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Erik Burgess, Published September 19 2012

20-year-old nomad tells tales from the rails

MOORHEAD – Metal pieces from busted lighters line his jacket’s chest pocket like junkyard pocket squares.

The hood of his sweater, pulled over shaggy hair dyed green, is dotted with bottle caps snapped on proudly like Boy Scout merit badges.

A compass-like figure is sketched on the back of his jacket between his shoulder blades. He says it’s the sign of nomads.

At age 20, Tyler Harmon just might be the prince of the nomads. Since age 10, he says, he has illegally hitched rides on thousands of trains and lived in countless cities.

And while he may have the rugged attire of a seasoned transient and only a hiking pack on his back, he also carries the youthful shine and smile of a man half the age of his peers.

“I wouldn’t say it’s quite an addiction; it’s more of something I enjoy doing,” said Harmon, who found himself at Moorhead’s Churches United shelter on Wednesday afternoon.

He smiles wide whenever asked of his travels, which have taken him from surfing on the West Coast to the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast.

“You go out and see a lot of things, meet a lot of new people,” he said. “I start feeling a little bit complacent when I sit around in one place for too long. I get bored with it.”

Harmon, who was born in Grand Forks, hopped his first train 10 years ago. Fed up with life with his adopted parents, who then lived in Ohio, he said he started hopping trains out of “necessity.”

He met a man who told him he could take him to New York, so they jumped on the next train out of town.

The feeling of a freight train rushing past is something he said is still hard to take lightly.

“It puts a butterfly in your gut,” Harmon said. “You’ve got almost 30 tons of steel moving 80 miles an hour down the track when it picks up full speed. Even when it’s going slow, it’s still scary.”

But now the experienced train hopper is one of the “traveling kids,” a label transient youth have given themselves, working odd jobs, peddling for change and relying on shelters like Churches United for warm meals and a place to stay.

Harmon has visited Churches United before. He was here in January, visiting for the first time his biological parents, who now live in Hillsboro, N.D.

He had also developed frostbite at that time – a cold reality of life on the road that he’ll have to face eventually, said the shelter’s executive director, Jane Alexander.

“He prides himself in the ability to make it out there,” Alexander said. “To hear the story, some of the time it feels like a romantic version of living the life of a traveler. But the frostbite is one of those things that makes it not fun and not easy for him.”

Not that riding the rails is easy in any sense. First, one must sneak onto a train or catch it while it’s in motion. Harmon says the easiest to catch are coal or grain cars, which have ladders and hatches that allow you to enter and find space to sit inside, usually alone.

“Sometimes you’ll run into another traveler on the train, but it’s not very often that you do because we try to stay hidden,” he said.

Harmon has heard from other travelers that train security has gotten much tighter since 9/11. Although some guards are OK with him hitching a ride, he said he tends to avoid them at all costs just in case.

But the 20-year-old has been caught by police on his travels. He was arrested once in Ohio and brought into jail.

“Police tend to look down on us – look at us like we’re just gutter punks,” he said. “They don’t really think that we’re upstanding in our society. I believe that I am.”

When asked why, Harmon says he just got done giving one of his last blankets to another man in the shelter whose gear was stolen.

“I try to help out the person that’s next to me as much as I can, even when I have nothing,” he said. “I’ll give the last of my food, the last of my money to help them, because I always know there’s more to be had.”

Harmon hasn’t totally forsaken the conveniences of modern-day life, though. His girlfriend, whom he met while riding the rails, recently bought him a smartphone with a pay-as-you-go plan. He finds free WiFi on his journeys and connects with other travelers via Facebook. He also uses it to call his biological parents.

“Every day,” he said. “Let ’em know I’m OK.”

Alexander said they don’t receive many rail-traveling youth at her shelter, but the ones she has spoken with tend to have a “youth idealization” of their situation.

“For them, they’re traveling and they’re seeing certain things in the world,” she said. “But they’re really just surviving.”

Indeed, Harmon said he has grown tired of the lifestyle. He plans to move to California and start going to school for architecture. First, he must head to Columbus to meet up with his adoptive parents and attempt to recover some medical records. The records will help him get copies of documents – like his ID – that were recently stolen from him.

“I’m ready to settle down,” he said. “I think my feet might itch a little bit, but I can stick it out.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518