by Joseph Robertson
Since the first settlements of Euro-colonial North America, there have been large countercultural movements who adopt the nomadic lifestyle. Although America has not maintained any single “wanderculture” for more than a few decades, a comparatively large percentage of the population trade in their nine-to-five for odd jobs, their suburban home for a tent – forming distinct cultures that inspire new generations of travelers.
The first significant one of these countercultures was a wild, rowdy bunch of migrant trappers who made their livings and fortunes from beaver pelts which they took on extensive trips into largely unexplored tracts of wilderness, far west of the coastal colonial establishments of the time. It was typical for a lone trapper or group to spend months, even years, exploring new mountain ranges – hunting and trading with friendly tribes of Native Americans to sustain their rations. Their culture was discernibly separate from the other colonists; they had their own phrases, slang, dress, traditions. They didn’t subscribe to the prudent conduct of the time – instead valuing self-sufficiency, physical ability, and the very wildness that earned them mixed sentiments of respect and disdain from more civil Easterners, who depended on them for furs to sustain their fashion statements. With the advent of Western use of silk for fine clothing, the Mountain Men went out of fashion with beaverskin hats.
The next great American wandering culture followed shortly thereafter: the Old West cowboy. Although the cowboys inhabited the low plains of the South where cattle could be herded on horseback from ranch to market, they shared a similar lifestyle with the Mountain Men; living outdoors, dependent on the weather and terrain. With the development of the railroad, cattle could be carried efficiently in specialized cars, and the cowboys were phased out in the area as soon as the rail came in. The same rail that killed one wanderculture, however, would be the transportation for the next wave to come.
At the end of the Civil War, thousands of soldiers returning from both sides of the conflict got off the troop train only to realize that their homes, families and jobs had been destroyed by the war. Many of these displaced warriors took back to the rails, this time as migrant workers; working odd jobs for the railroad, and in construction and agriculture. These workers became known as “hobos,” perhaps because they were “Homeward Bound” after the war, or “Hoe Boys” because they worked in farmers’ fields. Hobos developed a distinct culture for decades which affected mainstream culture. The common use of hobo slang words such as “main drag,” and “punk” in American English are evi-dence of this. The movement boomed in the thirties with the Great Depression but fell off in the forties due to the WWII drafts and birth of welfare programs.
The next culture to champion the road were the beat generation, the intellectual precursor to the hippie movement – fathered by a small group of intellectual, adventurous Columbia University students including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This was the first major wanderculture who wandered for purely idealistic reasons rather than an alternative way of self-sustenance. The beat generation inspired a wave of wanderers called “beatniks,” and increasing media attention popularized the culture, bringing large masses of young people to the scene. In the early 60s Bob Dylan’s new rock style became the rage; the culture shifted and the hippie was born from the ashes of the forgotten beat generation.
The hippie generation was the most massive countercultural wandering movement, and perhaps the most influential in mainstream culture – designating the music, fashion and art of Western society for over a decade. However, it was also the first time a wanderculture had been significantly commercialized by outsiders – an advertising breakthrough that preyed on the young and hip and made certain musicians, record companies, and producers obscenely wealthy overnight. Millions of younger Americans hit the road, some desiring spiritual enlightenment and political change, others focused on drugs, sex, the chance to be hip.
In the 80s and 90s, as the less idealistic mass of the hippie generation slunk back to their desk jobs, the raucous response to the hippie movement was born and punk culture came on the scene. The punk begat the wanderpunk – a new wave of travelers that maintained all of the political zeal of the sixties and seventies while remaining generally unexploited. Wanderpunks challenge mainstream culture, morals and politics more vocally than earlier countercultures and have created their own unique styles of music and art. The wanderpunk is still the dominant traveler on today’s scene although many hippies are still traveling and echoes of other cultures still persist in smaller numbers.
History shows that wandercultures in North America are impermanent, but a closer look reveals that they’re all different generations of one larger culture that has existed since the dawn of American civilization and always will; there will always be a group of people dissatisfied with their government, society, and sedentary life; they value self-sufficiency and ability, wildness and genuineness; they’re feared and admired, romanticized and maligned; they have their own songs, phrases, jargon; they are Nomads and you’ll find them busking on the sidewalks of your cities, on your on-ramps with thumbs extended, asleep in forests and squats, crouching with dogs and packs in freight yards – always moving, always headed for somewhere better just over the next hill.
For reference I used “In the Shining Mountains” by David Thomson, “The American Hobo” by Fran ‘The Hobo Minstrel’ DeLorenzo, and “American Nomads” by Richard Grant. I highly recommend all three of these works to anyone interested in American wandering culture and history (unfortunately all rare and out of print). For feedback or questions contact me at thatjosephguy(at)gmail.com or RucksackRevolution.tumblr.com.
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