In 2000 writer Brad Wetzler penned an hilarious report from the Czech Republic on a curious phenomenon, a kind of Old West mania, in Outside Magazine. Here’s a taste. Thanks Brad — CDB
IF IT’S TRUE that you are what you eat, then I am a big, greasy kielbasa. I brought this on myself: For the past week I have been camping with a dedicated band of carnivores who favor canned meat and an alarming variety of sausages. We’re deep in the Brdy Hills, a rolling patch of beech forest as charming as a dream, about 30 miles south of Prague in the czech Republic. The air is full of the smell of honeysuckle, the buzzing of bees, the chirruping of bluebirds, and the sizzling of meat. The only human tracks within sight are our own.
But this is a curious bunch. There is Jerry, the frequently drunk prankster who gets his kicks hiding pinecones in our sleeping bags. He whispers that his real name is Vladimir, but tramps are only supposed to go by their tramping names. Which is why “Jerry” is tattooed in boldface on his right forearm. George, a starry-eyed guitar player, can do a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” in czech that would make anyone homesick for the hills of central Bohemia. Ace is a private in the czech army who always wears a Daniel Boone–style coonskin cap; he sucked down too much rum last night and, while dancing to George’s intoxicating music, fell into the fire. Lucky for him Sheriff Tom was still sober enough to pull him out. A one-armed bear of a man, Sheriff Tom is, at 45, the oldest hobo, and he happens to own the biggest bowie knife, making him the logical choice to be the group’s chief law-enforcement officer…
They are also a slovenly bunch. Empty sausage casings litter our campsite. Dirty clothes hang from branches. Camping gear—knapsacks, tarps, cooking kits—is strewn about like leftovers from a yard sale. The tramps themselves lounge in the dirt, sleeping, smoking, singing songs, telling stories…and eating meat. So far this week we’ve feasted on pork, beef, pork-beef sausage, ham steak, chicken, herring, sardines, smoked oysters, and plain old grilled meat, a gluey pink mush that comes in a can labeled “Grilled Meat.” It’s dinnertime on my fifth day with this group, and I’ve had enough—but that’s only my opinion. Sheriff Tom insists that I keep up with my compatriots. He catches me sneaking away from the campfire and blocks my path, brandishing a bright-red, footlong salami in his one good hand. He’s staring directly into my eyes.
“Very…special…sausage,” he says in deliberate, broken, heavily accented English.
I ask what’s in it. Sheriff Tom casts his gaze skyward, as if scanning the animal-cracker-shaped clouds to find the poor beast from which this sausage was rendered. “How you say…” Sheriff Tom says, sounding flustered. “I don’t know. It is big, with hooves. Please. Eat!”
He hands me the sausage and motions for me to try it. Hesitant, I oblige, biting into the pasty gristle and rolling it around in my mouth. Then I make myself swallow.
“I know! I know!” Sheriff Tom suddenly blurts out as the sausage slides down my gullet. “It goes, ‘Neighhhhhh!’”
THE MEN I’M TRAVELING with call themselves the Red Monkey Gang. They’re a proud part of a nationwide movement called tramping, or vandr in Czech. As the name suggests, tramping is a takeoff on hoboing—the act of drifting from place to place by train or on foot. Real hoboing had its heyday during the Great Depression in the United States, when an estimated 1.5 million people lived on the loose. Most came to their vocation involuntarily, driven to the road by poverty and desperation. Nonetheless, hobos, like tramps, acquired a reputation for their carefree way of life, their predilection for booze, and a canon of whimsical folk songs and stories.
The Czech species of tramp, or vandrak, has the happy-go-lucky, alcohol-soaked aspects of the lifestyle down cold. But these are not bona fide, full-time tramps. The Czechs are dilettante vagrants: Recalling the lore of tramping, they embark on excursions in which they merely pretend to be down-and-out wastrels. Nor do they follow the hobo tradition with any commitment to verisimilitude; America’s wide-open spaces have inspired many Czech “tramps” to dress up as cowboys or Indians or, just as bizarrely, World War II GIs. On weekends and during vacations, thousands of them hop trains (paying their fare rather than stowing away in boxcars), camp out under the stars, or rendezvous in the hills and at festivals, all the while singing Czech and American folk tunes. Most are middle-class working men with homes and families, though it’s not uncommon to see women marching into the woods, too. Come Sunday night, everybody climbs back on the train and goes back to their day jobs.
Sounds like a pretty good life to me. So a few months back I flew to the Czech Republic and on a balmy Friday afternoon took a cab straight from Prague’s Ruzyne Airport to Smichov Station, aka Tramp Central…— Read the rest of Outside Magazine Correspondent Brad Wetzler’s classic report on Czech cowboys and “trampers” here.