Americans are a restless people, changing jobs and residences frequently. Traveling’s built into our history: Since the nation’s earliest days, people have traversed its vast distances by any means available. At the same time, we’re often suspicious of outsiders, notes Asheville busker Abby Roach, who hopped freights for eight years.
“America’s kind of a weird place,” she points out. “We celebrate people like Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, but when it comes to travelers we see in our everyday lives, it kind of scares people.”
With no easy definition and few statistics, pinning down what constitutes a “traveler” is tricky. And while most of today’s hobos hitchhike or pile into vans or renovated buses, a small minority continues the tradition of riding the rails, despite great risk of personal injury, legal hassles and run-ins with violent individuals.
Under the radar
The reasons for giving up the comforts of a sedentary lifestyle are as varied as the folks who choose to do so. Roach says she left home to escape a bad environment. “I felt like, at the time, I didn’t really have much choice but to go somewhere else,” she remembers. “I wasn’t necessarily thinking I was going to go traveling. I just wanted to leave.”
Jimbo Rosario, who hopped trains for several years in the early 2000s, says the seed was planted when he was growing up in Fargo, North Dakota. “I remember being around 12 and waiting with my mom at a railroad crossing,” he recalls. “There was a slow-moving train going by, and I remember seeing two dudes riding on it. I thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ There’s romanticism in freight train hopping: It’s very Americana.”
For others, personal circumstances forced their hand. Brody Hunt, a country music collector and researcher, sometime lumberjack and self-described tramp, says a broken heart led him to the rail yard. “I was living in Asheville with the first girl I was in love with. When she left me, I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I fell into the cradle of American railroads.”
The very fact that travelers tend to fly under the radar makes it harder for outsiders to understand the subculture. “No one knows where the hobo goes,” notes Hunt. “A good hobo is never seen unless he wants to be.”
But with all the other modes of transportation available today, why hop freights? “It’s free,” says “Kosher,” who hails from Florida, “and I can damn near go just about anywhere in the country I want. I might have to get off and hitch somewhere, but you get there.”
A hobo by any other name
Outsiders might see all travelers as hobos, but within the culture there are various subdivisions: freight riders, festival kids, Rainbow Family, van riders, crust punks and thumb bums.
“It’s like a genre of music, almost,” says Tammy “Mama T” Thibodaux, who regularly houses travelers passing through Asheville in her home near Biltmore Village. “You always have your subgenres.”
Since her ex-boyfriend introduced her to traveling culture five years ago, Thibodaux has provided friends, friends of friends and sometimes hordes of relative strangers with a place to sleep, clean up and take a break from the road. “The most I’ve ever had at one time was probably about 30 people — plus all the dogs,” she says with a laugh. “It can be hectic sometimes. I try to help them out with socks, extra coats. A lot of kids do what they can — cook meals or go dumpster diving, help clean, make sure I have a beer or two.”
As in any community, however, it’s not always peace and love among travelers. “It’s like high school,” says Roach. “Train kids don’t like the hippie kids; festy kids and train kids don’t get along.”
“The rails are like any other vocation,” Hunt observes. “You can tell very quickly by how people talk about railroading how much they know and what their background is, culturally and by experience.”
There’s also a certain amount of elitism, notes Kosher. “People get mad if you talk about where a hop-out is or where to catch a train, but a lot of the hop-outs are marked anyway. It’s no big secret.”
In the end, he maintains, it’s best to steer clear of the politics. “Just ride — just hop trains and forget all that sh*t. It’s made it a lot easier for me.”
But while hopping freights may sound romantic, the reality is far more precarious. Nearly every current or former traveler interviewed was quick to note the dangers, saying they’re not advising anyone to go out and do it on a whim.
Special Agent Joe Talley, a law enforcement officer with Norfolk Southern for 10 years, lays out some of the risks.
Besides the “obvious danger of death and dismemberment,” Talley notes a litany of hazards: getting locked in a hot boxcar, having the 900-pound door slam on you, or falling asleep and falling off a moving train. “You’re riding on equipment that wasn’t designed to be ridden on,” he says. “The very nature of the railroad is unforgiving — there are no second chances.”
Near catastrophes are common. “That was the closest call I ever had,” remembers Hunt, pointing to a tattered boot hanging on the wall of his house. The heel “got cut off by the wheel of a train when I was wearing it. If I’d have been wearing sneakers, that would have been my heel instead.”
During the interview with Thibodaux, she gets a text from a friend who’s at the hospital with his injured girlfriend. “Her ankle got caught between the knuckle and the catwalk,” she announces to those sitting around a table in her backyard. “It’s broken.” The other travelers present merely shrug: just another part of daily life.
Even if you’re not hopping freights, though, a close encounter with one can be lethal. On April 29, a 40-year-old man who was attending the French Broad River Festival in Hot Springs was struck and killed by a train. Police said John William Gunn, aka “Sparrow,” had been drinking.
Blood on the tracks
The risks of train-hopping go far beyond the infrastructure, however. The legal repercussions, says Talley, can range from simple trespassing to unlawfully riding on the train to interfering with the railroad company’s operations. In North Carolina, the punishments can include substantial fines, several months in jail and potential federal charges.
Freight trains can also be a magnet for unsavory characters seeking to steer clear of law enforcement. “Most of the people we deal with are very good people who might just be uneducated or don’t appreciate the issues,” stresses Talley. “But there’s a smaller group of people on the tracks that send a shiver up the back.”
Robert Joseph Silveria Jr., aka “Sidetrack,” was convicted of four murders but has claimed to have killed anywhere from 28 to 47 people while riding the rails between the mid-’80s and 1996. Another, Michael Elijah “Dirty Mike” Adams, is serving a life sentence in Virginia for killing a fellow traveler; in several interviews, he’s proudly claimed involvement in at least 16 murders.
Admittedly, those are extreme cases; nonetheless, the dangers are real. Still bearing traces of bruises, Kosher pulls up a photo on his phone of himself with a badly swollen face after a fight. “I’ve been robbed, all sorts of sh*t,” he says indifferently. “You have to be a little bit guarded, watch out who you hang with on the road.”
Knowing that most travelers won’t go to the police, predators tend to single them out. “People assume that because of your lifestyle, you’re desperate for money,” says Kosher, recalling several instances where he or his then-girlfriend was sexually harassed. “We met this guy in Joliet, Illinois — he and his girlfriend started giving us all this money and were trying to get my girlfriend to come to their ‘studio,’” he reveals. “You have to deal with that sh*t a lot, traveling with a chick.”
Talley, meanwhile, says that while illicit activities such as human trafficking and drug dealing aren’t everyday occurrences, they do happen. “The illegal part of our society will use any opportunity and resource they can to further their goals,” he points out. And with only six permanently assigned Norfolk Southern police officers to cover the entire state, Talley says his agency leans heavily on local law enforcement when problems arise.
To guard against these dangers, many travelers move in groups or with a dog, and most carry some form of protection. Hunt, for instance, totes a “goon stick” when riding, often the hickory handle of a sledgehammer or maul, which are commonly found along the tracks. “I always had this rolled up in my bedroll, in case I had to do any whomping,” he explains.
For his part, Talley urges those witnessing any suspicious or illegal activity near the railroad to contact Norfolk Southern or local police. “The contact number is 800-453-2530, but you need to get in contact with the appropriate railroad,” he explains. “The easiest way to do this is go to any grade crossing: There’ll be a little blue sign, which identifies a contact number for that railroad and will also provide you with a six-digit, one-letter DOT location identifier. If you’re still unsure, then the standard is always to call 911.”
Beyond the stereotypes
Some might envision travelers as a bunch of toothless, scraggly old men or patched-up punk kids; in fact, the culture is much broader and more nuanced. “There’s a lot of folks walking about that you might not even be able to tell are travelers: professional photographers, writers, musicians,” Roach reveals. “The anarchist kids you see on the corner are actually the minority.”
And though the perception is that most tramps are all alone in the world, many say they actually have an extensive support system. Family members may not always understand or approve of the lifestyle, but they’re usually supportive anyway. “My family thinks I’m crazy, but they’re cool,” says Hunt. “I’m definitely the black sheep, but they like me.”
Older relatives who experienced the mass migrations of the Great Depression and World War II are often more accepting of the lifestyle. “Out of all my family members, I think my grandmother, Erma, was most understanding,” Rosario recalls. “I remember being at Thanksgiving and people were asking all these dumb questions, saying why I shouldn’t be doing it. And Erma just said I reminded her of her brother ‘Shorty,’ who used to hop trains during the Depression. I thought that was really cool.”
Flying a sign
One of the most controversial and misunderstood aspects of the traveling life is how tramps make money. While many do choose to “fly a sign” (code for panhandling), many also work seasonal jobs or apply artistic talents to turn a buck.
Even among travelers, opinions about panhandling vary. Some, such as Roach and Hunt, are ambivalent about it. “I get mad at those kids sometimes, when they talk about ‘I made this much money,’” says Roach. “No, you didn’t make that much money: Other people made that money, and you took it!”
And while Hunt concedes that flying a sign is necessary sometimes, he prefers to work or borrow from friends. “If you have to beg it, beg it, but don’t steal it,” he proclaims. “I don’t have any time for that nonsense. I was a working hobo; I always had my own sh*t.”
Others point out that panhandling is harder work than most outsiders realize. “It’s a personal preference thing,” says “Gator.” “If you can’t deal with telling your story and what you’re doing there 100 times a day, then flying’s not for you.”
Many panhandlers, notes Kosher, adhere to a simple code of conduct aimed at both keeping the peace and ensuring a good spot’s continued viability. “It’s like a fishing hole: You want fish to be there,” he explains. “You don’t go out there every day. Go out and hit a lick, come back in a few days, hit another lick. After the third time, you better get out of town; people don’t want you living off of them.”
A dog’s life
Another common point of friction with the general public concerns travelers’ furry companions. “That’s one big gripe that people have: dogs,” says Rosario.
For travelers, though, a dog can provide both protection and companionship during the long stretches of isolation; it can also dispel people’s anxiety about picking up a hitchhiker, he notes.
“I got picked up by a lot of dog lovers. I think people saw me as a boy and his dog out on an adventure, and that’s how I played it.” Having a canine compadre along for the ride, he adds, can also be a great marketing tool for the traveler trying to solicit a couple of bucks, though not necessarily in the way one might think.
“What I did was get my dog’s bowl out, or just take the bag and roll it down, so my dog was sitting next to me eating while I panhandled,” Rosario reveals. “That way, people saw that I wasn’t some scumbag — my dog was already fed. It made me money, and I didn’t want people to think I was a bad dog owner.”
And to those who say that taking a pet onto a freight or on the open road is irresponsible or abusive, his response is simple: “F–k off. Those dogs are fine. They’re not sitting home in a cage like most people’s dogs are. They’re living the best lives of any dog in the world.”
The media tease
Media portrayals of modern-day hobos often perpetuate false stereotypes, but the exposure can also have the opposite effect, says Talley.
“Anytime we have a lot of media exposure, we typically see a few more folks out there,” he reveals. “They read your article and they want to see what you’re talking about.”
Meanwhile, technology has substantially changed the way travelers operate. Where they used to rely primarily on paper maps and word of mouth, cellphones and Google Maps now provide a reliable way to scout out routes and rail yards. “You can see the whole satellite layout of the yard,” Hunt explains. “Combined with crew change information, that gives you a good battle plan going into it.”
In addition, social media such as Facebook make it easier to link up with friends across the country, enabling travelers to coordinate where they’ll be at a given time — or simply share their exploits. “A lot of these kids have serious social networking followings,” says Roach. “They’re celebrities in their own right, at least among the traveling community.”
For some travelers, manipulating the media becomes a sort of game and a way to pass the time. In the A&E documentary Murder on the Tracks, narrated by Bill Kurtis, a reporter interviews a young Rosario and several members of his crew about a mysterious hobo named “Khrom,” who was reportedly murdered after beating up a guy who’d killed his dog.
“The whole story is bullsh*t, totally made up,” Rosario reveals, laughing. “My friend James decided our crew needed ‘exposure,’ so he made this crappy website about our fake leader, Khrom, and used blurry pictures of our friend Kurt, who wasn’t with us at the time. The guy who made the documentary somehow got wind of this story through the fledgling internet and contacted James, and we got on TV!”
Welcome to Asheville
Watch a documentary or read an article about traveling culture, and there’s a good chance that Asheville will be mentioned. The city’s thriving tourism and arts scenes make it a logical destination for travelers, notes Roach.
For many, busking provides an easy way to make enough money to keep moving. “Although the two cultures are different, they run side by side,” she explains. “A lot of travelers become some of the best buskers ever, because they have to play music for their survival.”
A guitar can also allay suspicions, says Hunt. “It looks like any country album cover from the ’50s or ’60s. There’s a certain nostalgia there, which can kind of help you in the view of the public.”
But Asheville’s increased popularity among travelers has also had its downside. “Asheville’s tramped out in a lot of ways, from people on the rails and mostly not on the rails,” Hunt maintains. “I don’t even try to busk here anymore.”
Travelers often get blamed for other people’s behavior, says Roach, because they stick out. “A lot of those folks you see floating around Pack Square aren’t travelers: They live here,” she says. “That’s a misconception. People don’t know what a traveler is.”
Kosher says he avoided Asheville altogether for many years. “The Appalachian Mountains are real pretty, but I don’t understand some of the people here,” he says. “When I fly a sign in town, there’s people yelling ‘Get a job!’ out their car window, threatening to kick my ass and stuff.”
One way or another, road life does take its toll. “My back hurts now, and I don’t think I’m gonna do it anymore,” says Roach, who’ll be sharing her stories from the rails at a July 14 show at Trade and Lore Coffee. Sciatic nerve pain, which she attributes to carrying a heavy backpack for so long, is a common ailment among freight riders, as are nutritional deficiencies.
Some leave the lifestyle to pursue other interests. Disaffected by the changing culture and the increasing violence he saw among younger travelers, Rosario turned to touring with bands before eventually settling down in Swannanoa. “All these years later, it seems like it was a whirlwind,” he explains. “At the time, I thought I’d never stop doing it, but then a year later, I decided I like clean clothes and a bed.”
And while some of his old companions are still living the hobo life, many have since settled into successful careers. “[My buddy] James writes a magazine; Harry’s a chef; Cody runs a karaoke business,” says Rosario. “I write and make these little movies. I think, without all that experience, I wouldn’t be as creative as I am now.”
Similarly, Hunt quit riding the rails full time three years ago to start work on an extensive discography of vintage hobo music. “I can actually say I’m the world’s expert on pre-World War II hobo music on the f–king planet, thanks to a lot of really cool old guys,” he says. And though he still takes periodic trips, “I’d just been doing it for so long, so much. It wears on you, and it just wasn’t that much fun anymore. I love being out on the rails — always will — but the thrill has been gone for a very long time.”
Others, like Gator, don’t plan to go back to the daily grind any time soon. “I know people in their 70s that’ve been traveling since they were teenagers,” he says. “Ain’t no other way to live: You see something different every day if you want.”
Rewards of the road
But regardless of whether they’re still actively traveling, those who’ve made their way by rail and by thumb say the experience has profoundly changed their perspectives on life, on America and on how they fit into it all.
“What these kids are doing is very American,” Rosario contends. “This rugged American ideal, that’s what’s happening here. I’ve seen the wonderful things that people are capable of and some of the horrible things people are capable of.”
In the process, deep friendships are often forged, notes Kosher. “A lot of my friends and family who’ve been in the military talk about how you form a bond with someone out there. Most of the people I’ve traveled with have been generous, good-hearted people. I’d do anything for them.”
For his part, Gator says choosing to live on his own terms has afforded him opportunities most folks never have — or lack the courage to pursue. “I’ve talked to 70-year-old people that haven’t ever left their home state,” he points out. “I’m 33, and I’ve been to 47 of 50 states; I’ve stepped foot in Canada, I’ve stepped foot in Mexico; I’ve seen every one of the islands down in the Keys; I’ve been in a boat all the way around the coast.
“Everyone always says they’re stuck somewhere,” he adds. “You’re not: Just get out and walk. You don’t need much. If I have food, water and a place to lay down where I don’t get woken up by the police, I had a good f–king day.”