The Propaganda of It All
Summer fades to fall and an exodus is occurring. Flagstaff’s homeless population is decreasing rapidly as they search for warmer climates across the United States. Within this populace group there is a unique sect of travelers know to many as hobos. The name hobo originated during the birth of the railroad when migrant workers called hoe-boys would ride the trains looking for work. Eventually “hoe-boys” was shortened to “hobos,” the term now used frequently and loosely to describe train-hoppers today.
Flagstaff has a longstanding history with the railroad. Since the first train chugged its way through town it has brought commerce as well travelers who originally used Flagstaff as the gateway to the Grand Canyon. Modern train-hoppers continue to the train to access Flagstaff and its amenities today.
One such modern-day hobo, who goes by the name of Jime Cracker, 25, arrived in Flagstaff from Texas nearly a year ago. With help from a friend Jime managed to navigate the rails in Texas and eventually found his way to Arizona. “I was living in San Antonio,” Jime explains. “I left San Antonio to go to Austin because I just wanted to keep on going…I like to travel around, I’ve been traveling since 19, now I’m 25.”
Once he arrived in Austin, Jime lived under a bridge and began researching the many ways of hopping trains. It was a popular topic among many of the travelers that he spent time with. “[I] got all amped on the propaganda of it,” he states, reminiscing over his influences. “When ever I first came down here, I hopped a train from Austin to Tuscon, [then] hitchhiked from Tuscon to Flagstaff.” While in Flagstaff, Jime had been playing music with a band as well as on the streets trying to make money to buy a ticket to Colorado. His plan was to meet up with one of his friends to play music up there. It’s unknown whether he was successful in his travels and endeavors.
When asked about his concerns for Colorado’s known cold winters, he just shrugged. “A lot of people say I should head west, you know, go to California, San Francisco, but out there…there’s everybody out there trying to do the same thing. I’m trying to hit more isolated ares and trying to get more of a selective audience.”
Though Jime was busy trying to catch a train northeast, Coyote, 21, another visiting traveler, was more concerned with making his way south, to Phoenix, for the winter. Coyote had had an abnormal childhood, being raised by his father in the forests of Maine. “I’ve never been to school a day in my life,” he said. “I grew up in the woods…[we] never had electricity or running water.”
Although he didn’t hop his first train until he was 20, Coyote has been across the United States and has gained quite a bit of experience and knowledge when it comes to being a railfan. He even has taken to toting his pit bull, Hazel, around with him. “I rode one train out of Dunsmuir and I spent ten hours in the blazing hot sun,” he remembers. During this time he had Hazel and three of her puppies with him. He had a road kid with him, whom is a sort of apprentice and generally new to train hopping. In this process, the road kid needs to board the train first and then Coyote hands Hazel up by her harness and then pulls himself up. All of this is done “on the fly” (which is a moving train) and requires a lot of athleticism. “[You can get from] one side of the country to the other in a week,” Coyote states, “if you know what you’re doing.”
Matt, 29, a retired train hopper who resides in Flagstaff, shares many of the same views that Coyote does. “If you know what you’re doing, you can get around much more efficiently,” he said. “People don’t want to pick you up when you’re weird looking…I can get around a lot faster on trains.” In typical hobo fashion, they wear dirty coats, bandannas and boots and they usually travel with a large bag containing their belongings. (In Coyote’s case, he has an animal with him, which potentially makes it much more difficult to hitchhike.) The dirtier the better, according to old school railfan rules.
Matt had traveled for 10 years as a train hopper and has seen his fair share of new rail dogs; he even introduced a few to their first train. “People overly romanticize this shit…for the most part it’s shitty, it’s cold and it’s dirty, and it’s not fun,” he says. This harsh experience is what many first time train hoppers encounter during their maiden voyage and Matt relishes in that fact. Anything to get them away from that life is better for them, in his opinion. “Between whether it’s a life or a lifestyle, for me it was a life because I didn’t have much of a choice,” he reveals about his childhood. He had been a runaway from home at 15 and had been traveling until the last few years. He now has a child and a job, a car and a home – a complete change from his previous life.
Another thing many people don’t realize is that when you travel in that type of fashion, you do not have the law on your side in terms of protection – you are on your own. Being on your own means that you take care of yourself and you handle your own problems. These are the foundations of frontier justice and for these vagrants it involves interpreting the laws as they see fit on a daily basis.
“It’s all collective knowledge that’s passed down and it’s happily shared,” Matt explains.“You know, the thing that I find valuable is to teach people that are younger [to] pass down the code of the road…it’s the right way to treat people.”
In terms of top priority of what not to do, you do not steal from another traveler. “Anyone who will steal from a traveling kid, or even a home-bum, is fucked up,” Coyote interjects as Matt explains the frontier justice for tramps.
“You could be dealt with in many ways, but in a fair way,” Matt states. “The justice in many of my circles is very true – it’s not unfair, it’s not unjust, it’s not cruel…it’s something that’s deserved.” Another major thing you never do is rape another person. This is a general rule for humankind but when it comes to tramps and their frequent exposure to lawlessness, protection of yourself and those they consider friends takes priority and consequences may be even more severe.
“One dude I killed [because] he raped my home-girl,” Coyote proclaimed. Not everyone would deal with this situation the same way Coyote did, but these are the dangers you face when you choose this type of life. When later questioned about this particular incidence, he would not speak further. There are some secrets to train riding that you just don’t share.
The problem is many tend to generalize these people into one category (i.e. “lazy bums”) where there is in fact a certain hobo hierarchy. Each person is significantly different than the other and they all came to hopping trains and traveling in a different way. This isn’t an easy life and some people get stuck doing it forever, which has nothing to do with them being indolent. They have a certain wanderlust, a desire to travel and be away from the normal because they are uncomfortable with anything else. They generally do not partake in the nonessential amenities of modern life. They suffer harsh weather, hunger and poverty, squalid conditions and are shunned by the general public. It’s important to remember that they are people, even though they are unlike everyone else. Most people consider certain things essential to life when they really aren’t, and these travelers show us that.
Being a mother is not easy, and for Helene Simone this is a painfully true fact. In addition to being a working single mother out of Scottsdale, Arizona, Helene is also the sole parent of a vagrant train hopper. Her son, Dandelion**, was once a student at Northern Arizona University and on his way to being a successful young adult. Now Helene spends her days worrying about Dandelion and his well being as he travels across the country by train, bike and foot.
“I worry about him all the time. Does he have enough to eat, to drink, is he warm enough, is he cool enough, is he sick, where is he sleeping, where is he?” These are the questions Helene faces every day as she waits for a call or an E-mail – any sign of life from her son.
Somewhere in the middle of his sophomore year, Dandelion decided that he needed to pursue a different path. “[It was] a desire to heal myself, for my mind to be satisfied,” Dandelion remarks as he makes an effort to explain why he lives the way he does. He had originally began his travels when he received word that he was being offered a scholarship in Oregon. He decided that he would ride his bike to his new school and attempt to make a summer trip out of it; but upon his arrival he found out the scholarship had fallen through.
“The point was I thought I had a scholarship…they changed the terms of the scholarship so I didn’t have it,” said Dandelion as he looks out from the stained bandanna covering his face, “I was really scared about that because you’re, like, supposed to go to school right? That’s what everyone wants you to do.”
The loss of the scholarship was a huge blow, and with no school to keep him settled he decided to cut his losses and begin traveling. Dandelion made his way back to Arizona, mainly to visit friends and family before he left for Pennsylvania. He planned to create a homestead of his own once he arrived on the east coast in a home his grandmother had previously owned; this was another plan that would sadly not come to fruition.
**requested name change
When Dandelion first approached Helene about his plans they were understandably met with anxiety and concern. Her son was suggesting that he wanted to live off the grid and had a desire to be dirty, cold and, at times, incredibly unsafe.
“I wasn’t very happy about it, but I didn’t really understand what he was about to do. He left our house in February of 2010 with some friends that he met in Portland. They traveled from Phoenix to Vermont,” recalls Helene. “He has been doing it ever since.”
Despite his mother’s concerns for his safety, Dandelion has continued to travel. As a person he opposes most modern amenities, such as a cell phones, and any real use of money. This has stirred a great deal of controversy between him and his mother. He takes a lot of pride in his Freegan lifestyle and is not opposed to expressing how angry he is with the world and their wastefulness.
“I asked [Dandelion] to always carry a cell phone, even though he doesn’t believe in them, just so we can stay in contact. Last November we went without speaking for three weeks, it was the most difficult time I have ever been through. I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know where to begin, he was traveling through so many towns,” Helene said. “I didn’t know if he had his identification on him, if something did happen would the hospital or police be able to contact me? I was about to contact the FBI, for advice, when he finally called. I can’t begin to express my relief then anger.”
Helene continues to be strong while Dandelion is out traveling the country but on the rare occasion he makes it home, there is a significant amount of anxiety attached to his arrival. His desire to promote a healthy communication between humans and the planet spills over into his home life and the precious time he has to spend with his family.
“When he [Dandelion] is home, he expects us to not watch TV, go to movies, or do anything that costs money. I try to explain to him that he is choosing this lifestyle, not us. He tries to preach to us about how we’re wasting our lives…he tries to tell his brother the same thing about his car, video games, cell phone, and even his job!” Helene exclaims.
On his quest to live a simpler life, separated from the rest of society, Dandelion eventually made it to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, due to legal issues, the renters of his grandmother’s home refused to vacate and any chance of him starting his homestead was lost. Realizing that this was the case he decided to start making his way south; winter was coming and cold weather was beginning to set in.
“I was in Allentown, Pennsylvania because I heard there was a train that made a straight shot to Louisiana. It took me three weeks to find that train, it was hell, it was raining on me and I was shivering every night,” recalls Dandelion as he strokes his lengthy beard. “I would sleep in a trailer every night and wake up in the morning, and walk a couple miles and, like, see if my train showed up and it never did. Then I finally got one.”
Dandelion speaks about moments like this with a particular fondness, the agony of the moment and then the relief for its eventual outcome are displayed clearly on his face. It is these very stories, however, that terrify Helene. The thought of her son suffering in such a way is very difficult for her to cope with.
“It was really hard at first,” she said. “Now I just pray for him even more than I used to. He is choosing to do this, and there is nothing I can do about it. I was a nervous wreck and making myself sick but, I learned that it doesn’t help anything. I have to be OK with this, or at least accept it.”
Every culture has its own language, like a subtext. Most of the train hoppers in the United States speak English but certain words don’t always mean the same thing as you move from group to group or across states. This same theory of subtext applies to train hoppers – they speak English but the words they use mean something entirely different than the traditional definition. A person who is not familiar with the hobo lifestyle would be hard pressed to understand it all. It is very important to know what these words mean and how they differ from the traditional definition when you are dealing with these type of travelers as it could, in some instances, be a life or death difference. Some of the words listed below are actual definitions and others are slang terms and both versions are important for interpretation and understanding. You should also note that in certain instances or locations, a term can have dual meanings. These are a few terms that are interestingly actually used by train hoppers:
- on the fly: jumping on a moving train
- hop out: a place where the train stops long enough to get off
- hot shots (red ball run): a train usually carrying high profile materials or perishables and has first priority over rails, usually travels the fastest
- jungle: a hobo village, usually close to the tracks
- jungle buzzard: a hobo that begs around jungles
- banjo: a short-handed shovel
- benny: an overcoat; a vest used to be referred to as a “ben”
- bull: a security guard who usually escort hobos straight to jail
- bindle stiff: a hobo who steals another hobo’s pack
- black snake: a coal train
- captain: hobo salutation for the head man or big shot
- con: a con is a tubercular person; the con is the conductor on a train; an ex-con is a former convict
- cut-out: to cut out freight cars at their intended destination
- dangler: a person who rides suspended on rods, trucks, or brake beams of cars
- dead soldier: an empty whiskey bottle lying beside the road
- deck ‘em: to ride the top of a passenger train
- decked rattler: a person who rides on top of a train
- flintstone kids: the latest generation of hobos
- glyphs: a series of messages or graffiti that pass along messages to other hobos
- grease the track: jumping in front of a train
- mooching: a low form of begging
- road kid: the boy apprentice among the hobos
- hobo: a migratory worker, normally unskilled; this is linked back to the birth of the railroad
- hot yard: a train yard patrolled by unfriendly bulls
- urban underbrush: a homeless population, street people
- winoes: those who drink the dago red wine of California
- wanderlust: an urge to travel
- yahoo: a hoosier who has no apologies for his ignorance
Though many of these terms seem somewhat silly, they are actually used quite frequently in the hobo world. If you happen to be conversing with one of these travelers, you may notice their tendency to throw out a few of these expressions as if they are no different than the typical vocabulary used by everyone else. However, you also should keep in mind that this is not something limited to hobo society and that there is different slang terminology across the country, and especially around the world. It varies based on location, for example east coast and west coast. Think about it. Knowledge of slang terms can be extremely useful in keeping out of trouble.
Any seasoned train hopper has a list of items they choose to travel with and most travel light. This brings to mind a good question: what exactly do you bring with you when you go? How do you pack one bag that contains your entire life? Abbie, a train hopper out of the northwest region of the United States suggests that it is as hard as it seems to pack your bags, especially because there is a clash between generations in the hopping world.
“My biggest fear was getting fucked with over how clean my bandanna was, the stereotypical hoppers are all about wearing Carhartt overalls with a dirty rag and a green backpack; they think if you don’t look like that then you aren’t a true hopper,” said Abbie. Whether you are “old school” or “new school” there is a sense that what you bring and what you wear is important.
The most important item you can have as a train rider is most definitely a backpack. It holds your life together in a sense. A good pack can mean different things to different people, and even then each type of bag has its pros and cons. One type of bag is known as the “Alice Pack.” It is a more traditional style pack, light weight, durable, roomy, and of course camouflage. There is, however, one major issue with the Alice Pack – it isn’t waterproof.
Waterproofing is a very important aspect in choosing a bag because you are often going to be outside with minimal shelter. Guaranteed inclement weather will happen at some point. Alice Packs are commonly found at Army Surplus stores and are relatively cheap – another benefit for vagrants.
Examples of impractical bags are easy to come by; the most commonly agreed upon useless bag is the Duffel bag. It is simply not suitable to carry a duffel bag when you are traveling in the fashion that train hoppers do. They are heavy, uncomfortable on your shoulders and of course way too big for the lack of accommodations that hobos have to deal with. Unfortunately, the size of this bag is its biggest draw – a bigger bag means you can bring more gear. Running along side a train with a huge bag lacks practicality and safety, though trying to board a moving train isn’t safety at its finest example either.
Although what you store your gear in is fairly important, what you actually put in the bag is crucial to surviving as a vagrant. Cold weather gear like pants, coats, long johns, hats, and bandannas are top priority for most. Any experienced train hopper will tell you it is almost always cold at some point and when you are hot, wearing less clothing is easy.
It is also a good idea to include a small sewing kit in your pack. It makes repairing worn clothes much easier and the needles can also be quite useful beyond clothing repair. Old school train hoppers can be seen in a multitude of outfits, however, they will most likely have full body coverage, including a bandanna for their faces – guaranteed.
“It’s a blessing to have a bandanna, they are very useful and they keep your face warm,” said Dandelion**, 23, a train hopper that previously attended NAU. The new school kids are less organized in their outfits and they lack any desire to preserve the tradition of friendly train riding. “It’s just like any other scene; it’s all high school bullshit. You’ve got your old school and the new school. The new school kids are just fuck heads that just want to fuck with people; they just don’t give a fuck.”
Another part of keeping warm is directly related to rain gear; having at least a tarp as protection from getting wet is essential. Once you are wet there is no warming up. The tarp will act as minimal insulation and keep in body heat; it also makes an excellent barrier between a sleeping bag and wet ground. Sleeping outside is something that will happen far more often than not for most train hoppers, so preparing for that is a key when packing.
There are many different types of sleeping bags ranging in price and quality to choose from. The bottom line here is that if you don’t have at least a blanket at night you are going to be in for some very rough sleep, perhaps even permanent sleep.
A few things that are random odds and ends that might be worth throwing in your pack, mainly for convenience and safety include but is not limited to: a flashlight, which will always be helpful at night, especially when looking for a place to sleep or navigating forested areas; a small first aid kit is a great idea too because you really can never be too safe with this type of life. Also, for all the ladies thinking of hopping, it is important to remember that time of the month. There are several suggestions about how to deal with this particular issue so investigate all of your options prior to departure. Some are more gruesome than others.
**requested name change
With the many ways that someone may approach packing for a trip on a train, there is one major idea that should be at the center of planning: prepare for the worst possible conditions and you will survive anything. Traveling in this manner means you are going up against Mother Nature and all her wrath; being ready for any situation is always top priority.
“As a person who sleeps outside it is very important to pay attention to weather patterns,” Dandelion warned. “I was in Allentown, Pennsylvania because I heard there was a train that made a straight shot to Louisiana. It took me three weeks to find that train, it was hell, it was raining on me and I was shivering every night.”
These essentials and suggestions help travelers such as Dandelion survive. This is not an easy life and many who choose this path do not have another choice.