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America’s Train-Hopping Subculture

Two summers ago, in a 100-degree boxcar in southern Oregon, a pair of fellow train riders asked me to never write about train-hopping, ever. “We need this,” they pleaded, over a case of tepid Hamms.

This sentiment is echoed in Sarah George’s documentary Catching Out (Worthy Ent./Microcinema, $24.95). “I think it’s really important that as few people as possible find out about it,” explains a peripheral character late in the film, hinting at the fact that train-riding is one of the riskiest American subcultures. It is highly dangerous, increasingly illegal, and has a largely untold history that’s foundational to the American identity.

Train-riding exists in the space where American individualism meets legitimate anarchy–exposing it means more railroad police, more surveillance, and more inexperienced riders losing appendages. As such, every documentary on the subject is tainted by a bit of exploitation and voyeurism. Catching Out comes close to getting it right by focusing on real people and why they hop trains. George handles her subjects–including 20-something Jessica, Switch and Baby Girl (who meet on the rails and eventually join the straight world to have a baby), and Lee, an eco-activist who rides compulsively and lives in a hand-built shack–with a great deal of respect and affection, and you can tell they’ve put a lot of trust in her (getting a hobo to allow you access to his squat is no mean feat).

Train on the Brain (Hollywood Can Suck It, $14.95) focuses more on the physical experience of train-hopping–and the unbeatable highs and frequent hells British director Alison Murray experienced over two months and two cross-continental rides. Murray deals with everything from traveling hundreds of miles in the wrong direction to sleeping behind a McDonalds dumpster to a scummy lecher who presumably does inappropriate things with an underage runaway in another train car. The film is voyeuristic but pulls back just at the point of exploitation. Regardless, the scene where Murray almost gets left by the side of the tracks naked in the middle of nowhere makes it worth the watch.

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