Short Story Fiction
The Coast Rail Challenge
Scott A. Gese

He wanted his new book to be authentic. The coast rail challenge would assure it was.

the coast rail challengeRon Graham-Becker/Pexels

His name is Saul Porter. It’s the early 1940’s and for now, Saul’s a travelin’ man.

The road he travels is the rail road. A stretch of tracks along the Pacific Coast between Seattle and Los Angeles. He knows them well as he has traversed them from one end to the other on several occasions.

Saul isn’t your ordinary homeless and hungry transient living on the streets of some big city. Circumstances beyond his control didn’t force him into the life he now lives. He’s a self made transient, or hobo as he prefers to be called. He shuns the city streets and keeps to the tracks. Living off the land and the generosity of strangers doing odd jobs in exchange for food or money. He’s always polite and as clean as he can keep himself under the circumstances.

How, and more importantly why, did Saul Porter decide to become a Hobo?

A year earlier Saul Porter was an American history professor at a local college. His specialty was the twentieth century. Particularly the life of the American Hobo.

In the 1940’s t here was no such thing as unemployment insurance. Men relied on their brains and brawn to make ends meet for themselves and their families. During the depression work was hard to come by. Many left the larger cities. Some even left their families as they traveled the country looking for ways to feed the ones they had left behind. Some ended up riding the rails. It was not an easy life but they survived as best they could.

Saul was in his late thirties. He had a good job and money in the bank. His friends knew of his “hobo obsession” as they called it. How he would drive to the coast from his home in Eugene, Oregon and wander up and down the tracks that ran along the rim of the west coast. He didn’t have to leave Eugene to find a set of tracks, but he liked the coast. He felt it was a certain type of man that held close to the water and didn’t venture inland to any degree. Those were the men he wanted to know more about.

Saul would look for hobo’s just passing through and gather as much information from them as possible. He meticulously compiled what he had learned from them for a book he was working on.

One day a friend challenged him. “You’re always talking the talk but unless you walk the walk you’ll never know what it’s really like to be a hobo. You need to live the life yourself. You should take a one year sabbatical and live as a hobo.”

Saul agreed to give it some thought.

It took a few days before he came to the conclusion that his friend was right. He needed to live the life in order to understand it. He accepted the challenge.

It was late June when Saul began his challenge. Classes were out for the year and the weather was now seasonably warm. Saul packed up a few essentials, put a ten dollar bill in his pocket and hit the road.

Saul didn’t consider himself an authentic hobo. He wasn’t down on his luck or homeless. He had the luxury of knowing he would be home in a year. Or if he wanted to quit early, he could stop at any time. Even so, he tried to make the experience as authentic as possible.

There was a definite learning curve involved in this hobo business. Meeting up in hobo camps with other homeless men along the tracks could be challenging and sometimes dangerous. For example, early on he met a man named Fingers. They traveled together for several days. He seemed like a nice enough fellow. One evening Saul caught him rummaging through his backpack. The next morning they parted ways.

Another time, for no apparent reason, he had a knife pulled on him by a man named Stick. It was a rude awakening to suddenly realize the mans name had nothing to do with a piece of wood. He learned to keep his personal possessions close and to keep a wary eye on anyone who appeared overly friendly.

Most people he met were genuinely nice, but some only wanted what they could get from him.

No one used their real name. Monikers were given to you by others. Usually based on your reputation. Saul was smarter than most of the people he ran into. They gave him the nickname of, “The Professor”.

He learned to hop slow moving freight trains and enjoy the passing scenery from a box car door. Food was a challenge at times. The Professor quickly learned what wild plants were edible, where to find fruit and berries and how to make due with little. Hobo stew became a staple.

Finding odd jobs close to the tracks was challenging but not impossible. People were generally helpful if he was sincere and polite. He was good at striking up intelligent conversations with those who lived along the tracks. Letting many of them know he was gathering research for a book he was writing. Because of this he became friends with many of them. This helped him when it came to picking up odd jobs or handouts.

Whenever he had more than he needed, he shared it with others who had little. They did the same. It was one of the many unspoken rules he learned along the way.

After a year, The Professor ended the challenge. He had learned more over the past twelve months than he would have ever learned by just interviewing the men who walked the tracks. He now felt qualified to write about the experience of the American hobo.

Saul now makes a point of taking his vacations by hopping a slow moving freight down to Los Angeles and back. Along the way he visits many of the friends he made and every so often he runs into one of the hobo’s he knew from the time of his Coast Rail Challenge. They drink coffee together from a tin cup and share a bowl of hobo stew.

© Copyright 2024 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.

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