The jet-setting lifestyle is all the rage today. Who wouldn’t want to become a travel influencer living the ‘Insta-worthy nomad life’ and be proud owners of heavily stamped passports? Nonetheless, for many people, leisurely travel is out of the question because it’s often time-consuming and expensive.
Regardless of means or privilege, people across time have found a way to get a taste of the nomadic lifestyle. Before the age of influencers and social media, travel was an option for everyone. These passionate travelers, or hobos, often roamed America by freighthopping surreptitiously.
This alternative lifestyle was often dangerous and felonious, which is why nomads were referred to as tramps or vagrants and were looked down upon by society. But it turns out that these outcasts were gaining something by traveling. They were taking part in precarious adventures and life experiences that the people back home in their comfortable bubbles never experienced. Similarly, writing wasn’t the privileged job, marveled at like it is today; the career of a writer was unpredictable and dotted with struggle. It’s no surprise, then, that many nomads would become writers to share their stories with the world.
This genre of “on the road” writing took the world by storm. People at home loved reading about those who rebelled and took a walk on the wild side. They were enamored by the idea of living without a family, a home, or a stable job. But because of their specific and special lifestyles, nomads have become some of the most interesting authors of our time.
Before he was a novelist, Ernest Hemingway lived a thousand lives. He fought in World War I. He moved from small-town Illinois to Toronto, Florida, and Cuba. Most notably, he became a part of the “Lost Generation” in Paris which heralded some of the greatest artists of not only their generation but of all time. Hemingway’s travels would inspire books like A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Unfortunately, his perilous life as a nomad and an artist would lead to his mental health struggles and eventually his death.
A close friend of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady was a prominent figure of the Beat Generation. From prison to multiple marriages, Cassady found himself at the center of the Merry Pranksters as they traveled from New York to San Francisco. Although none of his writing was ever published, Cassady is credited with inspiring Keroac’s stream-of-consciousness writing style. While on the road, he wrote part of a manuscript and various letters with distinct and captivating prose. As to why his work was never published, he once wrote, “There is something there that wants to come out; something of my own that must be said. Yet, perhaps, words are not the way for me.”
Maurice “Steam Train” Graham
Known as the “King of the Hobos,” Maurice Graham began riding the railways during The Great Depression when he was just fourteen years old. He last settled down in Ohio by getting married and working various occupations. Following WWII and another two decades in Toledo, he returned to train-hopping for an additional eleven years. When he retired from the nomadic lifestyle in 1980, he wrote Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the Hobos, recounting his life on the road and the secrets of the hobo life.
While freighthopping is thought of as part of the old Americana of the past, there still are modern-day nomads that roam the rails of the nation. Though jumping trains is not legal today, Ed Davis is one of those individuals who participated in the wild lifestyle. After working in a mental health hospital, he took to Europe before riding America’s railways. His life on the road was so full of visceral experiences that he began his writing career in boxcars and hobo jungles. This menagerie of anecdotes led to the publications of the autobiographical, Road Stories, and the fictional account of his final freighthopping journey, The Last Professional — both of which introduce readers to a world that very few know about and even less get to experience. While it took years to introduce his stories to the world, Davis emphasizes that “getting there is what it’s all about.”
Elizabeth Cochran Seaman was always a writer, but as her career took her places she could have never imagined visiting, her life mirrored that of the free-spirited men who lived on the road. At twenty-five, she headed on a journey to become the first person to solo travel around the world in seventy-two days. Because of her bravery, she became a pioneer for journalism and storytelling in America. Her lost novels about Eva the Adventuress were just re-released to the public last year.
Richard Wright made a name for himself when his writing helped change race relations in the US during the mid-20th Century. With grandparents born into slavery and parents born free, Wright’s childhood was filled with displacement as the Wright family attempted to find a place to land. They traveled through various parts of the south before settling in Chicago where he found his passion for writing. His book, Native Son, was the first novel written by an African-American to be chosen for the Book of the Month Club. After several more publications, he left for France to become an American ex-pat and travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Leon Ray Livingston
Even before Kerouac, Leon Ray Livingston was the original nomad of the US. He is credited with perfecting the hobo symbol system which aided fellow travelers in finding food, shelter, and jobs and avoiding police and other dangers. A became a confidant and mentor for Jack London and even wrote a book about their travels together called From Coast to Coast with Jack London. Livingston wrote twelve books in total about the hobo lifestyle and his years on the road. For this, he is lauded as the original King of the Hoboes.
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