By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Train-hopping is uncomfortable and dangerous enough that it's rarely just a recreational activity: Most of the yuppie hobos are seriously obsessed. They can talk trains for hours, which is good, because the tramps and the more experienced crusties and hippies can as well, so everyone gets along, more or less. And the yuppie hobos often carry espresso pots, which everyone appreciates.
OUR FIRST MORNING IN DUNSMUIR, the espresso pots have not yet emerged from the rucksacks, so we head into town for eggs and bacon. On our way back, a mopey young man who calls himself Papa Dalek tells us that Siskiyou County sheriff's deputies have shown up at the campsite and, with shaky legal reasoning, ordered everyone to clear out. People were trespassing on private land, they were drinking in public, it didn't matter what they were doing, they had to leave.
At a bend in the tracks, we meet Rocco and Ben, who are waiting there to give new arrivals the options. The old-timers are heading off to a place called Black Butte, they tell us, about a 15-minute drive away. The rest are camping at another site downriver, a little farther from town and, we hope, from the consciousness of the sheriffs.
We head for the latter, a high, sloping field on the other side of the tracks, thick with poison oak. It's not long before Ben and Rocco turn up -- they were just chased off by four sheriffs toting shotguns and a dog. Eight kids from Santa Cruz, their faces still blackened with freight-train grit, arrive looking shaken -- they too were greeted by the sheriff's impromptu welcoming committee. Later, another group of Santa Cruzians who left their packs at the original camp and hiked off to the waterfall upstream to frolic and bathe will return and find the site abandoned, their packs emptied and the contents strewn about the woods. They will find their sleeping bags hanging from trees, bags of food and spices emptied in the dirt, $20 of food stamps torn apart. A tall, skinny 21-year-old with short blond hair who goes by Buffalo Alice will find "all my personal possessions -- passport, pictures, letters, everything -- scattered and in the bushes." An earnest, bearded substitute teacher named Doug (hobo name: D-Rail) will search for one of his boots but never find it. Though no one will have seen the culprits, no one will doubt their identities.
NOR DOES ANYONE WANT TO LET THE police spoil a good time, so once the sun goes down and the lentils are gone, the beer starts flowing. A few Santa Cruz kids break out guitars and begin singing songs about friendship, multinational corporations and pollution. Rocco tells me about his father, who was once in the military, assigned to some highly secret unit trained to kill people quietly in foreign lands. Now he's a cop, and sounds like a real piece of work. Rocco's clearly pretty broken up over the guy. He's also concerned about my motivations, concerned I'll write something sensationalistic and exploitative. He says he doesn't think society deserves to know about this world, that people haven't earned it. Maybe he's an elitist asshole to think that, he says, but that's how he feels.
Some kids from Portland start playing old bluegrassy hobo favorites on fiddle and guitar, and as I retreat to my sleeping bag I hear the whoops and stomping feet of the dancing pixies drifting up through the trees. Lying there in the dark, I consider what Rocco has said, what everyone else has told me, and I understand that this is about community, about finding a group of like-minded folks outside the usual channels, but also about creating a realm of skill, of secret knowledge, virtue and style, that the scared and intolerant residents of comfortable straight society cannot touch or understand. And Rocco does not want them to understand. They have their own culture, and it's because that culture is so insipid and corrupt that he sleeps out of doors. Hobohemia, to borrow a term coined by the anarchist Ben Reitman in the '30s, is a separate world, and defiantly so. It has its own rules and rewards, even if the rules are rarely followed and the rewards frequently fail to materialize. It's a secondary track off the American mainline in which courage and independence still matter, in which freedom is not abstract but palpable, and easily distinguishable from its opposites -- work, stasis, jail.
This is true for the idealistic Santa Cruz kids as much as it is for homeless punks like Rocco, though for many of the former the risks are smaller. And it's certainly true for the old tramps. All share a disappointment, to varying degrees and in divergent ways, a nostalgia for an America that's failed to become, the one we were promised in grade school, allegedly passed down to us by vision-rattled heretics and daring claustrophobes, an America already lost by the time Whitman and Thoreau claimed to have found it, still a sustaining memory for the Beats and the hippies and even the fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone punk rockers.