Getting into training has a whole different connotation for the members of the National Hobo Association. We're talking jumping freights here -- an illegal but highly esteemed activity for a few adventurous types. After all, in an age where you can go anywhere from Nepal to the Australian outback on a two-week, all-comforts-provided package tour, hoboing is solitary, inexpensive, exciting and dangerous. Half the fun is thinking about it.
Or maybe that's all the fun. The Los Angeles association, which includes about 2,000 subscribers to its Hobo Times newsletter, has three types of members, says founder Bobb Hopkins: "Old-timers who were hobos during the Depression, younger people who are flirting with the idea, and women who remember hobos coming up to the back door for a handout when they were children."
Hopkins himself belongs to a different breed. He says he's been riding the rails for more than a decade now. An actor -- he acquired his odd first name to distinguish himself from the Robert James Hopkins who was already in the Screen Actors Guild -- he grabbed his first train when he couldn't afford any other method of getting to Boston for his grandfather's 90th birthday.
"I went coast to coast on 13 different trains," he says. "The cast of colorful characters was so numerous and their philosophy so off-the-wall that I never heard the same story twice. And then there was the uncluttered beauty of America -- the same way that the people who first went across the country saw it."
Hobos have been around for more than a century, although their heyday ended with World War II. The first 'bos were unemployed Civil War vets who worked their way westward. The ones who liked the nomadic life kept at it. One theory is that the word "hobo" comes from "ho! beau!", an ironic greeting between vagrants. This fits in nicely with the romantic theory that the hobo life, while undeniably harsh, has the allure of freedom and truth.
The Hobo Times is a modest newsletter that seeks to benefit from these associations. The most recent issue contains several letters from old-time 'bos, a list of Sunbelt Specials (routes that can be traveled in the chill of winter), a crossword, some Vagabond Verses, and brief profiles of three spots where hobos wait to catch trains. It's informal in attitude, amateurish in production and seductive in appeal to the deskbound.
"We're finding through the association that some people have more than adequate financial ability but choose to ride the rails for the adventure of it," says Garth Bishop, the newsletter publisher. "There's a lot of people facing ennui or boredom or lives of quiet desperation. This is a way of breaking out and finding adventure in a world where there's not that many opportunities left."
Bishop isn't one of them. "My father was in the railroads, but I'm not an actual freight-hopper myself. I'm someone who enjoys the hobo adventure but has not actually ridden the rails." For one thing, he says, it sounds painful. "Bobb tells me it's like riding a roller coaster. I imagine doing that for six or eight hours straight can be tough on your aches and pains."
Hopkins agrees that "we're just documenting a reality that's out there. I don't project many people really doing this. It's a vicarious thrill. I don't see a need for BMW parking at the rail yard." And because of the illegality of the whole enterprise, "we're not encouraging people to go out and ride the rails. We're encouraging them to find the hobo trails" -- certain routes taken by the 'bos that can be paralleled by car. These are nearly always in the West, which has the wide-open spaces to make hoboing practical. Jumping freights is generally unknown and even more difficult in the Northeast.
Are yuppie 'bos doing something akin to slumming -- kind of like spending a night or two in a homeless shelter for the experience, knowing you have your own bed to go back to? Responds Bishop: "You wouldn't call someone camping out in the woods slumming, even if he could afford a motel. What's the difference between that and hoboing? ... And there's a distinction between hobos and bums, tramps and the homeless. A hobo is someone who's willing to work, but wants to travel, too."
While the primary attraction of hitting the freights is the opportunity to step back in time -- to see some sights and have an adventure while doing it -- there's also the likelihood of meeting some examples of the real thing. This can be a mixed blessing. Ted Conover, in his 1981 book Rolling Nowhere -- an engaging first-person account -- identifies the 'bo as someone whom most find romantic from a distance but, if he knocked on the door of their house, they wouldn't let in.
Hopkins, while noting there are unsavory characters out there, takes a kindlier view. Once, he was out in the middle of the desert with another hobo. A freight carrying automobiles came through, and the two sprinted for it. The other 'bo climbed up next to a Cadillac, reached underneath for the key, got in the car and turned on the engine.
"He put on the air conditioning, tuned the radio, tilted the seat back, and turned on the windshield wiper to get a better view," recalls Hopkins. "He then turned to me and said, 'I got no money or license, laddie, but I'm still driving a brand-new Caddie.' "