MT. SHASTA, CA – I had spent several days prowling around the mountain but I had absolutely no urge to go up it. I had been on it once before many years ago and I knew it couldn’t be conquered, that I didn’t even want to. I no longer had the hubris. The mountain had vanquished me spiritually if not physically and it had taught me to love the warmth of mankind.
Still, I did enjoy looking at it, seeing it there, feeling it there.
Finally, I pointed the van downhill and began my return to the flatlands. I had already put it off as long as I could. Life itself was calling.
Just below the mountain is a somewhat worn-out town called Dunsmuir. It was a town that once had poetry but lost it. I had resolved to drive through without stopping, to stay on the freeway. It is a town of people who turn out to be not what they seem. That, at least, is how I knew it. It made good sense to drive straight through.
But at the last moment, not knowing why, I veered from the freeway, pulled into town by the same force that had kept me a safe distance from the mountain.
It was then that I knew where I had to go. I went looking for the cemetery down by the railroad tracks. It was here, many years ago, that I had spent the night. I had come up there on a freight train for a gathering of the National Hobo Association. This wasn’t the famous convention held in Britt, Iowa each year but rather a regional gathering of occasional and some full-time hobos. Many of my fellow travelers had come up from Los Angeles; some of them worked in the movies. We were interested in the old hobo lore and the freedom. And we wanted to have a good time.
Our host was an old hobo who had retired from the rails. They liked him in town and they had given him a job as caretaker of the local cemetery. The job came with a wooden house surrounded by graves.
This suited him just fine. Hobos are quick to point out that they are migrant workers. That they want to work. Unlike tramps, who travel but only work when they have to, hobos are hard workers. And they are nothing like bums who neither travel nor work. It’s an important point for hobos because the three are often considered one and the same in polite society.
My mentor, an old hobo named Abe, gave me a lesson in this our very first day on the road together in Texas. When we were hungry he marched into a Domino’s Pizza and offered to sweep the parking lot in exchange for food. The same man who had been lecturing me on walking too fast all day long grabbed a broom and swept that parking lot with more gusto than I had ever seen anyone sweep before. We devoured those two pizzas he’d earned for us.
And when we got back home to Berkeley CA a few weeks later he lined up a job on a paving crew within 24 hours of our arrival. He did this by going up to every single guy in a work truck who crossed our path as we ran errands our first day home.
Parlaying my newfound experience as a hobo into my own job, I became a roving correspondent for the Hobo Times, a magazine about the hobo life. Once I even interviewed the King of the Hobos.
At that fabled gathering in Dunsmuir, there were quite a few people and there wasn’t much open space, this being an old cemetery. We ended up sleeping on graves. I shared a grave with a woman from Los Angeles who was working through her breakup with a married man by having a bona fide adventure.
I wandered through the cemetery, looking at gravestones. I found the place where we had lain. But the old hobo’s house was gone. There was a swath of green grass where I remembered it. I wondered if my memory had become confused.
I saw a woman entering a house next to the cemetery. I approached her and asked her if there used to be a house in the cemetery. I half expected her to say that they had razed the old hobo’s house because of the wild gatherings he would host.
Instead, her face lit up at the memory of her old neighbor. She told me that when he got too old to work he had gone into a bank and declared that he was robbing it. Just stated it, so that he would get room and board. She also told me about her dad who had come from another state to settle in Dunsmuir. He became an railroad engineer and lived in a house right above the rail yard.
“Now what was that old hobo’s name?” she said.
I asked her if hobos were still coming through. In my mind, the hobos had died out when I myself stopped riding the rails.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “I see them all the time. I call them ‘The Brown People’ because they spend so much time out under the sun and they’re just so dirty from not washing. Some people run them off but they’re very polite. They never took anything from me. We have more problems with the local people, the tweakers, than we do with the hobos.”
“Now if you want to find out more about that old hobo – what on earth was his name? – there’s a man who lives at the trailer park who made a documentary about him. Now, he’ll talk your arm off.” Then, laughing, she added, “Like me.”
“I started talking about other things to see if it would help me remember his name but it didn’t work.” She paused, still hoping it would come. I thanked her and took my leave.
I was almost out of the cemetery when she shouted, “Roadhog! That’s it! That was his name.” When she said it I remembered it too. Now I had a name to go with my memories of that place and that night I spent there, listening to the trains passing in the night.