During the summer of 1974, with a satchel of cameras, I hopped a freight in Chicago, headed Northwest and wound up circling the country, searching for the whereabouts of railroad tramps. I stopped and scoured railroad yards at the slightest hint of their presence. Make no bones about it, mainstream America and its growing population was gradually overtaking the track-side sanctuaries tramps called home. Often times, days, weeks passed without encountering a single tramp. Subsequent journeys in 1979 and 1980 steered me West of the Mississippi where patches of forsaken land provided a temporary outpost for a transient culture. A small path at the end of a rail yard often led to a jungle, maybe a clump of trees, where a man could cook a meal and lay his bedroll on the ground for a night or two.
While gathering photographs, the more time I spent with an individual tramp, a friendship emerged. We sometimes partnered up, watching each other’s backs, searching for fresh water, and finding a safe place to sleep at night. At times, between long lapses of silence, a story was told, a past revealed. Often, the cameras remained in my pack; what was said or experienced took precedence. Perhaps the best pictures were the ones not taken.
After riding the rails and spending a considerable amount of time with tramps, it was difficult to accept their fate as a vanishing chapter of the American landscape. Most were getting along in years and their images and stories were dangerously close to becoming dust. I remain grateful to have been welcomed into their momentary homes, whether a boxcar lumbering along the rails or a clearing in a patch of weeds. These men passed through life the hard way, reclusive and wary, overlooked and forgotten, and my hope is that I’ve captured their essence and afforded them the dignity of being remembered for who they were, the last of a breed.
The stories sandwiched between the photos were collected bit by bit, sometimes at night by a fire, or waiting to catch out, stuck on sidings, cooking up, directly experienced, or on long hikes to town. What follows is both a photo documentary and a story history cobbled together from memory and scraps of hand-written notes. Through recollections, experiences, actions, and reconstructed composites, I’ve attempted to tell their story. Though the stories and captions accompanying the photographs are representative of the tramp culture, the text placement may not reflect the words of the individual pictured. The photographs and stories are separate entities. And like any storyteller, I struggled to remain as accurate as possible without allowing the truth to stand in the way of a good story.
….143 total images….
photos & text copyright by Dale Wickum