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Train-hopping in the digital age


  • Photo 1 of 5

    Ted Conover (L) and Asa Conover (R) take train-hoping into the digital age

    - Asa Conover

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    Asa Conover

    - Asa Conover

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    Ted Conover, author of "Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes"

    - Asa Conover

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    Asa Conover relaxes on a train.

    - Asa Conover

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    A view on the train.

    - Asa Conover

Train hopping, or the act of getting on freight trains without permission and riding them from depot to depot, is illegal and dangerous. It's also something that is, for many, a romantic endeavor, capturing the American spirit of adventure and travel.

Ted Conover did some train hopping in his youth, later writing a book about the experience entitled, "Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes." When his son Asa read his book, he felt the impulse to go train hopping himself. So Ted and Asa took a trip together, discovering along the way that new technology had changed the game.

In Ted’s experience, one of the hardest things used to be knowing where one was geographically while riding on a train; less of an issue today in an age of GPS-enabled phones.

Smartphones also allowed Asa an advantage over his father's earlier train-hopping days: the ability to document the experience in greater detail.

“I was on the trip to see what riding trains was like, rather than what being a hobo was like,” Asa said.

In addition to keeping them abreast of their location, the smartphones they were using let them contact home, document the trip through photos, and download a digital copy of an older guide to riding the rails, which the pair used often during the trip.

But even with digital enhancement, Ted believes the basic spirit of the endeavor has remained the same:

“One of the things that hasn’t changed is that your ability to get from point A to B on the rails is 100% determined by your own ingenuity and what you bring to the table.”

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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