In April of 2022, local author Ed Davis, 70, of Glen Ellen, embarked upon a 7,500-mile tour promoting his latest book, The Last Professional. He completed most of the journey on Amtrak, covering about a third of the United States and traveling as far east as Illinois and as far south as Texas. “It was a fantastic experience, and one I’ll never forget,” Davis said.
The irony is that Davis began and wrote much of The Last Professional while riding the rails during the 1970s and early ’80s as an on-again, off-again hobo. Unsurprisingly, the fiction book involves a vagabonding adventure like no other, in which a techie takes to the rails to track down a villain from his past, and along the way meets an old-school hobo who agrees to teach him the dos and don’ts of hopping the rails.
Davis began riding the rails by chance, while hitchhiking from Sebastopol to the East Coast in 1972 at the age of 19. Somewhere near Crescent City he and his friend were picked up by a guy in a van who suggested they might have better luck riding the rails. After giving them some important tips, their driver dropped them off at the freight yard in Eugene, Oregon, where they caught a train within a half hour. It was the beginning of a decade-long love affair.
When he and his wife began having kids in the early ’80s, Davis stopped catching freights. “It is just too dangerous, and always has been,” he said. But his tenure on the rails allowed him to witness and document the waning years of a unique American subculture. “There were very few [hobos] riding when I did, and there are probably fewer now. I was lucky to ride with some of the last of the old-time, professional hobos—Profesh—guys who had devoted their lives to wanderlust. They were true American originals, and they live on now only in memory, and on the page.”
Davis’ writing life is intimately connected to his hobo days. With The Last Professional, he put to paper life on the rails as he experienced it. One of the central characters is a Profesh known as The Duke, “an old hobo who calls America’s landscape his home and adheres to a time-honored code.” The Duke mentors the main character, Lynden Hoover, in the time-honored ways of the vagabond.
“For me writing and riding the rails started at virtually the same time,” Davis said. “When I was taking that first trip I was also in a new relationship with Jan, the woman I’ve been lucky enough to call my wife since 1976. I had just discovered this new way of seeing the world from a moving freight.”
“I was in this great new relationship,” he continued. “Every chance I got I was writing Jan letters—from freight yards, in diners, in hobo jungles—anywhere I could find a dry place with enough light to see by. Bringing these new passions together with words was like alchemy, and created something new in my life—writing—that I immediately wanted more of. I still do.”
Davis’ other books include A Matter of Time, a free downloadable story he wrote in real time about a death row convict writing about his own final 24 hours, as well as In All Things: A Return to the Drooling Ward, stories about his time spent working at Sonoma State Hospital as a teenager in the early ’70s, and Road Stories, tales of his travels during the past 50 years, both of which achieved Amazon Top Ten bestseller status (www.eddavisbooks.com). His short stories have also appeared in numerous literary journals.
“My major influences have been the great American writers of 50 to 75 years ago,” Davis said. “If I had to pick one, it would be John Steinbeck. But Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Harper Lee, Kerouac, Carson McCullers, Ken Kesey … they all held up a mirror that allowed us to see ourselves with a clarity and an intimacy that still resonates today. That was my goal with The Last Professional, to allow readers to experience their own journey through the story of two quintessentially American characters—a young wanderer who must confront the traumas of his past, and an old hobo who is clinging to his vanishing way of life.”
Much has changed on the rails since Davis rode freight trains in the 70’s and early 80’s. Not only have cabooses and open boxcars all but disappeared, but freight trains now stretch as long as three miles long. And security is much tighter.
“Compared to the first third of the last century, when it is estimated that as many as a million people had taken to the rails, there were very few riding when I did, and there are probably fewer now,” Davis said.
One thing has not changed, though—he still rides the rails every chance he gets. But now he buys a ticket, something the old hobos called “riding the cushions.”
“For me, writing is about connection,” Davis said. “Though the act itself is solitary, it is readers who make it complete. I am so grateful for those who have read and encouraged my work over that last half century, and those who continue to discover it.”
Join Ed Davis for his A Matter of Time book party at Occidental Center for the Arts on Sunday, March 26, from 4–5:30pm. The free reading will be followed by book sales and a signing. Refreshments, wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages will be offered for sale.
Located in greater downtown Occidental, nonprofit OCA regularly hosts live music, art classes and workshops. Its facilities are accessible to people with disabilities and available to rent for purposes consistent with its charitable function as a center for visual and performing arts. Newsletter signup and events calendars are available on its homepage. Donations are always welcome.
Occidental Center for the Arts, 3850 Doris Murphy Ct., Occidental. 707.874.9392. www.occidentalcenterforthearts.org
Mark Fernquest once hitchhiked to Alaska but has not yet ridden the rails. He currently resides in rural Sebastopol, where he writes for a living.