An Interview with Aaron Dactyl

Interviewer – David M Morton

I read Hunter Thompson's book on the Hell's Angels this spring. He writes of the “angst” felt by the WWII vets who came home feeling at odds with the “prewar pattern” of “college, marriage, a job, children.”

This uneasiness that created the famed biker gang, as Thompson writes, had happened before. After the Civil War, veterans began hopping trains headed west. They were the hobos or hoe-boys (farmhands) or Ho, boys! Or hobohemians.

I felt HCR's Highway Life issue needed a voice from the rails. Tracking down a train hopper online was like eating soup with a stick. But, by damned, and at last, I found Aaron Dactyl, a born Kentuckian who now lives in Eugene, Oregon. Aaron is a train-hopper who created Railroad Semantics, a zine about rail culture.

Hopefully Aaron returns to our fire. There's always a cement block at the camp reserved.


INTERVIEWER

I had the image of sunlight on cowboy boots inside a freight car one time when I was bedded by depression. There was something about freedom in that image. It still comes to me at times. It seems American. I don't know if you consider yourself a hobo or not, but what is your ideal image of a hobo? What does that word mean to you?

AARON DACTYL
It's a nostalgic term more than anything, but also a bit of a paradox. I don't think anyone can really label themselves a hobo nowadays, it would be too pretentious. The word as a verb however is applicable—one can hobo about, meaning (to me) to travel from town to town or specific destinations in search of sustenance and work. To me that implies living bare bones, hand to mouth, and off the technological grid, and goes hand in hand with the railroad. Without trains there is no hobo.

(all images by Aaron Dactyl)

INTERVIEWER

I read an interview of yours about hopping trains and how it makes you feel. You say it makes you feel more alive. Our summer edition of HCR is about traveling or being on the road. D. H. Lawrence wrote about Walt Whitman and that his main philosophy was traveling down the Open Road, encountering whatever comes and not knowing what will come as a person travels it. What do you think this urge comes from?

DACTYL

It comes from one's integrity. Traveling in a particular way and remaining true to that requires a certain amount of integrity that can be all too easily compromised by convenience. I don't see a lot of integrity in renting a car to travel, or purchasing tickets for a bus or train. That doesn't appeal to me. I'm too independent minded to have to have places to stay or accommodations everywhere I go. I'd rather sleep in a tent or on a rooftop or loading dock than someone's couch and I'd rather hop a train and wait for hours than pitch in money for gas.



INTERVIEWER

What do you eat? Do you stop at diners or get fast food or pack?

DACTYL

I eat a lot. But no fast food. Bread and hummus and sandwiches. Granola bars keep the blood sugar up and whiskey keeps the body warm and aids sleep. Aside from that it's great to subsist on what's wild around you during the intransient times: almonds border the train yard in Chico, apples are easily picked in Washington, oranges in California, blackberries all along the mainline in Oregon. I also usually travel with a simple water pump in order to drink straight from rivers. Water is usually the heaviest thing I carry so this excuses a lot of weight, but also most train lines run along watercourses so I never run out of water.

INTERVIEWER

How are the modern day bulls? What comes to mind for me is the Ernest Borgnine character in Emperor of the North with his chain and hammer. Probably not so true, and he was a conductor not a bull, but nevertheless I get that image when I think of hopping trains and it scares the shit out of me.

DACTYL

Shack's a great character, and I'm sure he was based off a real-life RR bull, but that was long long ago when there was not as much oversight and times were just really different. The bulls today are vigilant still but not necessarily violent, as far as I've experienced or known. But then again everyone has their stories. The railroad's main priority is to discourage trespassing and keep you off trains in the first place. But if you happen to make it aboard one it's more than feasible to stay on and out of sight. I've always said that getting into and out of a train yard is the biggest risk.



INTERVIEWER

For me, the one book that made me want to ride the rails was The Dharma Bums by Kerouac. Do you read books as you ride or wait to ride? If so, what are some of your favorites?

DACTYL

I'm an avid reader, but lean more toward journalistic narratives. I stumbled across some late-nineties train-hopping "zines" a few years back that really inspired me to document my own travels, zines that didn't even have names of acknowledged authors. I also enjoy reading historically about places I'm familiar with and can relate to. One book that inspired me immensely was Timothy Egan's A Good Rain, about the Pacific Northwest. His writing is full of energy and wonder and he really makes appear magical the subjects he's writing about—rivers, mountains, salmon runs.




INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to someone who wants to train hop? What type of character is best if you want to give it a go?

DACTYL

There can be a lot of downtime to riding trains, but that should be embraced equally alongside the action of catching-on and catching-out. The long waits and sparse hours help to emphasize the adventure that riding trains is. You might spend an entire day stuck in some obscure town—and that can seem like an eternity—but then in the blink of an eye you're gone and on your way somewhere else entirely with no turning back.




INTERVIEWER
And what are some of your best experiences riding? Who do you remember? What is the best part of it from your experience?

DACTYL

The best part from my experiences is certainly the plethora of stories I have to tide me over for years to come, along with the photographs I've captured and the characters I have met and spent time with in passing. Also I cherish all the places I've been, the little insignificant towns I've stopped through and farmland sidings and river stretches where I've spent countless hours, that I know I will never see again.


For more by Aaron, visit Railroad Semantics.

1 comment:

The views and opinions expressed throughout belong to the individual artists and may or may not coincide with those of the other artists (or editors) represented within the magazine. Hobo Camp Review supports a free-for-all atmosphere of artistic expression, so enjoy the poetry, fiction, opinions, and artwork within, read with an open mind, and comment wisely. Thanks for stopping by the Camp!