How I became a “hobo”

“It’s a mighty river, rollin’ along…oh, washin’ clean, I’m over my head”

It was the summer of 2018, and I was standing in Headwall Sports, a thrift store in Jackson, Wyoming, browsing some used shirts. Eventually, the store’s music came creeping into my conscious thought. It was a long song with a driving groove and haunting fiddle part. Definitely jam band material.

“Hey, what’s this music?” I asked the shopkeeper.

He looked at his iPad. “That’s Railroad Earth. The song is “Seven Story Mountain.”

“Thanks, man.”

When I got into my car, I pulled up Amazon Music and did a search. For the next 14 minutes, I listened to a live version of that song (listen here) which is a heart-cry of regret and longing to live fully and speak boldly. My guess is that it’s roughly based on the book, Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Oh Lord, to see a light, but fail in strength to follow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it go
Oh Lord, to fail in heart, and each day grow more hollow
Sometimes I just don’t wanna know
But the road that led me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder where I am

Oh Lord, to hear a voice, but let it fade and wallow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it to
Oh Lord, to find the words, but keep them in and swallow
One day the top is gonna blow
But the road that left me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder who I am

Oh Lord, to stumble blind, for years without knowing
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
Oh Lord, to crumble quiet, watching from the silence
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life we live.
Got to find a light and fill my heart again.
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life ahead.
Got to find a voice and fill my throat again.

-Railroad Earth, lyrics by Todd Scheaffer (?)

I can now scarcely read these lines without an emotional reaction. So many times I find myself lamenting over missed opportunities and wasted moments. But then I’m reminded it’s a “long, long life ahead.” There’s still time to “find a voice and fill my throat again.”

Anyway, fast forward to January 2022, and Railroad Earth was coming to Asheville for a show at the Orange Peel. Now, I had only listened to other material by the band in small measure. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to hear them live despite only really knowing one of their songs. So I invited a friend and we gathered at the Peel.

What a show! Two long sets of Americana greatness. Think “Grateful Dead with bluegrass instruments.” Long extended jams. People bouncing, swaying, happy-dancing. But, no “Seven Story Mountain.” Still, a fun time.

I spent the next few weeks rectifying my Railroad Earth illiteracy, listening to and learning the songs I’d heard live and many others. Nugs released a recording of the very show I attended, so within a couple of days I was reliving my Orange Peel experience. I don’t think I really listened to much of anything else in those weeks.

A lively tune called “Elko” told the tale of travelers in the Nevada desert “shutting it down for the night” and “needing a winning hand.” It became my end-of-day work shutdown song. Songs had me “smilin’ like a Buddha” and “chasin’ a rainbow, no good reason why.” Sometimes I’d find myself falling into something, but, whadaya know, I “came up smilin’.” Other times I might feel like “just another bird in a house, trying to get out.” And in a cover of a George Harrison tune, RRE reminded me, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

So now it’s the middle of March, and I get an ad across my feed that Railroad Earth is closing their spring tour with two shows in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Hey, that’s only 5 hours away. Why not?”

I get there early on Friday night so I can stand up close. I meet some people for whom this is not their first or second rodeo; one fellow had taken the week off to follow the band and attend 5 straight shows. Others had been to dozens of RRE concerts. I come to find out that, much like devotees of the Grateful Dead were “Dead Heads,” these fans are “Hobos.” I guess I am too, even if on a lesser scale.

The lights dim. The band takes the stage. The drummer begins his cadence. Could it be? The fiddle comes in. Yes! It’s “Seven Story Mountain!” I wipe away tears of joy as I join the happy dancers. I punch my hands in the air and sing along, “one day the top is gonna blow!”

Later, “Elko” was launched and the guy next to me starts tossing playing cards. A young woman gives me a card because I had none. Puzzled, I look around, and hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs are flying all around the venue. “I need a card, I need a card, hit me! Not too hard!” Todd sings, and cards go flying up to the stage. What fun!

And then I learned something about Railroad Earth shows. They’re interactive. The next night, when “Give that boy a hand” was sung, tiny rubber hands were flying around. I also learned that it’s most definitely worth it to go multiple times. The second night, the song set was completely different. No repeated songs. In fact, only 7 songs from the Asheville show two months earlier were performed in Virginia. The extended jams might be different from one time to the next. It’s as close as I’ve come to what I understand the Grateful Dead experience was like.

I ended that weekend feeling happy, refreshed, positive, and content. I met some new friends. Some fellow believers in Christ. Some fellow musicians who talked tech with me. I joined the Hobos Facebook group.

I’ve been to 3 Railroad Earth shows. I can sing along to more and more songs. I hung a concert poster in my office. I’m awaiting the next tour.

Does that make me a Hobo? I hope so!

Wyoming, Day 10, in Idaho

Sometimes the Google homepage picks a winner.

A couple of months ago, undoubtedly based on other internet searches I’d performed, Google displayed a picture and a link about a little-known sight in Idaho, not far from Jackson, Wyoming.

I needed to choose an activity for our last full day in Jackson, something not too strenuous or complicated. In keeping with our theme of trying new locations, I mapped out a plan for a drive into Idaho to see this small waterfall known as Falls Creek Falls.

For the most part on this whole trip, we avoided the crowded, familiar sights of the national parks. We were highly rewarded for this choice. Day 10’s destination was no exception, and truly could be thought of in a saving-the-best-for-last way.

This small creek flows into the Snake River in Idaho, across the mountains and downstream from where the Snake flows in Jackson Hole. What’s amazing is this small stream ends in a glorious cascade.

As waterfalls go, this one was spectacular. My wife Carolyn often speaks of the “character” of a waterfall, as in, “This waterfall has a lot of character.” This generally means there are many channels in which the water flows, creating visual variety as the water falls to the plunge basin. Niagara Falls is pretty impressive, but it doesn’t have a lot of character.

Being that we live in an area of many falls (western North Carolina), we often see some pretty remarkable fountains. Stepping to the edge of this one immediately took our breath away. Carolyn’s first words to me were, “You made my day.” That was quite satisfying, as that was what I was going for.

Carolyn finds her soul restored with rushing waters. A quiet walk along a stream, standing at a waterfall – these are some of the things that bring peace to her spirit. And, I must admit, to mine also. This sense of tranquility comes from knowing the Creator behind the creation. From knowing that this glory that we see before our eyes is but a dim reflection of the glory of the God who made it.

We spoke to a man who lived in the area but had never been to this waterfall until he saw an online picture. It was not far from the main road, but couldn’t be viewed from the main road. We felt like we’d discovered a hidden gem.

Part of this kind of discovery is wanting to share it with the world. But that often comes with a cost, as more and more people come and possibly overrun a place like this. Just look at what has happened at Max Patch Mountain along the Appalachian Trail. Too much usage has led to a ban on camping after the place got trashed. We are like locusts sometimes.

On the one hand, we all must visit the wild and beautiful places, for in this we come to treasure them. But if we are not careful, our footprint becomes destructive. It’s a fine balance. What I can do as an individual is to follow the old mantra – take only pictures, leave only footprints.

Our journey into Idaho led us through some lush farmland and some autumn colors. In previous trips out here in early September, it had been too early for colors. But this year, owing to a dry season, we’ve seen some stunning coloration.

Day 11 is a travel day, back to hearth and home in North Carolina. We have been rejuvenated and refreshed on this vacation, with a fine mix of activity, rest, and thoughtfulness. I encourage you to seek for those times of refreshing.

Vacation is not the absence of work. It is the intentional pursuit of rejuvenation.

M. Graham Knox

Wyoming, Day 9, Cody to Jackson

Day 9 was a transit day, as we said goodbye to our cozy cabin in the foothills of the Absoroka Range. I’m sure if we return to this area, we will definitely check out the availability of this lodge.

So, in driving back to Jackson for a 2-night stay before flying home, we decided between returning by the same route that we took earlier in the week (through Yellowstone) or by taking a longer, southern route. Because we were feeling adventurous, we opted for the longer route.

The most intriguing thing about the trip was our journey through the Wind River Canyon. By a strange quirk in the makeup of the rock layers and the canyon ceilings, it can appear that the river is moving uphill. As you can see from the first photo, the road is definitely on a downward slope…I think…and yet the river is running toward me in that shot. It was so unnerving that when we got to our hotel, I did a little online research, and yes, we’re not the only ones who have had that sensation. I found a local blog entry from a few years ago. You can check it out here. So while there were times of downward slopes and upward rises, in general, our road was taking us slightly uphill.

Without getting too maudlin, it makes me think about morals and standards. If I look at the canyon walls of the Wind River Canyon as the standard for whether I am going uphill or down, I might be mislead. And then, against what my eyes are perceiving, the river is running uphill. If I look to the culture around me for whether I am maintaining a righteous and moral standard, then I might perceive myself to be upright when in fact I am not. I need a plumbline to guide me in the canyon. I need a solid standard to guide my thoughts and ways. Only God’s revealed Scripture can be the plumbline.

We continued on until the familiar horizon of Grand Teton National Park came into view. We were thankful that the haze has diminished greatly as we spend our final days in Wyoming. Enjoy the pictures!

Wyoming, Days 6 & 7, Hike & Drive

Day 6 – hike

On Friday, I returned to the mouth of Clarks Fork Canyon, not to off-road with the car, but to hike a bit into the canyon. Carolyn was happy to stay behind at the cabin, reading one of her now 10 books that she’s completed during this trip.

It was a hot day, and I didn’t plan on a long hike, but I did want to get a little bit into this canyon we looked down upon a couple of days earlier from above during our off-road excursion.

As you approach the canyon, it appears that the mountains rise in a sheer wall from the floor of the advancing plain. In fact, the plain actually descends as you draw near the mountains, and then they arise out of the plain floor. I guess that has something to do with the formation of these ridges as the peaks were uplifted and the surrounding floor fell downward. In the Tetons, this same formation has resulted in numerous lakes at the base of the range.

The picture of the red rock formation is interesting. From one angle, it simply looked like a layer of rock within the rock wall. From another angle, it was clear that it was a separate wall of a hollowed out section. One of many surprises we’ve experienced.

Day 7 – road trip

Saturday began with the clearest air we’d seen up to that point of the trip. All week, the views were veiled with the presence of a smoky haze from the fires in California and Idaho. We awoke to clear sunlight with some mixed clouds. This created some deep shadows on the landscape, both from the sun’s angle and the shadows cast by clouds. All day long, sunlight and shadow created some great views and hopefully some striking photos.

We headed back up onto the Beartooth Highway, location of our “walkabout” two days earlier. We decided to drive the loop in reverse from what we’d done before. That meant heading north to Red Lodge, Montana and then driving south on the “212.” One thing we’ve discovered this year is that sometimes, driving in a different direction allows you to see things differently than when you always travel in the same direction. This was now our 4th trip on the Beartooth in three years, but our first time going north-to-south.

Once we finished the Beartooth, we continued on to the southwest through Cooke City (our AirBnB location in the past two years) and on to Yellowstone National Park through Lamar Valley. We hadn’t really seen much in the way of large wildlife, so it was good to get up close with some Buffalo. We opted not to spend much time at all in YNP this year, partly because of the crowding and partly because we’d been through parts of the Park in the three prior years.

In completing the loop, we travelled west-to-east on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. Again, the first time we’d moved in that direction. We saw plentiful quaking aspens in golden and orange colors. It seems the colors in Wyoming appeared early this year, possibly because of the dry conditions.

Enjoy the photos!

Wyoming, Days 4 & 5, Rest & Walkabout

Day 4, Rest

As I said a couple of weeks ago, vacation is more than time off from work; it is the purposeful pursuit of rejuvenation. Part of rejuvenation is rest. We learned many years ago that about 3 or so days into our vacations, we needed a “crash day.” A day with not a lot (If anything) on the agenda.

We accomplish that by selecting a place that is conducive for rest. Doing nothing while you have spent hundreds of dollars on your trip seems liked a waste. This is why we select cabins for our lodging instead of hotels. Sitting around in a hotel for an entire day does seem like a waste and honestly, not very restful. But when the cabin is a destination unto itself, it is very helpful to the rejuvenation process.

Another aspect of resting is the selection of our destinations. First of all, we hunker down in one area for the duration of our trip. A tip of the hat to those of you who can visit 10 national parks in a two-week trip, but that’s not for us.

A number of years ago, when we began taking adventure trips, we would travel from our home in Florida to western North Carolina. (We now live there!) We added a destination to Yosemite one year, and then, a couple of years later, we went to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

At this point we had a decision to make. Do we continue this process of adding new destinations, new parks to our itinerary each year, like notches on the barrel of our gun? Or, do we return to previous stops and try to go deeper and see more of those familiar places?

We opted for the latter of these approaches. After all, there were places left unseen and adventures left untaken in Yosemite and Rocky Mountain. Yes, we still have a “bucket list” of destinations, but we don’t just want to be whirlwind tourists, getting only a glimpse of places, regretting that we didn’t experience more.

So, for the longest time, those were our chosen locales. Then, 4 years ago, my boss at Chick-fil-A booked a large lodge for his leaders in Jackson, WY. That’s how we ended up here. In the past 3 years we’ve returned, exploring new portions of this landscape, all while setting up a home base in a friendly cabin.

At the end of our rest day, I did step out for a short drive to take advantage of the afternoon light to shoot some photos at a favorite spot. You see one of those at the top.

Day 5, Walkabout

One of the locations we were looking forward to revisiting this year was a small lake alongside the Beartooth Highway. We found this late in last year’s trip, and did a little bit of exploring around the edges of the lake. There were spectacular views, and we had marked this as a go-to place for this year.

This little alpine lake has no name. Last year, when we discovered it on the side of the road, Carolyn said, “Lock the car.” This meant we weren’t just going to stand on the edge and gaze at it; Carolyn was going walkabout. So, we’ve informally named this mountain gem, “Carolyn’s Walkabout.”

This year, we packed for a longer jaunt. We brought our lunch and scaled up the rocks to a high point where we could catch the views and eat. All the while we kept a sharp eye out for bears, carrying our bear spray with us.

There’s something refreshing about getting off the beaten path and launching out into new territory. We saw no other person there. With each step away from the highway, we could feel our heads clear and our souls come in touch with the Creator of all. As one of my friends recently said, “There are no words…”

Wyoming, Day 3, Off-road!

Owning a barn. Living in the mountains where we used to vacation. Seeing the Cleveland Browns win a playoff game over the Steelers. These are just a few of the unlikely things in my experience. Add to that today…going off-roading.

There’s plenty of space for it out here in western Wyoming. In past years, I’ve looked at a few routes, driven a little bit on some of them, but they always turn “expert-level” pretty quickly. And we don’t have one of those super-duper off-road golf cart type vehicles that would be ideal.

So, in planning this trip, I got to looking at a ridge line with unpaved roads. Namely, Bald Ridge. Seemed pretty straightforward without a lot of steep climbs or descents. We made our way to the trailhead and drove in.

The road (and it technically was a road, since it was numbered along with all the various off-shoots) was generally pretty well-maintained. A bit rough in spots, but our large-size SUV was able to clear them. Toward the top, we had some uncertain moments, but we pulled through.

The destination at the end was worth it. We were overlooking the deep Clark’s Fork River valley. Interestingly enough, earlier in the day, we had driven to the mouth of this valley with the idea of driving along those lower off-road trails. However, they were immediately beyond our capability, so we drove to the ridge line, and within an hour or so, we were looking down into that very valley.

We are now back at the cabin…cleaned, fed, and resting, happy in the adventure of the day. One unlike anything we’ve undertaken before.

How like life this day has been, so analogous to our journey to the Celestial City. Rough roads with hardly a smooth patch at all. Moments of wondering if we were going to make it. Flashes of fear as we felt the car slipping. Telling ourselves that the worst was over, only to come upon a more uneven stretch.

There is a highway that we travel on our way to the cabin with the longest stretch of straight road I’ve ever driven upon…probably 10 miles long. Wyoming Highway 120. It’s wide and smooth, and the speed limit is 70 MPH. It’s not very busy, so even if you come upon a slower vehicle, it’s easy to get around them.

Life is not Highway 120. It’s the Bald Ridge Trail. But there’s an advantage to traveling off-road; the destination is worth it. And as I stand on the top of Bald Ridge, gazing down at the valley far below me, I am reminded again of that for which I live and strive and suffer. Jesus! “To me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” was the Apostle Paul’s credo.

It is because dying is gain that life is worth the journey. I can withstand a thousand bitter tears if I know that Jesus is at the end of them. And more than that, since “to live is Christ,” I know that he is with me in every rough and uneven patch of road I drive upon.

Wyoming, Day 2, Jackson to Cody

We began the day with a simple goal – make the 4-hour drive from Jackson Hole to Cody. We would be traversing the southeastern portion of Yellowstone National Park, driving out the east entrance.

We had no idea what we were in for. We spent a little time at a waterfall (Lewis Falls), which is one of Carolyn’s happy places. After exiting the national park, we began a descent down the Shoshone River canyon that could only be described as “surreal,” and “other-worldly.” Sharp, jagged rock formations and outcroppings looked like giant castles and worn-away statues. Hoodoos abounded everywhere. This area doesn’t really have a name, but my thought was, “Why isn’t this a national park?” There are place names like Elephant Head Rock and the Holy City, but this section of the Absaroka Range bears no distinguishing identification.

I see formations like this and am reminded that many of these beautiful features are the result of God’s judgment. The global flood of Genesis 6-9 wreaked unbelievable devastation on the planet, much of which is celebrated today in our national parks and forests. It is humbling to note that even in the judgments of God, mercy is shown, as he has given us these natural treasures to enjoy.

Wyoming, Day 1, Travel Day

Ever watch the movie, Catch Me if You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks? In it, DiCaprio plays a con man who, among other things, impersonates an airline pilot. It was set in the 60s, during the glamour age of airline travel, when pilots were sought out for their autographs, and flight attendants were always young women and were called “stewardesses.”

Travel is nothing like that.

Oh, our flight crew was friendly, engaging, and professional, but travel is not this mythically glamorous experience like it used to be (if it ever was).

Our flights were changed from what Carolyn originally booked, leaving us with a very short layover in Charlotte, an arrival in concourse E and departure in concourse A. This was followed by a long 2nd leg to Jackson, Wyoming. I’m afraid the young man in the aisle seat was ready to brain me with my second trip to the restroom.

Then there’s the whole rental car issue. Rentals are at a premium this year, and we paid almost twice what we paid last year. Plus, I had this nagging fear that the rental reservation would fall through and there would be no car.

All this created a little anxiety. When we finally sat down for a late lunch, I prayed a prayer of confession for my worry. After all, what’s the worst that could have happened? Instead, I wasted mental units on worry that should have been used for rejuvenation.

Speaking of lunch, our first destination was Liberty Burger in downtown Jackson. This is our favorite eatery in a town full of good culinary destinations. Their shoestring fries are the bomb.

Tomorrow, we drive about 4 1/2 hours to our AirBnB north of Cody. Hopefully without the unnecessary anxiety.

Vacation

Vacation is not the absence of work. It is the pursuit of rejuvenation.

M. Graham Knox
One of the spots we hope to revisit

I’m going on vacation next week. Here are a few random thoughts.

We’re going to Wyoming again. This makes the 4th consecutive year. A different spot this time, so there will be a sense of familiarity mixed with unfamiliarity. I’m excited about that.

In the picture above, I’m wearing a Blue Ridge Parkway hat…in Wyoming. I have a Yellowstone hat, but I’d look like a tourist. Don’t be that guy. This way I look like a well-traveled adventurer.

At my work at Chick-fil-A, I often engage with guests who are traveling on vacation. This always energizes me, because it turns my thoughts toward my own adventures. Since we live and work where we used to vacation, I really love giving advice on things to do. One of the many services we provide.

My operator at Chick-fil-A is an epic explorer. He recently said, “The thing about adventures is that they make you want to have more.” This is why we’ve been planning this trip for over 6 months, and why I’m already scoping out new spots to travel to.

Carolyn has completely recovered from back surgery last December. She’s been a trouper on our adventures, even with her chronic back pain. I’m eager to see how the lack of pain will increase her enjoyment. I hope I can keep up.

We will be right outside of Yellowstone National Park. However, since we’ve been through the park several times in the last 3 years, and with all the record crowds, I’m not sure we’ll get into YNP very much. There’s plenty to see in the outlying areas. We’ve done that before in Yosemite in California. Some of the best sights are outside the borders of the parks.

Speaking of sights, I got a new lens for my camera. Last year, my lens broke during the trip, so most of my pictures were taken with my phone. Now, a Galaxy S20 takes really nice pictures, but I was missing my Canon.

Every article I’ve read about travel in the national parks this year is that they are bursting at the seams with record crowds. One article talked about the lack of rental cars and prices of upwards of $500 a day (!!!) in Jackson, where we fly in. A couple of months ago I encouraged Carolyn to reserve a car early. Prices were staggering. She finally found something that was only twice the cost of what we paid last year. She later found a better price, but it’s still not cheap. And don’t even mention Turo (the AirBnB for cars); prices aren’t much better and the owners can be sketchy, pulling out of a rental agreement last minute.

I’m not planning on doing a lot of writing during my trip, but I will try to post on this blog some of the best pictures each day. Stay tuned.

Our cabin is pretty isolated, well outside of town. I plan to contemplate the stars and the God who marks them off with the span of his hand.

I’ve got Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” running through my head: “Hitch a ride to the end of the highway
Where the neons turn to wood.”
Yep, we’re leaving the sinking ship behind and goin’ up around the bend.