Bums, Hobos & Tramps

old photograph of a hobo, dressed in a suit and sitting on a train


According to Wikipedia, a hobo is a “migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is penniless.”

Nearly every word in that description inspires in me the wanderlust, a sepia-toned imagination gone wild along the railroad. To others, many in fact, though, the word instead means a bum, a beggar, a poor man in the street. To the untrained eye, indeed a roughed up, tumbling along through town after town type might be thought of us as destitute, wanting. But in reality, such is not always certainly the case.

Many wanderers choose to do so in exchange for the riches of coin and purse. Plenty of folks coast to coasting this great American landscape would rather throw a thumb in the air or listen to a train squeal them all the way down the line than have enough money to afford the clothes, the cars, the appearances that it takes to continue earning enough money for such endeavors.

Work a little here, travel a little there. Sleep under the stars, or find yourself a friendly couch along the way. Bringing your own tent has never been a bad idea. If you go camping for a weekend in nothing but a tent you’re considered rugged. Do it for a week and folks see you as bad ass. Make it a lifestyle, and suddenly you’re something to cross the street to avoid.

What is a hobo, though? The unknown, that which is to be distrusted? Or just another human making his way the only way he knows how?

I’ve heard it told that, unlike tramps who rarely lift a finger of labor unless strongly coerced as they travel the world, and unlike bums who neither travel nor toil, hobos are wandering workers. They are migrants, not miscreants.

Some claim the term comes from an old railroad call, “Ho, boy!”, perhaps at a time when accents were closer to the French pronunciation we could imagine a boss calling out to a chiseler or two on a cigarette break, “Ho, beaus!” as he tried to whip them back into laying that track to California. Or perhaps it’s simply because they’re perpetually homeward bound, given that the road is their home and so as long as they keep on traveling, there will be no place like exactly where they already are.

Yes, they can be found in dirty clothes working farm jobs and wandering with heavy backpacks down the highways of the world, but they can just as quickly be purposefully moving from one job to the next and blending in with the rest of us. Save for that flicker in their eye that proves they’ve seen a thing or two in their day, and intend to keep the pattern going.