In the summer of 2002 I took my documentary CATCHING OUT on a self-styled distribution tour, hopping freight trains between screenings across the country. I owe a debt of gratitude to filmmaker Rick Rowley (Big Noise Films) for inspiring me to bring the film to audiences rather than sulk over lack of interest from distributors. I encourage other filmmakers to take heed! I’m so glad I had the chance to engage with viewers – there’s no better reward after all the blood, sweat and tears that we pour into making our films.
In my case, the screening tour was the beginning of a positive chain of events that eventually landed CATCHING OUT a week run at Film Forum in New York City and broadcast on the Sundance Channel, bringing the film to a much broader audience that I could have imagined.
Anyway, here are a few snippets from the journal that I kept during the tour….
1st Solo Ride
i kicked off the summer screening tour with my first solo trainhopping journey. i had a perfect ride from mt. shasta, ca to portland, or after the annual dunsmuir hobo gathering. northbank fred provided tramp taxi service and put me on my own private boxcar. absolutely beautiful evening diminishing to dusk as the train traversed the high desert plains before reaching klamath falls, or. darkness descended just in time for me to slip in and out of KFalls undetected. slept soundly all nite and woke in the morning at a siding. started raining later in the morning and i was very thankful for my warm, dry boxcar. the passing scenery permeated by subdued watercolor hues. we slowed on the approach to brooklyn yard which i recognized by the golf course…i think a story in lee’s most recent zine described being chased thru that golf course. still, i wasn’t certain i was in portland. my train stopped for clearance into the yard and i headed for the nearest road. i ran into a postman and had the pleasure of asking him, “what town am i in?” love that. now i’m warm and dry and pampered at my friend railhed’s home. i’ve got a couple of days to plaster the town with posters. i’m nervous and hoping for a good turnout on wednesday nite at the clinton street theater.
4th Of July
i’m checking in from public library in albuquerque. celebrated 4th of July on my own private piggyback (a flat car with the trailer of a semi-truck on it). my friend virginia lee–en route to santa fe–dropped me in needles, ca yesterday morning. 112 degrees at 10am. waited out midday heat in the shade of friendly trees. not moving and barely breathing. so many trains i had my choice and left needles around 3pm. braved still sweltering sun until altitude and evening finally brought relief. spectacular sunset surrounded by purple desert mountains and crimson bluffs. i even caught a couple of fireworks from the display in flagstaff. stopped briefly for a crew change in winslow, az at 11pm and i promptly sacked out. awoke at dawn approaching yard in belen, nm. found some trees and a little shade to catch a few more hours of sleep then hoofed it around belen for several frustrating hours. finally hitched a ride with a car full of drunk tweakers to outskirts of albuquerque. happily caught city bus that brought me straight here to the library. screening my film here tomorrow nite outdoors next to the rr tracks.
just a quick note from st. louis. i had a blast in columbia, missouri screening the film at ragtag cinemacafe. two really great guys – david and paul – run the screening series there. cafe in the front with great selection of beer on tap and a few eats and small theater in back with a collection of comfy, funky chairs. good crowd but i didn’t stay to watch – drank beer and talked to david instead. later went to a cross-dressing party which was surprisingly fun then stayed up until 3am talking to paul. mildly hung over and lacking sleep on monday morning, i got a ride from a distant cousin to the rail yard in jefferson city, missouri…the state capitol. no trains running all day because of a derailment. hot and humid. nearly got busted by a cop on the prowl that nite…scared me silly to be honest. for a while i wondered what on earth i was doing out there by myself and i was ready to give up the entire tour. but eventually i made my way to the porch of a grainer on a siding in the yard. felt immediately secure and protected by the trains. strange that i feel that way but the trains do feel safe i guess partly because i feel invisible. drifted and dozed for a couple of hours until an eastbound finally pulled into the yard. caught out toward st. louis around 2am. beautiful nite. the missouri river my companion for the ride…silver and smooth. i was enjoying the cool breeze…relief from the steamy heat when i felt the first damp drizzle. drizzle turned downpour. i sat in a puddle of water, the rain gusting into me. but it was still warm so i wasn’t as miserable as you might imagine…but not exactly having fun. arrived st. louis at dawn…still pouring. walked around, finally found downtown, and eventually some coffee. tomorrow i catch out toward minneapolis.
Kindness of Strangers
we pulled into the yard in galesburg, illinois around 6PM. huge yard. two towers. row after row of sidings, mostly filled with strings of cars. i climbed a grainer to get a view and i could only see the yard stretching out in front and behind me, corn to my left, and rows and rows of sidings to my right. no road or town in sight save an overpass that looked like a rural highway leading nowhere in particular.
it took me an hour to walk into town. i stumbled across a really funky cafe…wish i could remember the name. a handful of tables huddled together in a tiny room. i felt huge and alien with my pack. i asked if they were still serving, and then i asked if they had somewhere i could clean up a little before my meal. i was directed thru the kitchen to a bathroom the size of a closet, hot and steaming because of the water heater which took up most of the space. i exchanged sweat drenched clothes for a clean dry tank top and t-shirt. washed my face and started to feel a little human. back out in the cafe the kitchen was clean and they were vacuuming so i asked again if they were still serving. the cook, a young kid, assured me it was no problem and i ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and fries. the only customer besides me was this strange biker-looking man with stringy dark hair and tattoos and a couple of large silver rings. he started talking to me with a voice barely audible…mostly just a mumble. he was telling me an elaborate story about seeing a SASQUATCH while hiking along a native american spirit trail. the waitress was a worn out looking woman probably not much older than me, with a strange speech impediment and childlike mannerisms, who just talked over the guy as if he wasn’t there. the cook just sat at a table and watched me eat and told me that my meal was on him. wouldn’t let me pay a thing. the entire experience was surreal. it was like we all existed in parallel worlds and the only thing that could pass between was a grilled cheese and some fries.
i left the cafe and walked into the nite. slowly, reluctantly making my way toward the train yard. my spirit sagging. i was craving the mundane and familiar. normal human interaction. i lingered a moment under a handsome tree, comforted by neat houses, a sidewalk, a neighborhood. then i shouldered my pack and walked into the yard. i knew i would have to take my chances and ask a worker to help me find a train to minneapolis…no way to tell which trains were heading to chicago.
i was at the end of the long yard…away from most of the activity, the glaring lites, the threat of the tower looming over me. i saw a worker inspecting a train and determined to approach him. only a few yards away, i hesitated to leave the dark shadows of weeds and expose myself but i forced myself to walk toward him. he was sitting in his truck and i walked to his window. before i could say anything he asked where i was heading. when i answered minneapolis, he said: this is not your train. i thought he wasn’t going to help but i asked if he could maybe point me in the right direction. he said the train i wanted was called THE SUPERIOR…that it would go to minneapolis thru la crosse and i told him that was exactly what i wanted. to my surprise he picked up his radio and asked what track was THE SUPERIOR on. then he looked at me and said: Don’t tell anyone I did this, but GET IN.” so i threw my pack in the back of his truck and hopped in the front seat. we drove alongside my train until i picked the car i wanted to ride. i spotted a grainer and he pulled right up to the ladder. he asked my name and i asked his. M he said and then told me to be safe out there. as i grabbed my pack from the back of the truck he asked if i needed any money. i told him i was ok, thanked him again and he drove off. my heart soared and lifted me up the ladder into my grainer. i was smiling and laughing to myself, delirious with good fortune and thinking that i must have an angel watching over me. and wishing that somehow M would be rewarded for his good deed. (there was an article in a recent harpers about misanthropy and the author mentions how on any long journey you eventually run into the phenomenon called THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS and it’s true that it is an antidote to the accumulated cynicism of everyday life)
anyway, i woke up to a perfect morning. flying up the mississippi. just me and the birds and the river.
memory is transient like a train and i realize the events of the past few days are already slipping past. i’m in chicago and–sadly–my journey on the rails is behind me.
i survived 5 screenings in 4 cities in a week. the show in minneapolis sold out…standing room only, hot and steamy like a swamp. eventually had to turn 20 or 30 people away and then decided to do a second screening. nice to draw a crowd, but i was somehow depressed and felt like abandoning the film. took greyhound to madison the next day and realized that once you become accustomed to traveling for free…paying a fare sucks. 30 dollars to sit in an airconditioned tube on the highway and go from point A to point B without seeing a thing. no towns or farms or fields…just the highway and other cars and gas stations and fast food restaurants that rely on the cars.
in madison i was discouraged by the lack of publicity for the screening: no press, no posters or postcards around. but telepathically the audience arrived and the energy in the room rivaled the screening in seattle…people were really engaged and responsive and i learned to love the film all over again. a special treat to have luther the jet in the audience…his childlike giddiness contagious as he excitedly called out all the places he recognized: kelso! keddie!
over the past few weeks i’ve discovered that i’m happy out here in the world. i feel liberated by my experience hopping trains alone and i’ve decided to keep showing my film and hopping trains to screenings whenever possible. maybe a sequel tour next year??? and while i’m continually tempted to try mainstream distribution, i can’t imagine anything more rewarding or fulfilling than my do-it-yourself tour. anyway. that’s it for this leg.