Tracking Jack

E. M. Hosmanek

© Copyright 2009 by E. M. Hosmanek


photo of a railway car at a siding.

The letters and My Space page written by my son inspired me to write this story. It served as a form of therapy when I didn’t know where he was or if he was okay (read – alive). I felt the story was worth telling because it covers a unique subject. Train-jumping is, obviously, dangerous but in this case provided me with an adventure story to tell.

July 9, 2009

He’s not in Wisconsin. I feel his absence even though we live 250 miles apart. It’s been three weeks since I talked to him. Yeah, he said something about jumping trains. Thought it was another of his Kerouac-fueled ideas. Now I know I’m wrong.

This is a collect call from…” “Jack.” I’m not there to accept the charges. He leaves a recorded message.

 “Hey Mom, sorry I didn’t call sooner. Just wanted to let you know I’m alive. I’m in Laurel, Montana with Baker and Animal and we’re heading out to Spokane.”

 Spokane? How the hell did he get to Montana? Those questions were soon answered. Another collect call. This time I’m home to answer. They did it. Jack, “Baker” and Animal hitched a ride from Rhinelander, found a train and jumped it. Now it’s just Jack and Animal because Baker was picked up on a warrant in Montana. I have no idea who Baker is.

 Jack is 21 and aimless. Since turning 18 he has flitted from one job, girl and school to another. He’s moved in with me. He’s moved back to Rhinelander with his dad. This summer he looked for work while staying with me. Neither worked out. We agreed he had to leave. Dropping him off at the bus station, I thought I’d be sick. I can’t stand to see him go even though we drive each other crazy when we’re together. I’m sure he knew his plans. He didn’t dare tell me – I’d have made him promise not to go.

 The call relieves me but fuels my worry.

 “We’re heading out to California then I plan on coming back to Wisconsin around the holidays.”

 Jumping trains is a federal offence. Weirdly, I hope Jack gets arrested. At least he’d be safe. All I can do is hope he doesn’t take a ride from the wrong people or fall onto the tracks as he jumps. He’s calling collect because he lost his cell phone. This leaves no way for me to contact him. His My Space page provides a lot of information.

 From Jack’s My Space page. Wednesday, August 27, 2008.

 Got a ride down to Portage with Baker and some other hobos on July 12 and hopped out of there to Minneapolis. Stayed seven or so days. Met lotsa other tramps. Met up with Animal. Made a few friends. Meetin’ up with one of them in the South, maybe. Hopped out of St. Paul on the high line headed for Spokane. Froze my ass off through North Dakota. Got off the train in Glasgow, Montana to get more food and water. Baker got popped and extradited to Bozeman, Montana. Animal and I had to hitch there. Took seven days. Met a cool old school hobo under the bridge in Laurel, Montana. He gave us a bunch of useful stuff. Columbia jacket, tarp, pair of jeans. Got to Bozeman. Had a great time. Met lots of tramps, found a good squat, made some money; got pretty drunk, made some awesome new friends, got to shoot some guns and go bridge jumping in the mountains. I’ll for sure visit again. Met some cool couple in Bozeman, they gave us a ride to Whitefish, Montana and kept us fed and bought us each our own spacebag. Second day in Whitefish got drunk at a beautiful mountain lake and managed to catch a BNSF engine to Spokane in the evening. Got pulled off the unit in Hauser, Idaho twenty-two miles from Spokane. Spent the night by the tracks. Baker split with Animal and I to hitch. Animal and I walked ten of the miles then got picked up. Hot as hell in Spokane, 104 degrees. Made very little money, ate a lot of meals at the shelter. Spokane sucks. Met up with Baker after three days. Hopped east bound to meet up with Becky in Missoula, Montana.

Got off in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho. Got kicked out of town and harassed by the cops several times on the way out. Made it to Sandpoint, Idaho. The people that picked us up got us into a demolition derby for free. Gave us twenty bucks. Found a chill campout spot and got wasted the entire next day. All split up to hitch again the next day. Animal and I got a ride to a town nearby and met up with Baker again. We all got a ride into a tiny gas station in the mountains and got rained on all day and stuck there overnight. Split again. Animal and I made it to the outskirts of Missoula in just three rides, the longest on being from some wingnut in a broken-down Jeep wearing full army fatigues and mumbling about crazy shite. Gave us a lot of cigarettes. Made it into Missoula today. Still raining.

 What a relief? Now I’m more worried than ever. I had no idea what jumping trains entailed and have never felt such dread. What if I never see him again?

 August 29th, 2008. My cell rings.

 “This is a collect call from… the Missoula County Correctional Facility.”

 I can’t make out what he is saying but know that Jack is on the other end. Frantic, I call Information and get the number for this facility. A sheriff’s deputy answers and gives me the details. Jack has been arrested for disorderly conduct. Do I want to post bail? If I post, I know he’ll leave Montana and skip his court date. My mother instinct wants to rescue him but my common sense tells me no. He’ll have to sit in jail until his $550 fine is paid. Each day in jail is worth $25. He’s looking at 22 days of incarceration. This doesn’t mean the charges get dropped either. That’s 22 days I’ll have piece of mind, once again proving the wild disorder of my universe.

 Inmates can’t receive calls. Jack calls my home number and I miss the first five. Finally he calls my cell and we talk.

 I tell him straight out I am not posting bail. He sounds okay with that and asks me to send money for the commissary. I write out my check to the detention facility. There is a first for everything.

 I need specific instructions as well as an address in order to send the check. The deputy tells me not to spray the envelope with any type of fragrance, use no adhesive other than what is on the envelope and don’t leave a lipstick kiss on it.

 Days pass and so does the comfort of knowing Jack is in jail and not on the road. A letter arrives September 5th.

 Dear Mom,

 Sorry it took me so long to get a hold of you. You guessed it; I dropped my phone in the water. Anyway, I’ve been in jail since Saturday the 30th and I have a few charges that I have to get sorted out. But the good news is that as soon as I get out, I’m on a bus straight home. I’m seriously done fucking around. This situation has scared the living shit out of me and made me realize how much I want to settle down and live a (relatively) normal life. Oh! I can’t believe I never told you, but ever since my second day on the road I took up praying and put my trust back in Jesus. I even managed to get Animal to start believing! No joke. I’ve read the Bible every day here in jail. I want to be a normal and successful person. Have a family someday and what not. And on that subject I realize how much my family means to me like never before. I’m sorry I pushed you all away so much. I love and need my family. I cried for the first time (sober) in a long time thinking about how much I took for granted and miss you, Gigi, my Dad, Coach and DadGrandpa. I’m sorry. Just thinking about the simplest memories associated with you all fills my heart with joy and grief. I love you, Mom. I can’t wait to get home and get my life on track. I can’t call you from here, but if you could contact the jail and see about getting me a pre-paid card that would rock, cause I would love to hear from you. I love you and I love Gigi. I miss you so much. Say a prayer that I get to return soon. I’m sorry.



September 10th he’s released. He got out early but has a court date because of the charges. I miss him so much and can’t wait to see him. He calls and I ask where to Western Union money for a bus ticket. There’s silence.

 “Mom I’m really sorry but I just need to get back on the road.”

 “But Jack, you promised in your letter…”

 “I know, but this feeling of being out here is so incredible – I’ve never felt so alive. I just want to make it to California and see what happens.”

 This doesn’t really surprise me. To be honest, I felt a bit jealous of his traveling. My emotions are always mixed when it comes to Jack. The problem is he’ll skip the court date. Translation: no going back to Montana. There will be a warrant. Could things possibly stop being complicated for one day?

 There’s nothing I can do. He promised to call once a week. I say all the usual mom things – be safe on the tracks, watch out who you take rides with; don’t get too drunk – you know. Three days later I get a collect call. He’s staying at a homeless shelter, has ditched his friends and wants a ticket to Milwaukee. There’s total panic in his voice – the bus leaves in an hour and he needs money now. I speed off to the Western Union station and wire money to the bus depot in Missoula. Having no way to reach him, the waiting begins. The following night he arrives in Milwaukee.

We spend and uneventful week together (really). There’s lots of talk about possible plans. Nothing solid though. He decides to return to Rhinelander to look into Job Corps. We make arrangements for his dad to meet him in Dellville. Back to the bus depot, sick feeling, Jack leaves – the beat goes on.

 Five hours later I get the call. It’s Joel, Jack’s dad. He told me he went to pick up Jack at the mall in Dellville. A police officer stops him as he walks out. Jack is wasted. The officer runs his name and discovers warrants in both Dellville and Rhinelander. Back to jail.

October 3rd, 2008

 Dear Mom,

So I’m in jail again. Yay! Sitting off a $581 fine. They tell me my release day is October 16th. After that I plan to continue as planned, that being gather my documentation and do the interview/tour part of the Job Corps program. If not that I was hoping that maybe you’d consider letting me stay with you while I attended school for welding? If not I completely understand. Sorry I haven’t called. There (yes, I got the phone card number to no avail) is absolutely no way for me to call you from here. Sorry. Their phone system here is ass-backwards. The good news is that they gave me my medication right away and there’s no lockdowns here ‘cause we’re in a dorm setting. All the other inmates here are pretty rad. No problems. And they have chili flavored ramen here on the commissary, so I’m pretty stoked on that. In fact I’m eating one as I write you. Oh! Guess who I ran into when I went to the Catholic service here on Sunday? My cousin Amy, Uncle Squeek’s kid. Again, sorry about everything.

I’m really excited to get out of here and enjoy a little bit of the autumn up here while I take care of business. I think I might have a new appreciation of the not-so-warm seasons up here this year.

 And I’m pissed as hell that by the time they set me loose, Choke is probably gonna be out of theaters. But there’s a ton of movies that were in theaters when I was on the road that will be on video, so I’m stoked about that. The food here SUCKS. Seriously. I’m used to it but damn…it’s inhuman to feed people such things. Not even fresh fruit! Ever. But it could be worse. I guess I’m just running my mouth now, so I’ll stop. Don’t bother writing back. I’ll write you once more while I’m here, otherwise just relay any info through my dad.

Love you and Gigi. Tell Coach and DG likewise.


 Well, he sounds all right. I am a bit incredulous at the turn of events. Let’s see. He managed to stay out of jail for 13 days. I hope he’s not planning to set some sort of record. I do write back. A short note with a check for the commissary. I end it with a reference to one of our favorite Social Distortion songs:

There are footprints on my ceiling, too, Jack. They will always be there. Look up once in a while. Remember how they got there.

I love you,


 He’s released on October 16th. There’s a pause in the excitement. Weeks pass without incident.

Jack doesn’t qualify for Job Corps. This would seem to be a bad thing. What it means is he hasn’t screwed up enough to qualify. Not yet. He’s aimless again. He’s restless. There’s no plan B.

Animal calls from southern California bragging about the weather. It’s winter – not a good time to head out on the rails. But I know wanderlust and the possibilities the first hint of spring will bring. I’ll feel the absence. Maybe get the call. He’ll go.

 I live in Southeastern Wisconsin with my daughter, a brown Cockapoo and occasionally my husband who is active duty Army. Jack is still in Wisconsin as far as I know.

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