Death of the American Hobo (Documentary)

Uploaded by vice on Oct 17, 2012


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!


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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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 wild place.
EMPRESS VAGABOND HOBO LUMP: 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.