Rail Rider

May 21, 2012
Agnes Hunt was fifteen years old when the Great Depression had thoroughly wreaked its havoc on her family. It was 1933 and the Hunts lived on a humble farm in North Dakota, one of the hardest hit states. The statistics did not look good for them – they knew from listening to their antiquated, creaky radio that they were in one of the worst droughts ever recorded, that almost 80% of the country was extremely dry, that the Plains were hardest hit by the Depression, and that people like them who lived in North Dakota only made, on average, $145 a year. The national average was over twice as much. These numbers and estimates were realities that the Hunts faced daily. Many other farmers had already given up and moved on to look for work. Agnes’ best friend, Ruth, and her family had left months ago in desperation.
Ruth’s departure had been the final straw for Agnes. Agnes had grown up with Ruth, who had been a part of Agnes’ family as much as Agnes had been a part of Ruth’s. They had been inseparable, like sisters, sharing everything from clothes to dreams. The Depression had somehow seemed more bearable with her best friend by her side, and now that she was gone, Agnes listlessly pined for her company and wondered when the suffering would end.
School had closed down a year ago, due to the dust storms and inadequate funding. Although like any other child Agnes had dreaded the early start, endless classroom lectures, and homework, she soon found herself bored and longing to go back. She had worked at the corner grocery for a few months after leaving school, but soon Mr. Johnson, the grocer, was put out of business and forced to move out, and her job went with him. At least even her simple, albeit boring job had helped provide her family with some much needed additional income. Without school or a job, Agnes was reduced to being both bored and penniless.
Then, suddenly, about two weeks after Ruth and her family had left, something exciting finally happened to Agnes, when the monotony of her daily schedule was broken by an unexpected visit.
The visit was paid to the Hunts by a young hobo named Sam. Sam was one of the rail riders that the Hunts had heard of before but never met. He stopped by hoping for a meal and Mrs. Hunt, who was matronly and kind, could not turn him away, especially because he had impeccable manners and was utterly charming. In return he regaled them with his stories of hopping trains and roaming the country.
The Depression had gotten so bad for Sam’s family that they didn’t have enough to eat. Agnes felt a pang of guilt upon him mentioning this, as her family, though struggling, was still able to at least put food on the table. She made a note to herself to be more grateful. “At least between hoboes, we share our food,” Sam said, as he packed away a piece of bread to save for a friend. He told them about the bulls, or the thugs hired to keep hoboes like him off the trains. “They arrest you or beat you and the worst ones will shoot you,” he said. This shocked Agnes but also intrigued her. It seemed to show exactly how desperate people had gotten. When she heard Sam’s descriptions of the dangers of his lifestyle, which included jumping onto moving trains and risking death or decapitation, she knew that only very desperate people would resort to this. These people had no other choice. Their desperation seemed to mirror her exact feelings about the seemingly endless and merciless Depression. In a sad yet comforting way she realized she was far from being alone in her struggles.
Despite the scary stories, Sam seemed to actually be content if not overjoyed, saying, “It gets in your blood. I don’t go anywhere and I don’t care, I just ride. It’s paid for and I’m going to eat – which is more than what I’d be doing at home, probably.” Wiping his mouth, he thanked Mrs. Hunt for the meal with a disarming smile. She grinned back and invited him to stay for the night. “I insist,” she retorted at his beginnings of a protest, “I know you need a place to rest your head and we have a spare room.”
Later that night, Agnes visited Sam’s room, longing for more stories. She entered shyly at first but was soon talked out of her shell by his playful grin and friendly manner. He told her stories about his best friend Tim, who also rode the rails. “We were in this together but we got separated along the way,” Sam explained regretfully. “I’m sure we’ll both catch the same train any day now, or else I’ll trace my steps back and find him somehow. I know he’s looking for me too so it won’t be hard.” He seemed confident they would find each other. His Tim story reminded her of how she had been cruelly separated by the Depression from her best friend as well, and his determination gave her hope that she too would see Ruth again someday.
Agnes suddenly had a revelation. She wanted to ride the trains. She thought about Sam leaving the next day, and her life going back to its dreary previous state. Riding the trains was how she would find Ruth again! And it would take the burden of an extra mouth to feed off of her family. “Sam, I’m coming with you tomorrow,” she said decidedly.
The way he immediately accepted her decision, without a lecture or a guilt trip about leaving her family, was nice. She knew right away that this was the right decision, and that she would be okay with Sam.
She left her family a letter explaining her decision, apologizing for the short notice, and promising to return safe and sound. With Sam’s help and a quick trip to her older brother’s closet, Agnes transformed her appearance into that of a young boy’s, which Sam said would be safer. She chopped off her long brown hair, which in itself felt liberating. In a hat pulled down to her brow and a baggy pair of overalls, Agnes looked and felt ready.
They left in the early hours of dawn, when light was just beginning to creep over the horizon. Sam was more fit than Agnes, who held her own in trying to keep up. She followed him for what felt like ages, until they finally got to the tracks. They stared at each other with widened eyes as they heard the train in the distance, and Sam ushered her to keep up a jog alongside the rails, so they could get a running jump onto the train and hopefully go unnoticed by the rail bulls. Agnes felt her blood pounding in her head, and her heart seemed to climb up her throat. Could she do this? Was this the right choice? She thought back to her family’s acrid, dying farm, remembered the day school closed for good, pictured her father’s anxious, work-worn face, and finally, saw Ruth, packing up and saying goodbye, perhaps for good. The Depression was far from over, and this was her only choice. Agnes snapped out of it and firmly accepted Sam’s outstretched hand. She took what was truly a leap of faith and was relieved when Sam hoisted her up onto the platform of the moving train a moment later, all limbs still intact. She brushed herself off and exhaled sharply, enjoying the rush of adrenaline, then looked up to grin at Sam, whose expression mirrored her hopeful expectation of a brighter future.

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