A few years ago I read a book by Ben Reitman called Boxcar Bertha: An autobiography (New York 1988: Amok Press). It told the story of “Boxcar” Bertha Thompson, a so-called “sister of the road” who was a hobo back in the day. We don’t usually imagine there being many women hobos, but this book gives a colourful look at what it might have been like. She declares at the end that she “…had wanted to know how it felt to be a hobo, a radical, a prostitute, a thief, a reformer, a social worker and a revolutionist. Now I knew. I shuddered. Yes, it was all worthwhile to me. There were no tragedies in my life” (p.280).
There are some great passages about Bertha and her life on the road that inspired my song of the same title.
She asks: “Why am I afraid of my child? Why do I want more than one man? I am truly married to the box cars. There’s something constantly itching in my soul that only the road and the box cars can satisfy. Jobs, lovers, a child—don’t seem to be able to curb my wanderlust” (275).
Her friend says of her: “As for you, in spite of your agnostic parents, you inherited a deep religious nature. You’re a religious mystic, a Christian anarchist riding in a box car to find God. Whenever you go out tramping, on freights or hitch-hiking, you’re running away from something, and looking for something at the same time” (276).