Brad Westcott Rides the Rails
As skateboarders, we are always on the search for something new: virgin spots in distant towns, new friends with a couch to crash on—and we won’t let much stand in our way. No money? no problem. We learn at an early age how to travel cheaply and be happy. For most of us that means piling five deep into a beat up car, scrounging gas money and going 'til the wheels fall off. But for the truly adventurous there's a huge network of rail lines that cover the entire country and can get you anywhere for free, provided you got the time and the know-how to survive. Brad Westcott might not be flat broke anymore but he still likes the uncertainty and adventure of hopping trains to skate some far off places. —Joe Hammeke
So, Brad, what got you into hopping trains?
I’ve always been fascinated by trains, mainly because the railroad seems so antiquated but it’s still thriving in modern times. I started diving into books about railroad history which subsequently led me to books about riding trains. I had a close friend who was experienced in traveling by rail and he took me under his wing and taught me the ways.
Do you plan your skate trips around train rides?
I don’t always plan skate trips around train rides but it rules when they both line up. There are times when I just need to clear my head and get away from it all and I’ll go on a quick weekend hop and not bring my board. But on longer trips I always bring my board because skateboarding is such a huge part of who I am and I can’t imagine going a week or longer without skating.
When riding through the Canadian countryside, it’s not uncommon to go hours without seeing any signs of civilization. Boot and I couldn’t resist climbing up onto the roof of our grainers to relax and take in the scenery.
I really love taking photos while traveling and especially while riding trains. It’s always a challenge for me to convey exactly what it feels like to be on a moving freight train, twisting and turning through desolate areas. The whole experience is surreal and I was happy to find this frame when I got my film developed from this trip. I think it accurately encapsulates the mysterious, dream-like state that I often times slip into when riding trains.
I had some insider info that this train was going to stop near my friends’ place, which is right near the tracks. All I could do was smile and wave when my train flew by, never slowing down enough for me to even think of getting off. It ended up taking me another full day to get back to where I originally intended to stop. This illustrates one of the many examples of why it’s a bad idea to expect anything from the railroad.
How did you get into photography?
I first got into shooting photos through skateboarding. I took a disposable camera on a road trip to Florida when I was ten or 11 years old. Once I realized the magic of being able to bring home memories from the road, I was hooked. I started to shoot photos on train trips simply because I always have a camera at my side, especially when I’m traveling.
What type of people are out there hopping trains in 2017?
I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the kind of people who are out riding freight trains. There really aren’t a lot of people riding trains at all anymore. It’s become a lot more dangerous and difficult to do than it was 50 years ago. The majority of people I’ve met out on the rails are very similar to me: just people looking to escape city life and get away from it all—to have some time away from everything to think while seeing a different part of America.
There’s a symbolic language that is left behind long after many train riders and rail workers have moved on. Whether it stems from boredom, creativity or the need to communicate with others, people have been leaving their marks in and around rail yards for over a hundred years.
The majority of riding trains involves sitting and waiting. The hard fact is that the railroad is its own animal and doesn’t run on anyone’s time. If a train is late, well then too bad; it’s late. We ended up having to wait almost 48 hours to catch a train out of this spot.
Justin looks down on several different outbound trains, trying to identify the which one is leaving soonest. The view from the bridge offers the opportunity to scan the train for a rideable car before entering the train yard. After some deliberation we chose an open boxcar for our ride.
You look pretty clean cut. Do you ever get strange looks from the crustier guys riding the trains?
If you’re really out there on the road, you’re going to get dirty no matter what. After riding for about an hour you’re as dirty as anyone else out there.
Do you know any other skaters that hop trains?
Q-Man has some history riding trains. There was a film called The Mission where he walked straight from Burnside and caught a train to Seattle. I heard that Red and Monk used to ride trains way back and even took a trip from Seattle to Florida. Those guys are really raw dudes—always have been.
I’ve always had so much respect for Q-man. The stories and folklore about him are endless. It also rules to see how much time and energy he spends at Burnside cleaning up, skating and hyping people up, and putting people in check who are blowing it. Q has some history riding trains as well, which isn’t surprising. He’s one of the rawest dudes out there.
Tunnels can be a serious danger for train riders. Some railroad tunnels are equipped with chutes that release lingering diesel exhaust from the front locomotives, but regardless, long tunnels can make it extremely difficult to breathe. Even the engineer and conductor at the front end are required to have respirators in the locomotives at all times incase a train stalls in a tunnel.
Chris anticipates the sunrise and the warmth it will bring after a long, cold night riding through the desert. Having proper cold-weather/rain gear is imperative when spending time out in the elements in the fall and winter months.
Do you ever see skate spots while riding the trains?
I’ve seen spots when I’m riding and made mental notes to go back and find them. But railroads go where most cars don’t. I’ve seen lots of ditches. As far as famous spots, just outside of Palm Springs by the windmills you are close to that huge hip. But the train is going way too fast to get off around there.
Do you travel solo or with a crew? Any sketchy encounters?
The majority of miles I’ve ridden have been by myself. I don’t want to take responsibility for others; it’s dangerous and illegal. If you’re waiting for a train and you see a bunch of other people you might want to wait elsewhere. People will ask where you are going in an attempt to ambush you. It’s best to keep a low profile.
I see so many similarities between skating pools and riding trains. The same kind of work goes into both. You have to scope out the pool or train yard and figure out the inner workings of things, sometimes spending days, weeks, or months, assessing a situation before making a move. With both pools and trains, the participants maintain a quiet confidence while using private spaces for other purposes than the objects original intention. The ones who are doing it right leave no trace behind.
It can be hard to keep a low profile when getting off a train in a new town. You stick out like a sore thumb after emerging from the train yard and walking into town covered in dirt with a huge pack on your back. Small-town cops like to harass transients, as they know it’s highly likely they arrived by train, and rarely take kindly to them parading through their town. This is one of the benefits to traveling with a skateboard. Anytime I get into a new town, I’ll stash my pack and skate into town to grab supplies while going relatively unnoticed.
Matt pieces together some lunch while winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Packing light is essential for travelling, but food and water are the 2 most important things to bring along. If you do it right, you should chip away at your food stash and arrive at your destination with your pack much lighter than at the beginning if your trip.
What’s a typical journey like? How far, how many days? Do you have to pack a lot of food and water?
Most of the rides I’ve done are one or two crew changes so only a couple of states. I’ve only done a few where I am out in the elements for a week or more. Tucson to LA is a six-hour drive but by freight train it can take 16 hours, depending on the number of stops it has to take. The worst plan is to depend on getting somewhere on time. The railroad is its own animal; it doesn’t really run on time. I learned real quick to always have as much water as you can carry. It’s easy to run out of. Gotta bring food too but bring small, easy-to-carry food. There’s always a chance of getting stranded.
What happens if you get caught on the trains?
That’s the biggest danger, besides accidents. Train companies are the same as many corporations and they treat trespassers the same. It’s a lot like skating pools. You never know what’s gonna happen when the cops roll up but you gotta be respectful. There are towns that you get 30 days if you get caught. But there are also people who are understanding. If you are doing it right you should always see them before they see you. Waiting out in the open is not a good idea. You should stay outta the railyards until you’re absolutely ready to get on the train.
It occurred to me somewhere along the way that if I wasn’t intending on meeting up with people for a long skate trip, then there was really no use in bringing my normal board along. This was one of the first rides where I decided to bring my cruiser board along, and skating all around with soft wheels was a major relief. To make our way back home, we spent the night across from the mainline track, sleeping away the hours waiting for our northbound train to show up.
Several years back I had heard tales of the overwhelming scenery Canada has to offer and made the decision to head north. All trains crossing the border are scanned by x-ray, so it was much safer for me to cross the border legally. My Canadian brothers rolled out the red carpet and took me through the most scenic routes I’ve ever experienced. There are only a few areas in California and Oregon, which I’ve ridden through, that even scratch the Canadian scenery.
It’s always smart to hide away and stay out of site when rolling through a train yard or a town. Riders not only have to watch out for railroad police and train workers, but also concerned citizens who won’t hesitate to pick up their cellphone and call the cops.
A lot of DIY spots come and go, but my friends in New Jersey have spent the last five years devoting their time, money, and energy towards turning a bombed out warehouse into an epic place to skate. The whole DIY aesthetic reminds me of the attitude of depression era hobos. Starting with nothing and making their own way, creating a better life for themselves. These guys had no permission to build in this space, but used it to create their own world, which is thriving.
Any advice for someone looking to ride the trains?
If you are serious about it, take some time to read about it find some people who have done it. There’s a lot of old hobos out there missing limbs. Even as a skateboarder, I didn’t realize how dangerous it was ’til I started riding trains. I got on a moving train and slipped and my foot touched the wheel. I coulda been pulled under. It’s very dangerous and illegal, but I guess you could say the same about skateboarding.
What keeps you riding trains?
Mainly, it stems from my need to get away from the city and clear my mind. A lot of people seem to spend the majority of their lives trying to control things and become distracted by trivialities in society. Once I’m on a train and it’s rolling, I’ve lost control and that’s an incredibly freeing feeling.
I got on a high priority train in the earliest morning hours, wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, and woke up to the sun rising. As I rubbed my eyes and stood up to make sense of where I was, I saw a large skull out in the distance right under the rising sun. Was I still dreaming? I couldn’t be certain, so I grabbed my camera and snapped a photo. I’ve obsessively looked for this skull on more recent hops going through this area, but have never been able to locate it again.
The drive from LA to Tucson can be a pain in the ass, but it can really take forever on a slow moving train. That route can take 16+ hours depending on rail traffic. None of us could figure out how in the hell to skate this kinked Tucson pool. After we battled for grinds, I climbed onto the roof of this dilapidated house to shoot Willy’s crailslide. It’s always amazed me how easily Willy is able to adapt and skate anything.
Three carloads of us made a trek out into the desert to camp and hopefully skate a massive 30-foot full pipe. We were let down to find 10 feet of water rushing through the pipe and left with our tails between our legs, itching to skate something. When we found this pipe, it reminded me of a random spot that I would see off the side of a train. In the past I’ve made mental notes of ditches and other skateable stuff I’ve seen while riding trains, but most of it is too far from any road to reach. The crew took some runs and concluded it was a bit too small to skate, but Willy had no problem snapping frontside ollies.
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