Author: Karsemeyer, John

Stories From Life On The Rails And The Road

“Boxcar Bertha,” the movie, and “Sister of the Road,” the book, are both fiction. The author of the “autobiographical” book, Ben Reitman (1879 – 1942), had a background as a doctor, writer, and hobo (among other things). The screen play of the movie (based loosely on the book, as many movies are) portrays Betha as a freight-hopping, boxcar-riding, free spirited, liberal woman who was an outlaw. The book has a different account.

No matter, the movie and book are fiction. The movie is over thirty years old, and the book over sixty years old. But that was then, and this is now.

Bluegrass music camps and festivals hold the never ending promise of meeting new and interesting people. The California Bluegrass Association’s (CBA) Winter Music Camp, held in February of 2010, was no exception.

At this music camp you get to study your instrument of choice for three hours in the morning, and in the afternoon you have a choice of a variety of elective classes that last an hour, or an hour and a half. For example, you can be with an instructor studying your guitar for three hours in the morning, and then in the afternoon you can study another instrument, or learn music theory, jam etiquette, how a bluegrass band is supposed to work, and a plethora of other topics. So many topics, in fact, that one person cannot attend them all.

One of the elective topics for the third day of the camp was, “Stories From Life On The Road,” to be told by a person who travels around the country living off of tips made from playing her banjo. Somewhere way back in an obscure region of my brain, the thought occurred to me, “That seems interesting, but I came here to study an instrument, so I’ll pass on that one.” That was my thinking during the first day of music camp when I became aware of this elective.

You know how a small thought like that can start to grow, and grow some more, and then get really big, and then consume most of your consciousness? That’s what happened to me. By the time this elective rolled around, I was ready to check it out. I mean, how often do you get the chance to hear, in person, what’s it’s like to be out on the road, on your own, trying to survive by playing music? I’ve never heard Woody Guthrie or Utah Phillips talk about it, so I wasn’t going to pass this one up.

Kimmie Mullen is the real-deal. Boxcar Bertha was not, and the Sister of the Road was not.

When I walked into the room where this elective was being held, there was only one person. It was just a little past time for things to begin, so maybe waiting would bring in more people, I thought. The person in the room did have a banjo, but she appeared young. No mileage lines in her face, or gaunt appearance, as might be expected of someone who leads that kind of life. Her Rastafarian hair style, seemed unusual, to me, for a person in the bluegrass music culture.

I sat down, and after a few minutes asked, “Are you giving this workshop?” Kimmie Mullen replied, “Yes I am.” Just then Ingrid Noyes, the Music Camp director, walked in. She sat down, raising the audience number to two, and that’s the way it stayed for the rest of this elective. Being the camp director, Ingrid goes to each class for a minute of two to see how each one is transpiring, but I suspect that Ingrid found her personal direction for this hour that was ahead of her.

“I started hopping trains when I was sixteen,” Kimmie said as an opener, and then continued, “And I’m nineteen now.” Her boyfriend, at the time, introduced her to this newly found adrenaline rush experience when she was living in Reno with her family. Family life couldn’t keep her from the addictive clutches of a life riding the rails, and she would be gone for extended periods of time. “At first I told my parents that I was visiting friends. They didn’t know what I was really doing,” she explained. When she did tell them, they told her that they suspected she was not just “hanging” with friends. But they were not shocked to the point of telling her to stay away from trains. However, I suspect that some part of them still worried.

Kimmie’s adventures finds her among circles of both non-musician and musician folks. “I like the musicians best,” she emphatically stated. She plays the five string banjo, old-time style, and writes songs, which include her traveling experiences.

When I asked her where she pictured herself in five years, she said, “Maybe back in Reno doing some kind of job. There’s nothing I’d rather do right now than travel around the country.”

Sometimes Kimmie is on the road, hitch-hiking, if she is going to a place where trains don’t go. “It’s often dangerous. I got robbed once, but that’s the only really bad thing that has happened to me,” she explained. Her money, and two completed journals were stolen. She has started on another journal.

Speaking of danger, she knows which trains to ride and which ones to avoid.
Posted:  3/13/2010

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