76-Second Travel Show: 'How to be a hobo'
On a roadtrip across the USA's thrilling (and often misunderstood) South recently, I had the pleasure of chit-chatting with hoboes around a campfire beside the Frisco steam engine that brought Franklin Roosevelt to Amory, Mississippi before WWII -- the only active president to visit the one-time busy train hub, and the only honored Democrat in these parts.
After eating the best wet ribs I've ever had on a cracked-sidewalk stand by a live blues band in fabled Clarksdale, we headed east from the flat Mississippi River Delta past William Faulkner country and Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo to Amory -- a simple town in a dry county where 'Don't Tread on Me' flags (used lately by members of the 'Tea Party') seemed to outnumber US flags. We found nothing but welcoming folks at the annual railroad festival/hobo gathering where you could buy obscenely long corn dogs or fried Twinkies under stands with a church steeple.
Hoboes are an interesting lot -- riding the rails more as a matter of choice, and they uncover a sort of 'secret America' few outside know about. The biggest hobo gathering is August's National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, but smaller gatherings like the one in Amory are seen, by some, as more authentic. Of the 20 or so who showed up in Amory this year, Stretch has been on the rails the longest -- for 27 years and counting, now with this dog and a tent to pitch at various 'hobo jungles' (set-up campgrounds near railyards).
Meanwhile, 'Tuck,' who spent 23 years hoboing before retiring in 2000, gushed about the views you get from trains that aren't possible by highway. (It's a sentiment echoed by many hoboes the writer Ted Conover met when he spent four months traveling freight trains with hoboes in 1980, summed up in his fantastic travelogue Rolling Nowhere.)
I asked K-Bar, a former hobo now living in Houston, to help me with the bane of travel preparation: packing. From a hobo's point of view. 'You got to have toilet paper,' he said. 'I mean, using sand for that is no way to travel.'
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