Hobo Chronicles

on flies, typical gatherings and jungles
by eddy joe cotton for the san francisco chronicle magazine

There are two types of "hobo gatherings." There's the organized type and there's the type that just happen. Both take place in what's called a hobo jungle. A hobo jungle is the place where hobos gather and camp out. A jungle is usually near a railroad yard, crew change or a fuel or water tank - any place along the line where it's easy to board a train. The jungle is a place where drifters and vagabonds meet and compare notes on conditions along the road. A jungle is like a classroom. Instead of a chalkboard, there's a fire. One hobo sits, pokes the fire, and talks about "hot" train yards, homeless shelters where the food is cold and the beds hard, the weather in the Northwest - from where he just came - apple-picking season, and which Pullman he prefers in the prevailing weather conditions. The jungle is where clothes are washed and boiled to kill bugs and where a train rider can cook and eat a meal or enjoy a good bout of drinking before he swaggers off to dreamland.

I've been tramping around for quite some time now, and I've hung out with plenty of tramps. But in all these years, I've never been to any kind of organized "hobo gathering." When I was in Denver in the spring of 2000, I caught wind of one that was supposed to take place at the fairgrounds in Elko, Nev. So I went. Well, the fairgrounds were actually a makeshift horse track- rodeo arena. There was an oval dirt track with bleachers on the side, lavatories with flushing toilets and a food stand where pretty teenage girls were serving BBQ beef sandwiches. A few men had their vans parked on the grass beside the track and were selling "hobo" walking sticks and "hobo" bandanas. I've never seen so many flies in my life. I tried to take a nap there beside the dirt track in the grass and 200 flies landed all over me - I know that because I counted them. I felt like fresh horse crap, or at least that's what those flies thought I was. Figured they liked me so much because I hadn't showered in three days, so I found a garden hose over by the stables. I whipped out my bar of soap, stripped down to my underwear and washed. That hose water was freezing. But it felt good to cool off and get clean. I took the bar of soap and used it to wash my western shirt and my socks too. I draped them neatly over the chain-link fence. It was so hot there in Elko, they dried in about 10 minutes. So I was back in good humor within the hour. The flies never went away - sure hate those things.

I was confused about the gathering. There were all sorts of hobos and tramps there, old guys called bridgers who had ridden both steam and diesel trains, and they set up what they called "an authentic hobo jungle," and they had lectures and all of these folk musicians from all over the place. The folksingers sang train-riding-lonely-heartbreak and freedom songs. Some of them made me cry - or it could have been the Jim Beam. I was confused because that "official hobo jungle" was so different from what I had been used to when I was doing my usual tramping around.

Hell, like yesterday, there in Ogden, Utah, I got off a train at the river under the 20th Street viaduct, and among those trees is a jungle that I think has been there a real long time. It was littered with beer cans, broken glass, water-soaked porn magazines and dirty underwear. I didn't even think about all the litter because that's what I'm used to. I don't think it's pretty or nothing, but of all the jungles I've been in, none of them have been very clean. I walked up the river through the trees and the weeds, and there was a hobo camp set up there, a lean-to made from thick black plastic and tree branches. I announced myself from a good distance, and a husky lady's voice welcomed me in. There were three people in there - the lady with the husky voice and two middle-aged men. They looked like they didn't ride trains much. The lady was about 40, with pretty eyes and dark hair - she had a tattoo of a panther above her right breast because that was her name, "Panther." She had a black kitten whose name was "Little Panther." The two guys, her boyfriend and another fella, were grifter hardballs - real friendly, garrulous types. They let me drink their ICE beer. Her boyfriend Hooter had "Hooter" tattooed across his chest - it was done real tough, like a prison tattoo. The other man was dirty and his hair was wild and he had a bad look in his eye, but he was always smiling. They were crunched under the lean-to, sitting on a sleeping bag that had the number 48 spray-painted on it. They had their knives out when I first sat down -- just sitting there, open on the ground beside them. After 10 minutes they folded up the blades and apologized. Said they were being careful because a week earlier the police found a young lady's body floating face-up in the river, about 20 feet from their camp.

"Eight murders in the last month," they said.

"Better be careful."

All three of them had been shooting speed. They were tweaking around under that lean-to like ugly parrots on a tree branch. This is what Panther said:

"Hell, crystal meth ain't addictive."

She pointed to her head.

"It's all up here that makes you addicted - not the s-. But heroin, hell that's a whole 'nuther story. Ask Hooter."

She poked him.

"Huh Hooter? That s-'s real bad."

Hooter nodded. The raggedy fellow with the wild hair looked at Panther and said, "You tried that s-?"

"Hell, more than tried it. I've been on that s- three times, and I had to come off it three times. Hooter had to sit on me, literally sit right on top of me, to keep me from leavin'. Hell yeah, I done that s-."

That's what was going on there in the jungle in Ogden. That's why I'm confused. Up here in Elko, we've got real clean characters sitting around the fire singing songs and over there in Ogden, those folks are just hanging around by the river drinking beer.

But I sure like riding those trains; it feels good. Wish I could just ride those trains all the way till the day I die. Next time I come to one of these gatherings, I'm bringing something to keep those flies off of me. I like sleeping on the soft grass there on the midway - I wonder when they're going to have another horse race here. I wouldn't mind seeing that, too.

Eddy Joe Cotton is the author of
"Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America"