Tragedy Reveals Homeless World

The tragedy of a young man dying well before his time, as reported by the Sacramento Bee, reveals the danger and attraction of living on the road.

The allure of living on the road is a part of the seeming intractability in reducing homelessness and the peripheral local consequences such as the long-term and wide-spread illegal camping in the Parkway which has been a fact of life here since at least the 1960s.

An excerpt from the Bee article.

For as long as there have been rails, people have been riding them illegally. In the gritty Depression years, folk singer Woody Guthrie mythologized America’s train-hopping hobos and the itinerant lifestyle he sometimes shared. The train-hopping continues, but nowadays the mythologizing has a modern spin. Websites such as and chronicle the “traveler” or “train-hopper” lifestyle, touting the romance and providing plenty of how-to details.

“Squat the Planet is a unique online community exploring nomadic lifestyles, strange landscapes, and intentional communities around the globe,” the website proclaims. “Come see what the world has to offer when you torch the picket fence and set out for a life of adventure.”

The Vagabond101 site offers a tip-filled section on train-hopping, including a guide to the illustrated signs travelers use to communicate. The pictographs, supposedly developed by hobos in the 1930s, are sometimes still used, the site says, scratched or drawn on the backs of signs or on buildings near rail lines.

There are no official figures on how many people are riding the rails, whether as a lifestyle or as adventure-seeking hobbyists.

Dan Skaggs, 30, said he has spent the last 10 years in and out of the “traveler lifestyle” and the last two years on the rails filming a documentary called “Freeload.” Like a lot of struggling artists these days, he said he turned to Internet “crowdfunding” to get money for his Highway Goat Productions project, raising $7,000 in 30 days on the Kickstarter website.

The 65-minute film follows the lives of young train riders as they ramble across the country. The film has not been formally released, although Skaggs said he has submitted it to several film festivals across the country. Previews and trailers, posted at various websites, offer a glimpse into a world of sleeping outdoors, scavenging for food, drinking alcohol, using drugs and riding on freight trains.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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