The Yuppie Hobos : When Trekking in Nepal Gets Old, They Hear the Call of the Rails

Times Staff Writer

It had to happen.

White-water rafting in Colorado would become, uh , boring. Trekking in Nepal would seem simply ordinary. Embarking on an African safari would appear much too mainstream.

So what's a thrill-seeking trend setter to do? Why, hang out with hobos, of course. In the latest salvo on the so-you-think-you've-heard-it-all front, yuppies are taking hobo vacations.

That's right, all you desk-bound lawyers, corporate executives and film producers. Shed your Armanis, your Guess? and your Polos in favor of Depression-Era baggy plaid shirts, genuinely faded Levi's and sufficiently scuffed work boots.

Assume Down-Home Aliases

Forget names that end in Jr. or III or Esq. and instead assume down-home aliases like Santa Fe Bo, Slim Pat and Whiskey Nancy. Turn your backs on BMWs, first-class plane seats and luxury cruise cabins and opt for unheated and unupholstered freight cars without toilets or running water.

"Don't knock it till you've tried it," advises Bob Spediacci, the 43-year-old president of California Express Messenger in Calabasas, who has been a part-time hobo for more than a decade.

"When people hear I do this," says Patrick Augusta, a 38-year-old general contractor from Torrance, "they just scratch their heads and go, 'Wow!' "

Some are guys who never gave up their Lionel train sets. Others never got over those hitchhiking days of the '60s. Many fell in love with the romantic descriptions of hobo life in the novels of Jack London, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. Most just need a breather from everyday conformity.

But enough are responding to "the call of the ride" that the L.A.-based National Hobo Assn., formed 10 years ago, claims that a "rebirth of the nomadic pioneer" is under way. The nonprofit group, formed to spotlight that great (and quite illegal) American tradition of riding the rails, claims 2,000 members nationwide.

It assists would-be hobos by exchanging information about scenic freight routes, unusual hobo campgrounds, restricted areas and discontinued rail lines. For a subscription of $18, the association offers the Hobo Times, a bimonthly how-to newsletter and literary anthology edited by Los Angeles actor and hobo association founding director Bobb Hopkins.

It also provides "special bulletins" to help plan a first trek. Articles include "Seeing America on Zero Dollars a Day," "Mulligan Stew Recipes," "The Glossary of Hobo Vernacular," "The 10 Most Scenic Train Rides," and "The Slowest Freights in the Land."

Illegal to Jump Trains

"We're not advocating that people go out and jump freight trains, because that isn't legal," cautions Hopkins, also known as "Santa Fe Bo," who produced "The Great American Hobo," a 30-minute 1980 PBS documentary. "What we're advocating is that people follow the hobo trail. There's a lot of history in it that we want people to understand."

In fact, every state has laws against trespassing on railroad property, and about 4,000 railroad policemen are on patrol for this criminal activity, according to Carol Perkins, spokeswoman for the Assn. of American Railroads in Washington.

"We strongly condemn the practice of riding on freight equipment by unauthorized persons. We just can't emphasize strongly enough the hidden danger of this practice," she says, noting that each year hundreds of trespassers are killed or maimed.

Still, there seems to be a ready supply of otherwise normal people who will abandon their careers and families to live by their wits on the road for a weekend or a vacation. "I think it would catch on with anybody who wants to find the adventure of life," says Spediacci, who is featured in the first issue of Hobo Times cooking over an open fire at a hobo campground. "Most of today's yuppies haven't really experienced any life at all. Because the adventurous life isn't sitting in an office every day."

And Tudor Williams, a 44-year-old master chef for a famous Hollywood film couple, says his two decades of riding the rails have showed him how to really travel in style: "I think yuppies should do it because they'll see how real people live. You get on a 747 and you don't see a damn thing."

From a psychological standpoint, hoboing seems tailor-made for an adrenaline junkie. "And it's probably safer than speeding on the freeway and a lot less dangerous to other people," says Gerald Davison, chairman of the USC psychology department. "And if, as Thoreau said, most men lead lives of quiet desperation, then yuppies lead lives of quiet boredom. This is a guaranteed way to experience something different with very little effort.

"The more time you spend with this idea, the less bizarre it seems."

Still, Davison worries that the fad might be the latest radical chic wrinkle of a take-a-hobo-out-to-lunch crusade by the affluent. "I hope it's more than just slumming. Because hobos are in a tenuous enough position in society as it is," he notes.

Indeed, the sort of people you're likely to meet out on the road won't help you get into the Jonathan Club. According to Patrick Augusta, a 38-year-old general contractor from Torrance and infrequent hobo, "Hobos are all kinds. Alcoholics, people on the run, people who just don't want to be bothered. You have to keep your eyes open. I've had a few little tete-a-tetes with some gentlemen."

Always Be Careful

Spediacci advises to "always be cautious. After all, you aren't going to meet your best friends out there. But if you're not a threat to them, they aren't a threat to you."

Meanwhile, yuppie hobos describe themselves as explorers. "It's almost like being an astronaut coming down from space," says Spediacci. "You can't imagine the feeling of excitement."

Spediacci is more or less typical of the yuppie hobo. Seemingly normal in every other respect, the Woodland Hills father of three admits, "I've been called nuts a lot."

But that's not how he sees himself. "Adventurous, maybe."

It was 12 years ago that he first announced to his family, "I'm going to go off and jump freight trains." His wife, Elaine, looked at him wide-eyed and declared, "Are you crazy?"

Urge to Roam

But his family knew the company president was a bona fide outdoorsman: the sort of guy who is as comfortable riding a horse as drumming up business. He also liked to roam the California countryside as much as possible on weekends and vacations. So it was natural, in a way, that he would become intrigued with that greatest of American roamers, the hobo.

Finally he decided to become one--even if it were only in his spare time. "It seemed like a challenge," he recalls. "If you gamble, you've got to throw the money down to feel the thrill of it all. So, you might say I threw my money down and haven't stopped yet. I've got it in my blood."

For his first ride, he hopped a freight train heading to Desert Hot Springs and spent a few nights in a hobo jungle there. He made the trip by himself and without incident--much to his family's relief. "I think I was worried for my safety, too," he admits. "But I know I'm safer in a freight train than if I get in a car and ride down the street."

One day while on the road, the company president met Hopkins and joined the association. "That's when I found out I wasn't the only one doing it by a long shot," he notes.

To date, his most exciting ride was traveling from California through Arizona and into Colorado. "I was riding over the Continental Divide on a flatcar," he recalls. "There wasn't a boxcar open. But luckily it was summer and not that cold. Well, the train got going up to speeds of 140 m.p.h. It was a thrilling ride."

A loner by nature, Spediacci prefers to travel solo. In fact, that seems to be why he is drawn to the life of the hobo. "I like to get out and be alone and get away from everybody. But you don't stay that way for long. You always meet someone along the way," he says.

He especially enjoys the strange social mix that inhabits hobo campgrounds. "It's quite a unique little family in the jungles," he explains. "If you play cards and don't ask too many questions, you're taken in very nicely by them."

So far, he has been bothered only once by a railroad security guard, known by hobos as a "bull," who caught him jumping a freight train in Montana. "This guy was a little upset with me and said, 'You're not supposed to be riding this train,' " Spediacci recalls. "And I said, 'Oh, I didn't know that.' And that was that."

By contrast, Tudor Williams has had a lot more hair-raising experiences with railroad bulls, especially those in South America who carry machine guns. And in his native Wales the rail yards are fenced, unlike the open yards in this country. "It's great here," he notes.

He first got the hobo itch by hitching rides on boats traveling between Britain and the Caribbean. But it wasn't until 1967 when he was settled in the United States that he discovered how easy it was to jump a U.S. freight train.

His first trip was a sightseeing odyssey, taking him from New York to St. Louis via Chicago and then across to Washington and finally down to Miami. From then on, he was hooked.

Coast to Coast

Certainly, warming hands over a pot of beans in a hobo jungle is worlds away from whipping up souffles for his employers in their Beverly Hills mansion. And that's exactly how Williams likes it. "If I have the time, I'll jump a freight across country to Miami or New York, then hitch a boat ride to the Caribbean or South America. In fact, I've even hitched rides on cargo planes," he boasts.

No wonder his hobo alias is "Wandering Wills." Indeed, it's almost a point of pride with Williams that he rarely pays for his passage anywhere. He even takes his wife, "Whiskey Nancy," along for company.

Like other part-time hobos, he rhapsodizes about his experiences on the road, from the people he has met ("Most of my friends are 'bos") to the places he has visited. "I remember one very special ride in South America when I went to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. I had three different trains to hop in two countries."

There's little doubt that the major reason successful men like Spediacci or Williams become part-time hobos is just to see if they can do it. But Patrick Augusta had even more to prove.

In a Tailspin

Five years ago, his world came apart. A bitter divorce and a downturn in the housing market sent his successful Los Angeles home-building business into a tailspin. "So I just said, 'To hell with it,' and took off," the former Vietnam combat veteran explains.

He decided to follow in the footsteps of an uncle who, after World War II, took off cross-country on a Harley-Davidson which soon broke down, leaving the uncle little choice but to ride the rails. Augusta's first trip was a short hop from Los Angeles to Bakersfield.

"And I suddenly realized that I could survive no matter what happened to me. You know, you keep hearing how yuppies turn to puppies when the trappings of their life are pulled out from under them. But I found we can survive just as well as anyone else when times are tough."

Until the economy turned around, Augusta decided to see America from the perspective of a hobo. Even today when he's making "a coupla hundred thousands dollars a year," Augusta still likes to "get a free ride and see the country on next to nothing. That's the whole point."

"Slim Pat," as he's known on the road, likes to keep a traveling outfit always at the ready, nothing "too loose or too tight," just a sweat shirt, jeans, long underwear and maybe a hat. And if it gets cold, he's not above stuffing his clothes with newspapers.

Generally, Augusta prefers the no-frills approach to hoboing. "I don't like to get entangled or weighted down by a bunch of gear," he notes. Still, he doesn't even carry a bedroll. "I sleep on the street, in hay, in boxes. And sometimes, finding a car that's open is like checking into the Hilton."

As for money, he carries very little and might do an odd job like washing dishes in exchange for food. "I've never looked for handouts," he notes. "Most hobos aren't afraid to work."

Nor is he particularly fussy about which train to catch. "I jump on and then see where it's going," he acknowledges. "One time I went across the Rockies, and then just turned around and came back."

Like the others, Augusta would like to see more yuppies take to the road and find out what stuff they're made of--Perrier or Mulligan Stew. But no one's expecting a flood of interest, either. Says Augusta, "It's easier to talk about it than to do it."

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