Know Your Zine: Railroad Semantics

Know Your Zine: Railroad Semantics

railroad semantics zine with aaron dactyl cover

Since the early 1900s people have been using freight trains as an illegal mode of transportation. Popularized by books like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and other writings of the Beat Generation, train-hopping has always been rich in literary material.

It had been a part of the fabric of American culture for years, but the “hobo” transportation system seems to have been forgotten in the modern era.

You probably won’t hear your dork of a local news anchor reporting on it or your uptight teacher preaching about it, but there are still wanderers of the plains who hop on freights in search of adventure and escape.

Needless to say, when we came across this zine we needed to learn more. Train-hopping ain’t dead–It’s thriving, it’s raw, it’s adventurous . . . it’s freedom.

Mass Appeal: How long have you been train-hopping for and how long into it did you decide to start documenting and creating a zine?

Aaron Dactyl: I’ve been riding trains for about a decade, but only in about the last five years has it become routine that I travel this way– and that coincided mainly with my coming out west and living hand to mouth.

I’ve always been a photographer and so I’ve always been compelled to document my travels and travails but I wasn’t interested in driving to an overlook, taking a photograph, and then driving away. One hasn’t earned the image. I’ve always felt that photography isn’t just all pretty pictures, and I was sick of looking at pictures of flowers. There’s an ugly side to things too, one dirty and difficult—as it should be—but if you could find the beauty in that, that’s the key.

I looked at riding trains as an opportunity to photograph different landscapes from a grittier vantage point, a perspective few others got to see. This, over time, led to something of a reliance of traveling and “getting away from it all” to really spurn my creativity. I find that for me being sessile is stifling to my productive output and my overall general contentedness. Only when I’m out on the rails, or the road, in a town I’ve rarely been to do I really become enlivened enough to make photographs and to really write. Some people have to go out to a cabin in the woods or something and not be bothered so they can write; I literally flourish after getting off the train and tramping into a town I’ve never been to before. Unfortunately the paradox is that if you have a job then you can’t really travel (and in my case I start to feel suffocated and deadened), but if you travel then you can’t really have a job. Mi Madre got me to start keeping a journal when I was in like sixth grade so that’s always been a component of my traveling too in one way or another.

Rail Road Semantics Aaron Dactyl Train Hopping

What does your zine offer to people who they might not have ever been aware of?

Traveling is a core characteristic of our culture and society, often tied to our pursuit of happiness. Yet I find that people aren’t as focused on the actual traveling part as they are with just being away, someplace else. For a lot of people the bulk of their traveling is spent zoning out, watching a movie, sleeping. But I’m at least as interested in the process of getting somewhere as I am with being there. As an example of this, I travel frequently between Portland and Eugene across the Willamette Valley. I’ve traversed it by car, truck, van, U-Haul, bus, on the back roads and on the main highway, dozens and dozens of times via Amtrak train, and I think about thirty-five different times I’ve hopped it on freight trains in the last six years. This is 122 miles of track, and each and every mile has a name, an etymology, a history and past. Paying attention to the minute details of a surrounding is captivating to me. I’m not as interested in writing about Portland over and over, but traveling through a small town named Gervais, or a side-track name Coalca. I wonder,”why is this place called that, and what does that mean?” To me that’s the most interesting part—just really looking at where you are and trying to make meaning of it.

It can be difficult to appreciate the landscape from the highway because we are so desensitized to traveling that way and so numbed by all the artificial infrastructure, not to mention sensory bludgeoned with ads. But taking the backdoor way through the Valley makes it much easier to see the nakedness of the land. I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to travel to some exotic place or foreign country to see beauty. I could spend the rest of my life simply exploring the great Pacific Northwest and it would never get old. So that’s what I think the zine might be able to offer people that’s different, and I hope it can inspire some people to appreciate their immediate surroundings more and to stop watching DVDs and flipping through iPhones when they’re riding aboard a train.

Rail Road Semantics Aaron Dactyl Train Hopping

What do you take with you on your trips?

When I travel I always bring everything I’m going to need for at least a night or two—a sleeping bag (two in the winter), a sleeping mat to insulate from the cold steel (cardboard works too), recently a tarp, and enough water. I find that being without either of those things can make life pretty miserable. I’ve been on trains that have broken down in the middle of nowhere, not stopped where I expected them to, and that have gone the wrong way entirely. One train ride took over thirty hours when it should’ve been like four. Another time the train stopped along the highway because a section of track had been washed out by heavy rainfall (I had to abandon the train altogether). The bottom line is that when riding trains you can never take anything for granted. Aside from these necessities I always carry a notebook to write, sometimes a book that I’m reading (though I tend to like to just pick up newspapers along the way), a digital camera, and lately I have been using a little electronic Olympus voice-recorder that I can talk into or record conversations. It’s come in handy.

How do you publish and distribute your zine?

The publishing/printing/distributing of the zine is the tricky part. It took some time to figure it all out (the layout) since I do the entire thing in Photoshop. Originally I just printed the zines out at the library. But after I started to sell in stores and to distributors, and people actually requested them, I could no longer keep up with the capacity. Portland’s a good city for independent media, and I right away found several places in town to carry the zine just by taking it in and showing it to them. Powells Books has been super cool about that. But to actually print the zine, it’s always been kind of a hustle to get them done. I’d make one master copy and from it make copies, and honestly, I was so broke that I was stealing them. I was scamming copies too, but usually I’d just find a self-service copy center and make as many as I could before the machine jammed up or ran out of toner, and then, based on how I felt I had stood out to the employees that day, I’d either scam them and pay for like maybe a hundred of the eight- or nine-hundred copies I’d made or I’d just altogether walk out.

Rail Road Semantics Aaron Dactyl Train Hopping

How does the collage or somewhat unpredictable layout compliment the experience of train riding?

Since the layout of the zine is done entirely with Photoshop (it’s really the only program I know), I kind of just freestyle the layout of each page as I go. I find this to be an extremely satisfying part of the production process, fitting all the words and images into a given space like a puzzle and conjuring creative ways to present it. But this style also compliments the sporadic lifestyle that train-hopping travel is, fragmented in so many ways and then in the end all kind of pieced back together once you’ve made it.

Lastly, I noticed the writing of correspondence on the box car walls to be very intriguing. Can you elaborate on the experience of encountering old writings as well as leaving new ones for people in the future?

There can be a lot of downtime to riding trains—a lot of waiting. One obvious way to deal with this, to pass the time, is to draw or write. And where people gather to wait for trains (what’s generally called a “catch-out spot”) you tend to find markings all over everything, not just the train cars. I enjoy applying my attention to detail to these fading tags. Once you start to decipher them they carry a lot of meaning, though they’re basically just aliases and dates. I try to document as many as I can, because it turns out they mostly aren’t just singular acts; they reappear in different towns, under different bridges in different cities. The larger context behind this is that hobos have been communicating in some form of graffiti since the advent of hopping trains –even Jack London had a moniker. I don’t know who’s to say who was the first (S.M.O.E., Kilroy, J.B. King Esquire?) but an astute hobo who went by A-No. 1 and rode trains in the early 1900s, developed a form of a hobo hieroglyphics that communicated to other hobos where to find work, where to find food, where to be at ease and where to be wary. No one uses this anymore, and it’s now just lore, but it inspired a culture, mainly of railroad workers and other tramps, to carry on the tradition.

Sitting under some desolate railroad bridge I become enamored by the markings all around, and suddenly the place doesn’t feel all that desolate. It’s like having company when there is none. Many markings have to date developed into much more elaborate pieces, but there’s a downside to this too: when an old boxcar gets painted over so do years of culture and monikers amassed from rolling around the country. The obvious solution is to document them while you can and appreciate the art so that it can survive for as long as possible. Though a moniker’s eventual demise is inevitable, the tradition will continue to carry on in its most primitive form.

Rail Road Semantics Aaron Dactyl Train Hopping