Meet Huckstah, A Self Proclaimed Hobo, Who Hops Trains To Travel Around For Free
He’s been traveling around the U.S. for more than 10 years, mostly for free, works odd jobs when he has to, and is probably happier than the rest of us.
Please tell us about yourself, your background and how you become a nomad?
I’m a 33 year old male and I’ve been on the road for over 10 years. It started out as simply trying to escape a shitty and depressing time during my life, but it eventually became a life choice. I guess you could say I got addicted to traveling. My family/background was lower-middle class, and we lived in an extremely small rural town in the south. There were no real career or academic choices available to me, and the road just seemed like the best idea. Fortunately, I was right.
How do you primarily travel around from place to place?
I primarily use a mix of hitchhiking and train hopping. 70% train hopping, 30% hitchhiking, is probably a safe guesstimate. I absolutely hate greyhound, and I will only use that damn bus if its a very last resort.
Why all the hate for greyhound?
Greyhound is such a pain in the ass. Buses not arriving on time, extremely long layovers, the stations are always in some high-crime ghetto area of a city etc.
When I hop a train, I can sit in the boxcar and smoke my cigarettes, drink my beer, lay down and sleep comfortably, not having to worry about other peoples drama/noise. I can play my own music and sing as loud as I want. I don’t have to see the world from some grimy tinted window. I’m not stacked next to other people like we’re a can of sardines. I’m comfortable, and I’m free to do whatever I want.
How does train hopping work exactly? How do you avoid getting caught etc?
Hobos have a lot of secrets that we use to hop trains. Most of that I can’t divulge, because it would jeopardize our subculture and hurt the future of our lifestyle. Secret publications, secret contact information, secret equipment/gadgets, etc. If you do enough research into our lifestyle, you’ll figure out most of these secrets. But no train-hopper is going to release that info to the public domain.
As far as things I can tell you, train-hopping has a huge learning curve if you don’t have someone to teach you. The first time you look at a yard, you’re not going to have a clue what is going on; it’s a really confusing thing to watch until you learn how the railroad works. Most people get on trains and end up going the opposite direction they intended to go. Some people hop on cars that are going to get dropped off at some random factory thats in the absolute middle of nowhere…50 miles away from any town or store. Hopping on a train that’s being worked in the yard and isn’t even leaving until the next day, etc.
It takes a few months of riding before you begin to sharpen your skills, and that’s just the beginning. Honestly, I think making those mistakes are the best way to learn. Hardcore mistakes like that make you adapt much, much quicker to this lifestyle as opposed to having someone spoonfeed you information and teach you everything step-by-step. Those harsh lessons will shapen you into a much better traveler; able to adapt and survive anything that life throws your way.
Of all the places you have travelled to, which has been your favourite?
I loved Bellingham (WA) because it was truly how I had always imagined the awesomeness of the Northwest. You know, a beautiful place in the rainy mountains where everyone is open-minded, progressive, well-cultured, educated, etc. Basically the exact opposite of where I lived most of my life. I mean you can be anything you want to be there…black, white, brown, gay, straight, yuppie, hippie, redneck, whatever…and the people of Bellingham will treat you as though you are equal to anyone else. For example, I was a young hobo, and they didn’t show me any smirks or frowns to my lifestyle; I could just be who I wanted to be. Even some of the homeless people there were living above average compared to the homeless in other places. They would play chess and read classic novels at the coffeeshops. I mean, where else can you find homeless people sitting in a coffeeshop, playing chess with older locals, sipping a cappuccino, and reading the last chapter of Don Quixote?
Laramie (WY) is great because it has such a cool history behind it. The wild wild west deal, you know? Butch Cassidy went to prison there, back when the town started off with twenty-three saloons and not a single church. Gunfights in the streets, the bars, and for every three buildings in town, one was a whorehouse. Actually, they still had a whorehouse downtown up until the 70’s or so, from what I recall everyone telling me. Laramie is also a college town that has a really great night-life scene as well…. those kids in Laramie are some of the craziest college kids I’ve ever witnessed. Imagine rowdy cowboys smoking pot and drinking whiskey in a town that already prides its itself of its rowdy past. Also, Wyoming is simply one of the most beautiful places in the USA, hands down.
I like Hawaii and Alaska for a lot of the same reasons. There’s always work there, and everyone is fairly laid back about everything. Both places are obviously extremely beautiful with tons of outdoor activities.
How do you find work and is it hard to attain a job as a hobo?
I mostly find work using craigslist, or simply going door-to-door filling out applications. There are a few websites such as HelpX and WWOOF that I have used in the past, but not so much anymore. In just about any town you go to, restaurants are always looking for dishwashers, and construction sites are always looking for someone to push a wheel-barrow or swing a hammer. Aside from that, we hobos are experts at seasonal labor gigs, and so, we usually go to certain places during certain times of the year. For example, I usually go to Alaska every summer for the fishing season, or Montana for the fall farming season, etc. Most seasonal jobs are accustomed to hiring hobos and vagabonds, as we have been their primary workforce for many, many decades. As for jobs that are NOT accustomed to hiring a hobo, I have to market myself carefully. I don’t tell them I’m a traveler or that I’m homeless for starters. If they want to know my home address, I just steal an address from an abandoned house or from local apartment listings on craigslist.
Could you list some of the jobs you have worked in throughout your time on the road?
I’ve held a lot of jobs: beekeeper, veterinary technician, hotel clerk, coffee farmer, commercial fisherman, wildlife forester, medical marijuana grower, cannery processor, dishwasher, prep cook, roofer, construction framer, citrus farmer, avocado farmer, mango farmer, pineapple farmer, banana farmer, macadamia nut farmer, bamboo farmer, apple farmer, sex shop clerk, smartphone repair technician, computer repair technician, newspaper press operator, landscaper…ahhh the list goes on. I can’t even recall half of the jobs I’ve done, to be honest with you.
What have been your favourite and least favourite jobs?
I love working on the boats in Alaska because it’s working outdoors, and nobody cares if you’re a hobo or not. All they care about is that you’re willing to work hard, and that you’re somebody they’re comfortable to live/work with while out at sea. All of us have one goal: MONEY, and everyone has to get along and work their ass off to get it. But the reward is worth it…tens of thousands of dollars for just a few weeks of work. Plus, I just love being on a boat; doing honest work, and challenging myself mentally and physically. Not that I’m a masochist or anything, it just makes you proud of what you can do once you beat that challenge. If you can work 16-18 hours a day, 7 days a week, while living on a boat, for 8 straight weeks, that’s something to be proud of. I know that I can do any job on earth if all that job requires is determination and hard work.
Working on the farms in Hawaii is the opposite. There’s something peaceful and meditative about picking coffee. You go at your own pace, no one is looking over your back, you’re out on a beautiful farm on a mountain over-looking the beautiful pacific ocean, listening to birds and geckos chirp. It’s like zen work to me. It’s like being on vacation while making a bit of money on the side too. It’s not good money, only 40-50 bucks a day, but thats plenty for a hobo that lives a rather frugal existence.
The vet tech job was great because I’m a huge animal lover and animal rights activist. My doctor was a true hero for animals, and dedicated her life to establish a no-kill animal sanctuary and non-profit veterinary hospital. She would work 16 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, and she would go to any length to save an animal’s life. She even had a great program where she would give traps to homeless people to catch feral cats, and we would give the homeless people food for each cat they could bring. Then the doctor would spay/neuter the cat, give it a complete medical exam, and then re-release it. One time a puppy mill got busted and we had shelter about twenty puppies. Puppies poop a lot so I was constantly cleaning up after the little devils, but to walk into a room and play with twenty awesome happy puppies at one time is like an animal lover’s dream…and that was part of my job, everyday.
As far as construction, who likes pushing a wheel barrow or working on a hot roof? It’s just a shitty low tier job unless you’re a foreman or owner. No one is digging ditches or pushing wheelbarrows because they want to, but usually because there’s no other job options available.
How much do you live on, on average per week? Could you give us a rough breakdown of your expenses?
I usually spend about $20 a day: pack of cigs, 6 pack of beer, couple of hot meals. Money comes and goes in this lifestyle… I might be completely broke one week, and the next week I score a job and get a $1,000 pay-check. There really is no weekly average since it fluctuates so much, one week from the next. I view money like most people view toilet tissue; use it while you have it, there will always be more. I’m a strong believer that money is made to be spent, not saved. So many people spend their entire life saving, saving, saving, and then they eventually become too old to even enjoy spending it. I’m doing the EXACT opposite. There are people that will say thats irresponsible or foolish or whatever, but I don’t exactly see the genius of being 85 years old with $100,000 wasting away in some vault either.
Have you found yourself at times where you had ran out of money? What did you do?
Sure, I run out of money sometimes, especially if I’m traveling between jobs. I usually just try to scrape by with donated food from churches or food banks. If it’s really desperate and I need money/supplies to get to a certain job, I will hold an honest sign asking for donations. It’s very rare that I have to do that, and I do it far less than your typical homeless person.
Living a life such as yours, I imagine can get a bit dangerous. What has been a bad situation you have found yourself in?
As far as dangerous situations, the worst was when I was held at gunpoint and held hostage by a Colombian drug cartel in Argentina. I woke up with a gun just inches away from my face. I thought they were going to kill me. When the guy with the gun made me lay on my stomach with my face in the pillow, I thought for sure that was the end of my life. I basically just closed my eyes and tried to think of everyone that I loved, and tried to think of how much of an amazing life I’ve had, trying not to take things for granted, and to die being proud of my adventures and experiences. The guy let us go, but only after taking everything I had except for my clothes.
Being attacked and nearly killed by the Hawaiian mafia was a close second. That was another time I thought I was surely going to die. I barely escaped, but they still left me with a few broken ribs and busted up face.
Why did the Hawaiian mafia intend to kill you?
I got a job at a hostel and started freelancing my own lava tours. I’d take people to the volcano in Hawaii. Unfortunately, the Hawaiian mafia tried extorting money from my tours, and when I refused, they beat me really bad and tried to kill me. Thankfully, they turned their heads for a split second, and I made a dash for it into the jungle.
Does it get lonely travelling alone? How do you meet people? And is it hard meeting girls?
I never get lonely on the road. There are thousands of travelers like me, both younger and older. Hobos and vagabonds are all family, because it’s the only family most of us have. We all have a very strong bond that you won’t find in most other subcultures. We always have each others backs, no matter what. We always run into each other on the road…places like San Francisco, New Orleans, Portland, etc. I’ve seen the same travelers in different states, dozens of times. We get around a lot, and once you get around long enough, it becomes a very small world.
Half the time I travel, I’ll travel with a pack of like-minded hobos. The other half I go solo, usually when I’m trying to find work etc. Sometimes I cherish the lonely times. I take a few weeks off to meditate about my life, daydream about future plans, take care of important things etc. I carry books and stuff so I have no problem staying entertained while camping alone. I also have a hackey-sack, which is definitely my go-to entertainment item.
As far as girls, you’d be surprised by how many girls go head over heels for traveling guys. They view us as some wild and rugged romantic hero of the road. Personally I think they’ve watched way too many movies or read too much Jack Kerouac. Whatever it is, once you tell a girl a few cool traveling stories, you’ll usually swoon them rather quickly.
Could you walk us through a typical day in your life?
Okay… wake, whenever the sun comes up… immediately light a cigarette and re-kindle the coals from last night’s campfire. Get some coffee going, or either immediately find a coffee shop. If I happen to be working, of course I go to work, which isn’t very exciting. If I’m not working, I usually hit up the public library or a coffeeshop to use the free computers or wifi access, charge my phone, check my email, browse my subreddit (r/vagabond), say hey to friends/family on Facebook, check for jobs on craigslist, etc. After that I’ll usually go back to my camp, do a little fishing, cook up something to eat, organise my gear, etc.
In the evening I’ll usually hit up a bar/pub, have a few local brews, chit chat with the locals, try to make some connections for finding jobs, learn about the town, etc. Bars are great places to network if you are completely new to town. Buying a $3 beer for someone could land you a job that pays $500 a week, so it’s worth the investment. After that, I’ll usually go to the usual hobo hangouts and hangout with some other vagabonds… share stories, play music, pass the ganja pipe, chug some beers, make new traveling partners, etc. After that I’ll go home, start a fire, put in my headphones, listen to some music, and just sort of daydream/meditate until I’m ready to go to sleep.
If it’s a day that I’m going to catch out on a train, I’ll go to the local train yard and spy on the trains. I call it “pickin my bitch”. Watching all the various trains, and waiting till I see the one thats screaming my name. I’ll usually sit up on top of a hill, break out my handheld railroad scanner, study whats going on in the yard, figure out what security is doing, and then make my dash for the train. By the time I’ve spotted my train, I usually know more about whats going on in the train yard than most of the workers. All the time, I’ll have workers or security saying “Damn, I gotta admit, you know more about this yard than I do, and I’ve been working here for 10 years!” After watching a train yard for an hour or 2, I can pretty much tell you where the trains are going and when they are leaving, just by looking at their actions.
How do clean yourself, wash your clothes, charge your electrical items etc?
I carry a solar shower bag with me. I fill it up with about 5 gallons of water, let it sit in the sun, and it usually gets to 110 degrees in a matter of just a couple of hours. I only shower a couple times a week, kinda like your grandparents probably did, haha. As far as charging my phone, I have many, many tricks. I have a solar charger, a portable battery pack, and several little gadgets that allow me to plug into various electrical outlets, including light fixtures. If I’m in a rush, I usually just go to a coffeeshop or store and plug into one of their outlets.
When do you decide to move on from a place, and how do you choose your new location?
Choosing my location depends on what time of the year it is. Hobos are kinda like birds, we move with the weather. We go south for the winter, and north for the summer; so I always have to factor in weather when making a big jump. Just because it’s warm in Utah in October doesn’t mean it’s going to be warm in Wyoming, suddenly you just went from late-summer conditions to harsh winter conditions in just a few days.
If weather isn’t a major factor, I generally choose places that other hobos have suggested I visit. I always like picking college towns also. For example, if I go to Texas, I’ll hit up Austin. If I’m in Oregon, I’ll hit up Eugene etc. College towns usually have a lot of jobs, and are usually more progressive and open minded towards travelers. Basically I just like seeing any place I haven’t seen before. Unfortunately, that list is getting shorter and shorter.
How do you keep yourself and equipment safe?
I usually don’t have a problem keeping myself safe. Most people view hobos as some sort of intimidating figure, or that we’re crazy as hell, and they generally don’t want to mess with us. I also always carry a knife, a monkey fist, and a small can of pepper spray. All of those things are easily visible on my pack, and you’d have to be pretty desperate, or foolish to pick a fight with me or most hobos. You have to consider that most of us come from a rough past, not to mention constantly jumping off moving freight trains, hanging out in rough areas of town, and none of us are scared of laws/cops. We’re probably the last people you want to choose as a target.
Having said that, it would be easy to paint us as criminals or violent people, but for the most part, we try to avoid trouble/fighting at all costs. All we want to do is travel and be left alone, go about our own peaceful way. But if you want to be an idiot and try to insult/attack us, you are making a huge mistake.
Do you have any survival tips, tricks, tools that you have learned/found on your travels that you could share?
- The best dumpsters in town are behind bakeries, because bread goes bad fast and they are constantly throwing away stuff that hasn’t gone bad yet.
- As far as skills for the road, learning survival skills is a huge plus. Read the book Bushcraft, or SAS Survival guide. You can get them free on the sidebar of /r/vagabond, along with a lot of other survival books.
- Also, as far as dumpster diving, Little Caesars Pizza is great to hit up at midnight. All those $5 ‘ready-made’ pizzas get thrown away at night if they don’t sell during the day. Also, just about any grocery store dumpster is always filled with food thats still good beyond its expiration date.
What are your plans for the future? Can you see yourself settling down and living a “normal” life?
As for plans in the future, I’d like to find a way to make a career from traveling. Maybe being a writer, or maybe teaching English in foreign countries, just anything that doesn’t require me to stay in one place for a long time. There’s way too much to see in this world for me to stay in one place for more than a year, and on the other hand, there’s probably better ways to travel than hopping trains and hitchhiking, haha. But whatever, I see more of the world from a boxcar than anyone will see from an RV, rental car, or hotel window, so I would never trade this lifestyle for the “conventional” form of traveling.
Who knows what the future holds for me? That’s part of the excitement… that mystery, that just keeps me going. I like the challenge and the suspense of wondering what will my future hold. I’ve always been very confident that I’ll be successful someday, and that confidence is stronger now than it ever was. Do I worry sometimes? Sure, its natural. But at the end of the day, I know I got life by the tail, and I can do anything that I set my mind to. I’ve spent 10 years doing just that, and whatever challenge or obstacle the future throws my way will be something that I’ll easily adapt to and overcome. I have no doubt about that whatsoever.