A Hobo’s Great Circumnavigation Scramble (interview)
Roving Snails (RS): Walker Stephens, who are you? and what are you doing here?
Walker Stephens (WS): I’m Walker. What am I doing HERE? I’m sitting at my Mom’s house waiting for the toy store I worked at to open so I can pick up my last paycheck, buy some groceries and head back out to the woods. I’m not sure if that’s the answer you’re looking for… I just finished circumnavigating the planet.
RS: Travel, travel, travel. We travel to work and back, and to the countryside on weekends, to holiday resorts, by plane to meetings and by bus to festivals. What is travel for you?
WS: Movement across space encompasses a lot of change: landscape, culture, time, ecology, technology… lots of ‘ogies’ and ‘ooooooohies!’. But travel always has this very real element of MOVEMENT. To me travel is oh so much more meaningful when you directly link this movement with your environment: hitchhiking is a great example of this – because it is fair interaction with a local culture which literally keeps you going. Hiking and biking is another – you really understand and appreciate the land itself when you physically push yourself up, down and through it. Feeding your body the local foods, earning and supporting yourself in the local economy – these are things we do simply to be able to move ourself through space – but in the process become the crux of travel: learning, adventure, growth… I believe ‘travel’ is interaction – passing through is just passing through.
RS: You define yourself as a hobo. And that would probably make readers think of an old bearded man with a bindle, walking empty railway tracks, hopping trains, hoping for a beer at night. Let’s make the stereotype collapse. What is hoboing? And what can we learn from a hobo way of life?
WS: Right. ‘Hobo’ is a very misunderstood word. Words are living things in each of our heads and this one in particular has been applied a million different ways- but it originally came from the term “Hoe Boy” referring to the migrant workers who would ride freight trains with a hoe in hand looking for agricultural work. To me and many others, the word ‘hobo’ has a very defined meaning which is in danger of being lost: a traveling worker. This doesn’t mean one needs to always be working – by no means – but it does mean that a hobo relies upon themselves rather than handouts, charity, or theft. A lot of people see a person with a pack – and I’m dirty and I’m homeless and I sleep in the woods or on the side of some train tracks or whatever – and they make a lot of judgements. It doesn’t matter, though – because what hoboing gives me is so intensely personal and amazing on the inside: it teaches a self-reliance and self-efficacy which few other things can. I know that I can get dropped into any situation – anything – and it might suck a little but it’ll be alright because I have me and I can rely on me. It’s truly one of the things in this life that I am proud of – to call myself a hobo – and I constantly use that as my own moral litmus for assessing situations and figuring out what feels right for me. Its something to always strive for. In North America I’m proud of this really rich culture – art, language, music, ritual – hoboing is a fiercely independent lifestyle which is constantly changing and re-defining itself, but it reaches back and roots us in history, too.
RS: But anyway, do you ride freight trains?!?
WS: Trains are the magical dragons slicing vast wilderness: there’s really no way of describing to a European the profound beauty, strength and power of a North American freight train. Train lines were carved long before the roads: typically clinging to stunning river canyons carved through mountains – there’s no billboards, no trash, no people, no cars: riding trains is like mainlining wilderness and speed right into your veins. Yes: people ride trains. I ride trains. It is a slow, dangerous and illegal way to travel. It is incredibly physically uncomfortable: sometimes days waiting hiding silently in bushes, then riding outside in rushing wind on freezing metal, or frying on a skillet with no shade, its fucking loud loud loud grinding metallic popping squealing and industrial pounding – it’s hard to be sure where you’re going or what’s going on – there’s a million things to go wrong and people really do die often. It’s my favorite thing in the world. Train riding is like some weird extreme addiction – its this little worm that either bore its way into my skull at a young age or just was always in there – an obsession with trains – that will probably kill me some day and I’m totally fine with that. Because your heart beating so hard it feels like it’s going to explode, pulling out and knowing you beat a yard, crowing and dancing in rushing wind riding dragons, or staring mesmerized for literal days and days as the earth pushes up, flattens out, changes and melts… its an experience which no amount of money could ever buy but which costs nothing. Its not for everyone, but for me its the best experience on earth.
RS: You started the travel at home, and set off to go literally around the world. Why this circumnavigation?
WS: A bunch of reasons. I stopped trusting anything I didn’t see or experience myself. To an extreme degree: I started questioning whether or not the earth was round. Or whether or not it was actually possible to pass all the way around it. It sounds insane, I know… Also I had previously decided – after living in rural Cambodia for a couple years and really fucking my mind up jumping in and out of that reality on airplanes – that I never wanted to fly again. I figured if I ever wanted to go anywhere, I would like to explore the places IN BETWEEN. That stuff that we never knew or thought about is always the best stuff, right? And then the thing that finally pushed me into going for it was that I had built a little cabin in the woods – which I loved very, very much – and I lost that, and I was so sad and had nothing to show for the past year of my life other than $200 from selling everything I owned – I was really bummed and homeless and I didn’t want to be anywhere near that failure or memory or whatever. For me traveling has kind of become my crutch – I’m better at being in movement than being stationary – so I said “Fuck it. The only thing that’s gonna cheer me up is if I go all the way around the world”. So I started heading east.
RS: The world is big, and we all have pictures of places we have not seen. Where have you been that did not look at all like what you thought it would be?
WS: Xinjiang, Western China. I had no idea! Giant desert – extremely Muslim people with whom I could speak a little Turkish – sand dunes and gem stones…. that shit was weird. Actually, most places are weird. I didn’t know what to expect from a place like Kazakhstan – who the hell knows anything about Kazakhstan?? I guess Boris did/does. I didn’t. There’s a lot of weird places in the world. I was never that great at geography. Batumi Georgia? That place is WEIRD! Kosovo? WEIRD! Scopi Macedonia, Christiania, north Florida swamps, Tibetan mani walls, Bali is Hindu? So much weird shit in the world.
RS: Circumnavigating the world, do you feel at home on the Earth? Or are there places where you definitely say “I’m an alien here”?
WS: I feel pretty at home in my own skin. Cascadia, though – the mountains and coast of the Northwest US and Southwest Canada – this is my home. I also have been adopted into family and community after two years living in NE Cambodia, and that will be a hugely special place in my heart forever. HOME is a very important concept – and one which I am looking forward to exploring more in this next chapter of my life. As for feeling like an alien – yes, but that feeling isn’t geographically tied. Its just sort of a melancholy which sweeps over me sometimes because I have a hard time relating to a lot of people.
RS: Travelling is storing and archiving memories in a way. What would you like to remember forever? Is there anything you wish you could forget?
WS: Too many, too much. Maybe here I’ll just give a brief description of my trip, instead:
I started with $200, rode freight trains across America, sold Christmas trees in New York, did a medical test in Baltimore, joined a traveling carnival in Florida and took a container ship across the Atlantic. Hitchhiked across Spain, roadied for a band all around Europe, hitchhiked to the north coast of Norway and back down, rode a freight train down to Italy, worked on a goat farm there, built a bike trailer out of a shopping cart, and took that to Istanbul. Ditched the bike, hitchhiked around Kurdistan, got kidnapped, fled to Georgia, lost all my money in one spin of roulette, got terrible hostel and construction jobs, wanted to kill myself, fled back to Turkey, taught English, got deported, wandered around with Caucasian shepherds. Took a boat over the Caspian Sea and passenger train across Kazakhstan, sold a sketchy car with not paperwork to the mob and bought a donkey and accidentally almost killed it in Kyrgyzstan, hitchhiked deep into China to meet my friend. Together we followed the entire length of the Mekong River shooting a documentary film: starting by hitchhiking in Tibet, then bicycles down through Laos, bought a handmade wooden canoe in Cambodia, and then boats, buses and motos all the way to the sea in Vietnam. He left, I limped into Thailand flat broke and saved some money doing magic tricks and squatting an abandon jungle resort. Hitched the Malay peninsula, ferry to Indonesia, where I spent five weeks desperately zig-zagging all around the country searching for work on a non-existant boat to take me into Australia. Failed. Abandoned my big dreams and borrowed money (for the first time) to fly across the Pacific. Flew into LA – had three seperate cops point guns at me for no reasons on my way hitchhiking up to the Bay, pilgrimage to a very special water tower with hobo tags dating to the 1920s, hopped a train for the best train ride of my entire life to get HOME – where
I worked a seasonal job at a toy store, paid off my ticket and split out into the Hoh Rainforest.
WS: 425 days would be… I was just escaping Georgia. I ended up there because I got really freaked out getting kidnapped hitchhiking down on the Syrian/Iraqy/Turkish boarder. It was the anti-Kurdish secret police – they just wanted to scare me and get me out of the area, I think, but they forced my into an unmarked white van with machine guns and scared the SHIT out of me. So I just wanted to get out of there – as soon as they let me go I just went straight north up to Georgia. At the time I still had a chunk of money from the farm job and working around Europe- about $800 I think – but when I got to Georgia and started to piece together how much my visas would cost to go east, I realized I didn’t really have enough. I could feel winter pressing in – I was so homesick and just wanted to move – it felt like I needed to do something drastic. So I walked into this funky old Soviet casino – at first they didn’t want to let me in because I was too shabby – but then I pulled out this giant wad of euros and US dollars – and I put it all on one spin of roulette – all on black. I knew that every time it spins the odds go up and up and up for the house – so I figured I would just drop it all on this one 50/50 bet and hope that I could double up. But I lost everything! So then I was really fucked and eating out of frozen garbage cans and shit, it was miserable. I got the absolute worst job – working at a brothel/hotel/horrible dungeon place – there was no windows or heat and it was just misery – and I made $2 a day for 12 hour night shifts. I tried to work another shitty construction job during the day, but it was erratic and usually there was no work (or sometimes just no pay). I was so miserable – suddenly ground to a halt in an absolutely awful place – I started blackout drinking just so that I wouldn’t have to look at the shithole which my life had become – I woke up on my 28th birthday trying to figure out a way to hang myself in the shower, and I only gave up because I figured it would just break and then I’d have to clean up my own blood and fix the shower – which I didn’t have time to do – so I sat down and cried and then started screaming “I quit! I quit!” like a crazy person and grabbed all my stuff and just ran away. After that I ended up back in Turkey – where I scored the best job I had on my entire trip – teaching English to amazingly cool students – and life became amazing amazing amazingly cool. I fell in love with a wonderfully nutty Kurdish girl. Everything was like heaven. My house, my roommates, my students, my job – it was all so perfect.
RS: You have crossed mountains and seas, have travelled Kazakhstan in winter, survived desert storms, lost all and found jobs and shelters. And somewhere in your blog you dare saying you are not a good traveller (!?!) We want to know, what made you go on and kept you on the road. Is movement the key to balance? Is it money? Is it luck? What’s Walkers recipe?
WS: I was stuck! As soon as I crossed that ocean I never really had a way back, so I HAD to keep going. I don’t know my recipe, but the following things have helped me a lot: 1) I’m stubborn. 2) I can easily handle a great deal of physical discomfort, and a moderate degree of mental and emotional discomfort, too. 3) I have a good tent. 4) When you’re hungry enough, you can find a job.
RS: And one day you decided to go back to the US. Why was that? Do you think that is the end of a travel, a stop, the beginning of the next?
WS: I got beat. I was starving again – by myself in Indonesia – I was sooooo close to Australia – which is like the international traveler’s promised land – the Big Rock Candy Mountain where work is easy and wages are Western. I was trying to work/hitch onto a yacht with no money, but I literally missed the last boat by 36 hours. It was all so fucked: I was constantly in tears, my whole body was shaky, my visa was running out, there would be no more boats during the rainy season… I could or should have found a job, I suppose – waited and saved for 6 months – but I was exhausted. I had just been doing this one, singular, stupid thing for more than two years and I just couldn’t summon the strength or energy to hustle anymore. I was pretty miserable. I think I put some angry or sad post on facebook or something, and an old friend contacted me saying, “look, I own this toy store. I’m hiring seasonal help for Christmas – just let me buy a plane ticket for you and you can work it off.” So I gave up everything that I had worked and sweated and cried and triumphed and whatever – I just got on a plane and cried my eyes out and gave up. But in the end I think it was the right decision: there’s no point pushing yourself for nonsense, and there’s no point traveling when you no longer appreciate it. There’s no shame in being beat by the Pacific Ocean – its the biggest thing anyone will ever touch in their lives. The world bested me, and after seeing just a tiny sliver of what it has to offer, I’m totally okay with that.
FROM WRITING TO BLOGGING TO FILM!
RS: You are a writer (You told us the day we met, so you can’t hide) While blogs grow like mushrooms and crowd the search engines and all of us have stories to tell, no matter how mundane, we read your blog and think “that’s a travel story!” and many times smile, or feel for the characters (or donkeys) you meet, or tell each other “why the fuck did Walker think of doing that?”. Why does blogging matter to you? Or why did it matter during your trip?
WS: I just started blogging so that my friends and family could know where I was, and I wouldn’t have to catch everyone way way up the next time I saw them. It didn’t really work, though, because now I’m home and I realize nobody really read it. That’s okay. Reading stuff on the internet sucks.
RS: But we know you like letters, diaries and zines. Are handwritten and handprinted accounts the past of blogging or a super-upgraded version or its contemporary online brother ?
WS: I put out my first zine when I was 13 years old – there is something so magical about touching and feeling something in print. I’ve since put out a shit ton of writing and even written a couple books – breaking into office spaces at night and smashing thousands of photocopies. I had a literary agent contact me one time, asking if he could rep my book or something and make money off it – I said HELL NO! Crumble Press for life!
RS: And one day, you stepped out of the written words and took on a camera for a whole new way of storytelling. You were making a movie! What’s “Lost on the Mekong” about?
WS: I lived for two years on the banks of the Mekong River in Cambodia – and it impacted me in a way that I can never explain. Its this mighty, deep deep deep deep current which bit me hard. So for years now my dream journey has been to follow the Mekong from start to finish (3000ish miles from Tibet, through 7 countries to the South China Sea in Vietnam). That was one of the things I started this whole trip know I wanted to do. When I was in Central Asia one of my best friends contacted me and said, “I wanna come make a documentary film about the way you travel.” I said, “No, that sounds stupid. But if you wanna come make a movie about this River I’m about to follow – we could do that together!” So he flew out, and we fucking did it! Well – we shot it. Now we’re in the editing phase. But we’re doing it! And I think it’s gonna turn out amazing! People can do anything they want, I think. I never thought I would make a documentary film – never in a million years – but I wanted the story of this river to be told so damn bad, and nobody else was doing it… We can do whatever we want, we’re all capable of that.
RS: The film is a personal project. What does the film and this river mean to you?
WS: Yes, intensely personal. The Mekong River is the lifeblood of 60 MILLION people who are livelihood dependent on it. Its a monstrous watershed – meaning it encapsulates every plant, human, animal and drop of water over a huge chunk of Asia. It has the most unique hydrological cycle in the world – it backs the Tonle Sap River back into the great lake, changing a major river’s direction twice a year, which creates a gnarly-awesome ecosystem. Of the 5 biggest freshwater fish in the world, 4 of them are in the Mekong (including the biggest). Its this incredibly cool body of water, fish, transport, pluming, recreation, food, calendar and God for the communities that live on it – it really is life. In Cambodia its called “Mother Water” – and it really is. But right NOW some greedy fucks are putting dams in which are gonna totally totally totally fuck up the way of life for all these millions of people – push a lot of species to extinction – and forever alter everyone’s relationship with this awesome river. For me this isn’t some weird abstract nastiness in the world – this is happening to my FAMILY and my FRIENDS – this is happening to my HOME. I wanted to make this movie not really because I think it can change anything, but because these communities and ecosystems DESERVE to be, at the very least, documented – before everything changes forever. I love the Mekong.
WS: Haha, good question. The plan right now is to put everything up on the web as soon as its edited. We’re doing a piece-by-piece episodal thing, and then we’ll put it all together as a full-length movie, too. Right now there’s some little trailer type deals on our website, but the first episode should be done in about a month. We hope. Its hard to tweeze through hundreds of hours of footage and pull out the narrative – and with a few minds working on this its a real process because we don’t always see the same stories. Its fun, but its hard.
RS: Extra! You can add here a question that you wished you were asked.
WS: I think the appeal of travel, the allure, is this “anything can happen! everything is new!” type of deal. And that’s true – and its amazing. But life is like that! Our own home towns are like that – if we let them be. New places are just new places – its new experiences, passions and understandings that are really cool. I encourage people to travel, sure, but what I REALLY encourage is for people to forge new directions WHEREVER they are in the world. You’re going to get old (if you’re lucky) and fall apart and die – might as well take your body and brain for a wild spin while you can. Stagnation is death – live life fiercely.
** You can scroll down and read through the whole of Walker’s travel in his blog The Great Circumnavigation Scramble
**And check the making off of his totally independent documentary “Lost on the Mekong“. We will annouce its release when it’s finally done!