I have had two experiences hopping a freight train. They were more laughable than exciting.
Both occurred during my freshman year at Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota). My friend George had looked into the practice and had a good idea what to do:
- wait for a train that isn't going any faster than we could run
- run alongside a freight car
- make sure you catch onto a ladder that goes to the top of the car (there are ladders that go up only part way; don't hop onto one of those!)
- climb to the top and lie flat
So we walked down to the tracks and waited for a train to come along that was moving slowly enough. One came along about 11pm or so.
It was perfect. We ran alongside adjacent cars, caught the right ladders, climbed up, and lay flat on top. It was exhilarating.
But the train stopped after about a mile or two and clearly wasn't going any farther than the rail yards, and so we climbed down and walked back to our dorm.
The next incident was also with George. On the next Saturday, we decided to go up to "The Cities" [short for the Twin Cities, short for Minneapolis-St.Paul]. So we walked down to the tracks again.
We weren't sure when a train would come by slow enough for us to hop, so we agreed we would also hitchhike from that place, and we would take a ride with whatever came first, a train or someone who was willing to pick us up.
Back then, hitchhiking was more common than it is today, and it was somewhat expected around Northfield (town motto: cows, contentment, and colleges). In no time at all, we had a ride to The Cities. But while we were there, wandering around on foot, we were stopped at a level crossing by a slow moving train. We laughed, and agreed we'd hop it for a block or two since it was going in the direction we were.
And that's what we did. We each ran, grabbed a ladder, and rode on it for a city block.
That's it. That is the sum total of my freight-train hopping days. But it really isn't the end of the story. From then on, I had fantasies of hopping flatcars with tractors on them, and riding across the prairies. I had fantasies of finding open box cars and riding in one of those. I had fantasies of riding on hopper cars across the continent.
But those were just fantasies.... until one day in the fall shortly after my first marriage was on the rocks and I was living alone. I was walking to the home of some friends for dinner and reassessing my life plans and goals. As I approached a railroad crossing, a slow-moving freight came along, and it had numerous open box cars on it. I was sorely tempted to hop in one and just go where ever it would take me, but I knew my friends would worry if I didn't show up and they couldn't reach me. So I didn't.
I expect that if there had been cellphones back then, I'd have done it. I could have called my friends and told them what was going on.
Nowadays though I just sit, watching and listening to the trains, and continue with my fantasies.