Colleen “Crash” Burke of St. Paul is the country’s reigning hobo queen, crowned at Britt, Iowa’s Hobo Days, an annual gathering that has been drawing active train riders, along with retired riders and fans (aka “hobos at heart”), for more than a century. The event has the typical trappings of a small-town festival, including a craft sale and communal meals, but its heart is the hobo “jungle,” or campground, where attendees gather around a fire pit to play music and tell stories.
These days, 31-year-old Burke works full time at Ace Hardware, but she grew up among hobo royalty — her mom and late stepfather both wore hobo crowns. As she prepares to attend this year’s convention, Aug. 8-11, Burke explained why hobo culture still thrives even as the practice of hopping freight trains has diminished, as well as what it’s actually like to ride the rails.
Q: How do people react when they find out you’re the hobo queen?
A: All my co-workers think it’s really cool. I ran into one woman who just lost her mind, like I was some kind of movie star.
Q: Did you grow up among hobos?
A: My mom started going to the convention as a “get away from the kids” vacation. And the next thing you know, they started showing up at her house. And then my mom started bringing us. And then she married a rider.
Q: What were your first impressions of hobo life?
A: It was fascinating. I’ve heard so many stories — and I’ve heard the same story told by four different people.
[Riding] really is a truly freeing experience.
Q: Tell me about your first time riding the rails.
A: I had just turned 19. And my whole life I’ve been told, “It’s too dangerous, it’s illegal.” And then I was in Britt and my friend Iowegian goes, “Hey, Colleen, let’s ride. Let’s go to New York.”
Q: Your mom told me she set some ground rules: First, you had to graduate from high school; second, you had to go with someone she trusted; and third, you had to call every other day. Was she worried?
A: She was very supportive. She helped me pack my bag. She knew that I was riding with someone with experience.
Q: How did you actually get on the train?
A: We got on a grainer, a grain car, while it was parked. Any good rider will tell you not to jump on a moving train. Because you know, if you slip, you’re under. We just laid down and stayed out of sight. After a while, it just kind of went.
Q: What did it feel like?
A: I had this mixture of excitement, like, “I’m really doing this.” And then this nervousness, like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Eventually, I fell asleep. But the train kind of rocks you. It’s very soothing, like when you rock a baby to sleep.
Q: In riding multiple trains over the course of several weeks, did you ever get caught?
A: We ended up spending a night in jail. The next morning, the judge came to our cells and said, “Plead guilty, time served,” and we’re like, “OK, guilty.”
Q: How did you get your hobo name?
A: Well, in a sense, you kind of earn it. I started learning to drive and there were a few mishaps. And then it stuck.
Q: So you’ve only ridden once, but you’ve been to the convention many times. What do you remember from your first visit?
A: We camped down there. There was always food and hanging out and listening to the stories and music around the fire.
Q: You brought your 10-year-old son for the first time last year. What did he think?
A: He loved it. He says he likes everything: the parade, the people, the carnival. He’s always asking me, “When are we going to go to Britt?” [In the background, a boy’s voice is heard chanting, “Britt, Britt, Britt!”] He’s pretty excited.
Q: Do you hang out with any of the other hobos in town?
A: Me and my kid are heading over actually to Jewel’s [Minneapolis Jewel] tonight to hang out with my king [the Dutchman] and her for dinner.
Q: What do hobos eat?
A: Well, down in Britt, there’s a Frisco Circle so people donate to the meal, money or food. We have what we call the crumb boss and they’re in charge of figuring out what’s there and what to make. It relies on volunteers to help.
Q: What’s the Hobo Code?
A: Hobos do have their own set of ethical codes, or rules. It’s fairly simple stuff: Always be a gentleman, work for your food if you can, always leave a place better than when you found it because you don’t want the next person to not be welcome, always convince runaway teenagers to go home, and share what you’ve got.
Q: What’s the best thing about the hobo community?
A: That it truly is a community, that it’s a family.
Q: Are there hobo misconceptions you’d like to dispel?
A: Sometimes you do get dirty and smelly, so that’s not a misconception. But if you run across a true hobo, and they asked you for a sandwich, they’re willing to work for it.
Also, you don’t necessarily have to be a rider to be one at heart. You just need to have the spirit, you know, that kindness, the generosity.