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