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Three Zines About Life on the Rails

Reviewed by Chris Auman

Railroad Semantics #1

Railroad Semantics #1

By Aaron Dactyl

My exposure to zines dealing with the culture of train hopping is limited to... well, this zine right here. In Railroad Semantics, author Aaron Dactyl describes his short hops on freight lines in Washington State between "Eugene, Portland, Pocatello and Back" as the zine's subtitle states. In his depictions of these travels, Aaron writes as if he were talking to fellow hobos (my term, not his). He uses railroad terminology as if we, the readers, were also intimately familiar with the differences between a EEC and a DPU.

This is less a detraction than the added weight of authenticity, and it makes the pictures he paints of the Pacific Northwest, and the isolation of solo train travel, no less appealing. Like the markings on railcars that train hoppers leave for each other, Aaron is simply sending a message to later travelers, warning them what to look out for by relating what he encountered in different yards. [Microcosm Publishing]

Railroad Semantics #2

Railroad Semantics #2

By Aaron Dactyl

Microcosm has re-released another issue of photographer and travel writer (and freight train jumper), Aaron Dactyl’s gripping rail-riding zine, Railroad Semantics. Originally published in 2009, this second issue recounts Aaron's travels along the West Coast from Southern Oregon to Northern California.

The romantic notion of living a life "off the grid"—free from the responsibilities of jobs and family and the hassles of "The Man" (save for railroad bulls and local cops) has always had appeal for the huddled masses, especially in times of economic suckedness. Most of us can only dream of such a life; traveling at leisure or at the dictates of a locomotive with an unseen driver, from one town to the next. It's not for everyone, however. It has a dark side. It can be a grimy, grim business, and dangerous, but watching the scenic Pacific Northwest roll by after a few slugs of whiskey sounds pretty gol'dang good to me. Credit must be given to Dactyl for bringing it alive with a writing style that mixes enough railroad lingo with some pretty vivid passages of the scenery, the people and the towns he encounters along the way.

RS #2 also includes photos, graphs, train maps and train-related newspaper clippings as well as a hand-written essay from fellow hobo and boxcar tagger, John Easley. [Microcosm Publishing]

Bill Daniel's mostly true

Bill Daniel's Mostly true

By Bill Daniel

"In a world of put-ons and art scene fakery, moniker writing has endured for generations; organic, unchanged and pure of intent.” So says Bill Daniel in the introduction to the second edition of his hobo graffiti zine, Mostly True. As Daniel also notes, rail graffiti is a pre-Internet form of social networking whereby hobos and tramps communicate with each other through crude chalk drawings, symbols and a few coded words. But who are these people who's only mark on the world is a transitory icon on the side of a boxcar? And is that any less important than the mark most of us leave on the world? These are exactly the questions Mostly True seeks to answer.

In addition to documenting boxcar art in printed form, Daniel is also the creator of the underground documentary film, Who Is Bozo Texino? which has screened in countless cities across the U.S. The film seeks out the enigmatic "Bozo Texino" whose ubiquitous railroad tags have been seen on boxcars around the country for over half a century. Many people claim to know the man behind the Texino moniker and Mostly True contains an interview with "Bozo" aka "Grandpa" in which he tells his tale of a life working on the railroads all the livelong day. The zine also features interviews with other railcar artists, letters from rail fans (some of which are reprinted from long-gone publications), and photos of boxcar art.

Endlessly fascinating and a great document of the folklore and lost world of the rail yard that is being kept alive by a few dedicated tramps, writers and artists. Bill Daniel answers many questions, yes, but the free spirit of the rails isn't so easily defined and if things are still a bit of foggy mystery for you after reading this zine, well, it's only mostly true anyway. [Microcosm Publishing]

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