Runaway Train

April 17, 2010

By Claire Sykes

“What is Freedom?” So begins the foreword to This Train is Bound for Glory (Ecstatic Peace Library, 2010), photographs by Justine Kurland. I think about Jonathan Raymond’s question as I leaf through this slim paperback, with its 61 color pictures—like the one of freight trains stretched along a desert horizon; and the two young nomads sacked out in cheap cotton sleeping bags, backpacks for pillows, beside a couple of trashed truck tires.

"Cuervo Astride Mama Burro, Now Dead" Doyle, 2007 (Photo and copyright by Justine Kurland)

There are still hobos out there, and Kurland was one of them, for ten years traveling around the country with her camera. Once her son Casper was born, in 2004, “the road no longer belonged only to me,” she writes in the book’s afterword. For her son’s safety, she left train hopping to the pros. Instead, living together in her van, she took “a distanced view, my subjects gleaned from the intersection of our reality as rail fans and our potential as riders.”

"Keddie Wye" Keddie, 2007 (Photo and copyright by Justine Kurland)

With a copy of “Crew Change,” a train hopping guide, “I met kids who flew signs asking for money and I spent evenings drinking beer with them and petting their dogs. I crossed paths with activists, the descendants of the Wobblies, the first to use the rails to spread their labor politics. I spent a week with a wilderness squatter who cleared non-native invasives from the forests where he lived.”

"Prospecting the South Fork of the Platte River" Denver, 2008 (Photo and copyright by Justine Kurland)

In Kurland’s book, trains shoot through those forests and wind around scrub-dotted hills, dropping off its lone cargo at makeshift “jungles”—homes on the run between anyplace and nowhere: A pup tent and rope hammock, strewn pot lids and a bedroll. Two backpacks resting on a wooded path littered with plastic bags and beer cans, a cardboard bed for the dog. A scrap-wood lean-to, a “wilderness squat” with tarps for walls, a tree-branched try at a yurt.

"Ghost Town CSX"Stein, 2007 (Photo and copyright by Justine Kurland)

The road and the rail are the addresses for these wanderers in the wild, exempt from rent and responsibility. So they sit on a felled fir and fiddle, find water in broken creek ice, take a piss in the river. Tattooed and tattered, bearded and battered, they stake their claim as adventurers of the autonomous, rejecting the rules and making their own way, often picking up where others like them left off. Casper’s here, too, sleeping in his car seat, squatting on dead-end asphalt and standing naked with the birch.

"Casper on the Back Porch" Maryhill, 2008 (Photo and copyright by Justine Kurland)

Don’t we all sometimes long to strip ourselves of possessions and just take off, leaving our lives behind without any plan or place in mind. The people in Kurland’s book seemingly did. Such free spirits! Or are they sorry souls? Whether freedom is “the right to live as we wish” (Epictetus) or “just another word for nothing left to lose” (Joplin), these photos won’t say. For me, it doesn’t matter.

Justine Kurland (Photo and copyright by Shawn Dogimont)

© by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

For a copy of Kurland’s book, visit

See my essay about a few of my favorite trains.

Published in: on April 17, 2010 at 12:40 am  Leave a Comment  

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