By BRIAN GORDON
Asheville, NC AP) – Long before he ever reached for a moving train, Jeff Spiteri did homework. For two years, Spiteri, a teenager in suburban Detroit, researched freighthopping: Where to sneak on, what to pack, and how to evade police.
At the local railroad tracks he spent afternoons ascending graffiti-plastered boxcars. Online, he watched videos on illicit boarding techniques and messaged veteran freighthoppers for advice on living as an itinerant “train kid.”
“I was a big nerd about it,” Spiteri said. “There are a lot of stupid kids who hop on trains and don’t know what they’re doing.”
At 18, Spiteri was lean, with a pressed-down crew cut and some half-hearted stubble. It was the summer of 2007, and he had just failed his senior year of high school. His home, with a father he said molested him at a young age, never felt comfortable. The thought of spending his summer on the road, maybe even getting out to California, sounded like relief.
His first stop would be Chicago, where his brother’s friend had a home and a spare bed. And Spiteri knew exactly how he would get there.
To the rail yard, he brought a backpack, sleeping bag, clothes, a little food, and a radio scanner set to capture conversations between train engineers and conductors.
After hours of waiting, a conductor’s voice came across the scanner: “Yep, she’s ready to go.” Still some distance away, Spiteri set after the train, a grainer, used to transport loose materials like grain, metals or coal. By the time Spiteri reached his target, its wheels were turning.
Looking toward the caboose, he eyed an exterior ladder on an approaching train car. The next motion was one Spiteri had rehearsed, albeit on stationary trains. He latched his hands onto the ladder, ran alongside the train for a few paces, then swung his body onto the platform like he were hoisting himself onto a top bunk bed. Once his body felt secure, Spiteri released a guttural yell, fueled by adrenaline, elation and underlying fear, as the train sped off.
Spiteri never made it beyond Chicago and returned to Michigan at the end of the summer. With few prospects, he started saving money for another trip. The next spring, within a week of graduating high school, Spiteri hopped another train. And then another.
For the next year, Spiteri lived the traveler’s lifestyle. He journeyed from city to city, occasionally hitchhiked, but more often planted himself in train cars as scenes of America raced by. He rode hotshots (fast trains with few stops) and junk trains (slow ones with many).
He was a hedonistic home bum hiker, as Spiteri described himself back then, and bonded with fellow travelers similarly unbridled by the strictures of desk jobs, mortgages and college exams. For funds, Spiteri freelanced as a handyman. When money was short, he ate at soup kitchens and dumpster dove. His calendar was improvised. Curiosity and connections brought him to new cities, from Louisiana to Washington State, for a night, days or weeks. “Riding freight spoke to my creativity and my will power,” he said.
Yet the romanticism of freighthopping clashed with the cold realities of being young and homeless. Many nights were spent under bridges, or in makeshift urban encampments known in the freighthopping world as jungles.
“You’re constantly exposed,” Spiteri said. “Exposed to the elements, exposed to people who might take advantage of you, exposed to the police.”
One time in Houston, a cop pulled a gun on him as Spiteri waited to hop a train. Another night was so cold he huddled with his travel companion to stave off hypothermia. Many of the worst hardships weren’t physical.
“A lot of riders are running from something,” Spiteri said.
Eight months into his journey, while working on a farm in northern California, years of unprocessed childhood trauma manifested in an emotional breakdown. Spiteri found he could not stop crying. His travel partner, an Italian photographer named Andrea, had plans to split up with Spiteri after their weeks on the farm. Instead, Andrea remained with Spiteri and talked him through his pain.
The two decided to hop another train, heading east. Their destination was a city Spiteri heard mentioned but never visited. With no train station, Asheville held an outsized reputation within the freighthopping subculture. Spiteri, having done his research, knew Asheville contained a wealth of nonprofit services. In March of 2009, after months of joy, misery and furtive train rides, Spiteri came to live in a new city for the last time.
The American Society of Civil Engineers calculates there are approximately 138,000 miles of freight railroad in the United States today. Rail lines cluster east of the Appalachians and run like veins throughout the Great Plains and west. Seven corporations operate major cargo lines, and riders have a slanderous nickname for each.
According to a 2013 report by the Federal Railroad Administration, two people were killed or injured every day from trespassing on railroad property. Based on fatality reports, the FRA determined the average railroad trespasser is a white male in his 30s. Only 13% of trespassers were women.
Despite the danger, an American tradition of freighthopping thrives. Folksinger Woody Guthrie epitomized a rambling, carefree ethos as he rode freight from Dust Bowl-bitten Oklahoma to California.
“It’s super liberating,” said Steven Goff, who rode freight on and off from 1995-2003. “Just staring out a train car and drinking a 40. It’s one of the most free feelings you could ever have.”
While no travelers’ backstories are the same, their decisions to hop on cars or hitchhike were often preceded by conflict. Goff ran away from his home in Greenville, South Carolina, at 15, a punk kid at a preppy school who grew fed up with being targeted by bullies. He zigzagged the county at his leisure, stomaching shaky box cars and racking up trespassing warrants. He worked odd jobs in restaurants for pocket change and free meals.
Gradually, Goff noticed freighthopping had a shelf life. “A lot of people I knew, they either died or went to prison,” he said. Overdoses, alcoholism and suicide claimed many. “You usually lost touch with someone and later hear that they’re gone,” Goff said.
In 2003, Goff jumped off a train near Durham and hitchhiked to Asheville. “All the way to the West Coast, people knew where Asheville was,” he said. “It became a hub for us.”
Having experienced restaurants all around the county, Goff sought work as a dishwasher. But to remain in Asheville, Goff, mostly nomadic for the past eight years, had to find a place to live.
Myriam Rehberg’s mother had been devotedly religious, something Rehberg was certainly not. This disparity prompted intense arguments between the two, and at 16, Rehberg left her home in West Asheville to live on the streets. Two years later, Rehberg’s mother moved away, leaving the house to Rehberg.
It was the 2000s, and Asheville’s transient population looked for shelter at punk houses and squat houses. The difference between punk and squat was ownership, punk houses were properly owned by at least one tenant while squat houses were abandoned. Both dotted the city, and many acquired nicknames: Brown House downtown, Ice House along the tracks in the River Arts District, Cabin behind McCormick Field. As older ones shuttered, new ones would sprout up every three to six months.
Seeing the need for more housing, Rehberg turned her childhood home in West Asheville into a punk house, welcoming anyone within the alternative Venn Diagram of freighthoppers, hitchhikers and the homeless to live as long as was needed.
“Asheville’s location isn’t actually super traveler friendly,” Rehberg said. The city has been without passenger train service since 1975 and no major freight line passes through. “It’s a bad train out. But the mountains, the music, the services. There was a pull to the city.”
Rehberg’s short-lived punk home ended after her mother evicted her. Rehberg continued drinking heavily, two handles of whiskey a week by her estimation, and did what few women do: She started freighthopping. “I lost everything, so I started riding,” she said.
Her journeys, from 2008-11, took her to the whitecap mountains of Whitefish, Montana, and a dank Mobile, Alabama, jail cell. The splendor coexisting with the squalor. Her decision to stop freighthopping was not made on a California farm or out of a desire to move on with a career. Rehberg became pregnant.
“It slowed me down,” she said. “It gave me a lot of time to reflect.” Then 21, Rehberg reconciled with her mother and moved back to the West Asheville home of her childhood. The pregnancy ended in a stillbirth, but the reprieve from the road allowed her to sober. The culmination of an abusive relationship drove Rehberg back to freighthopping for a six-month spell in 2015, but she hasn’t jumped on a train car since.
Rehberg still feels freighthopping in her hips: lingering discomfort from years of sleeping on hard surfaces. But there is much of her previous life she hopes to preserve. “It shaped how I view society and how I interact with people,” she said. “I learned to make raw, unfiltered human connections. It teaches you to build connections that would take people a couple of years to have in the real world.”
Today, Asheville is vastly different from the city Rehberg, Goff and Spiteri first came to know. The punk houses and squat houses they relied on are gone. The Brown House burned down a decade ago. The Ice House is now just a chimney stack. The last local punk house Rehberg recalled closed around 2016. “The gentrification here has taken away any place to squat, to live,” she said.
While it is difficult to say whether the number of travelers coming through Asheville has changed, many feel the city’s spike in development makes their presence more visible. “I think the convergence of traditional tourism has really highlighted the fact that those folks are coming to town,” said Emily Ball, Senior Program Director at Homeward Bound. “But it doesn’t feel new to me. It feels like we’ve always had a lot of folks passing through.”
Rehberg now lives in Oakley and shares a house with her partner and two children. She works as a housing authority case manager at Homeward Bound, a prominent provider of services to the area’s homeless.
Goff worked his way from dishwasher to a restaurant owner. He entertains his 13-year-old daughter with tales from his train days but advises her against living that life.
Spiteri rents a home in Richmond Hill and is planning a nonprofit aimed at providing permanent housing to homeless youth. “I’ll never regret riding freight,” he said. A giant tattoo of a bright, steaming train dominates his chest, an indelible remnant from his year on the road. “But you’re not building anything when you’re out there,” Spiteri said. “You’re not settled enough to establish any roots.”
On a typical day, two to four freight trains pass through Asheville. Bisecting street traffic in several places, the trains must trudge along at a slow, cautious pace. Some might call it convenient.