“Except for a period in the 1980’s when I got sick of the whole business and went to America, riding trains like a Dustbowl hobo, I have been for the last few years an architect in the city.”

Just who is Mr Wolf? Is he an allegory? No: he is, in fact, quite real. I often see his bushy tail disappearing around a corner, a couple of streets ahead of me. Mr Wolf is always ahead.

His grandfather, J. Carruthers Wolf, Esq. got his start in business after the War and quickly found that many companies had a need for his cleverly-designed machinery. Business flourished, and his firm supplied Scotland’s shipyards and factories with equipment. He wasn’t a great believer in advertising, but enjoyed a network of personal recommendation built up as a result of fair dealing and a job well done, or, “Mr Wolf will have what you need”. 

This was a late flowering of the great cities of Empire, when sophisticated technology began to supplant steam power and brute force. Progress meant we could make things faster and better; it also meant fewer of us were needed to make them. There’s a tension between these two ideas – perhaps they’re even antithetical.

Is that because the technology is now so complex that it’s beyond simple analysis, or do we resent the fact that machines even make other machines. Mr Wolf’s particular line of business was multi-axis machine tools. Until recently there were still forms that nothing else could achieve.

  Solid fabrication techniques have changed that, with the advent of stereo-lithography, laser sintering and direct metal laser sintering. The easiest way to explain these is 3D photocopying. Today, computers can tell a laser to trace a cross-section of the component in a vat of liquid photopolymer resin, or in a powder bed, then layer by layer the desired shape will emerge as material is fused by the heat of the laser beam.

However, Wolf’s father developed the predecessors of the 3D photocopier which machined components from a solid lump of aluminium, titanium or stainless steel. Most of his competitors were American firms, many of which grew out of the USA’s enormous military aircraft-building industry. As a result, J. Carruthers Wolf regularly crossed the Pond from Prestwick, selling Scottish machinery to the Americans.

All this industrial enterprise appealed to the junior Wolf, and his fascination with America grew as he learned about it from his grandfather and father. America was the place where much of the late 20th century emerged, and it grew in his mind until it became an obsession: it was music, books, paintings, photos, poems, dreams, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.

Mr Wolf craved a proper adventure and after years of dreaming, he crossed the East Coast on a Laker DC10. He arrived in Chicago, which his grandfather first visited forty years before. His first impression took in the grid-iron plans of New York, Detroit and Chicago’s downtowns, then screeds of slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, transit sheds and lumber yards. Beyond lay the tract houses which multiply like bacteria in a Petri dish.

That was Mr Wolf’s first discovery about America: the sprawling and organic form which its suburbs took when they were allowed to grow unchecked. The second arose from the novel way he crossed the continent. After the tightly-packed cities of Western Europe – between which you never really enter open countryside, but pass instead through a succession of man-made features like plantations, motorways, canals – here there were hours of wilderness between the “divisions” or wayside towns.

He figured out the practicalities of staying in touch, in the days before cellphones. Sending mail "General Delivery" to a particular city is how you got snail mail back in the day. You addressed your letters with your name, then wrote general delivery as the street, followed by city, state, zipcode. The closest Post Office to the rail yard in every town where there was a crew change was familiar with tramps and forty-milers, who came in to pick up their mail.

He saw America from the open door of a freight train, riding the rails. The trip began with a feeling of incredulity that he was finally here. But there he was, wearing a pair of Levis and a hooded sweat, with a bedroll in his pack and a camera jammed into his pocket. He had a roll of Jacksons stuffed into his sock and shot a few rolls of Kodachrome during his trip.

Precious few images, really, considering the thousands of miles he travelled, but enough to prove he had been there. In fact, whenever he has gone through tough times, he looked through the photos and drew on the strength he gained from hopping freights in America.

But before he could ride, Mr Wolf had to be patient. Trains often sat dead in the yard all day, with no sign of activity. Waiting to catch out at the side of the railroad left him ample time for reading, lying still in the brush beyond the track. His favourite book was “The Bottom of the Harbour”, which collected Joseph Mitchell’s essays from The New Yorker magazine.

Mitchell wrote using precise, spare English with no hype or sentimentality and barely any adjectives. He was Wolf’s hero, although of course Mr Wolf would never admit to holding anyone up as a hero. However, he recognised Mitchell’s genius because so many people have pressed mediocre books on him over the years, and he has slogged through them out of guilt. That kind of reading seldom works out for the best.

In late afternoon, that familiar horn blared out from a nearby locomotive. The brakes began charging up with a characteristic ticking noise; a few minutes later, the units revved up and the train eased out of the switchyard. Each train might have four or five locomotives hauling a rake of boxcars quarter of a mile long. He chose an immense train of loaded autoracks and UPS containers.

Perhaps there is a romance to hopping freights, but it’s dirty and physically-tiring work. Mr Wolf developed the strength required to run alongside the four foot, snatch a grab-iron and pull himself up into a moving train. It’s also dangerous. Each train he hopped was a now-or-never opportunity, and all the time he kept in mind the old Chicago alderman's maxim: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." 

He wedged the toe of his boot onto the step-iron and climbed up into the fourth unit. Manufactured by General Electric, it weighed 391,000 pounds and generated 4,000 horsepower. The lead unit of the train was crewed by flannel-shirted railroaders: a driver (the engineer), a second engineer and a brakeman. Over the cab radio, he could hear the engineer and dispatcher discussing the hardships of railroading.

Mr Wolf travelled in the Fall. In summer, the heat was unbearable. In winter, tramps passed out in the boxcars with their soaking clothes hanging from their bodies and froze to death. Yet even in the Fall, it grew perishingly cold when the train went over a high pass. At night he pulled the bedroll out of his pack and drew his jacket tightly around him, then waited for dawn.

He changed trains and travelled from Laurel, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, along a non-Amtrak six hundred mile route that passed through the filming locations for A River Runs Through It, then crossed the great Beartooth Pass, near the northeast entrance for Yellowstone. In the evening he slept fitfully as the train clattered over the ties at 45 miles an hour.

Eight hours later, the light was up as the train crawled up into the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, a land of steep fir-dotted ridges. The wildlife paraded past: herds of elk, mallards floating down the streams, pheasants surprised by the locomotive.

The Hill. That's what Jack London, A-No. 1, and several generations of other tramps called the Sierra; John Muir termed it the Range of Light. Later, he would traverse the Bitterroot Range and the Cascades. Was this the real West? It certainly felt like it, based on what Mr Wolf knew of America.

The train picked up speed on the downgrade and the sun broke out near milepost 60, dispelling the cool greyness of the Stampede crossing. Mountains give way to sagebrush desert and after he crossed the Great Divide, he was one with the fruit tramps, bums, hobos and vagabonds. His skin was seasoned with the sun and grime and his jeans were fit for the dumpster; Mr Wolf resembled nothing so much as a coyote.

You may not realise that Chuck Jones based his cartoon Wile Coyote on Mark Twain's book Roughing It, in which Twain described the coyote as "A long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton," which is "A living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede.”

There were certainly thin pickings in the wayside towns, and Mr Wolf could see just how Cousin Coyote came to have his ribs sticking out. In fact, he almost expected to see DC Thomson’s Three Bears raiding Hank’s Store for grub. These railroads were built with Dundee money in the last years of the 19th century, using jute profits sunk into US railroad bonds. Railroads opened up the Oregon Trail in the 1880’s and 1890’s, during the Goldrush years. A century and a quarter later, the Scots have disinvested: Warren Buffett now owns America’s biggest railroad firm.

Finally, Mr Wolf reached the west coast. He drew out a couple of bills from his sock for a room in a motel in Ventura. He showered for the first time in two weeks, dropped his trainhopping clothes off at the laundromat, then lay on the bed. The last remnants of sunshine reflected off the windows as storm clouds moved in. He fell asleep listening to an Amtrak train rolling through town as the sun set across the Pacific.

Next morning, he treated himself to a regal spread of coffee, eggs, avocado, salsa, biscuit and a side of blueberry pancakes. Then spent the next few days walking in the footsteps of Steinbeck, from Tortilla Flats to Monterey. The places are much changed, but some of their spirit remains, despite the tourist hell of Cannery Row. Sand Dollar Bay in Big Sur lived up to its name, a stretch of sand and rock pools straight out of “Sea of Cortez”.

Many architectural visitors to California make a pilgrimage to Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute; but first Mr Wolf made a trip far up the coast to Northern California, where he finally saw Halprin's Sea Ranch with his own eyes, wreathed in coastal fog. This is also the land which Pynchon wrote about in “Vineland”. When he reached Arcata, home to the medical marijuana industry, there must have been an epidemic of some kind: the whole town was stoned.  Beyond it lay giant redwoods, fern-filled gorges, pounding surf and "All that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to West Coast, and all that road going."

All told, the journey was quite an adventure – the stuff of blind chance-takers, adventurers, nothing-to-lose optimists. But Mr Wolf’s greatest debt was owed to the railroad tramps he met during his travels. They didn’t know him from Adam, they had nothing to gain, and were absolutely hard up. Yet to a man they offered information about the trains and how to avoid the railroad bulls; they spared him the hardship of figuring everything out for himself. 

The experience left him with a deep feeling for the country and its people, which translated into praise of kind hearts and good times, and down with humbug and hypocrisy.


Postscript: Reply to Mr Wolf

Dear Sir,

I’ve read the adventures of Mr Wolf with enormous interest and enjoyment. I like them for their blunt candour, their devastating common sense and above all for the practical fashion in which they haul down to ground level issues which have been left hanging in the air. However, this piece has nothing to do with architecture, per se. 

It was written to show in an extended metaphor Mr Wolf’s relationship with the world. America (in the days before Trump) was symbolic of progress, whereas Europe is the Old World. I believe the piece serves to emphasise how broadening your experience of the world may make you a more understanding and empathetic person.

Happy Christmas and a fine New Year to you all.

Yours Sincerely,

Maxwell Allison (12), Penicuik

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