Hobo Safety

This summer, the fun adventurous stories I heard of friends on the road were mixed in with the serious, deadly knowledge that a woman was killed on I-5 while hitching up to Oregon. Then I heard rumors of another woman killed, and I kept thinking of folks I knew who were raped while hitching—and how I hadn’t ever spoken of the incident since out of respect for their request for anonymity.

As much as I love insane travel stories, I’m worried our bravado obscures the truth of what actually happens to us on the road. I’m getting the sense that as we try to not sensationalize atrocities, respect survivor anonymity, and not scare ourselves, we end up hush-hushing big, important, harsh things that actually do happen to us. Like with all silencing, the aggressors end up ahead as we leave home less informed and prepared. As I add the I-5 killings to my too-long list of terrible things that happen while traveling, I’m ready for a big community response. A flood of self-defense classes, recovery networks, benefit concerts, media, zines, stencils—flamboyant displays of our belief and pride in this kind of travel. Because there’s nothing wrong with sharing rides with strangers.

In the US, the open road poses great difficulties. I know this—many people, including myself, cover thousands of miles without planes or our own cars, by hitchhiking, hopping freight trains, bicycling, following the grand hobo tradition that’s been taken to heart by parts of the anarchist movement. Meeting challenges is a part of travel anywhere, and a treasured element of hoboing, but here in the US there seems to be a particularly high percentage of assholes ready to mess with people doing something different than the norm. It’s not our fault; we’re not ‘asking for it by the way we’re dressed.” This harassment is just one more ramification of violent, divisive, fear-inducing, fucked up American culture.

My uncle actually stopped talking to me because he thought there was something wrong with asking strangers for rides. To him, hitchhikers and trainhoppers were irresponsible mooches too lazy to provide for ourselves. He burned with the thought of dirt-stained people expecting to invade his car-secured privacy. His attitude was pure American. In Mexico, Canada, and many other parts of the world, the stories I’ve heard suggest the ethic of helping travelers balances suspicion of strangers and obsession with privacy. Sharing resources does not imply mooching, and interactions between respectful, courteous people are valuable, not lecherous.

Traveling folks romanticize the inevitable struggle, singing old hobo songs like Big Rock Candy Mountain, building courage with tattered copies of Ben Reitman’s Boxcar Bertha and Jack Black’s You Can’t Win. Boxcar Bertha and Jack Black surmounted amazing challenges in their travels around the turn of the 20th century. Arguably, hoboing is safer these days, with modern trains and railroad bulls who won’t shoot tramps on sight. But the American cultural experience of Ben Reitman and Jack Black is different from ours today. At the turn of the century and during the Depression, more people were tied into the hobo world through relatives and friends on the road. Hobos were certainly pariahs to many, but family to many more. Now, as American society has become more compartmentalized, car-obsessed, and divided by concerns of privacy, ‘safety’, and fear, the hobo’s position has shifted. We are much more likely to be considered dangerous intruders or potential victims of somebody’s frustrated rage.

Perhaps in response to this unforgiving mindset, the modern anarcho-punk hobo aesthetic prioritizes toughness. With our carharts, multitools, and maglites, we are always prepared. We build ourselves up to be superheroes with crazy stories of narrow escapes from psycho truckers and rail cops. In some circles, coolness is measured by the speed of a train you jump. Seeking validation in a culture of toughness, I used to cancel train trips with people who said they felt more comfortable getting on stopped trains. I left behind people who were sick, and expected people recovering from severe train-wreck injuries to keep on riding. The trains kept moving, and people’s personal needs fell aside.

But there are many sides to being tough. As I consider the different challenges we all face, it seems far wiser to value respecting and managing individual needs and risks, rather than forcing a standard that is not that far from status-quo jock. Things—trains, cars, people, lives—move at many different speeds. There is no competition when it comes to taking care of your own needs, because the ultimate arbitrator is yourself. Now, I check myself:

Are the stories told to get spirits up actually enforcing one standard of behavior and making other people feel like shit? Do the stories paint a story different than the reality of the road?

The longer I travel, the more difficult situations arise. I’m trying to pull myself out of denial about some possibilities, and superstitious paranoia about others. I want us all to do the homework to be realistic, confident, and prepared to deal with sketchy situations. This article is not a scare tactic! I think “alternative” travel is beautiful and valuable on so many different levels. And while getting a car might be a personal solution, it doesn’t affect the broader picture.

Traveling mirrors the struggle of our lives.

Recommended zines: Ring of Fire, about finding amputee pride after a wreck, $1 plus postage, PO Box 22824, Seattle, WA 98122-0824, USA

Women’s travel stories, edited by Spoke, 164 Lac du Pin Rouge, St-Hippolyte, QC, JOR 1PO, Canada