The story of one street kid in Greensboro
I met a young man named Everland at Urban Grinders, with a guitar strapped to his back and a coffee in hand. I knew vaguely of Everland before I met him, through Jeff Sykes telling me he would make for an interesting story. Knowing what I know now, ‘interesting story’ is putting it lightly. I spoke with Everland the day before he left Greensboro to move to Durham.
He showed up with pre-made notes on his phone, ready to tell me everything about his life and I sat ready and eager to listen. I felt emotionally invested in Everland’s story before I even heard it, but I think that had something to do with the calmness that surrounds him. Everland has been traveling solo around the United States for the past couple years, hopping freight trains in a soul searching experience.
The first bullet point of notes on his phone was about the history of Hobo Culture, and to stay true to how Everland shared his story we will start there.
Hobo culture began in the 1890s when freight was the easiest way to get from point A to point B. Everland explains, “so from this necessity arrives this culture where people leave signs for others, all saying different things ‘a preacher lives here’ or ‘a person lives here and they will give you food if you tell them a sad story.'”
Those within this culture made these congregations right outside popular freight hopping spots. Then people would come together and build cities out of scraps of stuff and tents. Everland explains, “that seemed to be the pinnacle of it all, when it was a necessity, when it was a culturally relevant thing to do. Now it has become a lot more popular since people started re-popularizing the beatnik culture, and reading Jack Kerouac novels.”
He tells me, “I swear to God like 30 percent of freight riders say ‘I started reading Jack Kerouac novels and just decided to do it,’ which is kind of ridiculous. I hated On The Road; I still hate On The Road. Kerouac misinforms people about how it all works, about the dangers of it and he idealizes it. Now it’s turned into a fashion statement for some people. He’s turning something gritty into something polished and poetic.”
In this article we are focusing less on the act of being homeless and more on the fact of choice: the choice to satisfy this insatiable urge to travel, but to travel in this raw malleable way. The reasons people live this way are vast, some are in fact homeless, and some were born into the freight hopping culture and know no other way of life. Some hop freight to run away from the law, or societal obligation, some are military gone AWOL. Shedding more clarity Everland says, “some people do it as an idealization of intellectual freedom, not having to sell out. This community is heavy with anarchists; a lot of punks will do it. I think that’s the biggest group of people who do it nowadays, gutter punks.”
It’s very easy for Everland to recognize a traveling person, perhaps because he’s traveled for years and knows many travelers around the States. “A lot of them have stick and poke tattoos, mainly on their face,” Everland said. “That’s kind of the trade mark of the traveling, but many of them have geometric tattoos. That’s more of a new age-y thing, doesn’t really make that much sense. It’s all centered around how geometry is supposed to have this central truth to it””it’s like chakras””what it really signifies is that these people have given up on any kind of meaningful future. Cause who’s going to trust you if you look like that? Who’s going to hire you? After you get those tattoos you are committed to being scum, trash.”
Everland does have a stick and poke tattoo, to commemorate his traveling, but it is in a less auspicious place, on his shoulder. The tattoo reads, “homemade.” He explains further, “if you make a present it means more than if you go buy a present. Like materialism versus actually being invested in something, that’s kind of what my traveling was. It’s compiled of blood, sweat and tears.”
Listening to Everland, this composed young man sitting front of me, it is obvious that he has seen some shit, like truly dark creepy shit in this world, and yet he seems fully aware of life’s potential for beauty.
There is this camplike gathering that has established itself among many of the homeless and travelers in the United States. However it should also be stated that an everyday person such as myself could join this gathering. One particular meeting is called Rainbow Gatherings; the title reflects that they welcome “all colors of the rainbow.”
Everland explains what goes down at these Rainbow Gatherings, “I don’t know if you’d enjoy being there”¦it’s kind of uneducated, but then again everyone is really nice. The first thing you’ll hear, even if you’ve never been there, is ‘welcome home.'” Everland himself has never been to a gathering, but many folks he knows have. “I had the opportunity, but every time I tried to get to Rainbow I hopped the wrong train. I was trying to get to the Black Sheep gathering in Southern California. I was trying to hop freight through the Sunset Line, which goes through Texas, but then I accidentally went to Athens, Georgia, so I just decided to go to Florida instead.”
There are definitely a lot of hippies and anarchists that attend these gatherings. These gatherings collect thousands of people, out in the middle of the woods.
Since these gatherings are geared towards people more so “off the grid,” the only way to hear about them occurring is through word of mouth.
You arrive, and go through the front gate, which apparently is where a lot of “really crusty punks” hangout according to Everland. “Getting absolutely wasted, and being obscene, a lot of lawless things happen out there,” he said. “In the Ocala camp- this kid Smiley was being obnoxious I guess and got shot, and just died”¦so Smiley’s dead.”
Everland speaking of death so nonchalantly is a sign of all the things he has heard and seen in his life, but not all stories are necessarily terrible. “Then there are people like the guy I met two weeks ago who was trying to get to Rainbow in North Dakota, coming through Greensboro,” Everland said. “He was illiterate until he was 23, he went to a Rainbow gathering-some bum invited him, he dropped a lot of acid, and for some reason the elders took interest in him and out of thousands of people, invited him into the inner circle. They dropped acid with him for like a week, and he became really motivated, he went and got an education and now he’s like an I.T guy. So for some people it does a lot, just to find a place where you can be accepted, feel loved and feel useful.”
However there is one story amongst the many Everland shared that sticks out. “It’s a very easy society to live in, cause it’s few people, a thousand people attending sounds like a lot but it’s manageable.
When you are in a society of that few, you feel important because you are important. However there are a very rigid set of values and rules. This one person was trying to sell drugs at the Ocala gathering a while ago, like with money, and money is a no. It’s not an acceptable thing to try and sell things or try and get money, people trade and barter. So they gave him plenty of warnings, he just wouldn’t stop, he got physically threatened a couple times, and he just wouldn’t stop. Then they took him to front gate, and they beat the living shit out of him and this guy who calls himself ‘Satan’ bit his cheeks off. As much as it’s fucked up what happened, they gave him plenty of warning, they told him what was going to happen. On the one hand it’s easy to get by, on the other hand don’t fuck around.”
Everland said that New Orleans is one of the craziest cities in which to be homeless or an unconventional traveler. Voodoo culture is still very much alive, and if you associate with the wrong kinds of people, you generally get punished for that. Everland explains, “I got to New Orleans, and I thought I was hot shit cause I was independent and I was putting off this vibe that if I can take care of myself, I can take care of others, trying to be like alpha male or whatever. The first night we got there, this kid recognized I was being an asshole, and that I was causing scenes everywhere I went, and one night he came up to me and pretended to stab me. It scared the living shit out of me, cause I didn’t think anyone would actually do that. I kept my head low from then on, and I kept seeing all these horrible things happen to all these people. It was all because they didn’t understand that they needed to stay anonymous.”
Everland continued to share stories about his experiences in New Orleans, “There was this thing that happened last year at Halloween, when everything is extra crazy. There was a guy walking around on the river walk, and he was specifically killing traveling kids. Everyone hates us when we go down there, we beg money, we’re obnoxious when we are drunk, we’re violent, we’re lawless, and everyone hates that. New Orleans already has a drinking problem, they don’t need extra of that around.” Sometimes community members get fed up and go about eliminating the problem with their own remedies. Everland said that there was a woman in New Orleans who posted around town and on social media how to “get rid of the problem.” The problem being the traveling kids. Her solution was to put rat poison in the white take out boxes left for travelers and the homeless. Once everyone heard about the plan, you would see all these white take out boxes sitting on trashcans, “no one would touch them, not even the local bums. It became a thing unless you asked someone specifically for their food or dug it out of a trash can you wouldn’t eat.”
Travelers do many different things for money: play street music for tips on the side of the road, tell jokes for quarters, and even trick people into buying them alcohol. Within the community so many people are deep into alcoholism, and detoxing can be one of the hardest things they overcome, if they ever do. There is little respect for the law, or the police force, which is why many people take it into their own hands, “which is not the right thing to do, but in the context of the way they live it makes more sense. It works both ways if you don’t trust the law and the law doesn’t trust you, yet you still have to protect yourself,” Everland said.
There are some general moral lines that will discredit and stain your reputation in the traveling community. If others find out someone is a rapist, physically abusive, or a child molester, then they are exiled and branded with that, opening them up to anyone who wishes them any kind of harm. It seems that for safety reasons, many women would not be too keen on traveling in this raw way, since they could be the focus of many crimes and harassment. Everland said that not everyone clings to moral lines and that it’s a dangerous way to travel, no matter what. “The women who seriously travel in this way are extremely guarded and violent, extremely angry, you don’t want to mess with them,” he said.
Everland explained the physics of hopping trains and hitchhiking with instructive clarity. Hitchhiking right outside of major cities is “horrible,” but ultimately unavoidable if you’re hitchhiking the city. Truckers are more trust worthy than many people think they are, the independent drivers are they drive their own routs rather than line drivers who are hired to drive the same route all the time. “There was this independent I rode with in Ohio, he picked me up at a toll booth and brought me halfway through Pennsylvania when I was trying to get to New York,” Everland said. “We talked for hours, and he was just really nice, it’s been over two years but I still remember that conversation. You meet a lot of cool people hitchhiking but not so much hopping freight, since you’re not stuck in a car with them for hours.”
There are many things you must look out for when in a train yard. Sometimes you can’t always hear when a train is coming, they will do a maneuver that is called shunting where they push cars with an engine into cars without an engine, the force locks the cars together. However if you are not paying attention and you are between two cars that are about to go through this process you will be crushed to death. When riding in certain cars it is better to ride in the car closest to the engine, which causes less whiplash. Be mindful of the knuckle between cars that gives slack, many freight hoppers lose limbs, and digits, Everland shares, “it’s kind of hard to get to an emergency room when it is 4 a.m. in a freight yard, when you don’t have a cell phone”¦or a foot. You’re kind of fucked and you’d have to notify a yard worker, and then they will probably call the cops on you.”
If found by cops it is a felony charge, and yard workers will pretend to direct travelers to the correct car then call the cops on them. Tricky, tricky. One of best parts of the interview was when Everland got to the last bullet point, the one about how he got into hopping trains and his plans for the future.
Everland grew up in the Netherlands, settling with his mom, dad, and two brothers. Before the age of six he knew nothing about stability, moving consistently because of his dad’s work. With that constant movement, he never was able to form a social group, or become particularly invested in a city or town. When Everland grew up, his mom told him he was abused for many years as a child. Everland, however, has no recollection of this physical abuse but knows the hatred and resentment he was feeling for most of his young life. Once his family settled in the Netherlands, he found a group of older kids he felt he could relate to, the angst-y years had started. Instead of going to school, Everland fell into this rut of doing drugs, and trying to take his independence into his own hands. “I thought it made me happy,” he said. Everland’s parents stepped in, “and at that point I wasn’t capable of mature discussion. I understand now why it was all wrong paths and such but at the time it was liberating.”
His parents put him on house arrest.
Other than going to school, every other aspect of life would be at home. This was the opposite of what Everland was trying to achieve. “My mom was raising me how she wishes she was raised, but I felt as though she never took into account that I was an individual, and had different needs than her.” He ran away for the first time at age 12, playing street music, doing drugs, and going to shows. “Even though I was making the wrong decisions, it was liberating. I met some people that showed me how to make money, how to survive, and a little bit of who to trust and who not to trust.”
This cycle occurred many more times once his parents located him. He was placed into mental health hospitals and rehabs until finally he was placed in foster care. Everland later convinced his parents to let him travel to the States and try and explore on his own. His dad had backpacked around Europe on a gap year and met his mom, so traveling seems to be in their blood, and with their blessing he started his own path.
His travels shifted from running away from life to a cultural advantage. “It was a really spiritual growing process and I learned a lot from it. I met some incredibly nice people who took us all in, or fed us, those small things were really very beautiful,” he said. Despite all the things that Everland’s experienced he now holds on to the humanity in people. “I hated people before I did all this traveling, I wanted to leave society and distance myself from it, but in the end I ended up falling in love with people as a concept,” he said. “Of course you see a lot of dark shit happen too, New Orleans was the pinnacle of all that.” Everland has just started talking to his parents once a week, and checking in on his brothers. The freedom his parents gave him to go explore life eventually led him to Greensboro.
His face lights up as he continues, “I ended up traveling through Greensboro, and meeting this girl and falling absolutely madly in love with her. She got me to settle down, cut my hair, get a job, and I finally have transitioned into a part of my life where I can let go of all of that,” Everland said. “I have accepted my entire past, the whole mess of it all, and I can move forward. Finally I realize I’m a worthwhile person, the crazy thing is people will look at me and never know, they will just see a middle class average white kid, and I love that, that anonymity is beautiful to me.”
I ask Everland to tell me about this girl who has shifted his life so drastically. “Jordan”¦I was immediately drawn to her because of her empathy and intelligence, she’s analytical, politically aware, but emotional, a healthy mix of it all,” he said. Jordan has started at UNC-Chapel Hill this semester, studying anthropology, and neuroscience and Everland has left Greensboro to join her in Chapel Hill. They now have an apartment, and he is working at Jimmy Johns saving money for when he applies to college. After telling Jordan about his life, Everland said, she understood his motivation and curiosity for the world. Eventually, she pushed him past his self-imposed barriers. “Until I gained enough respect to do all these things for myself, she was like my surrogate respect,” Everland said.
In the traveling community you are given a name, a name you cannot pick yourself. The name Everland was the only one he used in the traveling community. His birth name was present on passports, and legal identifications, but never used as his underground identity. Now, he is thinking of legally changing his birth name. Everland told me his legal birth name, but after meeting him, and hearing so many stories come out of such a kind and interesting young man, no name fits better than Everland. !