American Drifters: “Halleluhjah, I’m a bum”


Bear and Ru in Van Buren, Arkansas made $170 bumming in the Walmart parking lot but were broke the next morning.

“Hallelujah, I’m a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout
To revive us again”

“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” by John J. Husband, 1815

American drifters are different than other drifters because they drift in America. Places shape people and American drifters may live in many places but they carry an imbedded American chip.

The United Nations estimates 26.4 million people around the world are ‘internally displaced people.” (when I first read this term I thought it might be a psychological disorder). That’s a colossal number of people but most of them are displaced by catastrophes or violence.

On my recent coast-to-coast hitchhike following traveling carnivals I met a few drifters marching to Thoreau’s American drummer.

One told me that he and his wife “are just looking for paradise.” Just paradise? No fountain of youth or city of gold or Salt Lake City?

Another clearly felt like he was hooked up spiritually to a young, new America.

The US being a more religious country than many in the world, perhaps it isn’t strange that so many of my conversations about America with drifters turned to their thoughts about God.

I believe I know a bit more about drifters because I started drifting in my 20s and kept track of drifters and drifter issues, from history to current trends.

I estimate that I’ve hitchhiked close to 20,000 miles, rode freight trains and rode bicycles slowly across America over the span of 30 years. I’ve picked up hitchhikers, worked in shelters and read what I can on the topic.

Although no expert, on this trip from San Mateo, California to Passaic, New Jersey, I met a few American drifters.

“Why don’t you work like other folks do”

Driving all night with Don and Sancho through the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma in an alcohol and pot infused half-dream, we talked about uniting the world religions with a second coming and a return of the prophet preaching a kind of animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism.

It was an incredibly silly flight of fancy. We left out voodoo but someone should have stuck a pin in us.

When we reached Arkansas we stopped at a McDonald’s/gas station. My hosts went to the back of the van to sleep while I went to the McDonald’s for the Wifi.

Interestingly, a father traveling with his children at the McDonald’s singled me out to ask if I knew the location of the local food stamps office. I wondered if I looked like I belonged to Don and Sancho’s ragtag caravan.

Did I look like an American drifter? Am I one of them? Should I be flattered or just find a laundromat?

When Don and Sancho finished sleeping, Sancho began bumming money from people around the lot. Don took his dog Buddha for a walk in a neighbourhood to grab parcel full with treats from his list of the best dog food.

Bear, Ru and their dog were sitting at a picnic bench in the park. Bear is 41 years old, with a Grizzly Adams beard and tells me that he’s from New Jersey and it’s impossible to hitchhike in New Jersey. Ru is in her 20s, with a folk-outfit and a bright outlook, at least this morning.

Don joined them and they started talking about polished stones and festivals. Sancho followed them, telling me to wait before following because “riders and cops ask too many questions.”

Sancho was trying to bum pot off the couple but they either didn’t have any or weren’t ready to part with it.

“Oh, why don’t you save all the money you earn?
If I didn’t eat, I’d have money to burn.”

Bear and Ru are also bumming from town to town, most recently, at a local Walmart.

They made $170 in a single day sitting in the Walmart parking lot “flying a sign.” They then bought new clothes, the best wood stove for camping they could find and checked into a hotel. The morning I met them, they had $8 between them.

This reminded me of “Lone Wolf” in Moriarity, Arizona. The grandfather in his 60s had made $70 in two hours of bumming at a TA truckstop and said he was broke the next morning. He’d spent the money on a hotel, candy and beer.

It didn’t seem to Lone Wolf, Bear or Ru that they could be saving for a better life.

They were living a better life than the most work-a-day Americans.

Just enough money always seems to come along, a magically delicious sweet life to them.

Bear has been traveling for more than 20 years and mentions it several times. This cycle of bumming money, selling rocks and using drugs is the forever-young life for him.

Bear clearly feels like he is getting away with too much fun. He has a ‘can-you-believe-this’ way of talking about his life.

Bear has found paradise and its in America but it keeps alighting to another place so he follows the light.

A few days ago – at the New Jersey carnival I’m working in now – I retold the story of Bear and Ru making $170 bumming in a Walmart parking lot and having $8 in the morning.

In my mind the story is about having $8 in the morning. They were finally ahead but they blew it.

To the carnies in New Jersey, the story was about how much money people can make bumming and it made them wonder why they themselves don’t do it more.

Sitting on the back of a flatbed trailer with Yankee Tattoos, he said he has friends who would be smoking weed with him and then put down the pipe, go bumming and come back with bags of weed.

“But I don’t know, I have too much pride to just bum money off people,” said Yankee Tattoos, who two days later reported to a local police station on a drug warrant.

A jointy girl chimed in that she had friends that supported their crack habit and a nice home on their bumming bucks.

That reminded me of the story of a Butler Amusements carny who was fired at a show in Canada for bumming during his two-hour break time. He was on the road bumming while still wearing his powder blue Butler carnival hat and shirt.

“When springtime comes, oh, won’t we have fun
we’ll throw off our jobs and go on the bum”

These bumming stories remind me of the many definitions of “bum” that pop up in hobo lore. I became familiar with those bum, tramp, hobo distinctions while reporting on the Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa for The Chicago Tribune in the 1980s.

“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” was practically the anthem of Britt’s celebration of the American hobo past but I saw a bit of that past on American highways.

For one, Ru seemed to already be familiar with several types of bums. She even chided Bear for sometimes being too much of a home bum, sticking to a place too long. But after making that jab, she took it back quickly for fear of offending, I suppose.

Ru was in a giggly mood that Arkansas morning as she told me she’s the “only traveler” from Punxsutawney, Penn. She then gave me a cell phone number to call if I get stranded somewhere in Pennsylvania (where I’m not heading).

It seemed absurd, at first, to give me a Punxsutawny number when I’m headed to New Jersey but it made perfect sense on her type of drifter circuit.

Waking up broke and not knowing where you’ll be that night is part of the adventure. Starting out for one place and ending up in another is a minute to minute option.

Bear knows a great place to hunt for stones, meet other “traveling kids,” and score more weed. Oachita National Forest is just down Route 71, he says, and he knows a great rock hunting area by a creek.

Don and Sancho are still eventually headed to the Memphis Music Festival but more weed, rocks and fun lie ahead in Ouachita.

Bear and Ru joined Don and Sancho in their like-minded caravan.

I hitchhiked on my own toward New Jersey, knowing I’m not one of them, not their kind of drifter.

My next ride was an Arkansas preacher.

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