21. The Last Great American Hobo

Essay by Dale Maharidge
Photos by Michael Williamson



When he was a teenager, Montana Blackie heard about other teenagers just walking away from their lives and "riding the rails" together. The Great Depression was in full swing when Blackie hopped his first freight train. Sixty years later (at the time of publishing), he still hasn't returned to conventional life. He's a life long hobo by choice. And if the authors of this remarkable little book about his existence can be believed, he is the last of the Depression-era hobos.

This is a beautiful prose and photo essay on Montana Blackie's remarkable existence, which by the 1980s had become nearly impossible to maintain. Society has changed and no longer distinguishes between the homeless and the hobo. It's a tough time to be old. At 76 years old in 1989, he was, "a man out of time and place." During the three years the authors spent with Blackie in the late 1980s, he had built a grand camp along the Sacramento River reminiscent of the 1930s Hoovervilles. As the authors note time and time again, it seemed odd that he would build such an extravagant place when the likelihood that it would be demolished by authorities was very high. But that is Blackie's way.

Blackie says, You've got to maintain, keep your camp clean. Son'bitch can't keep his camp clean, he's no good. Well, I figure I might be on the fucking road, a dirty old filthy bastard, but my place is going to be clean. The old hobos in the old days, they used to be a bindlestiff, that bastard packed everything, and if he was crazy, he had a name for every pot and pan hung on the fucking wire of his tree. The old bindlestiffs are gone. A few around like myself. There's only a few crazy diehard bastards like me around that still motivate [ride rails]. As far as hoboin' goes, it's the same as it used to be. Fuck the idea of steam trains. All they did was change the motivation, that's all. There ain't a damn thing modernized. Still the same old tracks. Same units. Same goddam road, clickity-clack on down the line. Really nothin' has changed over the years. Not for me anyway.

This a well-written, intimate essay that honors a man and his way of life. It's a bit heart breaking, though, since it's clear that the world has changed around Montana Blackie, leaving little room or tolerance for his way of being.

The photos are fantastic. I wish I could share a few here.

Since childhood, I am perpetually drawn to the hobo life.