Todd "Adman" Waters recently took the last ride of his reign as the 2004 King of the Hobos. He caught trains from Minnesota to Montana to sprinkle the ashes of his friend and fellow hobo, Buzz Potter, along the banks of the Kootenia River.
"These last three weeks beat me up," Adman, 58, said. But he added, "It was my last ride as king, but not my last ride."
Adman will be passing along his crown this weekend during the 105th annual Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, which runs from Aug. 11-14.
The festival began in 1900, when three men decided to welcome hobos to Britt to get some publicity for the town, and the tradition stuck. Now the tiny town of 2,000 swells to 20,000 or more when the hobos roll in.
Electing a King and Queen
The annual Hobo Convention is a time where these "working wanderers" gather to reconnect and trade stories from the past year.
It's also when they elect a new king and queen. Contenders give a two-minute speech to the crowd of hobos, tourists and townspeople and then a king and queen are chosen based on who gets the loudest, most raucous applause.
The duties of the king and queen are vague at best -- there's no oath of office or bylaws to follow, and royalty is crowned with a shredded Folger's coffee can.
But candidates do run for office and do make campaign promises. Sometimes they run based on their connection to hobo history -- such as Betty "Connecticut Shorty" Moylan and Maggie "New York Maggie" Malone, two former Hobo Queens whose father was a legendary hobo named Connecticut Slim. Others, like this year's queen, Dawn "Sunrise" Divento, win by entertaining the crowd with music or stories.
Adman says the most important duty for a king or queen is to keep hobo history and culture alive. In his stump speech, Adman pledged to identify a man found frozen to death in a train boxcar two years ago and give him a proper burial. He's distributed fliers across the country and raised enough money to build a gravestone for the unknown man in Britt's Hobo Cemetery.
"The golden thread that holds it all together is that we all matter," Adman said. "In the underworld, we didn't always know that."
Adman also spent the last year reaching out to younger members of the hobo community, passing down traditions through storytelling. But the king and queen are also elected to put a public face on the whole community.
"In a sense, it's a stage to promote the difference between the hobo and the bum," he said.
Not Bums, Drunks or Thieves
Hobos often get a bum rap, say many rail riders and those who know them. The tramp, they'll tell you, is a traveling non-worker, moving from town to town, begging but not working. A bum is the lowest class, often drunk on skid row, too lazy to roam around and never works.
"Some of the myths are that they [hobos] are drunks or thieves," says Linda Hughes, the current president of Britt's Hobo Museum. "Yeah, they enjoy having a drink once in awhile, but they're not drunks."
Essentially, the hobo is someone who "works and wanders," said Connecticut Shorty, 63, who travels the country with her 64-year-old sister, New York Maggie.
The term "hobo" may have originated with migratory agricultural workers in the 18th century, who were often called "hoe boys." Or, some say, with soldiers returning from the Civil War, who said they were "homeward bound."
After the Civil War, the Great Depression and the Vietnam War, men who felt like they no longer fit within normal society would often hop on a boxcar and travel the country, working when they needed to.
Who Are the Hobos Now?
Connecticut Shorty says that she and her sister both lived a "conventional life" near Hartford, Conn., for many years. They both married, raised children and worked straight jobs in law firms and insurance companies. But when the sisters retired in 1995, they took to the road like their father did.
"We are probably born with that wanderlust in our veins," Connecticut Shorty said.
Though the sisters rarely catch trains, they call themselves "rubber tire tramps," touring the country in a mobile home, working at RV parks and campgrounds in exchange for a place to stay.
Adman began hitchhiking then riding the rails in the 1960s and '70s. Finally, in the late '70s, he married and settled down in Minnesota, started his own marketing company (hence the moniker "Adman"), and had two children, now 17 and 14.
He still rides six to eight weeks a year, but says he is torn between comfort and stability and absolute freedom. There have been times when he has returned home from a trip and found himself feeling claustrophobic. "I couldn't get oxygen," he said.
Not Just a Relic of the Past
While many people assume hobos are simply a relic of the past, Adman says that's not the case. There are still some old-timers around, but there is also a new crop of younger people to take their place.
Adman says he's seen more young people -- mainly in their 20s -- riding the rails in the past few years. He says they are "environmentalists and punk rockers" who are creative and "absolutely great."
"It just comes around again," he said. "The old guys say, 'The hobo is dead.' They say that because they want an exclusive on the deal."
But even Adman admits the hobo lifestyle has been romanticized. It can be difficult and dangerous and downright unacceptable to polite society.
"Hobos look at people in settled society and they just kind of laugh at them," he said. "But settled people won't even look at hobos."
Nonetheless, if you want to live by your wits, live creatively, meet amazing people and get to know America like the back of your hand, nothing beats the hobo life, Adman says.
"It's not the miles, it's the smiles," he says.