Waunakee native Derek Endres sat down for an interview with the public library last week to discuss the nomadic lifestyle and the opportunities it has presented him.
“I’ve definitely had some wild experiences,” the 23-year-old said as he recounted the four and a half years that had passed since he’d graduated from Waunakee High School. “It’s not a lot of people that are more comfortable sleeping outside of a train yard than they would be in an apartment. But it’s that tribe of people who are still doing this, and I’m super proud and happy to call them my people.”
Endres said he committed to nomadic life at an early age but remembers that his decision to travel the country was influenced by the hometown he left behind as a teenager.
“It’s beautiful enough to inspire a love for life and nature, but it’s also just boring enough to push you out of it,” Endres said of Waunakee and its surrounding area. “So growing up, I remember doing a lot of things that I just wanted to do – walking railroad tracks, going to the woods. Just across from Southbridge in Waunakee, there were woods that I spent a lot of time in. I built little forts, and just kind of spent time out there alone.”
Endres said one of his favorite childhood activities was walking along the railroad tracks, listening to folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
Their music would leave a lasting impression on the adolescent Endres.
“They were always singing about trains, and riding trains, and I’d be walking the railroad tracks or in the woods just thinking about life,” Endres said. “And I thought, ‘This sounds like a good way to spend the time that I have alive.’ So from then on out, it was just like, I had to get through school and then I could finally ride a train and see everything I wanted to.”
When graduation day finally arrived, Endres was so eager to hit the road that he decided to skip his high school’s graduation ceremony so that a friend could drive him to Iowa.
There, he discovered that train travel would be more difficult than he’d anticipated.
“I remember getting on a train for the first time,” Endres said. “It was moving forward and back, forward and back. And I was just thinking in my head, ‘What is going on right now?’ I didn’t understand the train yards; I didn’t understand the logistical aspect of it. I just knew it was what I wanted to do. So there were definitely a lot of learning curves.”
Endres said, in addition to railyard operations, he found that his success would depend on the speed at which he learned to navigate other obstacles such as the elements and law enforcement.
Endres noted that travelers call railway police by different names, though, like “railroad bulls.”
The 23-year-old said traveling alone has helped him avoid trouble with railroad bulls, because it allows him to focus his attention on himself without having to worry about others.
“I enjoy just watching my own back,” Endres said. “That has kind of kept me in a better place for avoiding the illegal aspects of riding train. I have been bothered by railroad bulls quite a bit, but have not been arrested… I can just throw my pack off the train, and as soon as it’s slow enough to get off, I can book it right out of there.”
Endres has since learned that a smartphone allows him to scope out train yards in advance.
Endres said while some aspects of nomadic living present a challenge, finding work has proven relatively easy. Several of his jobs were found while hitchhiking from one destination to the next.
“Like, the first job I ever got on the road was for a guy hauling cattle,” Endres said. “He ended up hiring me to work rodeos with him. And then other times, you get into a town and you think, ‘This looks like a great place to find work. I’ll just hold up something that says, Looking For Work.’”
Endres said most of his meals come from a can that often serves as his breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, he said he’ll treat himself to diner food sometimes after a long day of travel.
Endres shared several stories from his travels, but has spent a lot of time telling one in particular.
The 23-year-old recently appeared in the Oscar nominated film, “Nomadland,” where Endres portrays himself alongside other travelers and award-winning actress Frances McDormand.
“They found me out in the desert, outside of Quartzsite,” Endres said of getting cast for the role. “They were actually casting for a scene that didn’t end up happening. But they were looking for non-van-dwelling nomads, and there just happened to be a big camp of us out there.”
Endres later joined the film’s production crew as a member of its art department. Asked whether he sees acting in his future, Endres said he would consider working with the same director.
“But I just can’t see pursuing it,” Endres said, “because that’s not my speed.”