Living the hobo life

By Grace Moore

Grace Moore photo
McKenny Lars Olem, also known as Hobo Roadrunner, with companions Marley and Zena.

If you were to search on You Tube for the “Hobo Roadrunner”, you would come across McKinney Lars Olen, a self-proclaimed, honest-to-goodness, train-hopping hobo. One of his latest videos is from Room 12 at the Cozy Motel, here in Moorcroft, where he shares with watchers his experiences over a period of the last week.

He got into Gillette last week on his way home to San Angelo, TX to see his brother, who is a Marine Lance Corporal. According to Olen, the two have not seen each other in a couple of years.

Seeing a freight train parked with a “nice spot” for him and two dogs, Xena and Marley, Olen tried to hop a ride; he was seen and reported and subsequently spent the weekend in jail with his companions in their own cells at the pound until he could reclaim them Monday. “I hated it, it was insane,” he says.

Olen’s fortune changed, though, with his arrival in Moorcroft and the odd job of raking leaves at the Texas Trail Museum, for which he was paid $30. He was given a night in a room at the Cozy Motel and received a wagon to carry supplies for himself and his two dogs from town citizens who wanted to see him through with a helping hand.

He was taken to Newcastle the following day and was again treated to lunch at Subway. Olen was put in touch with another local organization that provided him, Xena and Marley another night in a motel in Newcastle.

Olen is 21 years old and has been riding trains since his “early teens”. He takes pride in being a hobo, a group that is unique because of a special set of laws under which they live.

These are “the original pre depression laws that the original hobos had set,” he says. He considers himself the youngest “legitimate” hobo in America today.

Apparently, there are significant differences between hobos and tramps, as Olen explains. One of the biggest differences between a hobo and a tramp is that hobos are traveling migrant workers.

“If you’re a hobo going through a town, you try to find as much work as is possible, regardless of what it is,” he says. He says there are many other rules by which this group lives and some of them would “scare people”, but another important one for a true hobo is not to cause trouble in whichever town they find themselves.

To summarize the three types of travelers, Olen expounds, “Hobos are traveling migrant workers; tramps are people who travel, but they don’t work unless they’re forced to – normally, they just beg for money; and hum-bums are just bums at the street corner, who will be on the same corner for 20 years or more holding the same sign they wrote 20 years ago.”

“I do try to find work, I hate being called a bum,” Olen says vehemently. “I hate it so much. You are what you want to make of it; that’s what people don’t realize.”

This fascination with and desire to live as a hobo, explains Olen, started when he and his brothers were much younger, when they were often taken by their mother to watch the trains and explore the history of the rail at the local museum. “There was this little section that was called ‘Hobos and Tramps’ and it talked about the great depression and how people would ride during the depression times trying to find work and such,” he says.

Olen is originally from Portland, OR, but was raised in San Angelo, TX and started hopping trains for short distances in his early teens. His mother was not aware of his penchant for traveling by rail, according to Olen, until he told her his plans when he reached his majority.

“It’s one of those things that you can’t tell your parents. I remember the first question she asked: is this legal? I answered ‘no’,” he says.

Olen’s brother, “Hates it, I know he does. He tries to get me to join the military. That was originally our plan, when we were kids. We grew up with GI Joe and watching the military channel. Our oldest brother was in the Army and our dad was in the Army.” The military, though, was not for Olen.

Olen occasionally joins with other groups and, while he describes them as “outlaw riders”, he advocates their honor. “They’re some of the most trusted men I’ve ever had the privilege to ride with,” he says.

He is also part of the AP3% faction. “We train to help out law enforcement, fire departments and such, so when Hurricane Harvey hit, I was down there to volunteer with them to help the citizens, pass out MREs, get supplies across town, etc.”

He started riding with his canine companions a couple of years ago because, “I like being away from people, but I don’t like being by myself.” Xena has traveled with him for almost two years and has ridden many trains while Marley just started riding with his new family about two months ago.

“Somebody had abandoned him in front of the vet’s office in Lander, WY and I paid about $85 to get him out [of the pound],” he says. If the trio had not been arrested in Gillette, that train ride would have been Marley’s second.

However, the dogs have changed the way Olen travels, “Because I’ve known people who have lost their dogs, riding trains, we’ve spent most of our time hitch-hiking and walking trying to keep them alive and safe.”

When the dogs need medical attention, Olen said that if he can’t pay for the help needed with cash, he will attempt to barter the treatment for some odd work around the facility. He has not gotten sick in years, which he attributes to his not habitually taking medications like flu shots, etc.

However, before he started climbing onto only stopped trains, he had an accident that left him barely conscious in a rail yard before being found and cared for by a “yard employee”.

There is no doubt that the hobo world in which Olen lives is dangerous, so how does he defend himself? He admits that, while he likes guns, “I don’t carry guns hoboing, it kills the image of what I’m trying to be. I carry a knife, a hatchet and a saw; I’ve never had to use it on anybody and I hope and pray to god I’ll never have to.”

For Olen, ultimately, the joy of the hobo life style is in the freedom. “People ask me all the time, ‘why don’t you settle down and set roots and such’, I don’t want to. It’s not my style. I look at this as the closest to real freedom that I’m ever going to get.”

With no bills and no kids, “I get by very well.” If the trio finds themselves wit out a meal, Olen is comfortable dumpster diving.

Olen loves the life he has chosen and, despite the concerns of family and lack of understanding by others, plans to remain a free man, a hobo for the foreseeable future. “I just can’t see myself stopping,” he says.

Olen speaks to anyone who is interested in exploring the hobo lifestyle, “Normally, I don’t encourage this lifestyle because there are a lot of bad things. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs, especially with two dogs. There are a lot of people, though, mainly tramps, who do ride trains and because they’re on drugs or alcohol most of the time, they’re dead; they fall off the train and lose their life. A lot of people don’t understand that this lifestyle, as easy as it can be, is still real hard because you’re pressured into doing all that stuff. I’ll tell anyone who does want to do this, please stay away from drugs and alcohol.”

Olen plans to make Custer, SD next before heading south into Nebraska on his way home for a visit. When asked if he is planning to catch a train, “Considering what happened last week, probably not. I think we’ll wait until we get back down south to do that again.”

A trial has been set for Olen, he chuckles, as he plans his next stop on his way home.