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.