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

December 17, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | 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.

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