By Mimi Kates
When Mariza Brooks says she’s got to catch a train, she’s not kidding. This nineteen-year-old adventurer has been traveling the U.S. for almost two years—hopping trains.
I met with Mariza by the historic Old Depot in downtown Black Mountain, North Carolina, near her hometown of Asheville to find out more about this extraordinary young woman.
Mariza became enamored with the idea of train hopping in 2006 when she was just fifteen. As a young teenager, she felt disheartened about her future. The prospect of following a set path of culturally expected behavior—school, college, a job—held no inspiration for her.
“Asheville used to be a place where lots of ‘travelers’ would come through,” she explains. “The first time I hung out with them, I knew this was where I was most comfortable.”
Mariza waited until she was eighteen for her first “hop out.” She was determined to have the guidance of experienced train hoppers, but they were justifiably hesitant to escort an underage girl.
At seventeen, she met the traveling companion who was to become her most trusted ally—a young stray dog who she insists found her. “He just came around a corner and attacked me—with kisses,” Mariza says, smiling fondly at Bailey, the medium-sized beige mutt sporting a stylish doggie back pack. “We’ve been in love ever since.”
On this ninety degree August day, Mariza is careful to stay hydrated, taking a long swig from her neoprene bottle. Bailey waits obediently as his friend crosses the street to reach into a trash can, unearthing a discarded Styrofoam cup so she can give him a drink too.
At first encounter, Mariza Brooks seems a contradiction in terms. Her nose piercings, tattoos and partially dreadlocked blonde hair are in sharp contrast to her angelic baby face. She wears a weathered black leather vest and Carhartt shorts with patches sewn on using dental floss.
She admits it’s a challenge to look tough, but as a young woman traveling alone, she feels it’s prudent. Mariza contends that she would feel more vulnerable without Bailey. “If you have a dog,” she reflects, “no matter how small it is, it still has teeth.”
She’s covered most of the U.S. “I think I’m missing eight states— including Hawaii of course!” Montana is her favorite state so far. “I rate places by the people,” she explains. “And I didn’t meet a bad person there.” She found the adobe architecture in Taos, New Mexico charming, but the range of temperature unsettling. “It would be hot during the day and then nine degrees at night!” Seattle weather, she calls “just miserable.”
We stand near the hundred-year-old depot in Black Mountain and Mariza details for me the different kinds of train cars she rides on. As a freight train thunders by, she points out a “Grainer” or grain car which has a small round opening off of the porch. This hole is the perfect size for her and Bailey to tuck inside away from the eyes of “Bulls” or Railroad Police.
Intermodal freight cars have two tractor trailers stacked. For a train hopper, there are two good spots in which to ride. “There’s a little porch you can lie down on next to the trailer, or you can ride between the wheels which keeps you hidden.”
Box cars are the most dangerous choice, Mariza tells me. The jolting motion of the train can cause the door to inadvertently slam shut, leaving a rider trapped inside with little air. This can be especially lethal during the summer “when a box car can become an oven.” To prevent this, a seasoned traveler will jam a stick or rail tie in the door.
Mariza loves the comforting rhythmic sound of the wheels on track when she’s riding. “The easiest thing to do on a train is sleep,” she says.
Her travel essentials, in order of importance are: a sleeping bag, water bottles, long pants and a long sleeved shirt. “On a train, the wind hitting you is constant.” She doesn’t like to carry liquids in her pack, due to possible spillage, but makes an exception for her beloved hot sauce.
Mariza rarely jumps on trains “on the fly” (when they are moving). When she does, she first ascertains that the train is not going too fast by making sure she can count the wheel spokes, a method taught to her by a more experienced rider.
As another train comes hurtling by, Mariza pulls me over to point out the line—Union Pacific —and the six digit train number. Pushing a pre-programmed button on her cherry red cell phone, this high tech hobo connects to an automated system which tells her exactly where the train is coming from and its destination.
Knowing where she’s going is helpful, but sometimes Mariza is unprepared for what she finds when she gets there. “Columbus, Ohio was really intense—pure ghetto where I was dropped off.” She stayed anxiously awake that night in a dumpster, “just listening to the craziness going on around me.”
Most often, Mariza sleeps under bridges, where she feels safest. Abandoned houses, warehouses or “out in a grassy field under the stars” are also possibilities. She appreciates the kindness of strangers who have offered her hotel rooms or a night at their own homes. Still, she maintains a cautious attitude. “I only accept offers from people to house me up when I’m traveling with someone.”
Mariza has only been home three times in the past two years. Her family misses her and initially had a difficult time accepting her choice to live in this manner. “My Mom was really upset,” she recalls. “I think my Dad was a little bit jealous.”
Now that she’s proven her ability to take care of herself in the world and survive, her parents, younger brother and older sister are all proud of her.
“I think she has incredible courage,” says Mariza’s mom, Sonia Brooks. “She’s out there finding herself.”
To earn money for basic needs, Mariza plays her guitar on the streets. “I’m not a spare changer. I like to entertain,” she says. In Cleveland, someone accidentally stepped on her guitar and broke it, but he later gave her the one she has now, which she says was a great improvement. She says she is conscious to maintain a positive attitude and things have a way of working out for her.
As we sit and rest, leaning against a stone wall, I notice the self-inked tattoo on Mariza’s right thigh: We always have wheels and we never get caught. She confides that she has actually been caught four times. “Twice by the same Bull in Arkansas,” she says. “The first time he just shooed us out of the yard. The second time, it was three in the morning. He pulled us from the train and threatened to take away my dog.” The prospect of losing Bailey, she says, was the scariest situation she has faced.
I ask Mariza how much longer she thinks she will continue train hopping. She considers this for a moment and then replies, “I guess until I decide not to anymore.”
She tells me these have been the happiest two years of her life. “I’m finding out who I am,” she says. When she’s ready to settle down, it will be back here in North Carolina. She envisions living in “a pretty yellow farmhouse with chickens and ducks—and Bailey of course!”
Mariza Brooks is at home in herself, a rare quality in a nineteen year old, or in anyone. She exudes the confidence of one who loves life and trusts that the world will provide.
As we approach the Red Caboose, an actual train car which has been turned into a museum, Bailey perks up. He quickens his step and looks questioningly from the open doors to Mariza. She smiles, giving him an affectionate pat. “Not this one, Bailey,” she says.
Mimi Kates is a singer/songwriter and young women’s empowerment educator who lives in Black Mountain, NC. She is the founder of TheDressingRoomProject.org, a global positive body image initiative.