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 (www.hobo.org), 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 hobo.org, 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 1992, 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.