Finding Lost Hope

Somewhere in Bohemia – September 2016

I go in search of Lost Hope. The trail snakes alongside the Vltava River as it slices through the forested hills south of Prague. Patches of fading foliage announce summer’s impending end. Couples, families, and groups of teenagers meander the narrow path as it twists and turns and rises and falls. Czech trails are always busy on the weekends. Every once in a while, I pass other lone spirits. We exchange glances of solidarity. I’m not sure what I will find when I get to the osada. The tramp camp. Will I be lucky enough to happen upon a gathering of tramps?

Czech Tramping has been around since the early 20th century, but it took on a deeper significance during the Communist era. What started out as a weekend pastime became an act of rebellion. Although it seemed like the tramps were protesting the regime, they weren’t interested in politics. It was a revolt against civilization itself. Against the futility of fighting. They opted, instead, for merry nonconformity. Rather than consume the culture that was forced upon them, they created their own.

Some tramps were solitary, others were members of camps such as Lost Hope. They adopted new names and identities. Inspiration came from the American West and from the hobos of the Great Depression. They dressed in military camouflage or as cowboys and Indians. Distinctive music was composed. Melancholy melodies. Songs of the road’s bittersweet loneliness. Czech bluegrass was born.

Every weekend was a temporary escape. They rode the rails to the trails. Hop on, hop off. Into the woods they would amble, their backpacks filled with the barest necessities. No tents. A roof may protect you, but it obscures your view of the sky. On Monday, it was back to work. To the oppressive illusion of real life.

An hour or so passes in wistful contemplation as one foot moves in front of the other. I have lived in a similar state of intellectual insubordination for years. I know how lonely this road can be. There is no going back. I don’t necessarily need to meet these other defiant souls, however. It’s enough just to know that they’re out there.

The bends in the river deepen. A lone swan swims in constipated little circles near the riverbank. It spews a beastly hiss at me as I pass. Up ahead, a clearing appears. Cabins dot the hillside. A faded totem pole stands on a high mound. The sign on the wooden cabin next to the river announces Ztracenka. Lost. This is the place.

A shirtless man is repairing the porch bench. The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air. I prop myself against a sturdy tree and eat some cookies. A woman emerges from another cabin, a bucket of water in her grip. She stalks across the grass, answering my smile with a territorial glare. And I understand: this place is someone’s possession now. Random wanderers are no longer welcome. I get up, dust myself off, and mosey along.

April 2017

Another day, another hike. Up and down verdant hills. Dandelions sway in the soft breeze. The trail leads from Karlštejn Castle to Velká Amerika. Great America. During the Communist era, Czechs weren’t allowed to travel to the real Grand Canyon, so the tramps baptized this abandoned limestone quarry as their own. The path along the steep cliffs is at your own risk. I slip under the barrier and walk as close to the edge as I can handle. Deep breaths and careful steps. This is the only way to get a photo of it all. The jewel-colored water shimmers in the delicate spring sunshine.

Maybe the profoundest act of rebellion is to just turn away from it all and head into the wilderness. Alone. Detox from the poison of indoctrination. Rediscover the wisdom of our own intuition. While it’s still possible.

Communism has retreated, but the fascination with tramping has not. During my many hikes in the Czech Republic, I’ve often crossed paths with solitary young people. Vintage backpacks slung over their shoulders and dreamy looks in their eyes. Cowboy hats and camouflage. They are free to wander far, now. Even to Amerika. Maybe they’ve figured out that there’s nothing more liberating than a ramble into the depths of the imagination.

57 thoughts on “Finding Lost Hope

  1. I’d love to know if you ever met the Tramp camp in your wanderings, Julie! I did happen to meet one Czech guy in Tuscany this year, camo shorts, Stetson, backpack and dreamy expression. He was choosing grapes in the supermarket, his T-shirt said “Brno to Lisbon” but then told me he decided to go to Rome instead. That’s free roaming I suppose.

    This post reminds me of a documentary I saw, “North of the Sun”, where two Norwegian guys spent one winter surfing in a remote beach north of the Polar Circle, in a hut made of driftwood. I suppose your tramps would’ve loved that kind of feeling, and I suppose the spirit, the motivation behind “North of the Sun” is quite similar to the one of your walkabout friends.

    I sometimes wonder if I could do the same. Today, for instance, I started listening to Tinariwen’s latest album. The artwork shows them climbing a steep dune. I’ve spent a little while thinking of doing their lifestyle, roaming about in the Sahara desert, a bit like the Tramps but without the trees. Fact is, I couldn’t do it for a long period of time; some people feel the need to resist modernity, comforts, a house with WiFi and a French press with decent coffee. Me, I’ve got to admit it, like it. I’d like to say I didn’t go for a burger, Wi-Fi and a cold beer in an air-conditioned fast food in Aktobe after a week of steppe and third class trains in western Kazakhstan, but as soon as I saw the Burger King and the beer shop I was rubbing my hands with glee like a fly. But respect to those who can resist it!

    • Hi Fabrizio – it sure sounds like you crossed paths with a genuine Czech tramp. They do have a way of turning it into an art form. I think it’s probably the coolest subculture I’ve ever encountered, anywhere.

      I have been a nomad for 10+ years. I can fit everything I own in two suitcases. This doesn’t include the things I have with Monsieur Riso, of course, our apartment and furnishings, but I don’t really consider those mine. But it’s nothing like going into the real wilderness and roughing it. I’d like to think i could do it, but after my adventure in Papua New Guinea, I realized that I’m a sissy. The worst thing for me to do without is a shower. I can deal with isolation and eating simple food for a long time, but I get very agitated when I’m dirty. Yes, huge respect for those who can tough it out.

  2. In those darker days (although the further we get from those communist years, the more we seem to see a hint of rose coloured glasses in memories of the days behind the ‘Iron Curtain’), I’m sure it was something of a gamble (or should that be gambol?)

    • Nice play on words there. 😉 The communists tried to control the tramps, but there was no way they could stop so many individuals from heading off into the forest.

  3. I’m recently thinking that mind rambling is the only sort I need to do. But I thank you, Julie, for these fresh real-life vistas. Happy New Year to you, wandering where you will.

    • Hi Tish – Rambling is really all in the mind, whether you stay near home or go far away. If someone isn’t imaginative and curious at home, they sure aren’t going to be anywhere else. I’ve been sticking close to base for the past few months, and it’s been delightful. Wishing you a warm and wonderful 2018!

  4. Happy New Year Julie and all the best for a creative 2018. This reminds me of the tramps we used to see regularly on the southern UK roads of the 1950s. A different sort of tramping – mostly lost souls and the dispossessed of two world wars whilst in the 1930s, tramping between towns and cities was a way of life for those looking for work.
    I look forward to more of your journeys and tramps – and the memoir.

    • Thank you, Robin, and the same to you!

      The tramp way of life becomes necessary in difficult times. I can understand how it may seem romantic to roam so freely, but it was a hard life, both for your tramps in the UK and the American hobos.

  5. That sounds like a semi-renunciation of the world, indoctrination, harsh realities and all. I like the idea of ‘detox from indoctrination’. But most ideologies turn into poison in the end, inclusive of hobo-ism.

    • You bring up a very good point. Thank you. When a lifestyle starts to have rules and hierarchies, then it loses its spirit. That’s why I’m happy to see that Czech tramping is still mostly a solitary (or small groups) pursuit.

  6. I once had a Czech student (grown-up) , who quickly learned Swedish and wrote intriguingly about his childhood. There are so many things I regret I never saved, during my teaching years…but I will never forget him. Your beautiful writings and photos make me think of him. He loved his country, but still left it.

  7. Interesting to learn about the Czech tramps. I’ll do a bit more reading about them! I didn’t really know that was and is a thing, but knowing the former Soviet Bloc, I am unsurprised. Thanks for sharing, and with lovely photos too! I hope I can get back to the Czech Republic and Slovakia someday soon and do some backpacking.

    • Hi Leah – Czech Republic/Slovakia are perfect places for backpacking. Everything is so well-organized. Tramping/hiking is in in their blood.

      Here’s a really good, short documentary about Czech Tramping: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1llZZY9kSY , which actually shows the former camp (Lost Hope) that I visited. There are also a few articles in English around the internet. I wish I could have experienced more of it personally, but wandering their trails and visiting the old camp/ sights was fun anyway.

  8. There’s nothing more liberating than both a ramble and a ramble into the depths of the imagination! Walking is great for that. Lovely post about the Czech romance of walking – how they’ve kept to the spirit of something so basic and available to all of us.

    Here’s to plenty of adventures roughing it in 2018 – be it Czech, France, the UK or wherever!

    • So true! Tramping is similar, in spirit, to flanerie/psychogeography. Both rely on generous doses of imagination, while traversing landscapes by foot. May your 2018 take you down many intriguing paths.

  9. Pingback: Starting As I Mean To Go On ~ The Big De-Clutter, Or This Writer’s Extra-Convoluted Displacement Activity? – Tish Farrell

  10. Isn’t it interesting that humanity has the concept “hope” embedded in their DNA. Happy New Year! – Looking forward to tagging along on your profound that life-changing adventures.
    “Hope
    Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
    Whispering ‘it will be happier’…” Alfred Tennyson

  11. I’m a tramp at heart, but like most modern-world dwellers, I need to get back to my creature comforts after a while. These Czech tramps fascinate me, especially after our time in that part of the world this past summer. Like a number of other readers, my thoughts turned to American hobos and the connection both of these groups have with some kind of uncertainty in the world order. There’s something both romantic and terribly sad about their escapes into the wilderness and less-plied paths.

    On a cheerier note, Happy 2018 to you! I know you are at your own inflection point, and I look forward to seeing which way you turn.

    • That’s interesting that you find escaping into the wilderness sad. Unless it’s for purely economic reasons, I find it incredibly courageous to turn one’s back on the expectations of society. I don’t see much in our culture that’s very healthy anymore.

      Thank you for the good wishes. I am indeed about to embark on the most daunting journey of my life. Who knows where the road will lead, but that’s half the fun. I guess. May you wander many new paths in 2018!

  12. No, no, it’s not the wilderness that’s sad! Quite the opposite. It’s what drives some people into it that causes consternation: communism, economic despair, lost hope. The “merry nonconformity” is grand; the “melancholy melodies” and “bittersweet loneliness” are what tug at my heart because many of these people have come into the wilderness out of a dark place.

    • Ah, okay. I understand now. Dark, ridiculous times call for drastic measures, and why not have fun while you’re at it. 😀 So much better than being outraged all the time.

  13. I suppose the nearest thing to tramps around here are those in the homeless encampments – folks who’ve either fallen through what passes for an economic safety net around here, or like your tramps simply don’t want to play the 8 to 5 game. But rather than disappearing into the wilderness they find places in the city; camping under bridges, alongside rights of way, in ancient RV’s or boats. There’s nothing about it that strikes me as a desirable way to go.

    Wanderers, on the other hand, folks who want to see and experience the world without being a burden, have a certain freedom that does seem inviting.

    • Living in an encampment certainly doesn’t seem ideal, but I’ve seen documentaries about homeless people in the US who’ve chosen to live that way. They do it to be invisible and live on their own terms. I’ve seen quite a few articles about people living in very nice converted vans and traveling around the country going from job to job. As long as they’re not causing problems, more power to them all.

  14. I’m loving the use of the verb…tramping. It makes me think of the wanderings of my family who found their way to America to escape an oppressive Czech regime in the early 1900’s. Also, the restless spirit that seems to be in the DNA…a family of modern gypsies. Great post, Julie. Keep sharing these adventures in the new year. Onward in 2018.

  15. Lost hope! It certainly feels like we’re there sometimes, Julie. I’m married to a man who always has his nose to the ground, sniffing out the wayward paths of politicians. I love him dearly but I simply have to escape because I can’t deal with it. That’s mostly what my blog does for me. 🙂 🙂 Happy and hopeful travels, real and imagined, in 2018!

    • The hardest thing to avoid, nowadays, is the constant bombardment of negative and convoluted propaganda. I stopped consuming that poison, as much as possible, years ago. Some still manages to trickle in via WordPress and Instagram and other random ways, though. So many people are addicted to outrage and division. And they just love to try to make you feel like you’re not being a good citizen if you aren’t, too. Whatever, eh? May your blog continue to be a delightful escape in 2018. Warmest wishes. 😊

  16. Love your photographs and explanation of tramping…I definitely get it, support it and wish for more of it 🙂 that way it would not seem as “fringe” but something closer to the or a “norm” of sorts. Wishing you everything you wish for yourself in 2018!
    Peta

    • Hi Peta- The Czechs are very proud of their tramping heritage, and although many don’t do it, they consider it a way to keep their culture alive rather than a fringe activity. It is definitely encouraged. Happy 2018 to you, too!!

  17. There is some kind of sad beauty in create worlds to exit the ones where one is forced to live for his/her ideas. And certainly a great beauty in your way to tell it. Thank you and belated happy new year ^_^

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