By Evan Sernoffsky
The deafening sound of crashing metal carries for miles around Eugene’s train yard. Engines push and pull lines of freight cars. The slack between them yanks tight and one by one the cars cry out.
Aaron Dactyl waits as a freight approaches in the Eugene train yard.
“It sounds like a war zone at night,” Aaron Dactyl says. “The chain reactions of steel hitting steel sounds like thunder. There is no noise ordinance here so it goes on all night.”
For most people, the extreme sounds that come from the yard would be an unwelcome intrusion on their midnight slumber. For Dactyl, the trains serve as a refreshing reminder of his true passion.
Dactyl rides these metal monsters. For now he rents a small room in a house one block away from the yard where he can hear the freights blow by at night. Around his bed are books, boxes, and things he has found on the street. All of it is expendable.
Dactyl has turned his love of riding trains into a zine (a self-produced magazine) called Railroad Semantics in which he publishes photos and stories about his trips around the country. “It is cheap and efficient and you don’t need a middle man to print it. You can do it yourself,” he says.
“(Railroad Semantics) was born out of my wanderlust and love for riding trains and all the adventures that I had,” Dactyl says. “I wanted to convey what was happening out there and have an impact. I didn’t have anyone to share those stories with and I feel like they needed to be heard.”
Dactyl is ambitious and articulate. He has short brown hair and dresses warm. His style tows the line between vagrant and stylish. His black army boots, wool stocking hat and a worn down jacket fit in perfectly in the Northwest.
“At least half of riding trains is waiting. You might make it to Portland in four to eight hours but you might wait 20 to 30 hours for a train.”
Jumping on freight trains is dangerous and illegal. People caught riding trains face misdemeanor trespassing charges and potential time in jail. Every rail yard employs a security guard who is not-so-affectionately called the “bull” by train hoppers. Some bulls are ferocious and have legendary reputations of using violent methods to apprehend trespassers. Getting caught by the bull, however, is the least of a train hoppers worries. Each rail car can weigh more than 100 tons (depending on the amount of cargo it carries) and one misstep will likely result in an immediate brutal death.
For Dactyl, the rewards of illegally riding freights far outweigh the dangers. “It’s exciting and inspiring,” he says. “It’s exciting because you get an adrenaline rush from doing something that is not sanctioned in society. It’s kind of like being on a roller coaster in some senses. You’re not supposed to be there, you’re not strapped in, and you’re not obeying the rules.”
Riding freights offers new perspectives of the landscape that can’t be seen or felt any other way. “You are traveling through some of the most beautiful parts of the country on the back roads that no one else gets to see,” he says. “It just opens your eyes to things that you wouldn’t notice otherwise.”
Dactyl had his first experience with trains when was painting graffiti in high school. A big part of both graffiti culture and riding freights is making your mark. Because trains travel all around the country, a graffiti artist’s tags get nationwide exposure on the side of freight cars.
It is rare to ever see an untagged freight car.
Those who ride freight cars are deeply involved in graffiti culture and almost everyone has a tag. Dactyl is an expert on what each one stands for. He can randomly point to someone’s spray painted insignia and talk at length about the artist and context of the work.
Dactyl grew up in Kentucky and one day decided to hop a train. “I was painting (graffiti) in a train yard and I just figured it out. The train comes in this way it stops changes crews and it goes on to Kansas City or vice versa,” he says. “I met a hobo one day and I saw him get on a train and go to Kansas City and I was like, man I want to do that. I want to see what’s around the bend down there. Later that summer I took a few days off and got on the train and went to Kansas City and I made it. It was a great experience… a little more exhausting and filthy than I thought it would be, but it was a great experience nonetheless.”
Dactyl’s family still live in Kentucky and he talks to them often. They do not, however, know that he rides freight trains. He knows that his family cares about him, and rather than have his parents worry, he simply omits this detail of his life.
After coming to Oregon and graduating from Portland State University with a general studies degree, Dactyl took his love for trains to the next level and published his first zine in 2009. “It’s so much easier to hop trains out here because there are so many less tracks. I never considered myself a good train hopper until I came out here to Oregon,” he said.
Dactyl has discovered some realities about riding the rails over the years. “At least half of riding trains is waiting. You might make it to Portland in four to eight hours but you might wait 20 to 30 hours for a train,” he says. “If you have enough time alone it really forces the creativity out of you. I think that self expression is a basic human need and the more you are alone, the more that creativity comes to the surface. Railroad Semantics is a manifestation of a lot of my time to myself.”
“Hobo journalism,” Dactyl says, is a term that has recently emerged for people like him who write about their experiences on the rails. Even though they put themselves in harsh conditions, hobo journalists are mostly educated and intelligent. “I took up the form and thought that it fit me very well,” Dactyl says. “I consider myself an aspiring photojournalist. I’ve never found any reliable work in that field, nor do I think I ever will in the form that I want. This is another medium in which I’m able to put work out there. It’s completely in line with what I love doing.”
Dactyl sells his zine at a few bookstores in Portland and it is distributed online through Microcosm Publishing, a small company out of Bloomington, Ind. Each zine is sold for $6, which is barely more than it costs to produce. Money is not why he does what he does.
Instead of working on a more mainstream career and finding a steady job, Dactyl will take manual labor and restaurant jobs that he is never afraid to lose. “I work my jobs but I also have a lot of time to make something happen for myself,” he says.
Much like the paths that are laid out in life are the highways and byways that people mindlessly drive down every day, Dactyl says. “Society is so numbing. (It’s numbing) to do the same things over and over and go on retread paths. Riding on trains made me live in a way that society never provided to me. The idea to strip yourself from a lot of the clatter and clutter of modern society and live a simpler life goes hand in hand with riding the rails.”
Dactyl sees riding freights as a throwback to a better time in America and is nostalgic for an era that he did not get to experience. “Hopping freight trains is one of the rare truly American pastimes,” he says. “The first wave of hobos was homeward bound soldiers returning from the Civil War. The next wave came with the Great Depression. Migrant workers would often carry their hoes with them, so they were often called hobos. It’s a tradition that continues today. Freight trains and hobos helped build this country.”
Recently, Microcosm has offered to start publishing Railroad Semantics instead of just distributing the copies that he prints himself. This is a step forward in gaining a wider audience and making a name for himself as a hobo journalist.
Writing a zine and riding the rails is great for Dactyl now, but he recognizes that it will not last forever. While he figures out what he wants to do next in life, seeing the nation by train and producing Railroad Semantics is a great experience, he says.
At night Dactyl wanders around the Eugene train yard and sometimes runs into fellow train hoppers. They share stories and brave the cold winter night air. The sound of gravel crunching under boots is broken up by the blare of a train horn and the smashing of freight cars.
Life’s endeavors are not always easy, but Dactyl has discovered the value in all of his experiences. “It’s a hardship and something that you have to struggle through and endure. And when it’s over and you have made it from point A to point B that’s when it’s really rewarding. You can look back and really appreciate it,” he says.
Discovering America has taught Dactyl some important things about life. “I don’t think I knew who I was. I know who I am now and I’ll always stand by that,” he says. “It makes me feel like living. It makes me feel alive. It’s what keeps me alive.”