A man needed a job but none were available locally. So he hopped a train and went in search of work. No one is quite sure where the term, hobo, comes from but regardless it first appeared around 1890. During hard economic times like The Great Depression of the 1930s and on other occasions as well men rode the rails from one place to another in search of gainful employment. They’d make camps along the way often in secluded and wooded areas where they’d hopefully be left alone. Maybe scrounge up a meal, a cup of coffee from some well-used grounds, a bath in a nearby stream, and then a night sleeping on a blanket carried over their backs. It was a hard life though as often happens some things get romanticized. I never talked to a hobo but I sure saw them when I was a kid. You see, we lived a block and a half from the railroad tracks. We weren’t poor but neither were we wealthy. My dad was a bookkeeper at a gravel yard and we lived in a part of town surrounded by filling stations, beer joints and a couple of cotton gins. I’ve written before that next door was a blacksmith shop and I picked up a few skills watching the smiths ply their trade. A quarter mile away was a stand of thick brush. My buddy Harry Cummings (who lived next to one of the beer joints) and I would venture out to the brush to hunt pigeons, grackles, and maybe spear a fish at a stream that fed into the town’s water pond. Along the way, we’d pass the hobo camp. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to get so close but both Harry and I were of the Huckleberry Finn mold with dads that didn’t take all that much interest in what we were up to or where we were going. So be it. We had great times exploring and luckily never got into any trouble. Oftentimes when we crossed the tracks en route to the woods we’d spot a group of hobos at the camp. But when the camp was vacant we’d drift over that way to inspect the place. You can learn a lot about bushcraft and survival by examining a hobo camp—that’s if you’re an analytical sort, observant and curious. Take cooking utensils for example. A 15 ounce tin can makes an excellent coffee cup. And an eight ounce can is perfect for backpacking if you plan on going light. A one pound coffee canister makes a perfect billycan or a makeshift stove. You can make a tent using a painter’s drop cloth. The camp was never trashed up but things got discarded and Harry and I would check to see what the hobos were using. Once Harry found a pocketknife but when he opened it one blade was missing and the other was broken. Another time we found a slingshot made from a mesquite branch and an inner tube. I was already a dedicated slingshot user but since my uncle was a medical technologist I obtained surgical tubing (We were way ahead of our time) for my slingshot bands. Now and then we’d find the remains of somebody’s rabbit. Maybe the slingshot we found was accidently left behind when the midnight freighter trudged through going west and the owner scrounged around for his shooter but couldn’t find it and was left no choice but to jump onboard and leave his getter behind. Who knows?
The interesting thing about a hobo camp is you realize just what’s needed and what’s superfluous. I’ve walked trails where people come along reeking of the local REI store. “I’m carrying my titanium cup and my modular space-age tent, my beryllium collapsible walking cane replete with cellphone, GPS and miniature television. Did I tell you about my hammock? It’s made of a new hyper-catatonic-foam gel that radiates heat up from the ground and at the same time circulates cold air over the top. Only four hundred and fifty dollars plus tax. Oh yes, allow me to show you my flashlight. This thing is awesome. It actually has a memory device that records what you just observed a minute ago in case you want to relive the moment and it was on sale for three hundred and thirty…..”
I get a kick out of the YouTube videos where people take a Heineken beer can and make a stove or find an empty can of green beans and use it for their coffee cup. And how about the person who instead of watching Dual Superegos or Man Listening to Wife Complain or Naked and Starving instead goes out into the backyard and carves a kuksa. Some of those ladies and gentlemen are real artists. Thank you for sharing by the way.
Yes, that’s what those hobos taught me all those many years ago. May their trails have been quiet and their camps nicely hidden. Well of course, except for those two kids who looked like they were snooping around. I can assure you they weren’t. They were just searching for new places to hunt and fish.