Death of the American Hobo (Documentary)

BEN: Your heart’s racing. Obviously, you’re hoping that
we wouldn’t get caught. -There’s something about the
hobo that has to be recorded in American history. BEN: The whole time we were
asking ourselves, what is the story here? What is the story of the hobo? What is a hobo? EMPRESS VAGABOND HOBO LUMP: It’s
not like people think. It’s hard, like, a hard life. -It’s speeding up! Go go go go go go! [APPLAUSE] AARON SMITH: This
is Britt, Iowa. It’s a small town of about
2,000 people out in the central Iowa cornfields. Over the last 112 years,
Britt has become known for one thing– an annual event called The
National Hobo Convention. There’s a hobo jungle, a hobo
museum, and a hobo cemetery. In 1900, Britt was just a newly
incorporated farming community in search of
migrant workers. The town founders enticed the
hobos to move their annual gathering from Chicago
to Britt. A tradition was born that still
brings self-described hobos to Britt every year
for one August weekend. HOBO MIKE: I’ve been traveling
trains since I was eight, and as a living since ’63. FROG: I started riding trains
when I was 20 years old. I’m 62 years old now. WRONG WAY: [LAUGHING] I’m Wrong Way. My nephew gave me that name
in the early ’70s. HOBO SPIKE: I started in 1952,
and I used a train to go from one place to another
to find work, and that’s how I survived. AARON SMITH: Most historians
agree the hobo emerged after the Civil War. Young men from both sides set
off across the country in search of work. By the turn of the century, the
hobo had become part of the fabric of America. But today, what was once a
substantial culture and way of life seems close
to extinction. We wanted to see what was left
of the hobo community, and we hoped we’d find it in Britt. In our minds, there was only one
way to travel to the hobo convention– the
freight train. We began our journey in Oakland,
California, hoping to travel 1,900 miles on the
rails in five days. AARON SMITH: These are the maps
that show the different rail lines all over California,
with like, special zoom-ins that show you all the
little small towns that you can stop in, different crew
changes, and this is something totally like, pre-iPhone. Now you can totally just
GPS your location. But these maps were really
helpful for a lot of people for a long time. Before a cohesive network of
roads was laid across America, the train was the fastest way
to get from place to place. Early hobos learned to ride by
swapping information with other travelers they met along
the way in hobo jungles. Chris is from Virginia and
spends his time hopping freight trains around the
country for pleasure. Our friend Ben lives in San
Francisco and had a couple weeks off work and decided
to join us. BEN: I wasn’t sure what
to expect of the trip. I knew it was going to be an
adventure, but I didn’t know exactly what the details
and the minutiae of the trip would hold. We woke up that morning, hoping
to catch a train. But we woke up, got ready,
there was no train there. And as more time passed, we
realized that the information we had gotten was probably
incorrect. AARON SMITH: We decided to wait
for another train, but a worker spotted us in the yard
and called the bull. Bull is an old-time term
for a railroad cop. It’s always been a cat and mouse
game between the hobo and the bull. Back in the day, bulls had
no problem killing hobos. Today, it’s a little
bit different. -We don’t really have
hobos anymore. -A transient, a hobo, vagrant,
is a guy who participates on the rail property– trespass, hopping
freights, yeah. -And a tramp, tramp’s in
the middle, right? -What did they call it? Tramps. I like that. That was back in the day, man. That was back in the day. Tramps, hobos. -When have you seen somebody
with a broomstick– -A tramp with a bag tied around
his shoulder, right? All right, guys. You know how to get out
of here, right? Don’t come back, all right? -Don’t come back. AARON SMITH: There seem
to be very few people hopping trains anymore. The hobo seems like
a museum piece. It’s like a joke, a word
nobody uses anymore. We didn’t want to go to the
Oakland jail, so we headed to Amtrak station with our tails
between our legs. We got out to the next crew
change stop on the line– Roseville, California. As soon as we got to Roseville,
there was a train getting ready to take off. Bad decision. A conductor saw us and we got
pulled off the train five miles outside of town. Uh, we just got pulled
off this train here. -Again. AARON SMITH: Yeah, yeah, it
was the second time today. Morale was low. Chris decided to set off on
his own to Denver, and we hopped a gambling bus
to Reno, Nevada. JACKSON FAGER: Now we’re in
Reno, Nevada, feeling a little better about our situation, and
hoping a train comes in the next couple hours. AARON SMITH: In the yard,
avoiding bulls and workers is one concern. Finding a rideable
car is another. Some of the wells on these
double-stacked cars have a cubby hole you can
ride in, but we weren’t seeing anything. The locomotive at the back of
the train, called the rear unit, seemed like
our best bet. But it’s risky. Workers periodically
check the cars. Lucky for us, the train
aired up, and we finally got on our way. We’re indoors, Amtrak style, and
we’ve got these big plushy seats, continuing along. We’re in the middle
of nowhere. For the first 100 miles,
there were no roads, no highways, no nothing. It was just desert as far
as the eye could see. It was beautiful. It was amazing to kind of get
that, see what that was like, vast expanses of nature. MEDICINE MAN: Now, everybody
thinks that the real hobo life is great, and it’s part of
wanderlust, but it’s not. The hobo life is a very,
very dangerous life. ADMAN: Sometimes painful, when
everything is all fucked up. You’re looking around, and
the bulls are out there. BEN: It felt like something out
of a special operations combat mission. We spotted a grain train. We knew that this was our
ticket out of Elko. Go go go go go! ADMAN: Riding on a flat car with
a full moon, and watching the [CLICKING NOISE] It’s a game that gives you
a fucking hard-on, I can tell you that. MINNESOTA JIM: Once you
do it, it’s with you the rest your life. You want to keep on the move. ADMAN: We see the world
in a different light. FROG: Always total, absolute
freedom, every day of my life. HOBO SPIKE: I don’t think
there’s any better way to see this great world of ours,
especially our nation, than from a freight train. AARON SMITH: We were crossing
the Great Salt Lake. The air was cool, and
the smell of sulfur rose from the water. It was the most undisturbed
stretch of natural beauty any of us had ever seen. The train forces you to slow
down and take it all in. All the frustrations and
anxieties of life back in civilization seemed
to disappear. HOBO SPIKE: When you’re on the
rails, if you don’t get caught, there’s no one to tell
you what to do, when to go to bed, when to get up,
what to eat. You’re on your own for 100%. AARON SMITH: Although we were
loving the ride, we were running out of water fast. After close to 24 hours on the
train, we were hungry, tired, dirty, and dehydrated. Well, our train stopped here
in Green River, Wyoming. It’s just a little railroad town
here in southern Wyoming. Just kind of roamed around and
got the vibe of the town. HOBO SPIKE: Then when you get
into a community, of course you have to fit into society,
so you have to abide by laws at that time. But if you’re by yourself,
you don’t have to pay attention to any law. AARON SMITH: So we walked over
this bridge that we’re sitting under now, probably about
110 degrees, dry heat. BEN: Just took a dip
in the Green River. After four or five days not
showering, it felt amazing. AARON SMITH: I’m gonna go
get in there right now. BEN: Our days have
been very full. We haven’t gotten
a lot of sleep. It’s been a few hours here, a
few hours there, trying to hop on trains successfully,
which we sometimes have, sometimes haven’t. We’re always on the move trying
to get to our end goal, which is Britt. AARON SMITH: No eastbound trains
were coming through. The sun went down, and we
enjoyed the solitude of the Wyoming landscape. Up to this point, we hadn’t seen
any other travelers on the trains. At the turn of the century,
there were around a million hobos on the rails. After the Depression,
that number doubled. Hobos had organized their own
union, and there were over 60 hobo colleges all across
the country. Boxcars were crowded
with riders. But something happened midway
through the century. Maybe it was American
prosperity. Where there were once millions
on the road, today, there’s probably a couple thousand. In my experience, you hardly
ever see anyone on the rails. The next morning, we decided to
try our luck in the Green River yard. -Hey, man. -How about yourself? -We’re hitchhiking. -Sorry, man. -Oh, really? -All right, thank you. -OK, man. -Thank you. AARON SMITH: After getting
warned by the cops to leave, we went back to our original
spot under the bridge. MEDICINE MAN: Today, you don’t
want to jump a train. It’s so dangerous, because the
old steam locomotives, it was chug, chug, chug, and pretty
soon, it was [ENGINE NOISE]. But today, in two minutes,
they’re flying. AARON SMITH: Our train stopped
in the middle of the yard, and we didn’t know why. AARON SMITH: An hour went by,
and it felt like an eternity. Each time you get on
the train, it’s a role of the die– a unique and unpredictable
experience. Perhaps that’s one
reason we do it– to gamble, to relinquish control
completely, and give ourselves to fate and luck. That was one of the faster
ones I’ve hopped on. You kind of had to run alongside
and kind of throw yourself up. But we all made it. Really grateful for that. The train out of Green River
had three units and looked like it would blaze across
Wyoming, but it puttered along the entire time at
35 miles an hour. It was time for a
change of plans. We arrived in Laramie, Wyoming
on Friday morning, with still 800 miles to go to
get to Britt. We were behind schedule,
and the convention had already started. We got off here in Laramie,
Wyoming because the train was so damn slow. Rent a cars were too expensive,
the Greyhound would take two days, so we ended
up getting this U-Haul. 12-hour drive ahead of us, and
we’ve gotta haul ass to Britt. In keeping with the spirit of
our trip, we picked up all the hitchhikers we saw
along the way. JOE YOUNG: Hey, what’s
up, guys? I’m Joe Young. I’ve been on the road for about
four or five years. The only way I get around
is on bicycle. AARON SMITH: We picked
up another guy. This is Alex. He’s coming from Colorado. ALEX: How’s it going? AARON SMITH: It didn’t take us
long to fill up the back of the U-Haul. After six grueling days
of traveling, we finally arrived in Brit. We were ready to hang out with
hundreds of hobos and swap stories about our travels
on the rails. -Hello! Happy Hobo Days! -Happy Hobo Days! -What we found instead was a
family-friendly event with a bunch of tourists. BEN: Just a number of
townspeople, big farm tractors, fancy or unusual cars,
and homemade floats. People– not hobos. -All aboard! -The hobo convention has gone
county fair mainstream. This wasn’t the wild, drunken,
turn of the century event that brought 1,800 hobos
here in the 1940s. -Well, we’re serving mulligan
stew, and it is what the traditional hobo
used to serve. Meat– we have pork in ours–
and then it has beef flavoring, and pork flavoring,
and then vegetables, barley, and rice in it, and
then water. -Every year for the past 112
years, the hobos have elected a hobo king and queen. -This year, our new
queen is Angel. And your new king is
Minnesota Jim. -It’s an important moment for
them, especially now that most of the hobos are senior
citizens. The hobo jungle in Britt is a
well maintained park on the edge of town. It used to be a pretty
This is not the same. They bring in like a family
affair, and a history thing, and people learning. Because the hobo, you wouldn’t
be finding no children in an old camp, you know
what I mean? People really was kind of
sleeping out, and across the tracks or in the bush. It was more like a jungle. AARON SMITH: Today, there’s
a lot of rules. No drinking, no drugs,
no unleashed dogs. It’s become the kind of place
that people used to become hobos to get away from. Most of the hobos we met were
retired from riding trains. Living an itinerant life for
decades takes its toll. MEDICINE MAN: A modern-day
hobo, probably in my estimation, is getting to the
point where it’s rubber tire hobos that come together
and perpetuate history. AARON SMITH: The convention
has become a shadow of its former self. The city’s turned it
into a parody. There are still plenty young
people out there riding the rails for adventure, but those
who call themselves hobos and travel around looking for
work are a dying breed. FROG: And it’s still there. Though I’m not riding freight
trains, it’s still there. I still want to ride. AARON SMITH: Out on the rails,
we slowed down and experienced an adventure that was
once a way of life for a lot of people. The train tracks persist on,
relics on the landscape, entry points into the hidden world. We felt a deep nostalgia for a
time that’s passed and sadness for the American hobo, fast
disappearing down the westbound track. FROG: I have one final ride, and
it’s my westbound journey. -For the moments of happiness,
for the love, for the moments of disappointments, for
everything, hobo is thankful to the railroad.

Comments 3

  • Incredible enough,,, we're all hobos in this life.

  • You cam thank Insurance companies for all these things we can't really do anymore. Its very sad in a country where your supposed to have freedom, seems pretty damn expensive to me!!! Insurance companies are the biggest thieves going and have destroyed the American way! Pay thousands of Dollars to a companie that says they'll protect you, but if something does happen, even if completely not tour fault, they jack up your rates, and do everything they can, to NOT pay for whatever you lost. If it wasn't so sad, it would be a joke! Soon we'll have to be forced to pay insurance just to be able to walk around in this ever increasing crazy place…

  • That's how I came to the states!
    Bringing back good memories.

  • Watch the documentary, HOBO. It’s on YouTube. Follows a hobo, bear grease, as he rides the high line and the characters he meets. Very good documentary.

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