story by Casey Welsch | photos and video by Joe Shearer
It's unbearably humid, and a storm is building in the distance. Two men and a dog sit at a table in the middle of America, their entire lives on the sidewalk next to them with a sign that reads "Travelin'. Broke n' hungry."
They couldn't look happier.
“People want to talk about 'America the Beautiful' and they’ve never left their front yard,” says Justin McElwain, a modern troubadour living a different kind of American Dream. “I want to see the reason why I’ve had uncles die in wars. I want to know why my buddy here got blown up in Iraq. I want to know what all these people are fighting for, exactly. I figure this is a good way of seeing it.”
McElwain is a hitchhiker, a self-described “crusty” dressed in a patchwork denim vest, scrappy travelers clothes and a Confederate soldier’s hat. He speaks with a damaged voice, rolling a cigarette in front of a Subway in Omaha’s Old Market. Behind him sits his buddy, Alex Smith, sleeveless and tattooed, though the designs are hard to make out on his deep-tanned, leathery skin. He’s dressed like Justin — a mixture of punk and highwayman — inch-and-a-half holes in his ears. Opal paces at their feet, tied to the green, metallic table.
“She’s my baby,” Smith says as two attractive women in sundresses stop to fawn over the cute pit mix.
Smith, McElwain and Opal are travelers — hitchhikers and railriders. They hop from town to town, wherever they can manage, playing music and looking for money and seeing every inch of America. They sleep rough and eat little and they have no idea where they’ll be next weekend. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
America's showing her age on her 235th birthday. Paranoid, disillusioned, nostalgic, bitter, confused, broke, forgetful and longing for the glory days of her youth, she’s losing touch with her citizens. Times are tough and people are strapped for cash, working too hard to sit back with a cold one to watch the fireworks and remember what America means. They’ll just work and go to bed and dream of leaving it all behind — the American dream.
Smith and McElwain weren’t content just to dream. They left the normal American way of life behind a long time ago. They were both spit out by the almighty system and decided they didn’t want to crawl back in.
“I got out of the military and didn’t really know what to do with myself,” Smith says. He’s an Iraq vet with PTSD from New Jersey who got “blown up” in an incident he doesn’t talk about. He’s been on the road since 2005.
“I got kicked out of two colleges, picked up a nasty addiction for a little bit, got clean from that and just started moving around,” McElwain says. The Florida native has been doing this since 2007.
These men don’t want to work their whole lives away for a family and a quiet retirement and an unsung death. They want to see America and make music and meet people and get by on whatever they can find. But they say it's not because they’re lazy.
“It’s not incredibly different than what most people do,” McElwain says. “We probably work harder than most people with jobs. It’s just not what most people think of as work. I would rather be doing this than getting married and having kids that hate me and having to work all the time and never getting to see them and then they hate me more.”
Life on the road may be rough, but it’s simple. Every day is a new adventure with the same schedule.
“Every day is figuring out where you’re going to get food, figuring out how to get where you want to go, and then where you’re going to get a beer, and where you’re going to sleep,” Smith says.
“I get to sit and heckle people all day, and we make fun of each other a lot,” McElwain says.
“You stare, smoke, comment on people,” Smith says.
“I flirt with girls a lot,” McElwain says. Apparently, the two do pretty well for themselves when it comes to women.
“There are different varieties of women on the road,” Smith says. “You go around and meet the nice normal girls that are down with a little bit of crust, and they’re cool. There’s the punk girls that don’t really travel at all but kind of idolize it. There’s the dirty girls who are called “squat mattress girls” that let any dude who buys them a 40 oz. swing in there.”
McElwain's favorites "are the rich girls with a house and a car, and they let me eat all their food and sleep in their bed and then drive you to the hop-out spot because they want to piss off their either really distant or really religious parents. Then there are art students in Memphis who drive you 150 miles to the next town after you stay at their place and drink all their booze.
"Memphis was fun.”
Each town is a new experience for these travelers, and sometimes, like in Memphis, things go really well. Other times, things might go as poorly as possible.
McElwain and Smith smoke and roll more cigarettes as they talk about such horrors as wading through the “wicked jungle” of Arkansas, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, the conundrum of having diarrhea on a freight train and of course, run ins with the black-and-white.
“There are some cities, where if you get caught playing you get a ticket, and if you get a couple of tickets they’ll put your ass in jail,” McElwain says. “Like Savannah. If we could have gotten a permit to play there, I mean, we were just stealth busking. We’d play four or five songs, make 50 bucks and then scamper around the corner and wait for the cops to leave.”
They got lucky in Savannah, but they’ve also wracked up a long list of places where they can never return.
“Ashville, North Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida, definitely can’t go back there,” Smith says. “Waukegon, Illinois. A lot of places in Ohio, but I wouldn’t want to go back there anyway.”
“Ohio sucks!” McElwain says. “When you go to Ohio, you get stuck in Ohio. You cannot get out, and everyone’s an asshole. We call it Brohio because of all the fucking frat boys.”
“Ohio is definitely crossed off my list,” Smith says.
“Arkansas is off my list,” McElwain says. “Too many dry counties and you can’t buy beer on Sunday. And there’s convenient Christians everywhere.”
“You pick up warrants,” Smith says. “A lot of the things we do are in some form or another illegal, even though it’s harmless. I mean, you can get ticketed for vagrancy.”
“I got a ticket for eating a sandwich underneath a tree when it was 150 fucking degrees out because I was trespassing,” McElwain says.
“It’s federal trespassing to get on a freight train,” Smith says. “Hitchhiking is illegal in a lot of places even though it isn’t really enforced. You can still pick up a ticket. But I’m not going to pay them. I’m not going to court. It’s fucking stupid.”
With the harsh elements, low funds and cops all trying to hold back McElwain and Smith, as they see it, it may seem like there’s no real reason for them to be living the traveler’s lifestyle. But they aren't merely travelers — they're troubadours. They travel to meet people and see places and live life and ultimately put the entire experience in the song. That’s how they make their money, after all.
“I love music,” McElwain says as he walks down stairs to an underground business doorway to avoid a warm rain which begins to trickle down. “I grew up playing guitar and went to school for classical guitar performance. I’ve been playing since I was 12.”
“It’s a happy coincidence that you can make money playing music in the street,” Smith says. “It’s the best job in the world.”
McElwain grabs a paper and a pinch of loose leaf from a Ziplock bag and lights another cigarette, gesturing to his guitar case on the sidewalk. This is how he makes his art, and his living.
“Folk music, old country, punk, hip-hop, bluegrass, I do it all with an acoustic guitar,” he says. “I grew up playing in a lot of thrash and punk bands, and this just seemed like the natural progression. The thing about it, the whole traveling music thing, like Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie — that’s the original punks. They were out there writing about whatever went on. Whatever they saw. Whatever they did. The trashier something sounds, the more I like it. Old shit with super low bitrates, like Harry McCormick, things like that. Robert Johnson was recorded at or around 8 bits. Old black metal sounds like it was recorded in a tin can, and I love that shit.”
The travelers’ experiences in Omaha might prompt some good songwriting, though the rest of Nebraska might not get a very good tune. The men have found little love outside of Omaha.
“We were in Omaha last weekend and then got a ride to Lincoln on Sunday,” Smith says. “Nobody wanted to pick us up in Lincoln.”
“We kept getting kicked out of truck stops,” McElwain says. “They kept yelling at us telling us we were loitering and we couldn’t sit there. We had just bought a soda and we were trying to figure out where to go next. They kept saying to get the hell on down the road before they called the law.”
“We sat in Lincoln for a couple of days and got caught in a storm and crashed at a bus station,” Smith says. “Then we were sitting in front of a big Wal-Mart just eating a sandwhich at midnight, and this guy comes up and starts talking and says he would give us a ride, but he was going the other way. And I thought, 'well, shit. Just get us back to Omaha and it’ll be easier for us to find a ride up to Sioux City or Sioux Falls. We’re gold from there.' We got a ride up to Sioux Falls tomorrow.”
The rain stops, and Smith, McElwain and Opal head for the Points, where 11th and Howard meet in the Old Market. It's time to make some music, some money. McElwain sits on the sidewalk, strums an old guitar and sings his own songs in a scratchy, damaged voice. Most of his songs are tragic in nature — about living rough and rising above, exactly what he knows — so his sonic aesthetic brings a kind of sincerity to the lyrics. Alex stands and plays a washboard in the background while Opal shoots adorable looks at passing girls. Everyone smiles.
It's an ideal moment. Families and students spontaneously gather to hear these true songs from the road, and McElwain and Smith play them with everything they've learned from years on the highway, their lives so parallel to the lives of those who watch them and throw change their way. But through it all, there was still a connection. Parents stop and make their kids listen to McElwain sing.
“It will reaffirm your faith in humanity a little bit,” McElwain says. “At first you start thinking that everyone in America is an uptight prick who doesn’t want to do anything or help anybody but their own situation and their own cause. But then you start to meet people who are genuinely philanthropists, who care about and want to help out their fellow man.”
“I’ll do this until something better comes around,” McElwain says. “If I could get a gig playing at a bar a couple nights a week or a month, I mean, I’d do that for a couple months and then find a new city and just keep doing that.”
Smith might not be doing this full-time much longer.
“I’m starting school in the fall, but I’ll probably still do this for spring and summer vacations,” he says. “I get stir crazy looking at four walls all the time. I feel trapped. As soon as the weather starts to warm up, I start to plan trips. I get the wanderlust.”
But for now the two of them will continue to move on down the road to wherever, writing songs and looking for scraps, living the Other American Dream.You can’t sing about America without experiencing it, and you can’t experience it without going out and seeing it, for better or for worse.
“I don’t believe in bad experiences,” Justin says. “It’s just what you learn and what you know and where you go from there.”
Maybe America can still learn something.
Casey Welsch is the editorial intern at Hear Nebraska. Nebraska is all the America he needs. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.