The Hobo Code (for Spiritual Pilgrims)

June 24, 2013

Right behind the Sounds True office backyard, just a hop over tangled barbed wire, run these local railroad tracks:

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The other day I was watching television’s most underrated exploration of the Jungian “shadow principle”—Mad Men—and it reminded me of these tracks. In the episode called “The Hobo Code,” we get a glimpse into the protagonist Don Draper’s childhood during the Great Depression. And we learn about a secret vocabulary that was chalked and carved on fence posts and telephone poles across America.

As it turns out, the hobo code was real. It varied from region to region and across the years. Countless souls used it to help each other find food and shelter and to avoid the perils of the day.

Here are some of those hobo signs (scraped from cyberspace) that still feel relevant to me, if only metaphorically:

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I spotted one of my first “hobo marks” decades ago. It came as a crackling transmission of Roy Tuckman’s legendary Pacifica Radio show “Something’s Happening.” I was homeless, hopeless, and definitely “hobo” at the time, couchsurfing in a friend’s farmhouse in Carmel, California.

The clock radio clicked to 2:00am and, drifting in and out of the night static, was the voice of Alan Watts. He was chuckling at the folly of “trying to catch an ocean wave in a bucket.” Which is exactly what I was doing with my life at that time—trying to rack up achievements and experiences that would assure my permanent, foolproof success.

Um, yeah, right.

Alan’s “hobo mark” pointed me onto the boxcar of radical self-inquiry, though I didn’t realize it until years later. And ever since, I’ve shared his humor and wisdom whenever it’s felt right to.

In fact, I had the privilege of working with Alan Watts’ son, Mark, to hand-pick the sessions for the audio set Out of Your Mind. Alan’s “catching waves in a bucket” allegory is in there.

Is the spiritual path so different from those rolling train tracks? Maybe the markers we find on our own journey—a haiku by Ikkyu, a meaningful photograph, the advice of a friend—reflect the same pilgrim’s spirit that says “we’re all in this together brothers and sisters.”

If I ever go back to visit Victoria’s family farm, I think I’m gonna chalk this symbol on their fencepost:


So, what was your first metaphorical “hobo sign” on your life’s journey?


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  • Foster Brashear says:

    Great post, Andrew!

  • Caroline Hinkley says:

    Hi Andrew — this is wonderful…….such blogposts should become a book.

    • Andrew Young says:

      Thanks for the comment, Caroline. A real compliment from one of my favorite “intentional hobos” and photographers extraordinaire!

  • Michael Boxer says:

    Well Done. My symbol (which I cannot draw here) would be the “pride, protection and purity” of the infamous “Stick of Shame”.

    • Andrew Young says:

      Heh heh, nudge nudge, wink wink. For those unfamiliar with the Stick of Shame practice for travelers, it’s quite simple: When visiting a new town or city, find the ugliest and grubbiest branch available, turn it into a walking stick, and then carry it onto every bus and into every nice restaurant or coffee house you go to. It’s an urban taoist practice in humility, in the spirit of Chuang Tzu’s “Useless Yet Perfect Oak Tree” parable.

  • Vivienne says:

    Loved this going to go home tonight and draw my hobo sign and make a whole creative journey with it.Cant post it cos the page doesn’t allow for it :-)Thank you..always good to know that you are not alone.

    • Andrew Young says:

      What a great idea, Vivienne—creating our own symbols and icons as a creative or spiritual practice. I drew the “You can’t catch a wave in a bucket” image without much thought but now I want to try making some more as an intentional exploration. Thanks for commenting!

  • Joe Ditta says:

    Great post AY, I’ll share this with all my railroad enthusiast friends. It’s interesting that you mention hobos in the context of the spiritual journey. It reminds me of something Jeff Foster wrote about when he describes what it is we’re seeking. I guess all of us seekers are hobos in our own right; that is, we’re “homeward bound,” hopping trains en route to the depot of freedom in the perfection of the moment. I’ll be on platform 9 3/4 in the meantime….

    • Andrew Young says:

      LOL, your Harry Potter & railroad geekward leanings are showing! Jeff Foster is for sure one of my favorite helpful spiritual travelers (who loves to remind us that there’s nowhere to go). Here’s a fantastic “hobo sign” that I recently found on his website:

      “Sometimes you will doubt what you are doing, and you may romanticise the old days when things were easier and more predictable, but then you will suddenly remember that the old way was false and never worked for you and that’s why everything had to change. Yes, it’s a risk to donate your life to what you love and what moves you and brings you joy, but having a comfortable and predictable life pales in comparison to feeling deeply, passionately alive and meeting each new day with fresh eyes and an open heart…”

      Jeff’s full essay here:

  • Cierra says:

    I love the spiritual angle of this post, but am more fascinated by the historic angle. I grew up with stories of how my grandparents prepared a plate of warm food and brought it to the porch whenever a “tramp” (hobo) would knock on the door. My grandparents said they knew their house was marked in some way as friendly to hobos, but they never knew how or where. This answers part of those questions. Thank you!

    • Andrew Young says:

      That is SO cool. I wonder if somewhere near the house that your grandparents lived in, there’s still a little picture of a cat (“kind lady lives here”) or a top hat (“gentleman lives here”) scratched into a fencepost….

  • Mitchell Clute says:

    Love this post, Andrew. I didn’t know much about hoboes until I was living in Iowa City in the early 1990s. One day I met a man in overalls with a very large beard, selling his books of poetry in front of the natural foods store. He gave me a little card he’d had printed, which read: “Iowa Blackie for Hobo King.” Iowa Blackie has since passed away (or, as the hoboes say, he ‘caught the westbound’) but he did become Hobo King that year.

    Did you know that, every year for the last 112 years, the town of Britt, Iowa has hosted the national hobo convention, where hoboes choose their king and queen? Britt is also home to the Hobo Museum. This year, the Hobo convention is August 8-11, just in case anyone is looking for some excitement before the Wake Up Festival. The primary hobo website, strange as it sounds, is

    And here’s how hoboes distinguish themselves from bums: “A hobo wanders and works, a tramp wanders and dreams, and a bum neither wanders nor works.”

  • Steve says:

    I loved your post. That hobo episode touched me also.

  • Paige Plumlee says:

    Man, I love the hobo code! Fascinating stuff. I think my hobo code symbol would be something like a diamond or a cash symbol, meaning, “No intrinsic value.” I have to remind myself that money (and everything else) only has as much meaning as we give it. It’s easy to confuse wealth with success.

    • Andrew says:

      I totally agree. I think the four things I value the most are love, insight (spiritual and scientific), humor, and aesthetic beauty. I need to come up with some hobo signs for those and start chalk-marking places where people provide those gifts.

  • Deepesh Faucheux says:

    Sorry to be riding the caboose on this sweet train, but we were on vacation in that most beloved of hobo destinations, California (especially Santa Cruz), and I missed your posting. Great topic and all very well expressed, Andrew. Keep it up, and please do consider a book on the subject. I love the approach you are taking. And if you do, please let me tell you about the (nefarious) Rajneeshpuram social experiment, called “Share a Home” in which we rounded up and gave homes and food and clothes (and therapy and meditation) to several thousand hoboes and otherwise homeless ones. I was one of the “rounders” and keepers of the motley herd. Care to take a tour of all of the major skid rows in America? Although almost all of us Rajneeshie participants were idealistic and innocent, it turned out to be a ruse, a bad idea dreamed up by the Rajneeshpuram mayor to stack the voting polls in our county. Nevertheless, it was a rich experience for some of us. Lots of good hobo stories!

    • Andrew Young says:

      Ha, I would LOVE to hear the inside scoop on the Rajneesh “hobo project.” I’ve heard only second- or third-hand accounts, almost all certainly biased. If nothing else, perhaps the shelter and food helped out some of those folks when they needed it. Thanks for your comments, Deepesh.

  • Chris Gordon says:

    Always suspected the Kind Lady was a Cat.

    Just moved again. Found your boots. Apparently they wound up in a container. Good shape.

    Excellent seed for a grander project? Must be a larger contemporary vocabulary.

    Hope you are well. Best.

    • Andrew Young says:

      Meow, glad to hear from ya Chris! I was actually planning on doing a post on haiku that don’t suck (of which there are so so few). I shall email or call you momentarily. Cheers! – Andrew

      Other blog readers: Chris Gordon writes and publishes haiku of the kind that will leave you either bewildered or blindingly awake. He turned me on to the poet Ikyyu mentioned in this post. Here’s a blog that includes excerpts from the various haiku journals that he’s published or contributed to:

  • Jack Adams says:

    the story is fabulous. More amazing was that it is you, Andrew. So great to encounter you after all these years. A funny thing: about six months ago I came across your astrology. Yes, I had your chart. Anyway, I hope you are well and thriving. My very best to you, Jack

    • Andrew says:

      Great to hear from you, Mr. Adams! If there ever was a footloose explorer who fits the “spiritual hobo/wandering sadhu” archetype, well…I’m writing to him here. Word has it that you are currently bringing your keen sensibilities to the art of the vinyard, grape, and barrel. Could it be true??

  • Heather W. says:

    Thank you for this post, however belatedly I’m encountering it. I’ve always had an affinity for hobos, railroads and Steinbeck, and as a 45-y.o. mom, I’m currently considering a ‘kind-hearted lady lives here’ tattoo on my forearm, and your compilation shows the image truest to my mind. Even a kind heart sometimes needs a reminder to remain that way, and at the moment, this feels like the best method I can think of.

    Heather W.
    Boulder, CO

  • Bornik says:

    Here in Finland so called “hobo signs” are extremely rare. Some of those (different carvings, of course) are found, usually some 150 years old.
    Knowing of friendly farms and people, were more like “mouth-to-mouth” knowledge among gypsies, wandering loggers etc.
    I must note that finnish gypsies differ a lot from many other gypsies; they allways dress them (both men and women) high quality, and they are very proud, in good way.
    Back in old days, for example my late grand father allways let them camp on his lands, and gypsies usually paid his kindness by taking care of his horses, sharpening every tools, and chopping some wood.

    Funny thing is that my grandpa has died decades ago, and i have accompanied with gypsies in southern Finland, some 800km from there, and their great aunties and old men have told stories, where there was a gentleman, who allways wellcomed “wanderers”! After a while talking with these old men and women; it was my grandfathers farm.. (they have had strickt rules, that this farm must be treated well, there lives “hortto kaaje”,, a “good white”. I have that name now, and im a good father to a young gypsy-boy.

    Of course, they have sworn, now that im in “family”, that if i have any kind of problem, they surely will help me. Was it lack of food, having an enemy or anything else, they stand for me and help. Of course i do the same for them, but since im a “old man” (43), i dont have to do so much. 😀

    • Andrew says:

      Hello, Bornik. Sorry for the very delayed reply—this blog does not notify me when people comment. In Los Angeles, California, I lived in an apartment above a gypsy family for a time. What you describe of Finnish gypsies is very true to my own experience of U.S. gypsy immigrants. The family I knew were very private at first, even “cold.” But after I befriended them, they were so generous with their time and treated me as one of their own. The father and son could fix anything—automobiles, heavy farming equipment, fences, bicycles, and so on. They were also FIERCE with the gang members and house thieves in our neighborhood—no “bad guys” ever dared to rob our apartment complex! Thank you so much for sharing your story. Best wishes, Andrew

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