The Last Red-Blooded American Adventure
By Lois Hoffman
We have had some colorful groups of people shape our country into what it is today. One of those groups is the hobo. Unlike their counterparts, bums who won’t work at all and tramps who only work when forced to, hobos are more than willing to work, but mostly for a short duration, as their main focus is travel. They love the journey more so than the actual destination.
Although not as prevalent as in the last century, the hobo culture is still very much alive today. They all don’t fit the image of a man (or woman) in overalls with a charcoal beard, a red bandana and carrying a brindle on a stick (bundle of belongings on a stick). Today’s hobos blend into our society rather than draw attention to themselves. True hobos are not to be confused with “gutter punks,” crusty kids and dropouts trying to piece together a meager existence outside of conventional society.
The very first hobos were cast-offs from the Civil War in the 1860s. Soldiers came home and jobs were scarce so they looked to the railroads for their fortunes. The word “hobo” is derived from “hoe boy,” which is an individual who goes from town to town looking for odd jobs, mostly in menial farm work. During the Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s the hobo ranks swelled to 250,000.
It is hard to believe that most hobos actually like living like they do. Although it is still, and always has been illegal, they hop trains and go wherever the rails take them. They forage for food wherever they can find it and take handouts. Train hopping is an art in itself. There are actually books and websites that tell how to befriend the train staff, find your way around the freight network, and find a good container to hunker down in for a ride through mountains and forests.
As inviting as this may sound for an adventure, the danger is real. They ride inside, on top of, and under boxcars. Losing limbs is sometimes common as loads shift. Sometimes doors close and lock and no one has any idea that someone is trapped in the rail cars. Hobos have been known to starve, die of thirst, and freeze inside these cars. They have a rule of thumb; never hop a moving train unless you can count the bolts on a wheel because if you can’t count them, the train is moving too fast to jump.
During their heyday, hobos created an unwritten code to communicate with each other. Many were illiterate so, quite often, these codes were a series of signs that were scrawled on trees, fenceposts and train crossing signs. A picture of a bird meant a free telephone and a cross meant a free meal if you possessed religious beliefs. When they spoke of a comrade that had passed on, it was said that he had “caught the westbound.”
So, why would someone intentionally choose to live like this? One person described it as “there is just something about laying atop a boxcar, feeling the power of the engine and watching the stars.” Sometimes it is a family affair. Connecticut Slim was a hobo who rode the rails for 44 years. He wasn’t around to help his daughters grow up, but he gave them his sense of wanderlust and the gift of the hobo family.
His daughter, Connecticut Shorty, didn’t understand the lure of the rails until she started hopping the trains herself. She was in her 40s when she caught her first train from Dunsmuir, California, to Roseville, the legendary rail yard outside of Sacramento, California. A veteran hobo named Road Hog USA showed her the ropes. She learned how to hide from the bulls (train yard cops), where trains stop or slow down so she could hop on, what kinds of trains to look for, and what to put in her pack.
Her older sister, New York Maggie, caught the bug also and together they sold their homes and all their possessions except for a few pictures and prized possessions. Not down on their luck by any means, Connecticut Shorty was a senior administrator for an insurance company for nearly 30 years and New York Maggie was a paralegal for 20 years. Together, they recently bought an older RV and traveled the country, a step up from the hobo life but still giving in to the wanderlust.
For the past 15 years they have been traveling to Britt, Iowa, where the National Hobo Convention is held annually on the second weekend in August. It was first devised as a way to put Britt on the map and has evolved into the longest running hobo gathering of its kind. They serve Mulligan Stew, a hobo’s main dish, which contains whatever they have to throw in. Ladies of the town host a tea party and they elect a hobo king and queen. Part of the town cemetery is reserved as the final resting place for hobos. Some day, if the sisters decide to put down permanent roots again, they are leaning to calling Britt home. Connecticut Slim is buried there.
Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang, spent 30 days in jail for vagrancy after train hopping to Niagara Falls in the 1890s. Another seasoned hobo went in search of work and ended up riding the rails and seeing the country for 25 years.
The die-hard hobo lifers dislike the train hoppers. Full time hobos have chosen their lifestyle and are proud of how they live. Part-timers and train hoppers give true hobos a bad rep!
I remember my mother telling stories of hobos when she was growing up in the 1930s. “There were many times that a hobo would knock on our door and ask politely if we had any extra food. Usually, we would take whatever we had and make up some sandwiches while they waited outside. There was never any trouble.”
Although the number of hobos riding the rails today have dwindled, there are still some out there. Some have filtered back into society and some just love the carefree lifestyle. As one former hobo summed it up, “When I’m sitting at my desk, wondering how my life got so dull, I like to think back to an afternoon, sitting in an open boxcar in Utah with a stack of sheet metal clanging beneath me, basking in the sun, smoking a cigar and gazing at the far horizon.”
You have to admit, there is a pull there that, even though just in our dreams, tugs at all of our hearts for just a fleeting moment.
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