Dale Wickum wasn’t the only young man hitchhiking across the country in 1971. But when he decided to hop a freight train from Denver to Chicago he had an encounter in a train yard that changed his life.
“It was about two in the morning,” Wickum remembers. “I was walking between the cars with my guitar and a backpack and this guy jumped out. He was all covered with soot and asked me in a gravelly voice where the next train was going.”
Wickum remembers thinking what a great photo that would have been. And three years later he set off on the first of three cross-country adventures to document the lives of the people who called themselves “railroad tramps.”
“Some people didn’t want me to take their photographs,” he said, “so I would honor that. But some were OK with it.”
Wickum traveled with the tramps, ate with them and befriended many of them. And every night he would jot dot down whatever he could remember that they had said that day.
Later, he used those notes to recreate the tramps’ thoughts and stories, written phonetically to try to capture their speech. Now, their words and photos are collected in the website Following the Tracks. Wickum doesn’t attribute any story to any one man. He says they are instead composites, “cobbled together from memory and scraps of hand-written notes.”
“Yer by yerself. Spen’ mos’ yer time alone watchin’ the country blow by a boxcar door. Ya see people out there doin’ stuff together, ridin’ ‘long the highways in cars, goin’ places in the family style. But a tramp is mostly alone.
“I’ll go ta sleep at night, an’ ev’ry so often I’ll lay there thinkin’ if things was different. Ya know, if I had a wife an’ kids, how’d it be.”
Before the website was created in 2017, all of Wickum’s photos and stories were in a storage locker in his basement. Nearly 40 years ago, Following the Tracks was close to being released as a coffee table book, but the deal fell through.
Discouraged, Wickum began a career as a construction electrician.
“Ya might git on the railroad thinkin’ ye’ll beat the nine ta five, but trampin’s a heap more work than any nine ta five I ever done.
“On a nine ta five, ya put in yer eight hours, an’ yer through fer the day. But trampin’, hell, trampin’s a twenty-four hour a day job. All the time scroungin’ up enough to eat, an’ lookin’ fer a place to sleep where ya won’t git clubbed on the head.”
Following the Tracks includes portraits as well as scenes of the tramps’ lives on the trains and in the areas they called “jungles.”
“A jungle is just a place to camp. You can often see them at the end of a railroad yard,” Wickum said. “There might be a little path going through the weeds and some trees and you’ll find a place where there’s a little fire pit, where tramps have been camping up, and cooking up.”
The tramps were virtually all men, but there were some women, Wickum says. And he has nothing but respect for their ability to survive in that tough environment.
“I was in my 20s so sleeping on the ground and climbing on and off trains was no big deal. Now that I am 72, I understand just how challenging it was for guys who spent their lives out there,” he said.
And there were many dangers, Wickum says. Many tramps were injured or killed by the train cars. And they always had to worry about getting robbed.
“When it comes to thievin’, most of it’s done by guys who ain’t on these rails perm’nent.
“A tramp’s got any sense ain’t gonna steal from ‘nother tramp. A tramp spends the better part of his time on these rails, day an’ night, an’ he ain’t gonna do nothin’ where he has to worry ‘bout ‘nother tramp huntin’ him down.”
During all three trips, Dale’s girlfriend Nancy – now his wife – was waiting for him in Chicago.
“I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard,” she said with a smile. “Because I knew it was dangerous. It would be months sometimes before I would hear from him.”
But she says she never tried to talk him out of it. “When you saw the quality of the first series of photographs, you just go ‘Oh this is too good.’ (So I said) ‘Go for it. Just be careful.’”
But when she picked him up at the end of each trip, she says the first encounter was always challenging.
“The smell was just horrendous! We had to roll all the windows down driving through the Loop because it was so horrible. And we burned the clothes,” she said with a laugh.
Dale Wickum is glad that a young friend asked him about the project and encouraged him to bring it out of storage and onto the internet.
“Most of the men are long gone,” he said. “But I think the fellas were flattered that somebody would actually take an interest in them. That somebody wanted to hear their stories or take their photographs.”
“Some nights I’ll stay up an’ watch town after town pass by. All them houses with people sleepin’ inside, an’ me slippin’ through in a boxcar. Seems like ya don’t b’long out there.
“Ya get the feelin’ like yer a ghost er somethin’.”
Note: This story was originally published Aug. 29, 2019. It has been updated.