HOBO: free and fragile wanderer

The scent of independence and freedom evoked by Hobo, a myth dear to the U.S, has crossed borders for years. Literature is full of exciting and romantic stories that give this wanderer a somewhat idealized image… Let’s open the road book of these strange travelers.

[ The roots ]

It may be tempting to connect the hobo to the homeless of today. And some quickly compare him to the sad tramp spending his days begging…. Yet at the end of the 19th century he was only an itinerant worker, a seasonal moving according to the job sites where one would need his arms.

This word (probable contraction of Homeless Boy) appears only with industrialization, the railway and the economic crisis coming with the 20th century .Deprived of work and housing, pushed to leave to earn a living, the uprooted hobo becomes a “temporary resident” of the major stations where he illegally travels by freight trains, risking his life.

Quickly, half a million Americans launched on the roads entered the collective imaginary thanks to writers like Jack London and musicians like Woodie Guthrie. From autobiographical stories to songs, the image of the miserable hobo soon gives way to the romantic portrait of a freedom-loving backpacker who chooses a marginal life, Completely free, otherworldly, carried by a “pioneer” spirit. 

[ A true Hobo culture ]

Then, freedom seems to be the deep motivation of hoboes but dangers are numerous in of a life without markers. One should expect to be sometimes greeted by people with guns, know how to spot some aggressors wanderers, learn how to keep warm thanks to newspapers or avoid injuring oneself by jumping clandestinely in the trains. Soon, a few rules are needed (defense and systematic help to children, respect local laws, leave no waste on a bivouac, try to keep clean, do not take advantage of the weakness of another drifter, etc.)

A newspaper, the Hobo News, is occasionally published from 1913, in a slang specific to its readers (hobo slang). A code made of signs drawn on buildings along the way also allows them to exchange without crossing over the presence of a nasty dog, a barn where one can sleep, food offered for a job, friendly or armed residents, hard police controls, etc. Better still, a hobo guide entitled “Knights of the Roads” was published in 1947. Hobos even elect a king at national conventions held for nearly 30 years!

Thus, despite a will to live independently and according to personal own rules, hoboes had to organize, regulate somewhat their universe to be able to survive.

[ Knights of the Roads Vs HOBO 2.0 ]

The fantasized image of the hobo crossed the 20th century and aroused vocations. But today’s “vagabonds” do not live quite the same life as the previous ones. Hobo slang and codes have given way to information technology. Hoboes 2.0 use smartphones and laptops to find small jobs on the road, directions, hitchhike or find out what time the next freight train is going by… If the hobo naturally knew how to fit in different environments but was careful to remain discreet, the digital wanderer instinctively shares his daily life on social networks.

However, risks remain real in this adventurous way of life remain and the hoboes of today are still facing rail dangers, bad encounters, racketeering and hunger.. Living like a hobo is exposing oneself to loneliness, to know an exhaustion that one ignored, to meet all forms of violence from disrespect to aggression.

[ Freedom has a price ]

To be a hobo is to sail day by day between romanticism and survival. Freeing oneself from social constraints, distancing oneself from consumerism, enjoy the beauties of nature and enrich oneself with unexpected encounters is romantic and motivating. Having to walk in the mud, sleeping anywhere in all weather, finding food every day, never be able to really rest, it’s also surviving. More than just a journey, before trying a hobo life, you should think twice…

Photos: Alyssa Schukar & Lee Snyder

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