The first time Swampy hopped a freight train, he was 18. He was traveling north of his native California when he ran into a train-hopping friend in Portland, Oregon, who suggested they hitch a ride back down south. He was broke, so the idea was appealing. “It was pouring, and we were hiding under the bridge from the rain, and this train was rolling through, and it wasn’t stopping. My friend told me, ‘You know, this train’s not gonna stop. We have to catch it on the fly as it’s rolling.’”
For someone like me, who balks at jaywalking and No Trespassing signs, this is absolutely terrifying. And this would make me the polar opposite of Swampy, the twentysomething counter-cultural artist who prefers to remain anonymous and spends time in the warm months hopping trains when not squatting in Oakland, California.
“So we kind of just ran for it and slipped in, like a Slip ‘N Slide,” he says, continuing the story of his first ride. “And you know, it’s all wet, so it was just a pretty intense experience for the first time, riding a train. We watched this crazy storm all around us, going through the rural areas in Oregon. It really blew my mind. It was amazing.”
He and I are an unlikely pair, but his photographs are what bring us together. While perhaps best known for his graffiti art, Swampy is also an avid photographer. He recently published a book of photographs entitled NBD. Train hoppers traditionally leave a tag indicating the direction they’re going in, and Swampy’s was “NBD,” for northbound, taken from the year he spent traveling from Mexico to Alaska primarily by train. We’re not talking about “riding the varnish,” hobo-speak for riding inside the comfort of a passenger train like most of us do. His trips were spent stowed away inside—or on top of—a boxcar.
Sneaking onto freight trains is, of course, illegal and, especially in the post-September 11 security environment, most certainly not worth the hassle or penalty. It’s also extremely dangerous. Riders have been killed or maimed. “People have asked why it seems like riding trains is so idyllic and romantic,” Swampy says. His answer: Not so. He’s careful to express that this is something he does for himself alone and that he doesn’t condone or suggest it to anyone.
Aside from the physical and legal perils, there’s the matter of basic comfort: Laying a sleeping bag on the hard metal floor of a rail car as it rumbles down the tracks is not for those accustomed to creature comforts.
Yet his photographs of this life-on-the-edge experience illicit a vicarious thrill. From his forbidden vantage point, he captures vistas seldom seen by anyone other than railway engineers. His fellow travelers, when he does run into them, are photographed from behind. This is out of respect for their anonymity, Swampy says, but also to allow viewers like me to follow along on this clandestine adventure from the law-abiding coziness of my desk.
What is it about this that resonates with Swampy? “The thing you’re doing doesn’t feel mapped out and curated for consumption,” he says of his self-made adventures.
“Sometimes it’s painfully boring, because you’re waiting for a train for days,” he continues. “And I’m asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this? I should just go buy a bus ticket or something.’ But it’s those lows that make the highs so amazing when you’re actually on that train going 60 miles per hour through the desert or the forest.”
And what must his mother think of all this? “My mom is going to be so excited,” he says of seeing his work featured on Proof. “This is National Geographic. That’s a mom pleaser for sure.”