If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.Jim Whittaker
Bookstr had the opportunity to interview a man who has lived a thousand lives seeing America’s backroads by train. He has worked in a mental hospital, joined a carnival, and currently owns a business. Most notably, he is a self-proclaimed hobo whose freighthopping experiences inspired him to write. Needless to say, Ed Davis has seen it all. In his most recent story, The Last Professional, Davis retells his own journey on the rails through Lynden Hoover, a man running away from his past.
While hopping trains, Hoover is forced to reconcile with the ugly parts of his past as he simultaneously adjusts to this new way of life on the road. Along the way, he joins forces with The Duke, the last of the professional hobos (we’ll explain this one!), and finds himself confronting the wrath of the violent and deadly Short Arm.
Read on to take a ride with us into the lost world of freighthopping, brought to life by the author who lived it – Ed Davis.
Q: We’re inspired by what we already know, and we would like to know more about you. Tell us about what you’ve been doing and how it all began.
A: I’ve been writing for about forty years. And this book started in a boxcar back in the 1980s. I became really enamored with traveling on freight trains — it’s a wonderful way to see the country — and tried to make a living as a writer. I took a pretty good shot at it for a couple of years, and then, nothing quite clicked. So I shifted gears, and I’ve had a great career running a business with my best friend from high school, a business we’re very proud of. But in the last half dozen years, I’ve been able to shift back to focusing on writing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Bernard Malamud story, The Natural, or the Robert Redford movie, but I feel a little bit like Roy Hobbs. I had to step away from the game for a while, but I never stopped thinking about it.
Q: You spent a summer working at Sonoma State Hospital before you hopped trains. How did that experience in the hospital shape your life?
A: It was profound. I was very young when I started — seventeen actually — and at that time, I lived in Glen Ellen and State Hospital, which is now closed, and was just down the road from where I worked, Sonoma State Hospital.
Sonoma had not changed much in fifty years. It was the largest institution of its kind in the country. There were 3500 residents, they were wonderful people to work with, but some of it was pretty medieval. Two years in, I needed to change. I needed to get out because it was pretty soul-draining to be in that environment.
Q: What inspired you to take up something altogether different like trainhopping?
A: A good friend, Paul Morrison, who was also a psych tech, had a lot to do with it. We shared in common that neither of us knew our fathers. Paul had his father’s whereabouts in the Isle of Mull, off the coast of Scotland. And so, Paul and I cashed in whatever money we had. We bought open-ended $200 round-trip tickets from Kennedy Airport to Heathrow, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to go find your dad.” So, we bought army surplus backpacks, and we hit the road, thinking we’ll just hitchhike to New York; how hard could it be? Turns out, it was really hard because we were great big guys, and nobody was picking us up.
Finally, though, a guy took pity on us; he had a van and we were up on the North Coast someplace. He said, “You know, you guys are never gonna get rides. You’re too big and you’ve got too much gear. You should be riding trains.” We didn’t know if this is a thing you can do. And he said, “Well, yeah, I’ve done it,” and he gave us some pointers, dropped us off, I think, in Eugene, Oregon. Half an hour later we were on a flatcar. It was a bright, sunny day, wind in our hair, heading north. I was hooked.
Q: Can you tell us more about hopping trains and give us a rundown on what that lifestyle entails?
A: Well, it’s exciting and dangerous. I said at one point, that hobos were America’s first Zen masters. Because the trains, although they’re on a schedule, really run whenever they feel like it. And so, you can wait in a railroad yard all day for a train, or you can wait ten minutes, you can get on one, and it will take you halfway across the country, or it’ll take you ten miles and drop you in the middle of nowhere. It’s a matter of patience more than anything else. And understanding that it’s not the destination so much that matters. ‘Getting there’ is really what it’s about.
It’s an extraordinary way to experience the landscape. You’re moving slowly. It’s almost like it’s being presented to you. The trains go places cars don’t. So you get to see America’s most beautiful natural assets, and you get to see its backyard — literally, trains go through people’s backyards — and they become so accustomed to them, that they don’t even notice you going by. So, it’s like these glimpses of life as you’re rolling through the cities and the countryside. It’s just mesmerizing! But people should understand it is very dangerous and very illegal. It always has been.
Q: You mentioned you’ve been writing this book for forty years. Can you tell us why it took that long?
Well, I actually have a vivid memory of when I started writing the book. I was coming back from visiting my good friend, Rich, down in San Luis Obispo. The train was sidetracked in Watsonville; I had a tablet and a pen, and I wrote: “Somewhere a hobo was waiting.” That was the first line that I wrote, it’s nearly the last line in the book. I was newly involved with Jan, my wife of 46 years now, who rode across Canada with me the next year. And so, I was writing her these letters. And it was kind of bringing together this new romance and passion for her and this passion for travel and experiencing life. So, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
I wanted to share this experience, I started writing The Last Professional in that boxcar, knocked it out pretty quick. We tried to sell it and just couldn’t get anywhere. And I wrote another novel and then got an agent. I published a book called Road Stories in 2014. I knew I needed to get back to The Last Professional. It was so close to my heart. And so, I started rewriting it. I am blessed to have connected with Vincent Zukowski, my friend and editor, which made all the difference. So, it’s really been forty years from that first sentence, until publication.
Q: How did you create the book’s title? Was this an idea you always had or did it reveal itself as you were writing?
A: Well, among the hobos, there was a hierarchy. And the guys who did it because they had to, because they loved it, because it fed their souls, were called Professionals, or Profesh. That’s what they call themselves. One of the central characters in this book is The Duke, who is the last professional hobo still riding. So he’s the last Profesh.
Q: You mentioned your wife, Jan, and how she once joined you freighthopping. How did that experience influence your relationship? Is it different from traveling by yourself or with a friend?
A: We had just gotten together when I first hopped trains and went across Canada. She was so enamored by the experience, maybe I made it sound so good from the letters I was writing, that the next summer we did it together. And we budgeted $5 a day. She was the only woman on the rails; we never saw another one.
There were certainly advantages to having Jan with me. When I was riding by myself, the railroad bulls would run me out of the yard or threaten to arrest me. I’d just play dumb and innocent. When they threatened to arrest Jan, she cried. They always let her go. It was also a wonderful way to cement our relationship.
Q: The illustrations in the book are done by Colin Elgie, who has worked on record covers of iconic bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, and Black Sabbath. How did that collaboration happen?
A: It was my first experience with an illustrator and boy do I feel lucky to have landed him. Right off the bat, it was clear this was going to work. I feel so lucky to have found the team I have. It wouldn’t have worked out like this forty years ago.
It began with me determining where the illustrations needed to go. I told Colin which scenes, then we looked for real-world examples. Colin sent me a photo of an old drummer from a rock band to depict Short Arm. It was a wonderful back and forth, and we were on the same wavelength the whole time.
There are four parts to the story: the narrative, various epigraphs, the “tracks” that depict the lifestyle, and the illustrations. One of my favorite illustrations is of the two main characters looking out of a door. It’s sort of reminiscent for me of the John Ford frame at the end of The Searchers. These two fellas are looking at a train. They’ve come to a real turning point in their story, and it’s really a question of “are we going to go on together from here? Are we going to catch this train?”
Q: What advice do you have for someone who is struggling to have their book published?
A: First of all, it is really hard. It’s harder now than it’s ever been. I think you’ve got to understand why you’re writing. If you’re writing for a living, that’s a different thing. Then it’s all about understanding what the market is looking for.
I guess, my best advice is to write first for yourself because you feel like you need to and want to. If you’re writing to sell, that’s an entirely different path. It’s not a bad one. It’s just different.
Q: Forgetting all the rules and regulations of today’s world, if you had the opportunity to ride the rails again, would you?
A: If I could pick the car, yes. I remember riding a flat wheel car once up the Columbia Gorge. Train wheels get “flat” if the engineer brakes too hard and grinds a flat spot on them. My friend Rich, who was riding with me, said that even when I was asleep, I was bouncing off the floor. I was absolutely beat to death, but I was young enough that I didn’t care. Now, I think I’m past my freight hopping days. My body doesn’t bounce like it used to.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from The Last Professional?
A: Our lives are so fragmented. We tend to find ourselves more and more in silos. It’s really the relationships that you form along the way that are life-changing. What do we sacrifice for those and what do we gain from them? Those are the sort of friendships that shape a life and make it worth living.
For now, you can read our profile on all things Ed Davis, here.