They were two troubled kids running away from ordinary life, reports Christopher Goffard. They found freedom and adventure on America’s rails, until the dangers of train-hopping caught up with them.

Before dawn that morning, they clambered onto an empty boxcar at the Union Pacific yard and rode it out of Bakersfield, Calif., 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, 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 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.

“Okay,” she replied.

Trains run right through the heart of the American story, a symbol of industrial prowess and unfettered movement. For the broke and the discontent, 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.”

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 some cities 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. Blowing bubbles in her 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.

Ashley kept slipping out her bedroom window. She’d be gone for weeks at a time. She thought of suicide. “I just get up and put a smile on my face every morning and pretend to be okay,” she wrote in a journal.

In the summer of 2004, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She dropped out of school and jumped freights. She left her antipsychotic pills behind and started shooting heroin.

But in the company of ragged runaways, Ashley found a surrogate family. At 17, she e-mailed home to say that she was the youngest in her pack of traveling kids. Many of the others, she acknowledged, had no homes to return to. “There are some like me that are only out on the streets because they are rebellious,” she wrote. “I hate sitting on the corner begging for food. I hate not having anything productive to do with my time. I want to come home so I can graduate and take my time being a teenager.”

Her dad brought her home with a Greyhound ticket, but her new focus was short-lived. Police picked her up for trespassing at a train station in Santa Maria, Calif.; for hitchhiking in Redwood City, Calif.; and for hitting a man—she claimed he was harassing her—back in Eugene.

She pleaded guilty to assault and received a 30-day sentence. Soon, police booked her for heroin possession and for failing to check in with her probation officer. Letters from jail reflected an aching for innocence. She wrote that she missed her grandmother’s blueberry pancakes. When she got out, she said, she wanted to stay sober and find a job. “I’ve thrown quite a few years down the drain.”

Once released, however, she skipped town again. When she could find a computer, she reached out to traveling friends and plotted meeting points. On her MySpace page, she rhapsodized about tramps and trains and said her religion had become “the countryside, the outdoors, the dirty folk.”

Adam’s and Ashley’s paths converged in the fall of 2006. Adam was walking with a buddy through the San Jose train yard. Ashley was sitting with a girlfriend. “We’ll trade you whiskey for water,” she said. “We don’t have water,” he said, “but we’ll drink your whiskey.”

He called her Smashley. She called him Stogie. He got her off heroin, he says, telling her he wouldn’t lose her to the needle the way he’d lost so many other friends. Asked what he loved about her, Adam wouldn’t hesitate: “Her wildness.”

They tramped up the Pacific, hitched down to the Florida Keys, and rode the rails across the Southwestern deserts. They ate from trash bins and begged on street corners. For shelter, they threw their sleeping bags under bridges and pried the plywood from the windows of abandoned houses. They shared three bottles of cheap whiskey a day. They found a stray husky they named Captain Morgan and a rabbit they called Dinner.

He says he didn’t ask her about her family life or about the slash marks on her wrist. He figured it was her business. “She was more scared than angry about life. She wanted someone there to tell her it was okay,” he says. “She hid it a lot, but she had a pretty big sweet side. She liked to cuddle and watch the scenery.”

They were in Montgomery, Ala., when he called his dad and learned that his biological mom had died. His father sent him a bus ticket home to Bakersfield. Ashley made her way to California by herself, hoisting Captain Morgan and Adam’s other dog onto freights state after state.

In Bakersfield, they stayed with Adam’s folks in the house where he grew up. Adam’s dad offered him jobs repairing exercise machines. His stepmother offered to get Ashley work busing tables. But the house felt claustrophobic and the city crushing, full of strip malls. Within months they were crazy to get out.

“I’m so happy to be hitting the road again,” Ashley wrote on MySpace. “Then things will go back to how they used to be. It’s almost intoxicatingly gross how in love we are.”

June 3, 2007. After the nine-hour trip from Bakersfield—after the sloppy-drunk marriage proposal—Adam and Ashley and the rest of the pack were rolling west in their boxcar on a track close to Interstate 10. On a parallel track, the Amtrak Sunset Limited was barreling quietly around a blind corner at 60 mph.

The kids were thirsty. A Wal-Mart nearby offered a place to fill their jugs, so they lowered their dogs to the gravel. Adam jumped first, then scrambled to safety. But when Ashley hit the ground, she seemed to hesitate as she glimpsed the Amtrak. She tried to beat it across the tracks anyway.

Adam heard her yell “Train!” and saw her body fly through the air into a ditch.

He found her on her back, her eyes open but cloudy. She was bleeding from a gash on her head, a bone protruding from one arm. She died in a nearby emergency room.

Adam felt numb on the long Greyhound ride to central Oregon, where he stood at her grave with a handful of other street kids. Ashley’s mother asked church friends not to bring flowers but rather socks and sleeping bags to hand out. Ashley’s grandparents ordered a gravestone etched with a train. Adam had a railroad crossing and the word “Smashley” inked on his arm.

Within weeks, though, he was riding again with his dogs. He thought it might be the only way to get her dying expression out of his mind. “I would have lost two things that I love that day if I never got back on a train,” he said.

Steven Kuntz, 46, reaches for a stack of envelopes piled on his desk: his son’s citations and outstanding warrants stretching from San Luis Obispo, Calif., to Liberal, Kan. He’s been making calls, trying to take care of them.

For years he felt guilty about Adam, wondering if he should have been less tolerant of bad grades, less a pal, more a parent. But he says Adam’s younger siblings, loved just the same, are out earning paychecks and starting families.

After Ashley’s death, Steven told Adam not to come home if he got on the rails again. Adam cried and said, “I can’t have you not like me.” Steven figured he would have to make peace with what his son did. He suspects that roaming the rails might be his son’s way of coping with “tucked away” emotions.

When Adam is home a few months a year, as he is now, Steven, who repairs photocopiers, throws some work his way. He encourages him to look for jobs. But Adam, with no degree and little experience, is quickly frustrated. He loves his parents, but home feels like a cage.
His new girlfriend, Kaley Chapin, is a 22-year-old video store clerk, sweet-faced, eager to see things. Adam has been telling her stories of the rails, and she can’t stop talking about it, even though she knows what happened to Ashley.

“In June, me and him are gonna take off,” she tells Steven on a recent evening. They’ll hop trains and scrounge change all the way to New York.

“You know how many people die on trains?” Steven says. “They’re just as smart as you.”

“You only live once,” she says.

©2009 by the Los Angeles Times.