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Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.
Randy Angel McKinney, 36, jeweler. (Photo: Josh Letchworth)

Randy Angel McKinney, 36, jeweler. (Photo: Josh Letchworth)

To learn about the mainstream culture of an era, it helps to look at the vagrants and nomads who have dropped out of it: the tramps of the Gilded Age; the beatniks of the 1950s. Today they are called crusties, gutter punks, or the voluntary homeless—but they often refer to themselves simply as travelers.

Is there a specific word you’d use to describe yourself?

Not really. Traveler, hobo, dirty kid. I don't really like to consider myself any of them because then you’re classifying something that’s kind of hard to classify. I started out when I was a teenager. I had kind of a rough home life. I started living in squats and met a lot of other travelers. I realized that I could get out and go see places just by riding trains or hitchhiking. And I just kept with it.

It seems like, in the community, many people become homeless for whatever reason, and then they kind of realize that’s not necessarily how they need to look at it.

We’re house-less, not homeless. Some people choose to start traveling and stick with it. Other people don’t have a choice, and then maybe later it becomes a choice.

"Sometimes it can get rough. Some places you go, you’ll get rough treatment from people and police. Other places, they love you. It kind of changes depending on where you’re at."

What areas have the most travelers?

The Southeast and the West Coast.

Is that because of the weather?

The weather, and it’s beautiful. You get up into the Midwest, and it’s just kind of flat.

Are certain cities more welcoming than others?

It kind of changes a lot. Some of the more popular cities I’ve noticed are New Orleans and Savannah, Georgia, although they’ve started to crack down recently. Asheville, North Carolina is pretty cool. And I’ve always felt welcome in Colorado.

You’ve been doing this for about 20 years. How has the community changed?

Now it seems like there are a lot of kids who are doing it just because they seem to think it’s cool. But you kind of had that in the '90s, too. Then it dropped off, and now it’s picked up again.

Randy Angel McKinney, 36, jeweler. (Photo: Josh Letchworth)


Is it something that you’d really want to be doing just because it’s cool?

For some of us, it’s our lifestyle. We travel for the experience and to see new things. You’ve got some younger kids that just travel and harass everybody for money and do nothing but get drunk, be annoying, and cause problems. As with any subculture, or any culture in general, there’s always the bad ones.

What about money?

We make our money by selling art or jewelry, performing and playing music. Some people have bank accounts. I do. Some people just carry cash. We use whatever we make on the road for food or supplies. There’s a lot of trading.

Were you expecting to find such a community when you started out?

I had no idea that there were as many people doing what I was doing until I got out and started meeting them. Now I know most of the people I run into, or I know somebody they know. Facebook and the Internet help to connect it all a little better.

So technology’s let you build up relationships with people you’ve met?

Definitely. A lot of people have phones, and if they don’t have a phone, they’ll have a Facebook account. I keep in touch with just about all of my traveling friends now.

How large of a group is that?

Really close friends? Maybe like 50. All the people? Hundreds.

Before the Internet, how did you share information?

Back then I really didn’t worry about it. I just kind of traveled to the places I wanted to go, and if I ran into other people, then that was cool.

Are there different cliques within the community?

You’ll have that with any community, really. Some of the traveler kids are more into punk rock and some of them are more into riding trains. Then of course you’ve got the hippies and the rainbow family—a lot of them travel. There are a lot of different sub-sectors.

What is it that unites all of them?

The love of traveling and doing something different than mainstream society.

Is there any way the community actively tries to police itself? Is there any kind of hierarchy?

There’s definitely some sort of code, no matter what group you’re in. But everyone’s looked at as equals in the traveling community. We really disapprove of any kind of racism, fascism. Gay, straight, man, woman, whatever—you’re an equal.

Do find the community to be especially diverse, then?

From my experience, it’s pretty diverse. I see people from all races and from all over the world.

Are you married or in a relationship?


Do you have any kids?

A daughter, Zoe, who will be 13 in August.

Were you traveling when you had her?

That was in one of my off phases.

Are you able to see her much?

Oh yeah. I see her every time I get the chance. After I leave Florida, I’m going up to see her. Her birthday’s in August, and I want to see her for that. And then I talk to her at least several times a week.

Do a lot of travelers have children?

I know a lot of people that have kids, and I know a lot of older people whose kids are traveling now, too.

Would you want your daughter to travel?

Kind of, yeah. Maybe not like I have done it, but I would definitely encourage her to go travel. Everyone should, in my opinion. You can’t really live life until you see what all there is.

Have you always had this itch to travel?

When we were younger we always took family vacations, but our vacations were a little different. We didn’t do big fancy hotels and stuff. We took tents and a camper and went camping out in the woods somewhere. I was also in Boy Scouts, and I got to go to Canada. I guess traveling has always been a part of my life.

What’s the hardest part about the lifestyle?

I don't really think too much about that. Sometimes it can get rough. Some places you go, you’ll get rough treatment from people and police. Other places, they love you. It kind of changes depending on where you’re at. Any hardships that I come across, I try to just look at them as another learning experience and not worry about how hard it is.

Is that a common mindset across the community?

Some people struggle, but the ones I see struggling give up pretty quick.

It must be tiring.

Yeah, that’s why a lot of us take breaks. For the last five months I’ve been taking time building my business and doing art shows.

Does it get lonely?

I like traveling with other people because sometimes I do get lonely. But if I ride freight trains, I travel alone because it’s just easier that way. You only have to look out for yourself.

Do you consider train riding the most dangerous part of the lifestyle?

It’s definitely dangerous, and I would never suggest anyone to go do it. If someone was to go do it, they should go with somebody who has lots of experience. And even then, sometimes experience doesn’t matter. I’ve had friends of mine that have been riding for years, and they’ve still gotten hurt because accidents happen. Hitch-hiking can be pretty dangerous, too. I guess I’ve been lucky no matter what my methods of traveling have been.

Do you plan on traveling for the foreseeable future, or will you be done with it one day?

I’m trying to settle down, but I’ll always want to travel. Maybe not full-time anymore, but sometimes I just need to get out and go for a little while. It helps to clear my mind.

How do you see the next year of your life shaping up?

I’m trying to settle down. I learned to wire-wrap jewelry while I was traveling. When I saw how good I was doing with it out on the street, I decided to take the next step and create a business. I just did my first gallery show. Hopefully this time next year I may be able to buy some land. Somewhere in the mountains probably. But I’ll always want to travel.

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