I’ve been working my way through the road trip books listed in an article in The Guardian titled On the Road: Mapping the Great Road Trips of American Literature by Marta Bausells. The latest is Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes by Ted Conover.
I grew up not far from Britt, Iowa, the home of the annual National Hobo Convention. I was curious but my family never did go to it. The Hobo culture was made to sound glamorous, a fallacy that Conover effectively debunks in his book.
Growing up, my family lived beside a railroad track, and often heard stories of hoboes going through town (Algona, Iowa.) Sometimes we’d see what we kids thought was evidence of a camp near the tracks. There were even rumors of a hobo that spent a lot of time in Algona by the name of Walkin’ Joe. An Algona native even wrote a book about him: Walkin’ Joe and the Midnight Marauders: A Memoir by Dennis Waller. It was an interesting read, mostly because it was about my home town.
Conover wrote this book about his experience in the summer of 1980. As a young anthropology student, he wanted to understand first hand what life was like as a hobo. At the time, there were still hoboes catching train cars, but those numbers have dwindled significantly, due in part to improved railroad technology and greater enforcement of policies.
Even in the hobo culture, there was a hierarchy: Hoboes at the top, tramps next, bums last. A hobo is a migratory worker or homeless vagabond; a tramp works only when forced to, and a bum doesn’t work at all. Racism reigns here as well: whites don’t associate with blacks, and they all hate Mexicans (true hoboes because of their migratory status.) Most are male, but there are a few, very few, women who usually are “married” to a male for protection.
Hoboes came from all walks of life. Some just couldn’t function in an ordered society, holding jobs, staying married. This could be due to mental health issues or PTSD for return veterans, not well recognized at the time.
There might be friendships, but usually not long lived, for the same reasons as listed above. Trust was often betrayed. Food, clothing, all of one’s possessions could be stolen by your “friend” as you were sleeping. Life on the road was always lonely and always unsafe. You might be tormented by children when you just wanted to rest a while; you might be hassled by the railroad “bulls” and by local law enforcement; you would probably be treated as less than human by storekeepers and mission staff (who’ve lost sight of the original meaning of the word charity – love.)
Conover took some photos while riding the rails, but they weren’t in the paperback book that I read. Fortunately, they are on the website, and they do help to bring the story alive. The people depicted in the photos don’t look a whole lot different from many you might see on the street, if you look at them.