Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Real Live Hobo

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

In June of this year, Ruth and I took an extended weekend photography trip to Iowa. On Sunday morning, we were in Mason City and we passed a dog grooming place that had a large pink dog sculpture in front of it. It was made out of barrels and pipes and was rather cute, so I pulled into the parking lot of the shopping center next to it and parked the car. Then I grabbed my camera and tripod and walked back to the dog sculpture.

As I started to photograph it, I saw a young man walk past on the other side of the street. He had a dog on a leash and a backpack on his back. He sat down on the grass in the shade of a building.

Soon another young man, also with a backpack, came walking down the sidewalk and started talking with the first young man. A minute later, a young woman with a very large backpack and a dog on a leash came walking past and I said to myself, “What’s with all the backpacks?”

I went back to capturing a couple images of the dog sculpture and then someone said, “Excuse me, can you tell me where the nearest gas station is?” I looked up and realized it was one of the guys from across the street. I told him I wasn’t from Iowa, but that we had passed a gas station a block or two down the street. And then we shook hands as we introduced ourselves.

He said his name was Roy and he was a hobo.

“You’re a hobo?!” I exclaimed. “Wow, I’ve never met a real live hobo.”

Roy told me that he had been living the life of a hobo for the past eight years. He was headed to Sioux City, Iowa, to see his father, whom he hadn’t seen in six years. He told me that he and his friends ride the rails, stopping along the way and working to earn some money.

I told him I was from Madison, Wisconsin, and he replied that he only knew one town in Wisconsin and that was Madison. He said he had been to State Street once.

Roy said he loved being a hobo because it was allowing him to see this great country in a way that others don’t and to see things others will never see. I asked him how he and his friends were treated by the railroad people. He said that they were pretty nice in small towns, letting them ride without too much trouble, but they were not as friendly in the bigger cities. After seeing his father, he was going to Kansas City where he would meet up with his friends.

I asked Roy to wait a minute while I took one more shot of the dog sculpture. Then we would walk back to the car so Ruth could look up the exact location of the gas station. He said that would be really nice.

As we walked back, I told Roy that I had read about hobos riding the rails in search of work during the Great Depression, but I didn’t know there were still hobos in this day and age. He smiled.

When we reached the car, I introduced Roy to Ruth: “This is Roy and he’s a real live hobo!”

Ruth smiled and then I turned to Roy and said, “Is that offensive?”

“No,” he said, “It’s actually very nice.”

Roy asked if our photos were on the Internet. So I gave him a business card and explained what “shunpiking” means.

“That’s great!” he said. “You guys are doing kind of the same thing I’m doing. Seeing the country like no one else! I think I’ll start using that word.”

And with that, he headed back to his friends.

I was really impressed by the gentleness and friendliness of this young man, so I told Ruth that I wanted a picture of them if they would allow it. I grabbed my camera and headed across the street to where they were sitting.

I first introduced myself to Roy’s friends and then asked them if I could take their picture. They said that would be fine. I wanted to remember this day when a complete stranger (one whose lifestyle was a surprise to me) opened my eyes and earned a place in my heart.

I wished them well and then Roy said, “Thanks, safe travels!”

“Same to you!”

Happy Shunpiking!


  1. My sister became an accidental hobo for a day when she was a teenager. She and some friends hopped onto a train car when it was stopped. They thought they'd ride it for a few minutes, then hop off. The train accelerated so quickly, they couldn't jump off, so had to ride it until it stopped in another town. This was back in the days of pay phones (no cell phones). One of the kids had to call for a ride home for them all. Worked out fine in the end, but I don't think she ever told our parents!

    I didn't know there were any hobos left these days either, so thanks for sharing this.

    1. Diana, thanks for sharing the story about your sister. I just watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie where Laura, Mary, and their friend Carl are exploring a stopped caboose and it unhitches and starts rolling down the track, picking up too much speed for them to jump. Trains never look like they're going that fast, but I've been blown back from the tracks a couple of times, so I am now more careful when I photograph them.

  2. Joanne and Ruth, how blessed you are to meet up with Modern Day Hobos! :)

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. We are blessed, indeed!

  3. Now, that's awesome!


  4. Hi Larry, glad you're still reading. Thanks for the comment.

  5. What a great story and a great experience for you! I had no idea there were still hobos riding the rails.