soon I started to hear police sirens while passing through a town but the sirens did not leave once we left the town and I began to have tunnel vision for at least a day and a half. I was so thirsty. I have never wanted anything more. It was all I could think about, the only thing in my mind, but nothing could fix it. Then the train stopped in the middle of the desert and made the noise when it unhooks and I saw a road sign that read ‘300 miles to the next town.’ I was so scared but the train didn’t disconnect and kept going. I saw orange fields passing and green covering the hills taunting my thirst. I had reached LA. I was thirsty as hell. It’s all I wanted, just a water. Finally the train stopped. I jumped off and there was a hole in the fence where a car crashed through. I staggered out of the yard, straight to a little store on the corner and got a water that fulfilled my wildest dreams. Then I started my journey hitchhiking up the
coast by myself.
— Adam Zapotok, 2017
What Adam is up to now...
What emotions come up for you after reading Train Pirate?
We distinctively remember publishing Adam's piece in Issue One, in shorter form, and feeling like it was by far the most raw story in there. I mean, RAW. The grit of it all.
But another word that came up for us, and is coming up again in revisiting the story, is transience.
No jab at Adam whatsoever. His experience is entirely valid. But since Issue One, we personally have grown into an appreciation for the opposite of transience. We've grown into a yearning for depthhh, and stillness. We're wondering now, as we were then, how we can best reach that "depth."
What constitutes depth, anyway? Let's say depth means ... profound awareness; a high-resolution texture to life; vulnerable to pain because you, somewhere or somehow, care intensely for something and might lose it all.
It seems one way to get to depth is by seeking novelty and discovery. We're at unprecedented levels of awareness when we're in a new place, for example. A new countryside surrounds us with high-resolution texture. Traveling, most would agree, can be a very deep experience. Train hopping included.
Butttt, it can also be empty. Transient. A way to run away from ever investing or taking a risk in something. We imagine some people will say this is an age thing. Y'all are growing up, how mature. Y'all are settling down. But we don't think that's it. We predict there's no final right answer.
Instead, this is going to be one of those lifelong balancing acts, dammit. Torn between growing down deep and seeking stillness, versus getting stuck and complacent.
On one hand, you may talk about your lovely neighborhood all you want. We've got a world to fall in love with.
And on the other, talk about this big wide world all you want. We're just seeking to love our neighbor.
The balance may be ever-changing. We'd love to hear how you're stacking it.