Dispatch no. 1 — The Big Rock Candy Mountains
January 9, 2023
As I approach Cabbage HiIl, running along in overdrive, a new yellow Peterbilt pulling a 53’ van passes me in the rain. I switch on the fog light as soon as he’s past and keep it on until he’s far enough ahead that the spray won’t drown my windshield. Sometimes they’ll stay out in the passing lane until I switch off the fog light, sometimes not. Sometimes I get a thank-you flash of the 4-ways. Once in a while the marker lights flash. That makes me feel good.
I’m being chased by a storm and hope to make Baker City ahead of the snow. The Blue Mountains are serious business in winter. A few miles later, three gears down and thirty miles-an-hour slower, I pass the Peterbilt as he grinds up the grade. The driver returns the favor, flashing the headlights when I’m safely past.
I’m no stranger to the road, that custom has endured all the 50 years since I started driving truck. It was hay in those days — four trips a week from George, Washington to Renton, Washington. I’d pick up a “hay buck” at the George scale where my light-weight was recorded. Often they were young, local guys but just as often older itinerant men who moved from job to job as the opportunities presented themselves. I paid the going rate of 50 cents a ton, cash on the barrelhead four hours later when the job was done. The scale master made sure they got paid as I filled out the manifest. That was a hard way to earn $12. 50 but mostly they were happy for the work. I was happy to get the truck loaded.
Haying was usually casual labor; had been for generations. Ivan Doig wrote about it in his final novel, “Last Bus to Wisdom,” set in late-forties Montana. Wisdom, Montana is still a haying center. The old hay racks are still standing guard over the ranches. Doig wrote about hobo jungles too. They still existed in 1948 as seen through the eyes of a ten-year old boy traveling with his uncle who had gotten them a job on a hay ranch near Wisdom.
My thoughts aren’t just idle reminiscences. I’m bound for Arizona to look in at a rendezvous of van dwellers jungled up at Quartzite, Arizona in mid-January. This gathering has been going on for more than a decade and is a hobo college of sorts. I’ve not been before. I’ve seen YouTube videos of past events but just the same I’m not sure what I’ll find.
I visited Southern California and Arizona last winter and discovered Slab City, near the Salton Sea. At the entrance to this abandoned military base is a hundred-foot tall hill painted white with layers of red and blue paint spelling out religious sentiments based on love. The scene has stuck with me and called to mind the hobo song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” attributed to Harry McClintock. It describes a hobo’s paradise where the land is fair and bright, where the boxcars all are empty and the railroad bulls are blind; where you sleep out every night with little streams of alcohol a dribbling down the rocks.
Itinerant workers no longer ride the rails, there are hardly any boxcars, empty or otherwise, though I did see a dozen on a siding as I passed Farewell Bend, Oregon. In the old days, before cars, hobos rode the rails, hidden from the railroad bulls (detectives) and brakemen if at all possible. After cars became more common, those who could afford one bought a used jalopy to get from job to job. But the tradition of riding the rails persisted for decades after the Great Depression, when Okies, mostly in family groups, fled foreclosed farms and the dustbowl as described by Sonora Babb, Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck.
What is the character of today’s itinerant work force, whose plain, white vans park along city streets, in Walmart parking lots, and boondock on public lands across the west? We shall see. I’ll boondock near St, George Utah tomorrow, hoping to stay ahead of the next snow storm coming in from California. Yesterday as I passed Farewell Bend I heard on the CB radio that I-84 was closed westbound at Baker City while crews cleaned up after a wrecked truck loaded with some sort of hazmat, what truckers call hazardous materials requiring a placard on the truck. The wind had blown it over just after I passed through.