Death of the American Hobo

From Vice

hen walking through a city, or a suburb, or a section of forest, I feel an enormous sense of relief when I come upon a set of railroad tracks. It is as if the fears and doubts and anxieties of daily life abruptly vanish. The vise grip that civilization and this world have on my head loosens, and for a moment I can breathe freely. The train tracks persist in the shadows of our stark, digitized 2001: A Space Odyssey future, relics of the time when iron behemoths and Pullman passenger cars cut through the inky-black primeval wilderness on their diesel-stained voyage through the night. 

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In this endless matrix of streets, cars, cell-phone towers, businesses, houses, jobs, and families, the train tracks are a trapdoor exit, a gap, an exception where silence and lawlessness still reign. 
If highways and roads are America’s veins, the hundreds of thousands of miles of tracks are like those chakra diagrams in acupuncturists’ offices, the hidden flows of energy that affect the body as a whole. It’s as if the vapor of several hundred years of America’s daring and rugged spirit is contained within the wafting, intoxicating smell of hot railroad tar. It is the last truly American place, untainted by the regrets of modern progress.
Most people know that in the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin off the banks of a little pond outside his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, to live there for two years while writing a book called Walden. What is less widely known is that his cabin was no more than 300 feet from a set of railroad tracks leading into Concord, and that it was only a 30-minute walk down the line to get to his mother’s house. 
On a recent visit to Walden Pond, while I was awed by the pristine site Henry David had chosen for his experiment, I saw that without the tracks—that lifeline, that trail of bread crumbs that could be followed back to civilization—his long hermitage could have been an unending hell. Thoreau had found the best of both worlds, the thing we all want—nature and civilization together in one tidy package.
I can only imagine that on some lonely, cold nights in his little cabin, when he was missing his friends in Boston, wondering why he had moved back to his birthplace to grow string beans, the sound of the train whistle echoing through the woods in the dead of night steeled his will to the task at hand and reminded him that while he was alone, he was still a part of humanity. 
I grew up in the suburbs of central North Carolina, a gentle and compassionate eastern wood, where the freight train was a vital part of the texture of the landscape. In high school, on late autumn nights as multicolored leaves fell in my neighbourhood  I listened for the din of the high school marching band in the distance and the whistle of the train as it chugged through dense deciduous forests and my spirit surged with excitement for the future and all that was left to be done.
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Hobo Matters Documentary

John Hodgman's PBS documentary, Hobo Matters. If not the most celebrated episode of The American Experience, certainly the most astounding, not only for the number of facts packed into this short episode, but also for the fact that PBS actually produced and dared to air it.