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Train kids

Havre Daily News/Nikki Carlson

Colin Mazzola, 21, right, of Huntington Beach, Calif., talks about his experiences as a traveler while his 18-year-old girlfriend, Taylor "River" Woodward of Thousand Oaks, Calif., listens in Pepin Park June 13. The duo hopped on a train to Havre from Chicago.

Started by Civil War veterans in the late 1800s who built and rode the expanding American rail network, it was during the Great Depression that the American legend of the train-hopping hobo solidified as thousands of people, unable to find work, took to the rails to find something, anything, better.

Over the past 80 years the economy has gotten better, then worse, then better, then worse. And while the demographics and motivations have changed, one thing that hasn't changed is generation after generation of the disillusioned hoping that America's sprawling freight lines will offer some relief, or at least escape.

As a city that owes its existence to one of the longest rail lines in the country, operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Havre has always attracted more than its fair share of train riders, particularly during the summer months.

Tom Anderson has worked for BNSF in Havre for the past 15 years, as a security officer responsible for catching and booting the riders, in the latest iteration of a century-long "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. Even during his relatively short time he's seen significant shifts in the culture.

"Mostly they're younger types, in their 20s usually, " Anderson said. "The days of the old hobos are pretty much gone. You don't see much of the older travelers anymore.

"When I started you'd see some, but not anymore. "

Anderson said he usually finds nearly 250 riders in a given year. Last year slowed down a bit as flooding in North Dakota slowed train traffic, but this year seems to have brought a strong return, with dozens of riders arrested just this month.

The Young

Havre Daily News/Zach White

Colin Mazzola, center, Jordan Normandy and Otis the puppy wait outside the Hill County Detention Center to visit their friends detained inside, including Mazzola's "road dog" Dean Corrick, on June 14.

One of the first batches caught by the Hill County Sheriff's Office this season was a group of five riders, or road dogs, who arrived at the beginning of June.

Colin Mazzola is a 21-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif., traveling with his 18-year-old girlfriend Taylor Woodward, who goes by River and currently claims residence in Thousand Oaks, Calif., but was raised in Pennsylvania.

They were riding the rail from Chicago, where they were protesting a NATO summit, to northern California by way of Seattle, with 23-year-old Collin Roczey, from Saugus, Calif., 19-year-old Tony Vorpaul, from West Bend, Wis., and 23-year-old Dean Corrick.

They got off the train to avoid being found during BNSF's routine brake check and spent a few days in Havre, mostly hanging out in Pepin Park, where they met Vanessa Parisian, a 23-year-old Box Elder native who has been living homeless in Havre.

At first annoyed by their infringement on her turf, the gazebo in the park, Parisian said she quickly developed a liking for Corrick and his "beautiful eyes. "

After a few days, the road dogs were ready to go and headed to the western edge of Havre to keep an eye out for outbound trains to hop.

On June 5 Corrick went out to buy supplies for the group. While he was gone, a deputy spotted and arrested the other four for trespassing on BNSF property.

While his friends spent the week in the Hill County Detention Center, Corrick spent more time with Parisian, who took him to Box Elder for a hula-themed children's birthday party.

That night the two couldn't find a ride back to Havre.

Parisian said she tried to stay at family members' houses who would have allowed her to stay, but they didn't trust her friend, Corrick.

Although she refused to comment on the next 12 hours, Corrick said she took him to her cousin's house. He said he was happy to just sleep on the porch, but she used a key to enter the house and insisted that it was OK for them to stay inside for the night.

Parisian's cousin later called the Hill County Sheriff's Office to report items were missing, and the two were arrested that night in downtown Havre on felony burglary charges.

As a result, Corrick, the free member of the group was locked up, while the other four were released over the weekend of June 8.

Roczey and Vorpaul took off quickly, to wait for their friends in Whitefish.

River picked up some kind of infection on her face, she suspects from a spider bite, while in jail. So she and Mazzola stuck around, waiting to see what happened to their friend, Corrick, and get some treatment for her face.

After getting a bandage from the Bullhook Community Health Center and some antibiotics from Health Mart Pharmacy in Gary & Leo's Fresh Foods — paid for over the phone by River's mother back in Pennsylvania — the pair talked about their experience on the rails and opened up, story by story, about their furtive community.

River is excitable, idealistic and a bit naive, like many 18-year-olds.

"All they care about is making money, " River said of her parents. "I don't think they will ever find true happiness or true freedom. "

She said she first ran away after moving from her mother's in Pennsylvania to live with her dad in California at 14. She was drawn to the road by the mythological counter-culture of the 1950s and 1960s, wandering heroes like Jack Kerouac and The Grateful Dead.

She hopes to get to Europe sometime soon and travel around the continent. Beyond that vague hope, there is nothing. Her 30s are inconceivable.

Mazzola is more thoughtful, taciturn. He thinks a lot before, and while, answering questions.

Avoiding any amount of detail, he alludes to family friction, differences of opinion that drove him out into a wider world.

He would like to make it to the current train-kid Mecca, New Orleans, but not before finding the right road dogs and appropriate conditions.

For him, it's not that the future doesn't exist. He's perplexed by the multiplicity of futures that could await him. So many options, yet to pick one would inevitably exclude other, equally desirable, outcomes. To choose is to limit, to bind himself.

For now he's just happy to busk for change, playing music on street corners.

"I can easily make enough money for some food and a couple beers, " Mazzola said. "And I enjoy doing it.

"Plus I don't have to kiss anyone's ass. "

The pair talked about an enigmatic train rider organization called the Freight Train Riders of America — some claim it originally stood for (Expletive) The Reagan Administration — that they had heard started in Havre.

British travel writer Richard Grant wrote in his 2003 book "Ghost Riders: Travels With American Nomads" that the group started in Montana in the 1980s.

Other sources on the Internet claim it was founded in the late-1970s by disenfranchised Vietnam War veterans.

Information about the group's purpose is equally unreliable, from the train rider brotherhood that Mazzola and River described to the murderous meth-trafficking group of sensationalist newspaper headlines.

The Restless

Havre Daily News/Zach White

Jacky Steinbach, a 56-year-old homeless man who has ridden freight trains for the past 30 years, talks during a visit Saturday while waiting to be released on stowaway charges this Saturday.

Another of the recent BNSF catches, 56-year-old Jacky Steinbach, remembers first encountering the FTRA.

"The Freight Train Riders of America? " Steinbach scoffed. "Man, that just sounds so dorky. "

Steinbach started riding trains more than 30 years ago, when he was a part of earlier train gangs like the Wrecking Crew or the Goon Squad.

The veteran-based origins of the FTRA are lent some credence by Steinbach's experience. He said when he started that was mostly who rode freight, veterans of both the Vietnam and Korean wars, as well as "cons and crazies. "

Steinbach, a large Jerry Garcia-looking man with long white hair and beard and reptilian watch bands inked around his wrists, was arrested June 21 in the BNSF Diesel Shop for stowing away on railroad property.

Born in Louisiana and raised in Washington, Steinbach said that acquaintances turned him on to train-riding when he was 22 years old.

He was quite frank about his history of incarceration, most recently in Idaho for being caught "with a friend's" morphine in his pockets. Sentenced to five years, he was paroled after three, but requested to go back and finish out the term so he could eventually travel freely when he got out without having to report to an officer.

Usually carrying "35 to 45 pounds" of camping equipment with him, so he can live wherever he wants, Steinbach said he is not usually as overweight as he is, but attributes 60 pounds of weight gain to spending most of the past two years in a wet house — a group home that gives a place to sleep and a small stipend mostly to late-stage alcoholics — in St. Cloud, Minn.

Steinbach describes the experience as a living hell, with constant fights leaving bloodstains on the floor and walls and high staff turnover leaving a janitor in charge of the facility.

He said he saved up his $90-per-month stipend for several months to buy his camping gear and a bus ticket out of town. He got as far a Grand Forks, N.D., before hopping the freight train that led him to Havre.

When his 10-day stay is up Saturday, he hopes to catch a bus to Great Falls, where he will stay for a while and consider options.

Corrick's stay in Hill County will likely be much much longer.

At his arraignment Friday he entered a not-guilty plea, and Judge Dan Boucher set an omnibus hearing for July 23, where a trial date will be set.

Parisian, bonded out of jail by her brother a week prior, had her arraignment the same day, with the same result.

Sitting in the courtroom next to her father Kevin, Parisian leaned over and offered mixed thoughts on Corrick.

"He's a lying (expletive). He needs to be locked up for a long time to teach him a lesson, " Parisian said angrily, until Corrick walked by after the hearing on his way back to jail.

"Look at him. He's so beautiful, " Parisian said, this time grinning like a schoolgirl.

Leaving the hearing with her father and lawyer, Parisian was done talking to the press.

The Changes

Havre Daily News/Zach White

Taylor Woodward, on left who just goes by River, and Colin Mazzola, right, visit with their "road dog" Dean Corrick June 14, who is being held in the Hill County Detention Center on felony burglary and theft charges.

Anderson pointed to Corrick's arrest when describing the problems that train-hopping causes, outside of BNSF's own liability concerns.

"When they start gathering in town, you get a lot of panhandling going on, " Anderson said. "You start having them hang around, and you start to get your burglaries and thefts.

"A lot of them have criminal rap sheets, a lot of trespassing charges. I'm seeing more and more in the last few years with assault charges. A lot of them are running. A lot of them we do get warrants from other states when we pick them up. "

While Steinbach was upfront about his legal woes, and Mazzola and River had their complaints about law enforcement, both in Hill County and at the protests they came from in Chicago, they all said that breaking the law, aside from their trespassing and stowing away, was not what they did.

Steinbach said he learned early the value of dumpster-diving, living off of others' scraps. Mazzola and River said they much preferred earning their change, looking down at the beggars, or "crack-spangers, " who try and con a few bucks off of passersby.

They were all wary of handouts, describing other people they'd met and not respected, who travel state to state, mission center to mission center, gaming food stamp systems.

Mazzola and River said they didn't even like going to soup kitchens because they are usually so depressing, though they did go to Havre's, which River said was the nicest she'd ever seen.

Unwilling to stay in the place that had so far consisted largely of felony charges and infected spider bites, the couple were anxious to get out of town.

Waiting outside the detention center to say goodbye to their friend, Mazzola and River recalled that this was not the first time their friend, Corrick, had developed complicating relationships with girls in towns they were supposed to simply pass through.

After saying their goodbyes on June 14, the two remnants of their group were joined by two new travelers in heading west to meet up with Roczey and Vorpaul in Whitefish.

The first new addition to the group was 18-year-old Jordan Normandy.

Born and raised in Portland, Ore., Normandy said he moved to Montana about five years ago and did a few years in Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility on felony burglary and grand theft auto charges.

Since getting out he's lived in Havre and claimed to have been fighting meth addiction until a few weeks ago.

"I got to get out of here before I (expletive) die, " Normandy said.

The other new road dog is more literal, a puppy named Otis.

Mazzola and River got Otis from Corrick, who got Otis with Parisian when they went to Box Elder, and were watching after him while those two were in jail.

After she got out of jail, Parisian was livid that her dog had been taken.

Mazzola and River thought they could take better care of the dog, which are common among train kids.

"A lot of them travel with animals, dogs mostly, " Anderson said. "I asked a few what the purpose of that is, and they just said animal friends. "

While a young puppy might seem difficult to manage, River talked about a lesbian couple they had met riding trains who traveled with three dogs.

Mazzola said this week that Otis is doing well, having made it to Seattle so far, though Normandy wasn't cut out for the life, breaking from the group for home just a handful of hours into their four-day stay in Shelby.

Normandy's return is understandable. It's a hard world to keep up with, both in physically chasing the trains and in the constant lifestyle changes in this ever-evolving community.

The freight-riding community has never stopped changing, first from the displaced Civil War veterans who started the freight riding movement to the unemployed droves looking for relief during the Great Depression, and most recently moving from disappointed veterans of the Asian proxy wars to the teenage runaways and college dropouts who use Facebook and pay-as-you-go cellphones to keep in touch with family and friends.

"When I came on I think the old hobos were starting to fade out, " Anderson said. "There was a hobo jungle on the north side of the tracks that was really large. That was cleaned up about the time I came in.

"Then we started to see this new generation. "

This new generation may not be as composed of soldiers fleeing memories of war as previous generations, or as much as one might expect in the most war-torn period since Vietnam, but they are still running, sometimes from their pasts and sometimes toward ideals, across lines of civil and criminal law. They trespass, threaten what Anderson called "our safety concerns for our employees and the subjects, " and get caught up in felony theft cases, living among drunks, thieves and a group called by other road dogs an impolite term — call it "bad guys, " for now — because they find it preferable to the alternative.

"(We're pursuing) some romantic half-dreamt notion, " Mazzola said, strumming a borrowed guitar. "We live in a world that's made up. But it's sort of real, because the real world's made up too. "

Train kid jargon

Like any specialized community, they develop their own jargon. Here are some of the terms the kids are using these days:

Street kids — A catch-all for the runaway teens and homeless adults across the country, regardless of who they are or what they do.

"I don't know why we call everyone kid, " River said, though it's likely related to Tom Anderson's observations of the increasingly younger freight riders of the past few decades.

Train kids — The folks who ride the rails all over, rarely staying in one place more than a few weeks. If you stay longer, you run the risk of becoming a home bum.

Home bum — A street kid who has either never traveled or used to but got stuck in, or happily stays in, one place.

Road dogs — The members of a close-knit, if spontaneously formed and constantly changing, traveling band who look out for each other.

Scumf—s — The train kids of the popular cautionary tales of violent nihilistic drifters, murdering and pillaging their way across the country, as opposed to Mazzola and River's group, a more self-proclaimed artist/musician faction.

Colin Mazzola said many train kids tell stories of scumf—s and fatal hopping accidents to scare away newcomers, but violent types — who might stab riders and kick them off a moving train to steal their supplies — do exist out there.

Skank — The bandana, dating back to the hobo bindles of the last century, are now mostly worn around the neck, occasionally over the mouth and nose when bombarded by carcinogenic diesel fumes in long unventilated mountain tunnels.

Space bag — The plastic bag of wine inside of cardboard-boxed wine. The bag used to be made of foil, like bags of astronaut food. It is handy not only in getting a group of road dogs drunk, but also, once emptied, as a handy re-inflatable pillow.

Oogle — Most street kids think society is phony and hypocritical and try to form their own authenticity. Anyone who tries to be a street kid, but seems inauthentic is an oogle., the slang repository, defines oogle as "street rats that don't have street smarts. "

It is considered quite insulting. Mazzola and River said they've seen a few fights begin with one person calling another an oogle.

Crack-spangers — Beggars — usually urban drug addicts — who, rather than simply asking or performing for change, concoct stories of being a few dollars short of a bus ticket or gas money.


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