What Hoboing Remains

There was an era, once, when you could strike out into the countryside in the fall without much more than a bindle full of clothes and find the means to pay your own way. Little farms all over the country needed help harvesting, and you could go help out in exchange for a hot meal, a place to sleep in the hayloft, and maybe a few dollars. I haven’t done the research to find out how easy it actually was for the old-time hoboes to find a place to do that, but however easy or hard it was to find a farm to work on then, I guarantee it’s harder now. Engineers have created a machine for practically every crop there is. Hoboes have been mechanized nearly out of existence. People who might have worked their ways around the country if it were a different time now hang out downtown and ask for spare change.

But there is still one crop that needs itinerant work. Up here in the Trinity Alps of northern California, wanderers of every description and from all over the world coalesce on a few small towns, thronging the coffee shops and bars and sidewalks, all to try to help with the harvest. This is the Emerald Triangle, where weed reigns.

It’s estimated that California produces five million pounds of marijuana per year, stuff that makes its way all over the country. And all of it, before it goes to whoever’s going to smoke it, has to get trimmed.

Weed, freshly cut from the plant and hung to dry for a week, is an unruly mass of tiny leaves mixed with hairy flowers and twigs and stems. Your discerning stoner only wants the pure buds; everything else just makes the smoke harsher and more dilute. And this is where the modern-day hobo comes in. They find a grower, ride out into the boondocks to their farm, and sit at a table in front of a tray full of buds, from morning into night, breaking each one down into the optimal size and trimming it into a nice handsome shape. A decent trimmer will go through an entire pound of buds in a day, a really good trimmer two.

People come through here to make their entire savings for traveling for the next year. You can come out of the Emerald Triangle with thousands of dollars.

But that’s not as easy as it once was. And that’s because pot is winning. It’s getting legalized all over the country, state by state—and as a result, people are pouring in to buy land wherever a decent crop can be grown. Land prices in the mountains of southern Oregon and northern California, and the mountains of Colorado, have shot up tenfold or more. The market is flooded. And the growers can’t get what they used to for their crop. That pound that a trimmer trims in a day would once fetch up to $5,000, but these days it might only get to $800. If you’re well enough connected you can probably still find $2,000 or even $3,000, but the game has changed and it’s much more difficult. So growers can’t pay their trimmers the $200 a pound you could once find. Now it might be half, and they’d pay even less if they could find any trimmers who would work for that kind of peanuts.

Even so, Misty and I have come through to do it. We’d been traveling off of my savings, but as I kept an eye on my account, I noticed that we couldn’t do that forever. We’re starting to work on making this trip pay its own way.

Some people come to this area with connections, with a job already lined up. We had none. So we joined the drifters. Once we got to the approximate right area of California, we basically just hitched around at random, and asked each person who picked us up where they thought we might find work. Which is how we ended up in a tiny town, enfolded by mountains on all sides, with autumn oaks turning vivid yellows and oranges, and crowds of drifters everywhere. We were lucky: some people hang around the area for a month or more looking for work, but once we got to a town that felt right (which, admittedly, took several days to find), we got hired within a day. We woke up, went to the coffee shop, struck up a conversation with someone outside the entrance, found out they were a grower, then found out they didn’t have any work, but their friend, who had just come out of the coffee shop while we were talking, did need a couple people, and thought they might take a chance on us.

And that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple weeks here: a bit of trimming, a bit of odd jobs. Our grower is a very nice person who cooks amazing meals for us. We sleep camped out under a canopy on a hill with an amazing view of the valley around.

You may be unsurprised to know that I’m being very moderate with my consumption of the crop (“Sparing, some might say,” as Misty puts it). I’ve never been much of a toker; it mostly just makes me fall asleep. But hey, it’s legalized in this state, and you won’t find it any fresher, so I’ve been enjoying a little of it. But I’m really here for the work, not for the weed.

We’re not sure how much longer we’ll stay here. It’s a beautiful October here, but the thing is, you would barely know it, because we trim inside, and only see the sun during breaks. We also go a little nuts sitting down all day long, and can feel carpal tunnel setting in from scissor-handing all the time. We’ll probably keep on adventuring further down the road within a couple weeks.

Speaking of breaks, we’re on a rare half-day because our grower’s gone to a different town for the evening, and I’m eager to seize the daylight while it’s here. So I’m going to wrap it up here and go on a walk with Misty.

File under: Year of Transformation, adventure · Places: The West


Verne Troxel

Picking grapes and other fruit, perhaps an occasional Amish farm, but most things change and move on, as they should.

Hobos were around on rare occasion while I was a child. For the most part they were not wanted since they did not smell good and were not always trustworthy, I imagine that had not changed.

Chuck

Yeah, I think a lot of the hoboes around here would fit both of those old stereotypes. I’ll have to do a post at some point on “crustpunks”. They’re quite the characters.

Reply

Dave

I don’t think the hoboes of old were doing it by choice. Philisophical nomads full of wanderlust they were not. Mostly hungry dust bowl survivors for which “the new deal” wasn’t quite working.

Dave

Chuck

Probably true. But is your point that we’re not “real” hoboes because we could choose not to be? Because (a) some of the Depression hoboes probably were doing it by choice. The guys Steinbeck wrote about in Tortilla Flat (which is fiction, but apparently he was a bit hurt when people suggested he was making it all up for a cute story, and said the characters were based on people he’d really known) could probably have found steady work if they’d been so inclined, but they would rather sleep in the woods and drink gallons of wine with every dollar they earned. And (b) What, really, is the point in dividing modern-day nomads into “real” and “fake” hoboes?

Dave

Well, anyone who would rather lay in the woods drinking gallons of wine with every dollar they earned, likely has severe mental illness and substance abuse problems. My wife works with this population everyday. Some would rather live on the banks of the Ohio and always know where to get a free drink.

Not trying to classify anyone as a real or fake hobo. Just guessing that most people in the 1930’s didn’t really have life choices to make. I think most people took the only roads or options they had, but of course there were exceptions. My wife has oil paintings made by her great great grandmother. We know little about her, but anyone who had the time or means to live a life of leisure 100 years ago does intrigue me. I wish we knew more about her, but her story has vanished, gone and buried in untold history.

Sounds like you are living the life you want, I say great! You could design and sell hats saying “make hoboing great again”.

Chuck

While I was at Feral this year I saw a button that said Make America not exist again. That’s my favorite spin-off so far and I really want that on a shirt, but a hoboing one would also be good.

Mental illness is an interesting concept. Someday I’ll have to write a whole post on it, but the capsule version is that I’ve lately been seeing an increasing number of people saying that what we call mental illness could also be accurately described as normal, healthy reactions to an insane environment, along the lines of the pacing and perseverations that you see in zoo animals. We’re all dealing with something very unlike the situation the human species grew up with, and whether you count that as a gain or a loss or something in between, the knock-on effect is that there are some people who are able to gracefully take on the new kinds of roles that are available, and some people who can’t hang, and have to deal with this era in ways that make them unable to provide for themselves in the peculiarly narrowed set of ways that are allowed now. You could call the inability to work within the new world an illness, but the way it’s damaging to the individual who has it is really very different from the way a flu hurts you. The flu attacks your body directly and causes it to shut down. And a lot of mental illnesses, of course, are pretty direct, like cerebral palsy making someone unable to do a lot of things that are necessary to survival. But then there are the more social “mental illnesses”, like ADD—where the reason it’s counted as an illness is basically “you fidget too much to fit for your round peg to fit in the square hole that the education system provides, so we’re going to medicate your innate tendencies into something more malleable”—that is to say, it’s an illness only because the culture around doesn’t like those behaviors, and would prefer they be stamped out. That stamping out works on a lot of different levels and I would say it’s often the cause of more “illness” than it tries to prevent.

Huh, so much for capsule version. My thoughts on this are still not very fully worked out, though, or bounced off of many people who actually live with these conditions. In any case, what I’m getting at is that what our personalities are capable of constrains our life choices almost the same way outside circumstances do, and though I can spend long hours on a computer, I think if I did that year after year, even though I’m pretty mentally stable, it would take a severe toll on me. Towards the end of being in Minneapolis working on web stuff, I noticed some of the beginnings of a bad mental state beginning to eat in at the edges of my psyche, and had a need to get out. So to some degree I believe it’d be completely legitimate to say that I don’t have the option of the 9-to-5-to-65 route for life—it would feel like a prison and I couldn’t live with myself for just grinning and bearing it.

Not to put myself on a level with people who are born into poverty and live on the streets all their lives. I enjoy a lot more latitude in my options than that. I have the connections, education, and constitutional ability to spend some time hunkering down and making money to make enough money that I’ll probably never starve or get wrapped up in gang violence trying to survive. My options are nowhere near as constrained as most people’s on this planet are. But it’s interesting to take this stuff apart and look at it from other angles.

Reply

Hit Enter twice for a new paragraph. You can use asterisks to make *italics* and **bold**, and you can make links like so: [link says this](and goes to this address). Other fancy formatting possible via Markdown.