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A genealogy of itinerancy: from hobos to homelessness

It was the summer of 2015. We didn’t know yet, but we were about to sell our apartment in Barcelona and move to Fontainebleau, one hour south of Paris, at the beginning of the school year.

By then, summers had just become for us the most exciting part of the year, a call to action in a lean, pack-and-go mode through the North American landscape. That summer, though, both the beginning and end of the trip would open for us the two extremes of Eurasia: Japan as a strange layover stop on our way into San Francisco; and Norway plus the rest of Scandinavia on our trip back to Europe.

The family with Dan Price (left); on the right, our oldest daughter reading Dan Price’s Moonlight Chronicles

Modernity, with all its excesses, smiled at us. We were healthy and had passports that allowed us to travel freely; we had the means. We also committed to living up to the opportunity by documenting our endeavors while trying to attune to other cultures’ subtleties (a process we had learned at home since we as a family were at a crossroads between Europe and the Americas).

Our pack-n-go mode

On the way in, Air China had just extended its connections from Barcelona Airport, and we found a way to transform our usual trip to San Francisco —we wouldn’t follow the Columbian canon by traveling Westward. Instead, we would go East as the Portuguese had pioneered in the Age of Discovery. The ticket included a layover in Beijing, and we had been able to squeeze a convenient layover in Japan, a 10-day stop in a country we wanted to dive in.

Norwegian Airlines had just posted some affordable tickets to fly from Oakland Airport into Oslo on our way out from the US West. Going back to that summer’s pictures and videos, we can commemorate some family adventures, as well as very productive filming sessions with some incredible human beings.

Itinerancy and life on the road feel very different with the backup safety of knowing that a credit card can get you out of any problematic situation, no matter where you are. Things were relatively tight, and we measured every expense. Still, we were able to rent a car or even borrow one to embark on a road trip in which we knew we would be able to sleep at any road Motel when we all were a bit too tired to keep going so, we’d be close enough to the next appointment the morning after.

Traveling from the Mediterranean shore into Japan, then into the US West, and finally dropping two months later in the streets of Christiania (Oslo’s old name) can feel a bit too much as a unified trip. Still, it’s a less radical experience than “traveling” from a comfortable situation —one with a car that works, a credit card that works, a place to crash after a trip— to a needy, fragile position. There’s no place in perceived decency for people with no house to go to, no money to spend, and no family, acquaintances, or social net to rely on when things get rough.

What you need vs. what you think you need

Kirsten’s YouTube channel allowed us to explore concepts that were getting a loyal audience, from small —and affordable— areas and homes to live to ways of exploring a fulfilling, “simpler” existence. We wanted to cover stories that would get us closer to the human condition’s basics, allowing us to “confront the essentials of life.” Some people we met along the way would explain to us they intended to quit the contemporary hamster wheel of debt. As Eddie Vedder tells us in Society, it’s necessary to work hard to pay ever-bigger socially engineered needs.

When you want more than you have
You think you need
And when you think more than you want
Your thoughts begin to bleed

Over the years, we have received emails encouraging us to cover stories about concepts associated with a simplicity that, in modern life, has become aspirational: “downshifting,” “downsizing,” “simplifying,” “decluttering,” or even FIRE (“financial independence, retire early “). There seems to be an urge among some of us to listen to the advice of older relatives and authors we esteem and trust.

A sense of place doesn’t need to be “place”

Even though we are genuinely aware of the tragedy and emergency that in most cases represents homelessness, “homeless” was losing for us the pejorative sense it held within society. We sometimes felt “homeless” too, while traveling light on a car or van, or while thinking about the meaning of “home,” “place,” or “belonging.”

On the summer of 2015, we decided to travel with a tent so when it wasn’t scorching hot we could camp

Yet, for some reason, we wanted to explore traditional media, social media, and people from the mainstream society we knew were feeling more and more anxious about the encampments growing across American cities. In the case of the West Coast, the phenomenon was taking a turn for the worse, with some citizens complaining more ardently about the prejudice that they perceived homelessness was causing to cities, to their lives, and (not last) to the appeal of towns and perceived property value.

The significant industrial and working shifts of our century, the effects of the big recession, or the increased education cost and student debt had eroded more than the employment rate —people from 15 to 64 working or actively willing to work—. Skepticism towards the modern lifestyle wasn’t new, and Thoreau had already vindicated the right to stroll in accordance with one’s own inner compass:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however, measured or far away.”

My troubles with an era of identity show-offs

The sense of uncertainty was also present in solace some people would try to find in gregariousness, groupthink, and identity. If there’s something able to cause ordinarily rational people to lose their grasp on rationality, it’s the mischievous —but self-convincing— warmth identity can give. We lived in Barcelona back then, and I was craving a sense of individual freedom that would take me away from the Manichaean obligation of defining oneself unequivocally back home. I was willing to refuse the game and propose to our family to go live somewhere else in Europe for a while. Traveling to the US felt refreshing, though identity was a matter of the times, notwithstanding the place. We would soon sense how divisive the 2016 US elections would become.

Already in San Francisco, we probably got a ride to the city. We may have driven to Kirsten’s parents in Alexander Valley, Sonoma, a couple of days later. Still waking up early due to jet lag, we then took a family car to get our rental for the summer at Santa Rosa airport, which bears the name of Snoopy’s creator Charles Schultz, no less.

Once the jet lag was gone, we drove to Sun River, Oregon, an outdoorsy resort with bike and walk paths outside Bend. The place enjoys high desert weather, access to the Deschutes River, and views to both Mount Bachelor and the southern Cascades, which have made the place appealing for families with young children from across the West. At least, until the fires in the area have intensified.

Three sisters and one bachelor

Oregon’s high desert: there, we feel at home. The Three Sisters, three consecutive volcanic, conical peaks, are the view from the hills of Bend. They were present in one way or another on our way out when we drove north on our trip around the Great Basin’s outskirts. Kirsten had been scheduling our stops along the way in a two-week, 4,000-mile journey.

Sun River had treated us well. We all felt rested and able to manage the harsh inconveniences of a demanding schedule: workout early in the morning; eat a healthy breakfast before leaving the place we spent the night in; do a morning interview, then drive some time to a second interview in the late afternoon or early evening; then, drive some more time to get closer to the place where the next appointment would take place the day after.

Add three children to the equation, plus the family time and video recording logistics, and you’ll get closer to it.

John Ford’s reminiscences: sagebrush landscapes

One notices in the West that distances are big, the sky is even bigger, and the horizon is full of reminiscences we all think to have seen somewhere before. An imagined mesa or plain while reading a book such as Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? A classic Western? Easy Rider? Thelma & Louise? Dean Moriarty’s perfectly desolate roads to roam in?

Driving from the high desert area of Central Oregon into the northwestern corner of the State means leaving suburban realities behind while entering a more desolate landscape, one carpeted with sagebrush and sleepy towns. That’s why, coming from the South, the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon are such a breath of fresh air, especially in the summer months.

At the feet of the evergreen Wallowa Mountains, the town of Joseph shares the appearance and mindset of high desert ski towns West of the Rockies. It holds the advantage of being both a smaller and humbler version of the college and ski towns that appear consistently on “best towns to live” lists from publications such as Outside Magazine. Those lists, by the way, will change significantly as severe droughts and summer fires decrease the quality of two of the critical resources in the region: ever-scarce water; and air quality.

A present from Dan Price (July 11th, 2015, Joseph Oregon)

Dan Price had invited us over to visit his underground home in the outskirts of this pleasant, laid-back town. All we had was a GPS location to guide us to a forested property downsloping to a naughty mountain creek, so we parked the car and confirmed with Dan that we had arrived at the indicated direction.

I decided to stay next to the car with the children, ensuring our basic needs before any other move. At the same time, Kirsten ventured a path past the handmade gate, from the top of which it was impossible to recognize any manufactured structure in the meadow below us, a mere forested hillside with running down to meet the creek three or four hundred feet in front of us.

Hobo culture: leaving the stigma behind

Price was middle-aged, tall, slender, the constitution of somebody engaged in physical activity. Calm, kind, and reserved, he invited us to check on his tiny underground home, as well as a second shelter he used as a workshop and print of his art and self-published comic books, the Moonlight Chronicles. His cartoonist signature was a declaration of principles: hoboartist.

Price had been married, and his children had grown up. He had decided to live within his means at one time in his life, spending some months by the coast living on a campervan as he followed surfing waves. He would spend the rest of the year at “home” —an affordable, comfortable shelter he’d build himself on a friend’s property he oversaw.

Our youngest son in july 2015. In the background, Dan Price’s underground home in Joseph Oregon

By the time we visited Price, he was living the life he wanted for 5,000 dollars a year, all expenses included (from gas and car parts to food and a few unavoidable bills.) He wasn’t technically homeless, yet only a few “adults” would have recognized his hobbit shelter in a verdant hill in Joseph, Oregon, as a “house.” Dan had no property to build on (he was renting it for a symbolic price from a friend), no conventional structure built, and no loan from any bank to pay.

I asked Dan Price why choosing “hoboartist” as nickname. To him, “hobo” was not a pejorative term. The term, first used in the US West around the ‘1880s, designated those itinerant workers (mainly men, who could afford to travel more safely, though safety wasn’t guaranteed) with no fixed home or address. Hobos would work in exchange for money, in exchange for accommodation, or even for food, but wouldn’t settle anywhere long enough to call it “home”.

Home was in the outdoors, full of opportunities for redemption and bigger-than-life adventures, those feeding folk songs and both the life and literature of Mark Twain or Jack London. The latter didn’t hit the precious metal when hustling for it in northwestern Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush, but the stories inspired by his adventure would turn out to be a way more precious booty.

From Harlan Hubbard to Dan Price

Dan had the time and the means to work manually in the property; he was glad to maintain his structures: an underground home, an underground studio, a composting toilet, a propane-powered river water shower, a pinewood propane sauna. But, above all else, he was the master of his time and used it to cultivate himself and work on his Moonlight Chronicles.

He didn’t ask much to society, and the town somehow tolerated his conscious living choice since he asked for power and the city allowed a line to be brought down:

“They also approved, the city council approved this composting toilet 25 years ago. So I’m kind of grandfathered in. And I don’t, as you can see there’s no junk cars or piles of trash around. I keep it really pristine so there isn’t anyone complaining. And if I had trashed the place and people were complaining, they’d probably come and kick me out.”

Yet Dan Price is conscious about his luck on how he is perceived: he has the looks of a mature man who didn’t quite get old yet thanks to an adventurous, exciting life full of reading, art conceptualizing, and exports in the outdoors. When we met him, we had already talked to materially wealthy people who didn’t control their own time nor owned the freedom and self-command we sensed in Dan.

That day we left Dan with the bliss of a fulfilling day and a present from him: some comic books designed and printed by him from the Moonlight Chronicles sagas, as well as a book by Don Wallis on the life of two legendary river hobos, a couple of vagrant of their own destiny aboard a shantyboat that navigated along the Mississippi and its no-less-majestic tributaries: Harlan Hubbard and Anna Eikenhout had married in 1943, the next year they built the boat and began an eight-year journey from Brent to New Orleans.

After the experience ended in the Louisiana bayous in 1951, Hubbard wrote Shantyboat in the Bayous, finally published in 1990. Thanks to Dan, Don Wallis’ book on the Hubbards accompanied us the rest of the summer. Some nights we were so tired neither Kirsten nor myself would finish a couple of pages before falling asleep. Some other days, exhausted at twilight (at either the beginning or at the end of the day), I’d open the book at random to find some pictures documenting the couple’s adventure, and a lot of things would make much more sense to me.

From shantyboats to guerrilla grazers

A couple of years after, we’d travel around the US East Coast and the Southern States, would meet Wes Modes, a Californian who, inspired by the Hubbards, had built his own shantyboat to revive a long-gone river lifestyle stigmatized by posterity and only alive in Mark Twain’s classics. I remember suggesting Kirsten to include the initial verses of T.S. Eliot’s Dry Salvages when she edited the video on Wes Modes’ shantyboat:

“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable.”

Donald Trump came and went by, and a one-in-lifetime event, a global pandemic, happened too. It feels it’s been a long time since we spent some time talking to Dan Price or Wes Modes. Maybe this feeling is in part caused by the fact we ourselves have experienced so many adventures, read so many books, shared so many moments with our children that we feel it was a long time ago.

On the road, July 2015; stop to rest by twilight somewhere in the Great Basin West of the Rockies

Even our visit to Aaron Fletcher feels to have happened some time ago, despite dating from less than a month ago, in August 2021. Fletcher went homeless some years ago and decided to explore an idea: becoming a “guerrilla grazer.” First, he tried with some goats but decided sheep were a more idoneous animal to travel with him from property to property offering on-demand grazing, as well as all kinds of services in exchange for a place to sleep, some food, or maybe money.

Flashing lights near the Sunset Route

All Fletcher owns can travel with him. He has a metal cart designed by himself and by a friend of him; a few precious items to feed himself, work, keep himself safe, and provide some food; and a flock of sheep small enough that reminded us more of a group of dogs willing to carry a sled up in the Klondike. We met him by the roadside on the outskirts of Ashland Oregon, an area he’s walked with his sheep during the last 12 years.

Fletcher is also “homeless”, though no one can call him destitute: he is living a conscious existence and, if he were interested, he could explore a more conventional, normativized lifestyle. Yet he isn’t rushing to leave behind his sheep, start a conventional job, rent a place and try to “reenter” society. He has a few things to say and, though we didn’t agree with some of his viewpoints, his perception of existence was refreshing, inspiring, and at a contemporary Diogenes-level.

Over the years, we have come to realize that homelessness is seldom a conscious choice, though some thrive even in extreme situations and can renew the meaning of some of Thoreau’s thoughts.

While I write my first article for *faircompanies in English, I read in LA Review of Books an article by Carrot Quinn’s on those who live on the margins of utilitarian society, the hobos. The book, The Sunset Route is set to remind readers who were the hobos and why othering homeless people can change the issue for the worse.

Jason Christian’s review of The Sunset Route reminds us:

“But one cannot truly understand this country without considering the dreams and habits of its underclasses, and there is plenty of material to probe, a whole genre of hobo letters: poems, songs, stories, essays, articles, novels, memoirs, and plays, even a newspaper called Hobo News.”

“The hobo who reads sooner or later tries his hand at writing,” Nels Anderson wrote in The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man, an innovative ethnographic study published in 1923. “A surprisingly large number of them eventually realize their ambition to get into print”.

Dispatches from the road

Anderson, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, lived at a homeless camp of 400 people in Chicago. He realized not every hobo was desperate.

A particular rest stop commemorating the Oregon Trail; july 2015

Some of them seemed to belong to an American character perceived in figures such as Walt Whitman:

“I tramp a perpetual journey […] My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods.”

Jason Christian elaborates on the hobo genealogy:

“Anderson’s was far from the first nonfiction book on the subject. In 1899, the hobo-turned-writer Josiah Flynt published Tramping with Tramps, a groundbreaking volume of nonfiction sketches from his travels. Eight years later, in 1907, Flynt died of pneumonia, the same year Jack London dedicated his memoir to him, a book about his own hoboing days called The Road”.

As for me, there’s no better topic to explore in my first article in English for this site than giving the topic of homelessness a perspective able to go beyond ostracism, frustration, and dehumanization.