The word hobo, Thea Ross said, is derived from “hoe boy,” and connoted a time when travelers would wander the countryside picking up whatever work they could. Typically, that work was manual labor.
Ross, of Canada, and her companions Tyler Giuliani, Kerhonkson, N.Y., and Kristina Combs, Santa Cruz, Calif., are modern day incarnations of the word.
“I’d rather work than beg,” the 21-year old Giuliani said Monday afternoon, while traveling through Iola to parts west. “We like work,” Ross, 26, agreed.
But the economy in Canada, like the United States, has gone sour, Ross said.
Two steel mills outside of Hamilton, Ontario, have closed recently, laying off 60,000 workers, Ross said of her homeland. Other businesses have closed as well.
“I never used to have trouble getting a job,” she said. After putting out 40 resumes and not getting a single reply, Ross hit the road, where the economics are stable, if not promising. When you live on the road, Ross said, “you’re always living in a depression.”
The travelers survive through day labor and panhandling.
She and Giuliani have been traveling since fall, when they left North Ontario. She had never been to the United States, and his stories made her want to see it, she said.
The couple are heading to Portland, Ore., to visit his brother, a musician.
Combs met the duo in Austin, where she had gone after leaving her hometown of Santa Cruz. She has spent the last three years in Austin, since leaving high school, homeless.
“I left because it was getting harder,” Combs said of survival in Santa Cruz.
Her father — her only family — still maintains an apartment there, she said, but there is “absolutely no work” to be had, not even at fast food joints.
Combs used to work as a stable hand, working with and breaking horses. Even that work is hard to come by now, she said.
So she headed to Austin, where she had friends, and heard the economy was better.
“I looked for work for three months,” she said. Then she met Giuliani and Ross.
Ross grew up in Ontario, then British Columbia, where her mother had a farm.
“We had chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs and had a greenhouse,” she said. “I was happiest there.”
Then her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, and had to sell the farm when her medication costs got too great.
“She beat it,” Ross said of her mom’s illness, but the land was gone.
On a visit to Montreal, Ross met Giuliani, who had just hopped off a freight train.
“It was his first day in Canada,” she said. “I was only there for a day. It was fate.”
Together, she and Giuliani want to settle down and farm. Their current adventure is a search for that spot, she said. He likes Vermont; she likes the West.
GIULIANI is from an upper middle class family in the Catskill mountains near New Paltz, N.Y. He got the travel bug after being sent to a ranch school in Utah when he was 16. It was for kids with problems with drugs and alcohol, he admits. While there, his history teacher told him to try riding freight trains.
At 18, he completed the program, returned to New York, and adopted a vagabond lifestyle.
The trio are not beggars, they said, although they will panhandle.
“I’m resentful against people who have a home but get assistance designed for the homeless,” Ross said.
The group sometimes uses signs to encourage giving, they said.
“It’s not illegal to fly a sign in Kansas,” Giuliani said they were told by the Montgomery County sheriff.
Ross said she loves the Kansas sky — “it’s so big.” And Combs, with her ag background, appreciates the livestock here. But Giuliani, whose hometown rests amid steep mountains with deep turquoise reservoirs, finds the land “too flat.”
The group hopes to get a ride back to a freight line, where they will hop another train and continue on toward Portland.
They travel with three dogs, which they admit makes securing such accommodations harder.
THE MOST disconcerting change to the hobo scene the group has noticed is homeless shelters starting to charge for their services. In Santa Cruz the cost was $1 per night plus 50 cents per meal. In Montgomery, Ala., which Giuliani and Ross traveled through, cost was $9 per night per person. Meals were included.
However, the group doesn’t often use such amenities, because their dogs are not allowed at most shelters.
When asked what they miss most, Ross wistfully replies, “Baths. Toast. And running water. Running water is great.”