Bookworm Blog: “The Hobo Handbook: A Field Guide to Living by Your Own Rules” by Josh Mack

Your mortgage bill came today. The payment went up.

The local energy company is asking for an increase, too. Property taxes are going up, the cost of food is rising, clothing is up, and getaway prices are in the stratosphere because – you guessed it – the price of gas is up.

So what’s down? Your paycheck and your mood.

Did you ever wish you could chuck it all, tie your belongings in a handkerchief on a pole, and head for the road? Maybe that’s not so far-fetched after all. Read “The Hobo Handbook” by Josh Mack and see what you think.

Though the stereotypical Depression-era freeloader probably comes to mind when you hear the word, legend says that the first hobos were Civil War soldiers who, looking for an easy way home, hopped aboard a train. Others followed suit in search of jobs, finding them on the railroad and afield. Because of their willingness to take work that nobody else wanted, in fact, Mack says that hobos – or “hoe boys” – played “a major role in the development of the west.”

A hobo, by definition, was someone who traveled and worked. A tramp was someone who traveled but didn’t work. A bum did neither. Back then, you had to be sure you called a man right.

Yet, though they had jobs and income, hobos were often considered vagrants and were persecuted in many towns. To avoid that, they formed their own union, created their own slanguage, and devised a system of signals for communication. Even now, hobos hold annual conventions in Iowa to crown a yearly King and Queen.

So is it possible to be a modern-day hobo? Mack says it is, but you need to do your research first. Sleep outside beneath a tree on a cold, rainy night for a taste of road life. Familiarize yourself with transportation; not all hobos ride the rails. And if you do decide to hop a train, it’s essential that you know what you’re doing: “greasing the tracks” and becoming a statistic is exceedingly, dangerously easy.

Oh, and that handkerchief tied on a stick? Forget it. Did you really think it would hold everything you need?

It’s very tempting to think of “The Hobo Handbook” as humor. Author Josh Mack includes in the front of his book a tongue-in-cheek quiz to assess your readiness and ability to embrace the hobo life. Take the quiz, get your laughs, then prepare to learn because the rest of his book is as serious as a railroad bull.

Mack paints a picture of freedom mixed with cold and boredom, the dangers of hopping a freight train, and all the reasons you shouldn’t. Still: could you do it? Could you leave comfort and current life behind? I liked this book for that tantalizing, ticklish thought Mack dangles before his readers.

If you’re eager to find out what James Michener, Boris Yeltsin, Jack Dempsey, and Merle Haggard have in common, then this book is perfect. For you, “The Hobo Handbook” should move up on your list.