That lonesome whistle calls

 Hobo dreams of following train rails still beckon some Cedar Valley residents

“Nothing can prepare you for hopping your first freight train. The ground vibrates, you hear that lonesome whistle blow, and a wall of noise hits you like a tidal wave: groaning, screeching cars, steel wheels scraping against tracks, your partner yelling in your ear, ‘There’s your car, go for it!’” Frederic Larson said in explanation of a chronicle of photos explaining the life of a train-hopping vagrant.

Some people are born to travel and not have to worry about anything more than what their next meals are going to be and how to avoid the “feds.” Freighthopping is associated mostly with the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it spans much farther earlier, and after.

There are still people today who choose the vagrant life over the comforts and mundaneness of “civilization.” Take Ernest Hemingway, for a great example, who hopped a freight in 1916 on his way to Walloon Lake in Michigan.

Well, it’s catching on again, and many people disdainfully shrug it off as a “hipster fad.” Well, Ryan Piper, a janitor at Waterloo Elementary School, as well as my dad, explains it like this: “… In recent times the idea, the label of ‘hobo’ is pretty much absent from this culture and really is a culture itself; separate from mainstream culture of computers, careers, malls, supermarkets and the illusion of comfortability: of a comfortable life. A comfortable life is nothing but a convenient lie.”

He continued, “In order to achieve that ‘comfortable lifestyle,’ you have to commit yourself to a master and take orders from our civilization, which isn’t all that civilized of a culture to begin with. Killing, torturing and bombing other humans in the name of safety and progress are not the endeavors of a civilized culture, but of a barbaric one. These ‘hoboes’ of the past have become just train-hoppers. Kids 16 to 30 who want to see the world for what it really is and want no part of the savage culture we live in.”

This may sound hateful or dissenting, but almost all train-hoppers are peaceful. They just have alternate views on the world than the vast majority.

The town of Britt, Iowa, deemed the national hobo capitol, hosts a National Hobo Convention, and on Britt’s website, they explain it like this: “Hoboes they’re called, a word with as many possible origins as there are reasons to join the fraternity. The Latin words homo bonus mean ‘good man’ and could have been coined to make the term hobo. Some say that soldiers returning from the Civil War would be asked where they were headed and they replied, ‘homeward bound.’ Migratory agricultural workers of the 18th century were referred to as ‘hoe boys,’ and since hoboes worked as they traveled, it was concluded they were the original ‘boes. Ask a veteran hobo at a convention jungle what a hobo is, and you’ll receive a definite answer. The hobo is a migratory worker, some with a special skill or trade, others ready to work at any task, but always willing to work to make his way.”

But there are other general categories of hoboes. Some are nice, others are not. Here’s how one man explains it: “It’s more of a celebration of the bygone era. Respect the old-timers that did the ‘real’ hoboing back in the ‘20s and ‘30s. There are three classifications: the hobo, who rides trains to get from town to town looking for work, for some pay. Then there are the ‘tramps’ who ride from town to town panhandling, begging for money and food or taking a job if begging wasn’t fruitful. And then there’s your typical bum. They dig through trashes, steal stuff, beg, but never work. These are your drunk bums in the movies.”

Unfortunately, the tragedies of 9-11 affected train-hoppers too. After that tragic day the rails became heavily guarded by “bulls” or the track’s own police force. They are most frequent near the bigger train stations, which train-hoppers try to avoid, but bulls cause these vagrants trouble. Train-hopping is illegal, but many hoboes laugh at that because there are two ways they can be punished: a fine in the hundreds of dollars, which they will never pay off, or 30 days in jail, which is a good thing for hoboes because they get free, safe housing and food.

Kenneth Lyftogt, a professor at UNI, wrote a book about his experiencing the vagrant life, called ‘Road Freaks of Trans-Amerika.’ It goes through his experiences and who he met, encounters with bulls and other “authorities” of the railways. He also wrote books about the Civil War and Iowans who fought with the North.

The life of a hobo is not shameful; it’s just different from ours. Some people want to live free of care and the unending list of responsibilities, and some live life according to the social norms of school, jobs, money and houses.

Personally, I like the idea and romanticism of life on the road, carefree except for finding food and a safe place to sleep. It’s the gritty, tough life this nation was born on.


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