Stranger-on-a-Train Ted Conover Spent Rootless Months Studying a Furtive Breed: America's Hoboes

updated 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They are a staple of American folk music and literature, but most people assume that rail-riding hoboes went out with the Depression. Not so, says Ted Conover, 26, who estimates the U.S. has at least 25,000 itinerant tramps and believes that the number is growing. In 1980 Conover, then an Amherst (Mass.) College senior with a strong interest in anthropology, set out to learn about hoboes by spending four months sleeping in flophouses and touring the country in boxcars. At night he made entries in a secret journal, from which he has produced an account of his adventures, Rolling Nowhere (Viking, $15.95). The son of a trial lawyer, Conover grew up in Denver, Colo. While at Amherst he spent one summer working in a sausage factory in Spain and another as a VISTA volunteer in Dallas. His Amherst professors were skeptical about his decision to become a hobo, but Conover persisted, eventually producing a senior thesis that enabled him to graduate summa cum laude. Now studying Latin American history at Cambridge University, Conover reminisced with correspondent Fred Hauptfuhrer about the perils and pleasures of life on the road.

How did you know hoboes still existed?

One night on a bicycle trip through Montana when I was 16, a friend and I were joined in a small-town park by two hoboes just off a train. They told us stories of a world of high adventure. As I know now, they made it out to be a more marvelous world than it really is. But I fell for them.

Why did you decide to become a hobo?

I wanted to learn something firsthand—something they didn't know in college. Besides, riding the rails seemed something a red-blooded American boy just ought to do.

Ho w did you prepare?

I read all the books and articles on hoboes I could lay my hands on and attended the annual hobo convention in Britt, Iowa—but most of the tramps there were fakes, playing up to the myth of the clownlike hobo. The real ones wouldn't want the attention. To get to know them, I had to join them.

What was your parents' reaction?

Mild shock. Still, they believe in letting their kids find their own way. Occasionally I called them collect, and they would trace my route on a map on the kitchen wall. I wanted someone to know where I had been last, in case I had an accident.

Did you?

Falling off a train one night in Washington State was the closest I came to being seriously hurt. You're never supposed to jump off a train moving faster than you can run, and I mistook the train's speed in the dark. Hitting the ground, I pitched forward onto my stomach, ripping my shirt and badly scraping my palms, chest and chin.

What other bad things happened to you?

Once, an ex-con from Mississippi pulled a knife on me. I'd earned eight dollars that day loading trucks and moving furniture for a secondhand store. He wanted the money and my sleeping bag. But when he accosted me, I put my hand in my pocket. He froze, thinking I had a gun. We traded insults, and then he left. I was also arrested in Denver for vagrancy. I hadn't done anything wrong except look like a tramp on a day the President was coming to the town. People shouldn't be treated that way in America.

How did other hoboes perceive you?

Since I had shoulder-length hair and a beard and dressed the part, they saw me not as a college kid but as someone just bumming around. They were suspicious of me because I was younger and in better shape, and they worried that I could have beaten them up and taken their gear. Luckily, talking about one's past was not desired or expected. This hindered my efforts to learn about them, but it made it easier for me to be quiet about myself.

What skills did you learn as a hobo?

How to ride freights the professional way. There are good places to ride besides boxcars and ways to board besides "on the fly." For example, I found I could often walk into a freight yard, ask the right questions of a conductor or brakeman and simply climb onto a train before it began to move.

What else did you learn?

Where to find food—behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken stand at closing time, in supermarket dumpsters, at rescue missions. And I learned where to sleep: on boxcar floors, under bridges and loading docks, in vacant lots or at rescue missions. I also learned the importance of not looking scared even when you feel scared, because that's when people take advantage of you.

What kind of people were the hoboes you met?

Most are white men over 50. There are some Vietnam vets, young unemployeds and Mexican farm workers. For some reason I thought all hoboes would be tough. Some are, but many are timid and weak. They feel they've failed society, and they're not too proud of their track record. On the other hand, a good hobo will take pride in doing things well—in sharing tobacco, in leaving a place clean for the next guy, in not attracting the police.

Did you ever come across tramps who had been professional people?

It's like the myth of the rich bag lady—the idea that many tramps are former doctors, lawyers and accountants who say the hell with it and hit the rails. Tramps themselves repeat it, because in the myth they become princes disguised as frogs. But it's almost never true.

Is the hobo life-style ever fulfilling?

Very seldom. Most hoboes keep moving because of police pressure or because they are restless. They have a dream that they'll find something in the next town—a job, a woman—that will turn their lives around. But for almost all of them, it's a life that's very difficult to leave. It's not easy to find work if you're smelly and dirty. And to them, 9 to 5 begins to look like an entangling web of obligations and responsibilities.

How do they plan their travels?

Some climb trains whose destinations they don't even know. With those who plan, Denver is popular for the free food at the Salvation Army, and Havre, Mont, because the jungle—that's the hobo camp—is pleasantly situated by the river and the police leave you alone. Everett, Wash. and Klamath Falls, Oreg. are two other places where the railroads close their eyes. But in Phoenix, antivagrancy laws are strictly enforced.

Do hoboes always travel alone?

Some are loners, but occasionally two hoboes will become partners, which implies a certain amount of looking out for the other guy. Most travel in groups of three or four, which is what I usually did. Still, the rule is each man for himself. Just after I'd started my trip, two hoboes advised me, "Don't trust nobody." Two weeks later they stole my bedroll.

Are there many women hoboes?

It's dangerous for women, but I did meet one, a stout woman of about 50 who'd raised three sons by different fathers and then decided it would be more interesting to see the country by rail than to be a dishwasher. I didn't even realize she was a woman at first because her hair was tucked up under her cap and she wore a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves cut off. The men would compliment her on her appearance and her cooking, but some wanted to sleep with her. She kept a hatchet and a long knife as protection and said she never had much trouble.

Weren't you tempted to remain a hobo?

Not really. There's no feeling quite like the wind hitting your face when you lean out of a moving boxcar. But much of the trip was lonely and difficult. After a while traveling ceases to be a grand adventure. You're free from social expectations, but you're also free from a soft bed at night and doors that lock behind you. The feeling of being a stranger everywhere and always having to worry about the next meal is a sad one.

What did the experience leave you?

The confidence that I know I could get by, living on the edge, and the knowledge that all of us have much more in common with hoboes than we would ever guess.

How so?

When you see a hobo on the street, he seems an altogether different sort of creature. But when you live with them, you find you have the same needs—like keeping your stomach full, staying out of the rain and being with people you can trust.

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