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By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA

Robert Wolf
Robert Wolf

Background: In the summer of 1963 I rode freight trains from Phoenix to Bakersfield, California, at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. After an aborted camping trip in the Sierras, I returned to Bakersfield to find a freight back to Phoenix.

Two rides took me into Bakersfield. I was broke. I hadn't a penny and I was hungry. I stopped the first man I met and said, "Could you stake me to a meal?" It was a line inspired by the movie, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Bogart asks a man, "Say, pal, could you stake a fellow American to a meal?" The man looked Mexican. He looked at me and said no. I walked on and he disappeared into a store. Seconds later he ran up behind me and said, "Here, get yourself something to eat," and handed me fifty cents. I thanked him and walked on. The fifty cents would buy me a sandwich and a coke, but I wanted more food. I saw a farmer in overalls walking towards me and gave him the same line. He gave me a quarter. With my money I went into a luncheonette and had a tuna fish sandwich, a coke and a candy bar, with change still left.

I walked to the tracks where I stood around the yard office, waiting to ask a railroader for a connection back to L.A. I spotted an engine slowly making its way towards me, with an engineer and a fireman my age aboard.

I bolted over, walking alongside the engine and asked the kid, "When's the next train to L.A.?"

"Eleven tonight. Five tracks over."


"You better get yourself some water for the trip. It's going to be a long one."

"Okay, thanks."

I found two Coke bottles near a water pipe at the yard office, filled them and made my way over to the train. There were no empty boxcars. The train from Phoenix had empty cars because it was deadheading. This one had cargo. I did find an empty gondola and climbed up the rungs.

Horns blared, trains clanged back and forth and cars ran overhead on the nearby highway. I was thinking of what everyone across America was doing. And there I was, squatting in a gondola, happy, dreaming, sure that the future was going to be good, musing till the sun went down and the kid fireman came running across the tracks with two hamburgers and a malted milk, saying, "I brought you these things to eat. I felt kinda bad. Here I am making $120 a week for doing nothing. I don't need all this money. You take some."

That was one of the big surprises and kindnesses of the trip.

"I'll be back with more," he said and sped off into the darkness. And he did return, with three chocolate bars and another large malted. We talked some more. He was a college student who lived in the suburbs around Bakersfield. At the end of our conversation I asked for his address, said I would write and pay him back.

The next day broke over my poor skull with a crash. The heat of the Mojave Desert melted whatever brains I had. Sitting on my pack in the gondola under the scorching sun, I devised a means to get rich quick in Phoenix. I reasoned that since in ten minutes in Bakersfield I had raised seventy-five cents, I could make possibly as much as thirty-six dollars just for a morning's work in Phoenix. I planned my daily schedule for Phoenix. I would get up at 8:00, have breakfast, and by 9:00—wearing my road clothes—would start panhandling. I would panhandle until 1:00. After a few days of panhandling I would have enough money to buy a seersucker suit. (By this time I would also be living in a hotel.) After 1:00 I would change from my rags into my suit and head to the library for an afternoon of study and reading and, of course, polite conversation with my literary friends. Afterwards I would cut out for dinner in a posh southwestern restaurant where I would dine in the soft glow of red lamplight. This was what I was actually thinking as I rattled in my gondola.

Mojave Desert

For four hours I rode through the Mojave in the relentless sun without a hat, but finally draped a shirt over my head. The Mojave was sand, nothing but sand could I see except for the mountains to the east. A sign on the nearby highway pointed to Mitchell's Cavern. I had read about Mitchell's Cavern—a cave with a perpendicular drop to which no bottom had been found.

At one point the train stopped at a town with a regular hobo camp with bo's scattered about, lying on shirts, chests naked to the sun, a crowd of them sitting near a faucet under which one bare-chested bum sat, letting the water run over his head and down his torso while the others waited. Another bo tried to butt in but the bum under the faucet shoved him viciously away.

I watched clusters of hoodlum bo's with long blonde hair and muscled chests walk with large sheets of cardboard folded under their arms, two or three of them carrying sheets for warmth that night.

I wandered off the tracks to the yards and the town where crates of grapes were being shipped off, vast stacks of green grapes lying in piles on tables before being crated. I wanted to take just one grape but did not dare. I just looked.

I walked back to my train and climbed up the rungs of my gondola. The train pulled out, exposing me to four more hours in the blasting sun. Finally it slowed near a gas station, giving precedence to an approaching train. It waited so long that I hopped off the car and carried my pack a quarter mile across the desert to the gas station. I went into the men's room and put my head under the sink and let it run. I took off my shirt and splashed myself with water to remove the grit and sweat. There were no paper towels. I went outside and asked the attendant for some.

"We don't give towels with our showers," he told me.

* * *

The gas station was crowded with drivers. A reporter for Life Magazine stood inside a phone booth calling his boss about an interview. There was a couple in a sports car and a trucker heading south. I asked him if he would give me a lift.

"As far as Kingman, Arizona," he told me. "There's an I.C.C. checkpoint there and I can't give you a ride beyond. I'd lose my job."

I climbed in the cab and we roared off. Both windows were rolled down to cut the heat, but it was no use, the air blasted in like a furnace. It was the most miserable ride I had ever had in my life, but it was faster than the train. The trucker let me off at Kingman at sundown. I walked down the highway to the railroad tracks.

The sun had streaked the clouds purple. Kingman looked dismal. I had felt this before in other whistle-stop towns, where it looks like the end of the line for everybody. You wonder why anyone came to live there and why they stay.

At Kingman I got a ride from a short, thin man with blonde hair and no chin. He told me his life story.

"I went into the war at nineteen, a bomber pilot on a B-46. It completely wrecked me. When I came back I got married. I never should have. The marriage didn't last five years.

"I've never gotten over the war. I tried selling, and I kept at it for a while, but I broke down and that's when my wife and I got a divorce."

He went on, telling me he was heading for Tucson and was passing by Phoenix. He would let me off there. He looked at me. He said, "You look like you need a rest, son. Why don't you come to Tucson with me? I'm going to be there a few days. I'll get you a place to stay. If you want, you can come back to Los Angeles with me. You don't have to stay at my place. I'll get you your own. I won't even disturb you."

I told him no, that I had other plans.

When we got close to Phoenix he stopped for gas and bought us Cokes. I noticed he was wearing tight white Levies and sneakers. I wanted to believe the best of him but when I saw that outfit I knew he was wrong.

When we arrived in Phoenix he told me, "I hope you'll change your mind and go on to Tucson. You got nowhere to stay here. You need a good bath of hot water and a rubdown." He emphasized the last word.

"No," I said, "I don't think so."

When he left me off on the outskirts of town he told me the name of the motel he was staying at, in case I changed my mind. He said I should call him collect. He left me off in the skid-row section of Phoenix, where I wandered until I found a park and lay down under trees for the night. The streetlights illuminated the outskirts of the park, but except for the possibility of a wandering patrolman I felt I would be left undisturbed. The air was chill, but I did not dare unpack my sleeping bag. If cops approached I wanted to run. With cars swishing past and midnight voices lingering in the air, I slept but fitfully.

* * *

When morning came I was already sitting on one of the benches, waiting to spot a prospect. I saw some walk into a luncheonette across the square and ambled over and asked the next man I saw if he would stake me to a meal. He looked at me, said no and walked away. Then, as happened in Bakersfield, he came back. He took me in the dinner, ordered a meal for me, paid the cashier and left without saying a word. The waitress was kind and I was fed a stack of pancakes with plenty of butter, bacon and eggs, milk and coffee. When I left all I could do was blush at the waitress and say good-bye to the cashier. What politeness to a kid who smelled of coal, pinesap, dust and sweat!

I was drawn back to the park, partly out of curiosity to meet the denizens, and partly to find my way around. At the park I sat on a bench next to a chubby man with horn rim glasses and very thick lenses. His name was John. He, too, wanted to tell me his story.

"I came into this town three days ago with my wife," he said. "We parked the car, got ourselves a hotel room. Then she excused herself, told me she had some things to do. I haven't seen her since. When she didn't come back to the hotel that afternoon I went searching for her. The old lady's an alcoholic. I gave her description to bartenders and one of them said they'd seen her in there all one day—boozing. Then she took off. Goddamn if she didn't take the car and all of our clothes and sell 'em for money to buy more booze with. She'd been off the stuff for a while, but this did it. Now she's back on, with all my money."

He was wearing a disheveled suit. His shirt was wrinkled and his face was unshaven. He leaned back against the bench with his arms sprawled on it. Then he leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees and spat.

"Ah, shit," he said. "The no-good fool."

He looked up at me.

"She's done this before. Last time was in Kansas City, but I caught her after the third day, just went from bar to bar and back again until I found her."

He took out rolling papers and a sack of Bull Durham. He looked up at me as I smoked a Camel.

"You gotta watch yourself, kid. Don't let any of these guys see you've got yourself ready-rolled smokes. They'll all start borrowin' from you until you ain't got nothin' left."

He rolled his cigarette and looked on either side of himself, as if to see if there were other bums around. Soon John was asking me for cigarettes.

"You come with me this afternoon for a meal at St. Vincent de Paul's."

"What's that?"

"It's the mission here. They give out free meals at noon everyday. Plenty of people there."

We strolled over to St. Vincent's at noon. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the whitewashed, two-story structure was the most colorful crew I had ever seen—a mob of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos—bums and hobos, elderly folks on the down and out, young women with kids. Long haired Mexicans and Indians in purple shirts and jeans and wild scarves wound around brown, creased necks stood next to old bo's in red-checked shirts with pot bellies sagging over frayed belts, and wearing broken, scuffed shoes. Amid all these stood young, gaunt-faced girls in loose-fitting gowns with children clutching their mother's dresses with little fists.

John walked over to a small knot of men. One, I noticed, must have been Red, an old-timer John had earlier said would help me out. Red was about five-eight with red hair, a flabby paunch and an alcoholic face with sagging cheeks and bloodshot eyes. After mingling with some more of the boys, John came over and told me to step over with him to meet Red.

Red moved directly in front of me.

"Where you from, boy?" he asked.


"How old are you?"


"Nineteen, boy!"

Red's hangdog eyes were now glaring at me, flashing with anger.

"Go home! Go home! Get out of this racket. It STINKS! You're too young and stupid to know it."

"I like it."

Red became angrier. "I did it and I never went back!" he shouted. "Take it from me, it stinks!" Then, calmly, he asked, "Do you have parents?"


A second later his mood changed again he was once more yelling. I was somewhat afraid of him, not because I thought he would take a swing at me, but for his strange unpredictability.

"I can stand here looking at you and know that you're stupid and don't know what you're doing. Go back home now. Don't waste your life! Go back before it's too late and you end up like THESE BUMS!"

Red flung his arms about, indicating all the men and women in the crowd—the old men with hands in pockets, not caring; the laughing, white-teethed Mexicans, laughing out of strength; the bewildered and frightened women who wondered what would happen to themselves and their kids.

Red was so mad and wound up he was spewing spittle in my face. The veins in his neck were popping. When I backed off he stopped talking and turned round into the crowd.

John returned. The mission doors opened and we lined up.

By the time John and I got inside, the line extended from the front doors down the 100-foot sidewall to the servers. The walls were white and the room was filled with rows of big tables and benches. Already men were lumbering to the benches with tin plates of food. When I finally reached the front of the line I got myself a tin plate and plastic cup. I was given a powdered drink, pinto beans, a tortilla, and a boiled potato with skin. I sat with John, Red, and one of their friends. The food was dry, about the worst I ever ate.

Far from being depressed by this scene, I was straining to see and hear everything.

After lunch John and I cut back to the park where he instructed me further in the means of getting on as a bum.

"I've been staying at the Salvation Army. They give you two nights a week. I've already used up one.

"Is it free?" I asked.

"Of course," he said. "You've got to sign in by four o'clock."

We spent several hours talking before I went to the Salvation Army and registered for the night. I got there before it opened. A young man in his twenties with an Air Force bag was standing outside. We sat on our bags and smoked while we waited. When the doors opened I went in, signed my name to the register and stowed my pack. They said I had to be back by five o'clock and no later.

I walked off downtown to panhandle and look around. In the Mexican section I approached a Negro who handed me ten cents, but another Negro and a Mexican just shook their heads. I cursed. I was beginning to see my hopes dashed. I walked into a better section of town where the buildings were taller, the traffic heavier, where middle-class suburban housewives shopped. Still no luck. Most of the passersby would not even look at me.

I walked to the library where I read until four-thirty and then walked several miles back to the Salvation Army. John was there. So were some of the others I had seen at St. Vincent's. The Salvation Army captain or major told us that we had to take showers, and others led us into an anteroom where we stripped and were handed towels and soap. After the shower I changed back into my old road clothes. We were led into the dining room where we stood on line for hotdogs and chili, which were almost as bad as the pinto beans and boiled potato at St. Vincent's. I groused about it to John, but remembered that a few days before I had bitched to a withered bum about the cigarette he had rolled me.

Before we ate the major led us in prayer. Then we were handed hymnals and he and some of the Salvation Army women led us in songs which everyone sung halfheartedly, except for the major and the women who were trying to pitch some religion into our souls.

After dinner we sat on our bunks batting the breeze and smoking until lights-out at nine o'clock. The next morning after they fed us breakfast, John told me how bums made enough to get a flop for a week.

"They go down to the blood bank and sell a pint for four bucks. That's where I'm going this morning. They only let you sell a pint once every week and I haven't sold any yet, so I can do it. These other guys go down every morning and try it. Most of them get kicked out."

"Yeah," Red said, "there's a real bitch down there who checks 'em over real careful, won't let most of them sell till the time's up. Come on down with us. You ain't old enough to sell blood, but maybe they won't ask you for your I.D."

The three of us trudged across the park and down a block to a small building where other bums sat around on couches, waiting. Several were having long arguments with the lady—the "bitch"—swearing they had not been in that week. She kicked them all out. I was sitting in a chair, sweating; bureaucrats intimidated me. I walked up and said I wanted to sell a pint.

"How old are you?" she asked.


"Let's see your identification."

"I don't have it. I lost my wallet."

"Sorry, but in that case we can't accept you."

I told John I would wait outside.

Both he and Red sold their blood and when they came out they were happy and assumed a superior air. They made jokes and talked to each other and ignored me. I was tired of their company, anyway, and wanted something new. I bid them farewell. Stunned that I was unable to raise any money panhandling, I decided to head home. I trudged across Phoenix, which in those days was still small, to a highway heading northeast. I was on my way back across America.

My first ride was with an old man that swung me across stretches of desert clear to Globe, Arizona. There he left me off at a roadside park where I was most likely to get a ride.  Lots of cars were parked there with the travelers at benches eating lunch.

One old couple told me they would not give rides to hitchhikers but the old man gave me several baloney and onion sandwiches and some pastries. I put them in my jacket pockets and wandered over to a younger couple. The woman was wearing a light terry cloth blouse that started just below her breasts and outlined her wonderful shape. Her husband was a wiry guy browned from the sun. They asked me to sit down.

"Where are you going?" they asked.

"All the way to Connecticut."

"Sure, we'll give you a ride."

When we took off they told me they would not have given me a ride except that I was carrying a pack.

"Bumming is a joyous thing," the man said. "It's lark and a man should carry a pack. I don't trust those who carry suitcases. It sort of means they're not doing it for fun. They're trying to get someplace. Do you see what I mean?"

"Yep, I agree."

"We're from Australia."

"You are? You don't have the accent."

"That's overplayed. It's all a bunch of nonsense. We're been traveling around the world, working when we need money. We just came from Canada. I worked as a carpenter there while my wife waitressed. We're been all through Europe, now we're going to Mexico to see the bullfights."

"But this is the wrong time of the year," I told him. "The bullfights are only in winter. You've missed them."

This was all true, but I hoped that by telling them they might decide to swing east and carry me a thousand miles closer to my destination.

"Oh, really? We didn't know that. Huh. Maybe we'll go to Tucson and figure things from there."

And that's precisely what they did. They left me off in a town north of Tucson, a tough little camp where I went into a diner. I still had some change left from Bakersfield, enough to buy a sandwich. There I saw a man eating lunch who I thought might be traveling east. When he left I gobbled my meal, lurched after him, and asked for a lift.

"Yes. Get in."

When I saw his car, I realized he was a sheriff. He was laconic and taciturn; I leaned back and relaxed. When we got to a river that passed under the highway, he cut across the road and parked.

"Going to check the river."

As I followed him down the bank to the river, I became apprehensive. Why were we going to the riverbank? Why did he park his car screened by cottonwoods where it could not be seen from the road? But he only knelt and looked in the water.

"I'm thinking of bringing the kids down here fishing and camping. The fishing looks good."

I sighed with relief.

We got back in the car and drove a hundred miles down the road. I picked up my next ride from a trucker who drove until late that night. He pulled over near a gas station.

"I'm going to sleep," he said. "I like to sleep on the hood where I can get air."

I knew how cold the night air was.

"Say," I said, "I'll sleep there. You don't have to."

"I like it. I sleep better out there than inside. You take the cab."

He got his blankets and stretched them out on the cab's wide hood while I put my head back on the seat and slept, but not for long. Soon I was outside pitching pebbles. We were parked on the outskirts of a town. I was getting tired of waiting, but I did not think I would have much luck getting another ride that late. I went back inside the cab and slept until dawn, when the trucker climbed back in and we roared off across the rest of Arizona on Route 66 into New Mexico.

I stayed on 66 into the flat grasslands of the Oklahoma Panhandle and Kansas, heading for Missouri. I was bone tired after so many days on the road. I decided to head for my uncle Bob's home in St. Louis for a rest. The next night, inside a café on 66 in Missouri where my last ride left me off, I got a lift from a friendly but dumb kid who drove me several hundred miles. Whenever he stopped, I napped. He left me at a café where I hooked up with a trucker headed for St. Louis. I was utterly beat. After days of sitting, my legs were stiff with cramp and my back was sore. We stopped for coffee and lurched off into the dawn, past farmhouses shrouded in mist.

He dropped me off a few miles outside St. Louis, where I got a ride from a dynamiter, who left me in a Negro neighborhood about eight in the morning. I shouldered my pack and walked into a Saturday morning bar where a few hard-time drinkers were getting set for another day. I called my uncle, whom I had not seen since the years when he and his wife, Mary, lived in New Jersey. Mary answered the phone. I told her where I was and she came and got me.

Bob looked very much like my father in build and face, but heavier. He was a big man with a thick shock of hair and a bellowing laugh and broad smile that seemed the epitome of heartland America.

That afternoon Mary washed my clothes while I slept. Dinner that evening was a big meal of corn, steak and salad, a meal that tasted so good after the last few weeks' food that I ate until my stomach hurt. The next day, Sunday, I cut their lawn. On Monday morning Bob loaned me five dollars and drove me to Route 66.

I stayed on 66 to Chicago, where I crossed into Indiana and took the toll roads. A succession of rides took me through the Indiana and Ohio prairies, flat and dull, and into rolling Pennsylvania with its endless eastern woods. On the New Jersey Turnpike I picked up a ride from a Negro driving a huge, lumbering U.S. postal truck. He could have lost his job giving me a ride, but he drove me to Union City, talking incessantly. We passed miles of oil refineries that lay outside New Jersey's massive sprawling cities, covered with thick noxious fumes.

"You want a job driving one of these rigs?" he asked me.

"I don't know anything about them," I shouted back. "Not the first thing."

"You can learn. You can get yourself a job driving the run from Hoboken to Philly every day."

I thought about it.

When we got to the loading ramps in the huge terminal he backed it up. Other blacks there started loading the trailer. He gave me his address in Brooklyn and told me to call him. I thanked him and walked off, wondering how I was now going to get to Manhattan with all my money spent and nothing to pay for a bus ride. I walked over to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel and stuck out my thumb. One ride shot me clear into downtown Manhattan, a dreary place after the space of the West.

I wandered through west side deserted streets between high piled buildings, walking towards Madison Avenue to my father's office. Conspicuous amid the businessmen in expensive suits, I felt a slightly ashamed, especially as the company receptionist did not know what to make of me. I said I wanted Mr. Wolf and he came out, smiling and gave me money for the train home, but later told me never to do that again, that it gave clients a bad impression of the office.

So I was home from my travels and what I needed was a job. I found one with a small survey company where I worked until late January, when I decided I needed to return to New Mexico, to the village I had visited for thirty minutes—Duran.


Robert Wolf
Free River Press
American Mosaic with Robert Wolf


Robert Wolf is an award-winning journalist, writer and publisher.

All opinions expressed by Robert Wolf are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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