Hobos Ride The Rails To 2008 Convention

homeless man on train tracks
You may have thought train-hopping hobos had gone the way of the old steam engine, but Bill Geist knows they're still out there, riding the rails. He just joined them at the 2008 Britt Hobo Convention in Iowa - an unconventional convention, to be sure.
All manner of hobos are here. There are older, veteran hobos, like Tuck, who's now retired from the rails and has a wife and a house. He was last year's King of the Hobos.

Asked if he was treated like royalty at the annual convention, Tuck said, "Oh yes. Oh yes, it's nice. It's good to be king."

There are younger hobos, like Stray Cat. They all have hobo names.

"I've been riding on and off for about nine years," says Stray. "This year, I haven't any particular plans, so I might ride the whole year. I can't say."

There are full-time hobos, like Stretch. He's been hopping trains for more than 25 years, most recently with his companion Burlington.

"He was born ten years ago in Helena Montana in a boxcar," recalls Stretch of his canine travel partner. He says there are lots of people who devote their lives to riding the rails; " there's probably maybe a thousand out there."

Then there are part-time hobos like Adman, who will "only spend like six to eight weeks," hopping trains every year.

Adman isn't your typical hobo. He started riding the rails in the early 70s. These days, when he's not in a boxcar, he lives in a house in Minneapolis - a successful businessman named Todd Waters, married with children.

"He is a wanderer," explains his wife Dori. "He needs freedom. He needs spirit."

From the beginning, she accepted his hobo ways. "That's his way of rejuvenating. So, yeah, I understand why he does it. And it's just who he… a big part of who he is."

Every year, Adman gets the itch to hit the road.

"In the spring, when, you know, the rails are beginning to get all the heat, and it's boiling, and the creosote... you have that creosote smell and to us, that's perfume… When I smell that in the early spring, I'm gone."

His family not only understands, 20-year-old daughter Alex even accompanied him on a recent journey.

"I never knew what sleeping in the woods without a tent and a campfire and your cell phone, you know, really would feel like," she said of the experience.

The name hobo derives from farm implement-carrying young men who caught trains to look for work after the Civil War.

So, what's the difference between a hobo, a tramp and a bum?

"The hobo works and wanders; the tramp dreams and wanders - he's the intellectual; the bum, he just drinks and wanders," explains one convention attendee.

As surprising as a hobo convention seems, Mayor Jim Nelson says it's been held here every year since 1900. He adds that his local government does not condone riding the rails - which is illegal.

A key even at this year's convention is the ceremonial unveiling of the 2007 Hobo King and Queen portrait, by artist Leann Castillo.

Then hobo king and queen hopefuls make campaign speeches before a pair of new royals is voted in. This year: Queen Connecticut Tootsie and King Stretch.

"It means the world to me, it really does. I have tried to settle down many times but it doesn't work I'll always be a hobo and a hobo at heart," proclaims the new King.

But why, in this day and age?

"The wanderlust… It's in their heart and they can't get rid of it," says one hobo.

"I think that they're homesick for their freedom," says part-timer Adman. "You know, comfort gets in the way. But if they go out, you know, on the edge for a while, and then they come back and decide on comfort, they're more free, because they had a choice."

Not that hobo life is ideal.

"There's a lot of times when you don't have any food when you have to go dumpster diving to feed yourself," says Stretch.

As the 2008 Britt Hobo Convention winds down, they say their goodbyes. They've got to get moving. They really can't stay put.
By Bill Geist