Is Just Like Amerika!

Sleep on ground. Fight angry pigs. Eat very special sausage. Tramp across land without vowels. Go east, American friend, and discover why hordes of weekend hobos, lawmen, cowboys, and Indians are searching for the Wild and Crazy West in the woods of the Czech Republic.

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

IF IT'S TRUE that you are what you eat, then I am a big, greasy kielbasa. I brought this on myself: For the past week I have been camping with a dedicated band of carnivores who favor canned meat and an alarming variety of sausages. We're deep in the Brdy Hills, a rolling patch of beech forest as charming as a dream, about 30 miles south of Prague in the Czech Republic. The air is full of the smell of honeysuckle, the buzzing of bees, the chirruping of bluebirds, and the sizzling of meat. The only human tracks within sight are our own.

But this is a curious bunch. There is Jerry, the frequently drunk prankster who gets his kicks hiding pinecones in our sleeping bags. He whispers that his real name is Vladimir, but tramps are only supposed to go by their tramping names. Which is why "Jerry" is tattooed in boldface on his right forearm. George, a starry-eyed guitar player, can do a rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" in Czech that would make anyone homesick for the hills of central Bohemia. Ace is a private in the Czech army who always wears a Daniel Boone–style coonskin cap; he sucked down too much rum last night and, while dancing to George's intoxicating music, fell into the fire. Lucky for him Sheriff Tom was still sober enough to pull him out. A one-armed bear of a man, Sheriff Tom is, at 45, the oldest hobo, and he happens to own the biggest bowie knife, making him the logical choice to be the group's chief law-enforcement officer.
They are also a slovenly bunch. Empty sausage casings litter our campsite. Dirty clothes hang from branches. Camping gear—knapsacks, tarps, cooking kits—is strewn about like leftovers from a yard sale. The tramps themselves lounge in the dirt, sleeping, smoking, singing songs, telling stories...and eating meat. So far this week we've feasted on pork, beef, pork-beef sausage, ham steak, chicken, herring, sardines, smoked oysters, and plain old grilled meat, a gluey pink mush that comes in a can labeled "Grilled Meat." It's dinnertime on my fifth day with this group, and I've had enough—but that's only my opinion. Sheriff Tom insists that I keep up with my compatriots. He catches me sneaking away from the campfire and blocks my path, brandishing a bright-red, footlong salami in his one good hand. He's staring directly into my eyes.

"Very...special...sausage," he says in deliberate, broken, heavily accented English. "You...will...enjoy...very much."

I ask what's in it. Sheriff Tom casts his gaze skyward, as if scanning the animal-cracker-shaped clouds to find the poor beast from which this sausage was rendered. "How you say..." Sheriff Tom says, sounding flustered. "I don't know. It is big, with hooves. Please. Eat!"

He hands me the sausage and motions for me to try it. Hesitant, I oblige, biting into the pasty gristle and rolling it around in my mouth. Then I make myself swallow.

"I know! I know!" Sheriff Tom suddenly blurts out as the sausage slides down my gullet. "It goes, 'Neighhhhhh!'"

THE MEN I'M TRAVELING with call themselves the Red Monkey Gang. They're a proud part of a nationwide movement called tramping, or vandr in Czech. As the name suggests, tramping is a takeoff on hoboing—the act of drifting from place to place by train or on foot. Real hoboing had its heyday during the Great Depression in the United States, when an estimated 1.5 million people lived on the loose. Most came to their vocation involuntarily, driven to the road by poverty and desperation. Nonetheless, hobos, like tramps, acquired a reputation for their carefree way of life, their predilection for booze, and a canon of whimsical folk songs and stories.

The Czech species of tramp, or vandrak, has the happy-go-lucky, alcohol-soaked aspects of the lifestyle down cold. But these are not bona fide, full-time tramps. The Czechs are dilettante vagrants: Recalling the lore of tramping, they embark on excursions in which they merely pretend to be down-and-out wastrels. Nor do they follow the hobo tradition with any commitment to verisimilitude; America's wide-open spaces have inspired many Czech "tramps" to dress up as cowboys or Indians or, just as bizarrely, World War II GIs. On weekends and during vacations, thousands of them hop trains (paying their fare rather than stowing away in boxcars), camp out under the stars, or rendezvous in the hills and at festivals, all the while singing Czech and American folk tunes. Most are middle-class working men with homes and families, though it's not uncommon to see women marching into the woods, too. Come Sunday night, everybody climbs back on the train and goes back to their day jobs.
Sounds like a pretty good life to me. So a few months back I flew to the Czech Republic and on a balmy Friday afternoon took a cab straight from Prague's Ruzyne Airport to Smichov Station, aka Tramp Central. There were tramps everywhere, relaxing on the ground, drinking in the train-station pub, strumming guitars. I bought a southbound ticket to the central Bohemian village of Revnice, which, I'd been told, was a jumping-off point for a lot of hobo outings. I boarded one of the shiny aluminum cars and, imitating the weekend tramps already on board, slumped on the floor with my backpack. "Ahoy," the other tramps said to me, using the traditional tramp greeting. (No one seems to know how ersatz hobos in the landlocked Czech Republic came to address each other as British sailors.) "Ahoy," I returned, and each one grasped my hand in the thumb-gripping, soul-style tramp handshake. We passed around a bottle of rum until Revnice, where I detrained.

Waiting at a bus stop just outside the station was a group of eight men wearing camouflage: tramps, I surmised. They introduced themselves as the Red Monkey Gang, welcomed me with handshakes and high-fives, and waved me on board the bus to Halouny. After five minutes, the bus let us off in a tiny hamlet consisting of a dozen or so stone houses with red tile roofs.

We shouldered our backpacks and set out up a steep hill in the direction of some thick green woods. The sun was beginning to set, and I was concerned that we'd be making camp in the dark. But having spent the better part of a day in the cramped middle seat of a 747, I relished the exercise and camaraderie of a group hike. In-country for only a few hours and here I was, trampin' with tramps!

After about 50 paces, though, Sheriff Tom motioned for me to remove my pack and pointed at a dilapidated stone building with a leaning front porch in front and a stinky outhouse in back. This was the Red Monkey Pub—U Cerveneho Paviana—the terminus, it turned out, of our hike. We entered and drank cold pilsner until 1 a.m., closing time, after which we set up camp in a small clearing behind the building. We spread our sleeping bags on the ground, crawled in, and woke up at noon, just in time for the pub to open.

For the next five days our routine was basic: sleep till 11 or so in the morning, skulk over to the pub for our noonday beer, pick wild mushrooms and blueberries, and hike. In the evenings we'd dine on sausage, drink rum, smoke cigars, and stare into the fire while George serenaded us with Czech versions of country-and-western songs.

Which brings us up to Saturday night and Sheriff Tom, who's holding me up with his sausage. I choke the entire thing down under duress while he watches, and then live with the consequences for the rest of the evening, sitting in a dyspeptic drowse beneath an incandescent full moon while George sings "King of the Road," "Hobo Bill's Last Ride," "Wabash Cannonball," and "Alaska, I Love You."

I'm still wide awake at 1:10 a.m., lying by the fire in my mummy bag, listening to Sheriff Tom's semidrunken snoring and trying to calm my aching stomach, when I hear a scream.

"Kanec!" somebody yells. It's Jerry the prankster, only now he seems in earnest. He trips over himself, lunging in my direction. "Kanec!" he shouts again.

I can hear grunting and heavy breathing, not all of it coming from my fellow tramps, who are frantically trying to free themselves from their sleeping bags. Suddenly a squadron of feral pigs crashes through the brush in single file. One, two, three, four, five. Noses to the ground, they begin to vacuum the campsite of its rubbish, eating sausage casings, residue in empty Spam cans, even dirty socks. Their beady eyes, glinting in flashlight beams, give them the look of crazed beasts from hell, and their razor-sharp tusks could rip flesh from bone. But then one pauses next to my backpack and I get a sense of proportion: These pigs are no bigger than Yorkshire terriers. Indignant, if more than a little relieved, I squirm out of my sleeping bag and prepare to defend our camp with honor.

Fortunately, I don't have to. The raid lasts less than a minute. Before anybody gets hurt, the pigs scurry off into the dark—presumably in the direction of another, even more slovenly, tramp site. The Red Monkeys saunter back to bed. When I crawl into my bag, a sharp object pricks my thigh and I grope after it: pinecone. I look over at Jerry, who is sitting up, grinning.

TRAMP. VAGABOND. Vag. Bum. Stew Bum. Profesh. Bindle Stiff. Alki Stiff. Roadie-Kid. Hobo. The wandering soul has countless names, many of them suggestive of sloth and indolence. The hobo (the term possibly a bastardization of a 19th-century vagrant's greeting, "Ho, beau!") is, one might say, prone to go long stretches without showering and unapologetic about his heavy smoking and drinking. He rides from city to city, from job to job—and sometimes he just rides for the peripatetic hell of it, gathering with fellow tramps in train yards and sleeping under bridges, outraging the local constabulary. Jack London, who as a youth spent eight months hoboing in 1894, wrote that the life of the road "entices romantic and unruly boys, who venture along its dangerous ways in search of fortune or in a rash attempt to escape parental discipline. It seizes with relentless grip the unfortunate who drifts with, or struggles against, the tide of human affairs."

Even in postwar America, nostalgia and wanderlust kept tramp wanna-bes hopping boxcars. Nostalgia eventually outweighed wanderlust, though, and tramping fully evolved into an idiosyncratic pastime, with aficionados in hobowear gathering like Civil War reenactors to sing the old songs of the road and swap pork-n-bean recipes. In keeping with the times, those who struggle against the tide of human affairs now have a support group: the 5,800-member National Hobo Association, which has a Web site (, a magazine called The Hobo Times ($25 a year), and annual gatherings. The most recent conclave was in July in Elko, Nevada, where tramps spread out their bedrolls at a fairgrounds that, according to, offered "electric power, showers and change rooms, and night lighting."
Unlike the Americans, however, the Czechs never really tramped out of necessity. From its start in the 1920s, it was a hobby—an amusing interpretation of American hobos and cowpokes. Marko Cermak, an outdoors writer and the unofficial historian of tramping in the Czech Republic, says the first tramps were lone-wolf types who headed for the hills after watching movie cowboys like Tom Mix and "Bronco Billy" Anderson battle Indians and herd cattle on the open range. These early Czech tramps would dress like cowboys, ride the trains to the edge of town, and sleep out under the stars "cowboy style," as Cermak calls it. It was a time when Europeans were developing an obsession with all things western through the novels of turn-of-the-century German writer Karl May, who never set foot in the American West but wrote of the high mesas and howling coyotes with a Prussian commitment to authenticity.

Taking a more laid-back approach to the western mania than their neighbors the Germans, who began organizing cowboy conventions and staging mock shoot-outs, the Czechs mixed up stories of hobos and cowboys-and-Indians into a happy stew and called it tramping. Teams of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Czech hobos and cowboys established elaborate camps in the hills, where they elected sheriffs to keep order. (Some camps survive to this day, with cabins proudly named El Passo [sic], Jack London, Tacoma, and Cimarron.)

Over time, several factions formed. Some tramps, especially those with an ecological bent, began imitating the Indians they saw in American movies, dressing in elaborate costumes, carving totem poles, tanning hides with cow brains, and erecting tepees. Others specialized in canoe tramping, lugging their vessels onto trains and riding to their favorite rivers and lakes. After World War II, American movies inspired yet another vogue, one that is still prevalent today: the GI tramp. GIs dress in camouflage army fatigues (to blend in with nature, they say), black army boots, and dog tags.

To make any sense of all this—to form a rational connection between army-surplus getup, pub-oriented camping, and the Czech version of the "cowboy life"—you must put yourself in a bohemian frame of mind. The word "bohemian," with all its boozy, shiftless, rules-be-damned connotations, was born in this very region of Czechoslovakia—Bohemia, which comprises half the nation. Gypsies, otherwise known as Roma, or Cikani in Czech, have long been a significant minority here. (They make up 0.3 percent of the population today.) When Gypsies trekked beyond Bohemia into France during the 15th century, the French dubbed them Bohemians, and "gypsy" and "bohemian" became more or less synonymous. Bohemianism aside, the Czech Republic consumes more beer per capita than any other nation on earth—almost twice as much as the United States. This only helps make the country more fertile for tramping. In fact, the national anthem is fittingly titled "Where Is My Home?"

Even the Nazis and Communists couldn't keep the tramps down. Tramping groups were active in the underground resistance after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939; some who worked in munitions factories employed their prankster skills in the cause of freedom by mislabeling boxes so that German troops on the front lines got the wrong-size bullets. When the Reds took over in 1948, the apparatchiks felt sufficiently threatened by tramps to spy on the larger camps and break some of them up. Unsupervised assembly was outlawed which, of course, only made tramping more attractive to the bohemian soul. In his 1990 book Disturbing the Peace, Czech president Vaclav Havel recalled the role a group of tramps played when Russian tanks rolled into a small town north of Prague called Liberec in 1968, at the end of the Prague Spring. Led by a young man called The Pastor, the tramps took down all the street signs overnight to confuse the Russians. Another "poignant scene" involved the group standing guard at the town hall and singing the Bee Gees hit "Massachusetts." Havel writes: "I saw the whole thing in a special light, because I still had fresh memories of crowds of similar young people in the East Village in New York, singing the same song, but without the tanks in the background."

While disparate tramping groups went on to hold illegal rock concerts in the seventies and eighties, and in some cases went to jail for their provocative displays of affection for Western pop culture, tramping didn't face a real threat to its ethos until shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. By the time the Czechs and Slovaks had parted ways, in 1993, the Czech Republic was already knee-deep in its attempts to graft a Western capitalistic head onto a moribund Eastern Bloc economic body. The transformation worked, for the most part, but it's had a sullying effect on tramping. Tramps who once scorned communism began to cast a yearning eye toward Western-style yuppiedom. Though hordes still tramp, the new economy has inspired careerism among many would-be hobos.

"Now everybody wants to make money," the bartender at the Red Monkey Pub told me. "They work long hours and don't have time to spend their weekends in the woods. They take vacations abroad. I think, too, that there is nothing to rebel against now." Up until the Velvet Revolution, she explained, tramps fancied themselves on the outside of society. "Of course," she said, brightening, "the young tramps, the 17-year-olds, rebel against capitalism now. So hopefully tramping won't disappear forever."

One hopes the bartender is right—that democracy, like Nazism and communism before it, will fail to take the bohemian out of the Bohemians.

I'VE GROWN TIRED of the Red Monkey Gang—bless their souls—and their slothful ways. On the morning of the sixth day, a pack of chipper, clean-cut tramps marches up to the pub, where we're seated on the front porch, and I quickly invite myself to join them. But saying good-bye to the boys is not easy. Sheriff Tom, I'm certain, has never had a more faithful sausage-eating mate.

"Why no more drink pivo with us?" he asks, gesticulating with his pilsner. "No like us?"
"Yes. Yes," I say. "I like you."

"No like our sausage?"

Well, now he's getting warmer. I mumble that my bum knee requires constant movement and move out. The new crew includes a couple of fresh-faced college students; a lanky young woman; a bony, English-speaking thirtysomething; and a hirsute middle-aged man. A hundred yards down the trail I look back—I shouldn't, but I do—and there is the Red Monkey Gang, waving a forlorn good-bye.

After a few minutes we stop, and the tramps introduce themselves. The two college kids are called Little Pid and Pad; it's never quite clear what "Pid" stands for, but "Pad" is Czech slang for "he who falls down a lot." Rita is Pad's girlfriend. The bilingual guy is the only one willing to give his real name: Pavel Bem, a talkative psychiatrist who's also the mayor of one of Prague's 15 boroughs. His nickname, Strevo, translates as "he who acts withextreme intentions." The leader, a six-foot-two bruiser with a thick beard, is simply Big Pid.

We grip thumbs, toast one another with the requisite shot of rum, and set off hiking down a potholed dirt road. Soon the road becomes a single rutted track in a green tunnel of clattering branches. It's late morning, but the farther we walk, the darker the woods get. The group plans to hike ten miles to Kytin, on the eastern slope of the Brdy Hills, and then head for Brdsky Kempy, "Valley of Brdy Camps," a narrow, heavily wooded canyon that isn't on any of my maps but, I'm reliably informed, was home to some of the earliest tramp camps, dating back to the 1920s.

Hiking with this new gang is like competing in a speed-walking contest. All five are former participants in the Czech scouting movement, and over the years they've spent a lot of time tramping in the Brdy Hills. Like most, they've perfected the art of traveling light. Each wears a small, threadbare green knapsack in which he or she carries a fluffy cotton sleeping bag, a cooking pot, a spoon, and ingredients for a few meals.

The path meanders between woods and fallow fields where quail and grouse flutter. According to a historical map of the Brdy Hills, during the thirties and forties, the most famous group in these parts was the Beer Volunteer Workers, a pack of about 150 tramps who wandered around dressed like American cowboys, carrying genuine Colt .45s. Their badge was a Boy Scout fleur-de-lis with a glass of beer in the center. The gang dwindled during the fifties, though, due to Communist harassment.

Strevo himself suffered under the regime; he was once jailed for two days without being told why. "You can't understand unless you've lived under a totalitarian government," he says. "You begin to question what the truth is. I think that's why Czechs are very outdoor-oriented. The TVs and radios constantly played propaganda. We had to get away from it. At least out here in the woods you could find some truth."

After three hours of hiking we come upon a fire ring nestled beneath a 40-foot rock face and a twisting rivulet. It's one of the early tramp sites. The wet air drenches my socks and shirt, and giant ferns bow down in the mist. "We are here," Big Pid says, taking the pack off his back.

We set our things down and begin gathering logs for a fire. I help the group string a tarp between two trees in case of rain and then unsheath my nylon tent. I hardly have the first stake in the ground before Big Pid motions for me to stop. "There are no tents in tramping," he lectures, shaking his black beard. "You must see the stars." This didn't come up with the Red Monkeys, but then, I was never sober enough to try to put up a tent. I slide it back in its sleeve, but Big Pid isn't done yet. "And there are no gas stoves, fancy backpacks, and none of those PowerBars." He glares at my carbo stash. "We will show you real tramping food."

I thought I'd already seen real tramping food. Since we got to the campsite, we've been eating sausage and washing it down with rum. But sausage is just an appetizer for this crew. As Big Pid speaks, I watch him pull an entire roasted chicken out of his backpack, followed by an assortment of vegetables. He dismembers the bird and mixes up a stew over the open fire. The other tramps prepare meals in their own pots—everything from noodles to chicken casserole. Then, one at a time, each pot is set in the middle of the campsite. We stand in a circle and take turns bending down and spooning out a bite. For about an hour, the six of us share dinner and compliment the chefs. The evening's entertainment is a traditional tramping game: Standing nose to nose, we try to knock each other off balance. Big Pid, naturally, goes undefeated. Then we sprawl on the ground, light cigars, and pass a flask. As the fire dies down, a cuckoo fills the forest with its unmistakable call. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Five cuckoos. "Bad news," Strevo says. "According to the cuckoo bird you have only five years left to live."

That's not very heartening, I say.

"If it's any consolation," he replies cheerfully, "we only have five years, too."

"WHAT? DO I LOOK like I was in the Party?" exclaims a thin man dressed in beads and buckskin, with blue streaks of war paint on his face. His name is Jiri Kohout. I seem to have offended him by asking whether he'd been a Communist.

My search for tramps has taken a side trip into terra incognita. I have rented a minivan and, accompanied by my 19-year-old translator, Hana Kozakova, have driven to the small city of Plzen, about 60 miles west of Prague, in search of the more settled, rendezvous-oriented, cowboy-and-Indian side of tramping. A rodeo is taking place here, and I've been told I might find Indians. A good tip, as it turns out: Within five minutes I bump into Jiri and his tribe next to the funnel cake booth. His wife, Gabriela, son, Jarda, and daughter, Nikolka, are dressed up like Lakota Sioux. I ask if he would be so kind as to take me back to his tepee for a short powwow, and we walk down a sidewalk to a small patch of grass outside the rodeo arena. There, next to his car with bumper stickers that read "I Like American Indian PowWows" and "American Indian Hobbyist," are two tepees, outfitted with colorful blankets and animal-skin rugs.
The Kohouts are here at the rodeo to perform a prayer dance at halftime. It would be nice if they did a stop-the-rain dance. It's pouring, putting a damper on the rodeo. A few moments ago a Czech cowboy slipped in the muck and was gored by a bull. He's not badly injured, but the ambulance siren is ruining any sense of authenticity. Meanwhile, water is blowing in through the tepee's door, drenching the tom-toms and blankets. Making the situation worse—at least from where I sit—is Jiri's sidekick, a pale, burly, Indian-loving friend who is wearing chaps sans underwear. He's inadvertently mooning the group while he tries to close the tepee flap, eliciting groans from Jiri's son, a 16-year-old who is chilling in Indian garb and a pair of Oakley sunglasses.

Oblivious to the commotion, Jiri launches into his story as if it were ancient cosmology. "Tramps and Indians were together at the beginning," he says wistfully, relating his thoughts through Hana. "But then something happened. Tramps became very dirty and smelly. And all that drinking was unsatisfactory to me. Indians aren't dirty. They are clean and smooth."

I notice that the Kohouts certainly are. Their blond hair is tightly braided, and their outfits are crisply pressed.

Jiri continues: He started dressing as an Indian 30 years ago, when, as a young man, he witnessed the horrible way in which Indians were treated in American westerns. "I knew then that Indians were my people," he explains. Already a veteran GI-style tramp, he began to wear Indian garb on outings. Soon he was erecting tepees in the woods, where he and his family spent weekends and holidays, living "the simple life" the way the Indians did. He beaded belts and purses for sale at Czech rodeos and other western-themed occasions. And he got himself a booking agent. Yes, he says, he's been to the States once, but he prefers being an Indian in the Czech Republic. "It's very good here," he says. "There are no snakes in Czech. It's much fewer dangers here."

I ask if being a Central European Indian opens him up for ridicule. "Yes, people joke about me being a blond Indian," he admits. He lights a cigarette and takes a deep, contemplative drag. "But I just stand proud. I give them no pleasure in teasing me."

As I prepare to leave, the Indians begin talking among themselves. Jiri looks concerned and takes me by the arm. "You understand, don't you," he asks, "that I am not a real Indian?"

WHAT IS THIS THING called the Wild West? John Wayne hunting Apaches? A faded denim jacket from the Don Imus catalog? Those who live there are forced to separate fact from myth. But in the Czech Republic, the myth remains untainted by reality. Czech tramps choose among happy clichés—footloose hobo, Marlboro Man, noble savage, GI Joe—celebrating wide-open America and throwing out the details. When I tell my new cowboy and Indian friends that I am from Santa Fe, New Mexico, the heart of Indian country, most of them seem to care not at all. They are more interested in showing me their new plastic pistol or horseshoe belt buckle.

Nonetheless, I don my armadillo bolo tie and head to the stark suburban neighborhood of Vestec u Prahy on the south side of Prague. There, in the middle of a cornfield, just beyond a row of housing projects, sits a weather-beaten ghost town called Westec City. Part theme park, part banquet center, Westec City represents the big-business side of Czech tramping; it pulls the ethos out of the woods and half-bakes it, hosting western-style barbecues and rodeos for corporate clients.
Tonight the partyers are from the Czech division of Microsoft. Cowgirls in cleavage-revealing western garb hand each guest a black cowboy hat and a mint julep at the door. Black-hatted executives and programmers line Main Street, a row of buildings labeled Saloon, Undertaker, and Post Office. As the sun sets behind the neighboring housing blocks, a tinny loudspeaker blasts the spaghetti-western theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and shutters creak in the wind.

A heat wave has descended on Central Europe, so I decide to wet my whistle with a drink in the Westec Saloon, hoping, as I've been promised, that I'll hear some good live music. Cowboys belly up to the bar, drinking the local brew. Faded wallpaper, round card tables, and a mounted deer's head make me feel like I've stepped into a scene from Kenny Rogers's The Gambler. A man in a cowboy hat is standing onstage, singing sad-sounding country-and-western songs in Czech, accompanied by a boom box. "What kind of music you got here?" I ask.

"Both kinds," says the barkeep. "Country and disco."

Through the window, I watch a man practice for the calf-roping event by tossing his lariat over anybody who passes by. I go outside and introduce myself. He tells me his name is Jaroslav Krchov, but his cowboy friends call him Dick. "That's spelled D-y-k," he says. Dyk, 33, has the callused hands of a cowboy. He sports a tattoo of his horse, Black-and-White, on his right arm. We arrange to meet the next day at the garage where he works as an auto mechanic and then drive out to his "ranch" on the outskirts of Prague.

When I pick him up in my minivan with Hana, Dyk seems a more subdued, blue-jumpsuited version of the gregarious cowboy I met at Westec City. We wind through narrow streets on the way to his house, past pubs and parks full of kids, and I ask him if anything is wrong. "I must tell you," he blurts. "My ranch is not like your ranches in the U.S. It is a very small ranch."

Five minutes later we are at the road's end, on a hill overlooking a busy expressway. "This is home," Dyk says, gesturing to a small, red-brick bungalow with a vegetable garden for a front yard. Behind it is a fence made of a few stakes and some twine. Four horses stand in stalls beside a pasture the size of a putting green.

Dyk walks over to his faithful Black-and-White, who is standing in the shade of a cherry tree. Wrapping his arms around the horse's neck, he recalls the first time he saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—the movie that made him, at age 19, a cowboy. Inspired, he found time apart from his mechanic's job to ride horses at a stable near his parents' home northwest of Prague and experiment with saddle repair. Over the next 14 years he built the stable behind his house, converted a delivery truck into a horse trailer, and began driving to rodeos in the Czech Republic and Germany. He spends a third of his $388 monthly salary on hay and oats, but his appearances at Westec City are for love, not money. Once a year he rides in the Czech Pony Express, in which horsemen race from town to town across the country, carrying real mail. He looks out across his quarter-acre spread and tells me that he plans to move his family to a bigger place farther from the city, with more space to practice his calf-roping and barrel racing. Capitalism has been good to Dyk and his clan. "It's much easier to be a cowboy these days," he says. "We no longer have to hide our cowboyness."
WITH MY WORK FINISHED and my pores oozing sausage grease, I find my way back to the train station at Revnice, where I first entered the Brdy Hills. It's a Sunday night, and homebound tramps are everywhere, in the train-station bar, sleeping on benches, strumming guitars, or nuzzling with sweethearts. Everyone looks half-dead: It's a scene from Night of the Living Hobos. Tomorrow the tramps will return to their jobs as clerks, mechanics, psychiatrists, and mayors.

For a brief but glorious time, I've lain myself down in the bohemian heart of camping. My extreme-sports-loving friends back in the States spend thousands on high-tech gear and strenuous expeditions that cannot possibly deliver the degree of comfort I got lying on the ground 20 yards from a pub. At every step my beer glass was full, my belly had meat, and my cigar was lit. Soap? Razor? I don't need no stinking razor. I've found the real, world-preserving wildness celebrated by that Yankee bohemian, Henry David Thoreau—the wildness not of place, but of what he called "foresters and outlaws." This is camping: eating junk, getting dirty, misbehaving. I've gone native: This boy is a tramp.

The train pulls into the station. I climb aboard and once again sprawl on the floor. As we pull out, the car begins to shake and clank in a satisfying rhythm. I'm just drifting off to sleep when a man dressed in ripped jeans and a torn army jacket, accompanied by a mangy dog with a metal muzzle, plops down next to me. He pulls an envelope full of tobacco out of his pocket and offers to roll me a cigarette. I decline, but look closer. Though I probably appear rather disgusting myself, this man looks much worse. He has clearly been on the road a long time, a lot longer than a couple of weeks. Wait a minute, I think—here's a real hobo.

He pulls out a stainless steel hip flask and offers me a swig. I take a long pull and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.

"Dekuji," I say in thanks.

Realizing from my accent that I'm an American, he sits up, grabs his guitar, and begins to play: "This land is your land, this land is my land, from South Moravia to North Bohemia..."

It's time to go home.

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