The first time Ashley Lance tried to hop a train she was busted, but that was years ago.
Since then, Lance has quit her full-time job and has landed herself in Newton with her companion Steve Holman, who’s been traveling via trains like a 1930s hobo since he was 19. The 39-year-old might be one of the few authentic hoboes left in the country.
After her first failed attempt, Lance met Holman later in Santa Fe, N.M. She has been reading about hitchhiking and train hopping for some time, considering giving the lifestyle another go. She decided that her brief stint on the road with another friend was satisfying.
“I wasn’t capturing the experience of what traveling really meant because it was just too comfortable for me,” she said. “I was just too used to sleeping in a car, and it wasn’t fun.”
Now she considers the nights she can sleep in a box car — a “hobo motel” — lucky. The two have been stuck in Newton for a few days. After they rode a train in, one hasn’t since passed through that is going to their next destination: Des Moines. Holman hopes that he can find work and is considering buying a pickup truck. In other words, retiring from the hobo life.
‘Do it yourself’
In hobo culture, Lance is called a ‘Green Horn,’ a term that applied to Holman when he first met an experienced train hopper in 1993 and road with him for four to five months.
“He taught me everything I needed to know,” Holman said. “All the way to hobo ethics. He always told me never to beg and never fly a sign. Get out there and do it yourself.”
Holman can do anything from welding to drywall work. When his phone is working, he tries to set up work on Craigslist before coming into a town. While he and Lance are stuck in Newton, he hopes that he can find work, but if all goes according to plan they hope to be gone by the end of the day.
“If it takes you all day to make 10 bucks, then so be it,” he said. “It’s honest.”
Holman’s mentor told him never to beg or stand on street corners with signs asking for money, food or alcohol, the latter of which is dangerous while hopping a train.
While they’re here, Holman plans to enjoy Iowa, a state that he considers to be one of the friendliest to hoboes. He considered New York and Wyoming to be the opposite.
“Some states you can see where people are kind of uptight,” he said. “And some states you can see where people are more laid back.”
Holman and Lance understand that their mode of travel isn’t legal, but they try to abide by as many rules as possible. There are some security depots they avoid, and they stay out of the way of the employees of the railroad.
“We’re not hurting anyone,” Holman said. “But I wouldn’t encourage any kid to go out there and try it.”
Hitchhiking and train hopping can be dangerous, and in Holman’s experience, even deadly. He’s known people that have died on the road, which is called “Catching the Westbound.”
“You can get killed or hurt doing this,” he said. “Most of the time those stories start out with ‘oh, well, I was drunk.”
Holman and Lance distinguish themselves from beggars. According to Holman; a hobo will work, travel and take care of themselves, a tramp won’t work but will beg with signs, and a bum won’t travel or work.
“We’re not like the old hobo used to be,” he said. “We’re not out there sitting on the train, waving at the cars as they pass by. We’re out of sight and out of mind.”
They don’t get to stay in a hotel many nights, but when they do it’s a blessing. In Newton, The Salvation Army rented them a hotel room at the Mid-Iowa Motel.
Even though Holman is considering retiring, Lance doesn’t think she’ll be quitting with him.
“I’m so much happier where I’m at right now,” she said.
Since 9/11, Holman said security around railroads has made train hopping more difficult. In general, the pair aren’t hassled by railroad employees that have experience with hoboes. Younger employees find hoboes a little frightening, he said, and suspect the worst.
“If we saw someone trying to rob that train, we would get on our cell phones and call the police,” Holman said.
Since the first hoboes during the Great Depression, the lifestyle and ethics have been changing.
“It all comes down to generosity and taking care of yourself,” Holman said.
Staff writer Dave Hon may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 425, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.