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On the run from everything but each other

On freight trains, Adam and Ashley found a gritty hide-out from adulthood. Only one thing could separate the young lovers as the crossed the country.

May 13, 2009|Christopher Goffard

Before dawn that morning, they clambered onto an empty boxcar at the Union Pacific yard and rode it out of Bakersfield into the Tehachapi Mountains. There were six of them, a pack of drifters and runaways taking snapshots of one another and sharing bottles of McCormick vodka as the train climbed the chaparral slopes in the summer dark.

Traveling kids, they called themselves, a makeshift, ever-changing family that shared the hard floor of an empty junk train or the windy porch of a grain car before their journeys forked.

Adam Kuntz and Ashley Hughes, however, were inseparable. They had been riding together for eight months. He was 22, tall and rangy, with a goatee, wild black hair and a disarming smile. She was 18, with blue eyes and dishwater-blond hair. Crudely inked across her fingers was the word "sourpuss," advertising the side she liked to show people: the rebel and sometime dope fiend who bristled with free-floating anger.

But he saw another side of her too: the frightened runaway who, like him, found a tramp's dangerous, hand-to-mouth life less terrifying than the adult world.

They were curving through the Tehachapi Pass, seriously drunk, when a feeling overcame him. The words were unplanned, like everything else in their life.

Hey, you should be my wife, he said.

OK, she replied.

They slept through the night, curled side by side in their sleeping bags, and awoke about noon as the boxcar was slowing into the West Colton train yard. Everyone was thirsty and hung over. There was a Wal-Mart nearby where they could fill their jugs. They huddled along the edge of the boxcar, full of nervous excitement, the gravel moving slowly underneath. The train wasn't stopping. To get off, they'd have to jump while it rolled.

Naturally, it was Ashley who suggested they try it.

Trains run right through the heart of the American story, a symbol of industrial prowess and physical vastness and unfettered movement. For the broke and the discontent and the wanted, they are also a place to disappear, a mobile refuge where nobody cares where you're going or what your real name is.

Adam was a straight-F student at Ridgeview High School in Bakersfield whose stepmother suspected he had a learning disability. In his junior year, he was kicked out after downloading pages from "The Anarchist Cookbook" about making bombs. Soon he was hitchhiking across the country. In Denver, he worked up the courage to hop a freight.

"The first time I ever got on a train -- it's unexplainable," he says. "It's a feeling of, like, where I belong. You know how when you walk into a house where you're really comfortable?"

He came to relish the cat-and-mouse with the "bulls," or railroad cops. His gear was a backpack, sleeping bag, socks, a jug of water, Ramen noodles and a bandanna that he dampened and wrapped around his face through the long tunnels for protection against the trains' exhaust. The fastest ride, he discovered, was a cargo container, and the best hiding place was a crawl space in the front of a Canadian grain car.

Everywhere, he found kids like himself. In a new town, they could point out the best trash bins and missions. "You don't need money out there," he says. "You don't need anything. You have the greatest time in the world, but when it gets down there, it's really down there."

Boarding the wrong train in winter might take you into cold that went on forever. To prevent frostbite, you warmed your fingers over a piece of lighted cardboard curled inside a soup can. Squatter camps in cities like New York and Seattle were littered with junkies' castoff needles, so you always wore your shoes. Tramps without backpacks were best avoided, because they would hurt you to get yours. A last-resort ride was called a "suicide" -- the metal crossbeams of a freight car floor that put you so close to the rushing tracks you could reach down and touch them.

Snapshots of Ashley's childhood are drenched with sunshine. There she is, a smiling girl with blond bangs. Hugging Pluto. Kissing the family dog. Blowing bubbles in the backyard in Eugene, Ore.

By her early teens, she was shuttling between divorced parents. She told outrageous lies. She cut her wrists with pens and picture frames. "She was not able to make friends," says her mother, Diane.

She kept slipping out her bedroom window. She'd be gone for weeks at a time. In her journals, she repeatedly wrote out the lyrics to "Nowhere Kids" by the band Smile Empty Soul, an anthem of family alienation. She longed for love and seethed with rage and thought of suicide. "I just get up and put a smile on my face every morning and pretend to be okay," she wrote.

In the summer of 2004, after taking an overdose of antidepressants, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She dropped out of school and jumped freights. She left her antipsychotic pills behind. She shot heroin.

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