The hobo way of life sprung up out of necessity, says Clifford Williams, a philosophy professor at Trinity College, in Deerfield, Ill., who has studied the culture. He says it seems to have originated after the Civil War when farm hands traveled with their hoes — “hoe-boys.” It spread during the Depression, when people rode the rails desperately looking for work.
Today, Williams says, “people do it for adventure, people do it for freedom. There’s an independent spirit, and a let-me-out-of-here sort of thing. There’s also a restlessness. Sometimes they’re running from something, whether a bad family situation, income taxes or 9-to-5 jobs.”
Williams, 65, aka “Oats” in the hobo world, (he’s an oatmeal fan), has attended the National Hobo Convention since 1990 when he fell in love with the comaraderie. Along the way he met Backwoods Jack, married with children, who’s lived in the woods some 15 years. There’s 77-year-old Oklahoma Slim. And Shayla, 19, on the road since 16, whom Williams met while researching his book, One More Train to Ride.
The culture has changed with the generations. The younger, “road kids,” Williams says, are more into drinking and drugs. “And are probably anarchists if they have any philosophical inclination at all.”
Still, among young and old, there’s a code of honor, Williams says. “The hobo ideal is that you work. You don’t lie, cheat or steal. You’re not an outcast. You’re homeless by choice, and you respect values.”
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