“Though you might hear laughin', spinnin' swingin' madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'
And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're
Seein' that he's chasing.” - Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man
Courage comes in many forms and innumerable shapes and sizes. This time of the year is when tradition comes to the forefront and we pause to give thanks and take stock of whatever bounties we are blessed with: whether they come in the form of love and support from family & friends, the comforts of a solid job with a steady income that puts a roof over one’s head and food upon the table, or the state of our personal health and well-being, without which many of the other blessings that we give thanks to can easily become crushed & shattered within a heartbeat.
Late last September Glenn Kirkland from Darkhaus Sound & Film in Bay City introduced me to Nicole Nino & Wolfy Digs, ostensibly a vagabond busking duo known as Itchy on the Fence, who perform music derived from multiple influences including Bluegrass, Ragtime, Punk, and the Elderly doing Cabaret & Burlesque. Kirkland had finished filming the duo in his studio and emailed me about them because he felt their story was far deeper and more different than the road traveled by the majority of “bar stars.”
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of interviewing a wide range of personalities that push the envelope by delving deep into the fringe of science, music, politics, and business; but few have displayed the courage and embraced the notion of unbridled freedom with the intensity and passion of Nicole & Wolfy. Indeed, the experience of delving into their world has haunted me ever since.
While Digs hails from Georgia, Nicole Nino was born in Saginaw and was a fixture on the Old Town scene for many years, until her fiancé was murdered in front of her eyes and she decided to embark upon a journey traveling the expanse of roads that connect America with a subculture of modern gypsies who ramble from place to place riding trains and playing acoustic music – literally living without walls, accumulating few possessions, walking and hitching rides from the East Coast to the West in a manner that channels the legends and tests the myths of such figures as Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac.
This interview took place before they were set to head back to the West Coast and demonstrates that though slight in stature, through the strength of their spirit and wealth of their experiences, they offer perspectives that both challenge and perhaps refocus our own notions of happiness, community, and ultimately, purpose.
They plan on returning to Saginaw sometime in the winter; and have played at venues such as White’s Bar and The Hamilton St. Pub. Hopefully this tale will inspire you to delve deeper into the wealth of experience they have to offer.
Review: Tell me a bit about how you decided to pursue this alliance and how you each came to embark upon your journey as musical ‘travelers’. Were you inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac and the whole notion of discovering America ‘On the Road’, as it were? Kerouac hit big in the 1950s, which was known as the ‘Silent Generation’ because society was so set and structured at the time. It kind of crystallized the notion of freedom lurking beyond the surface of the invisible fences that society structured through expectation. So what precipitated your journeys?
Wolfy: To a certain extent Kerouac definitely inspired me. Plus Kerouac fans oftentimes see us out there and have read his books and will let us stay at their homes. It’s funny because the first Kerouac book I read was On the Road as I was going down the road. I would read his work on and off as I visited various towns.
Nicole: I honestly started traveling because I had nothing to lose, really. Plus I had a thirst to see what was out there at the same time. I was based here in Saginaw back in 2010 when I started traveling with a friend who was a Train-Hopper that was also from Saginaw who started hopping trains at the age of 16 and going to New Orleans. He said that I could go along for the ride, but that I had to do things his way. Neither of us had a lot of money. I was on unemployment and he had no job at all. We started dumpster diving and doing a bit of busking and would sleep by laying on cardboard out in the woods. Then when we got down to New Orleans we started squatting.
I had a car at the time which made things easier, but that’s how I was introduced to traveling. I didn’t know anything about the culture at that time. But it didn’t take me long to get saturated with it and I fell in love with it.
Wolfy: I came out of Georgia, which was my original starting point. I lived north of Atlanta and hung around there for a couple of years and didn’t know what squatting was, although it turned out that was exactly what I was doing at this placed called ‘The Shack’.
Georgia is pretty heavy-handed when it comes to laying down the law for minor things, so I was on probating for possessing this little roach and was busy working to pay off the fine. I explored the Southeast a little bit and started squatting at the same time, but was always interested in the trains. I thought nobody did train-hopping anymore. I was living in this house of drunken punks that had no running water or electricity and found this guy down the street that I brought back to stay with us. He rode trains and was set up across from the train tracks. I would see him talking to conductors and there are a handful of people who can navigate that; but he brought me up to speed and taught me what trains to hop and which to avoid. At the time I was working for chiropractor doing physical therapy and when I signed off and finished my probation, I quit my job and started train hopping. But it’s not easy because basically it’s your body versus 20 tons of steel. We’d sit around the tracks for hours, which have guards patrolling the area who will bust you in a heartbeat.
Review: How do you navigate the act of jumping on a train?
Wolfy: There’s different ways to do it. If you’re traveling with a dog, you need to wait until the train is completely stopped. Boxcars are the obvious preferable ones to hop. Those are the ones we would look for. If you have a couple bottles of whiskey on a boxcar you can have a great time with a couple of friends. As for cars that you should not hop, coal hoppers should be avoided. I knew a guy who died from asphyxiation and blood forced trauma when he hopped a coal car that was unloading, which killed him. Cars with cold interiors should also be avoided. But I don’t want to get into too much detail, because I don’t want to encourage anybody. I’ve had friends die on a regular basis because of this thing.
But basically when I left Georgia my only destination was ‘out’. I thought there was more adventure to be had on the road than cleaning my white picket fence for the rest of my life. I just started walking up the tracks towards Chattanooga Tennessee and met people riding the rails.
Review: So how did the two of you eventually hook-up?
Nicole: I was in my second year of traveling and living in Alaska. I made a bunch of friends and was camping with a good friend of mine who was well liked by a bunch of people in the community. This Alaskan community threw a party and Wolfy was in one of the bands that were playing that night. I met him at the campsite and was friends with some of the members in the band that he traveled with.
Review: How many states have you been to?
Nicole: I’ve been through a lot of them, but not so much in New England. I haven’t explored Texas yet, but have seen almost all of them. Alaska is a long way to travel and we get by through busking or doing some farm work until we gather enough money to move onward.
Review: Are there different sub-cultures within this band of ‘Travelers’ that the two of you encounter?
Wolfy: Well, I supposed you could say that the ‘hobo’ is a sub-culture. That stands for ‘hoe-boys’ because they would carry hoes and work farms and migrate. They would work on a farm, but would ride trains and work on farms and play old timey music and sing about it. There’s a lot about that lifestyle that I can relate to. But among the Travelers’ out there, you do have different sub-groups like Rubber Tramps, Hitchhikers, Train Riders, or Car & Van Travelers.
Most of the revenue we make is from playing music and working on farms. But many times we’ll make more money playing music and finding good spots to busk for our main source of income; and then our relaxation time is working and helping somebody out for a week or two.
People get the misconception that we live this lifestyle out of laziness. But the reality is that I’d rather be doing this than running with the pack. Hitchhiking is very hard and you can walk 15 miles before you get a ride. Plus many towns will arrest you for hitchhiking.
Nicole: It’s more common in the West. We’ve hitchhiked a lot out there and it’s still not easy. Alaska and Canada are awesome about it; and it’s horrible in the East.
Review: Where does the arena of possessions and belongings come in? Don’t you miss owning things?
Nicole: It’s interesting because obviously growing up I had a different idea about the world and then as I got older I started to realize that the world was not as idealistic as I thought it was. But with traveling I don’t have a lot of possessions, nor do I put a lot of stock in possessions. I’m fine with wearing the same outfit for months at a time. Honestly, I’m coming full-circle from who I used to be – having an apartment and choices involved with what clothes to wear. I recently found a bag of clothes and was changing my clothes 10 times a day because its’ something I haven’t been able to do; but in terms of materialistic desires, I actually desire not to have a lot of material possessions because it will keep me from being as free as I am right now. I enjoy the freedom more.
Once you become weighted down with possessions you have an obligation to care about them. It becomes a burden. I feel it’s a misplaced priority at a certain point. Everybody has a different idea of what makes them happy, but I feel within my heart if I were to have a nice house and a nice car I wouldn’t be truly happy. I feel the less stuff I have the more I have to give.
I take a lot of photos, but with cyber culture, you don’t need to carry them around. I have a laptop and I have my photos online on a cloud.
Wolfy: With free Wi-Fi at many places its not that hard to find the right spots and put the laptop to work. We can make a full workday out of it. Nina’s car is in Tennessee right now because the fuel pump broke on it and that’s why we hitchhiked here. We’re without a car right now, but have lots of friends with cars; and everything is usually within walking distance, or if its not, you can borrow a bike or a car, so there are ways to get around.
Our equipment stays minimal. I have my guitar and we usually take one extra set of clothes. If you’re a reader you might want to take five or six books, but then you narrow it down to one or two books because of the extra poundage.
Nicole: I’ve had nice items and possessions but then you hear all these stories about how they get stolen if they are too nice, the same way cars will disappear if they’re too nice. It’s hard to want anything nice, because if you have it, you catch more attention. You always have to be prepared for the possibility that whatever you travel with you are going to also lose it somehow.
Wolfy: Back in Atlanta there was this guy named Johnny who got hit by a car and parts of his back were broken. He used to be a carpenter and didn’t have a guitar, but would sit at a bus stop and couldn’t do anything. So I got him a guitar and he was totally stoked, but that area he was living in was saturated with messed up people. He ended up getting kicked to death in his sleeping bag.
Review: Wow. That brings me to my next question. As romantic and ‘free’ as this lifestyle is for you, isn’t it also incredibly dangerous?
Wolfy: Yeah, within the sub-categories I’ve seen the hippies are relatively safe, but even in that group there are crooked ones that are messed up that throw on a tie-dye and do heinous stuff. Even the nicest guy out there if he hopes to survive needs to tough it up and grow a thick hide. Otherwise you’ll get your head kicked in. You learn not to get too drunk in a place and keep your faculties about you.
Nicole: Traveling is a skill and having your wits about you is the most important thing – knowing what you’re entering and where you’re going and using your instinct becomes a skill. People do get jumped and murdered and people will hire travelers and take advantage of them and then they just disappear off the grid. I hear about heinous stuff all the time, whether it involves train gangs or overdosing on drugs. There is a lot of danger.
Wolfy: The police are usually not on your side. People talk of racial discrimination, but socio-economic discrimination is even worse. One time somebody stabbed me and I was bleeding so I asked a paramedic if I could buy some gauzes and saline. I didn’t want him to treat me; all I wanted was something to treat myself. The paramedics were complete jerks. And then this cop walked up and asked if I was giving the paramedic any trouble. I asked if they could just sell me a moist towelette and they all ganged up and crowded around me and wouldn’t even tell me where to find a store. That was one instance. I’ve also been kicked awaked by the police and can’t tell you how many barrels of guns I’ve looked down.
Review: Damn, so the two of you have been through all of this and still find value in it? Given all this danger, what makes traveling worth it to the point you feel compelled to continue pursuing it?
Wolfy: From my perspective once you see a certain side of things it becomes a moral issue. Once you make the transition to Dumpster Diving and then come back to eat a nice meal, you are not going to fling the half that you do not eat down the garbage disposal. Things become permanent and imprinted. You see the disgusting side of consumerism and it changes you. I’ve seen workers in a restaurant pour bleach over the food they throw in a dumpster. I’ve seen inhumane things inflicted purposely that injure somebody that is hungry. Those actions never leave your mind.
Nicole: I’m totally un-attracted to violence and cannot stand drunk and belligerent people. I can tell and sense what they’re about. For me it’s easier to stick to myself and not hang out with others. But as far as the rewards of living like this, while its true there are a lot of negative things you can witness, traveling has opened my eyes to the way the world is and been enriching. The things it has forced me to do on a daily basis have caused me to really see where my priorities are.
Plus the kinds of relationships I’ve built through traveling are on a different caliber than your traditional 9-5 relationships with people. The beauty of the things I’ve seen waking up on the landscapes of America, the different personalities, and the gifted talented people living their lives doing different things, I’ve been floored and honored to be able to be a part of that.
I would never have been able to understand what that would be like or that it existed before, so my capacity for human life has expanded greatly from traveling. That is why it’s rewarding for me. My capacity for gratefulness has made me happier than I thought I could be happy. And it does get really dark, but because of that I’ve never been more thankful to be out of that darkness. It’s a rollercoaster for sure, but it’s worth it because I feel I’m participating in my own choices and doing and living lucidly and in control and manifesting my dreams.
Review: It’s a world without boundaries….
Wolfy: Some people say we live lives of anarchy because we do whatever we want, but there are checks involved. Travelers are a tight knit group of people so you don’t want to mess up. If somebody is doing bad things to people there will be repercussions and you’ll hear about it. The community is surprisingly large and also surprisingly small, but you do run into people again. You have to interact with people straight because word does get around.
Even doing an interview like this can be dangerous because it involves publicity. I knew a guy who brought a reporter into a squat house that this one group of people had been using for years and the reporter took pictures of the squat house and now it’s been raided and is gone forever.
We are setting up rules contrary to accepted practice, so in that sense I guess we are anarchists because what we are doing is considered bold and dangerous.
Review: Do the two of you travel with protection?
Nicole: I was against it for a long and thought if I carried a knife or a gun it would call that type of situation towards me, as opposed to avoiding it.
Wolfy: I’ve run into situations where I’m glad I had something. For the sake of self-preservation you want to be protected and carry a club or a stick or a knife, but you’ve also got to know how to use it. There’s nothing worse than having someone take a knife away and stick you with it.
Review: Tell me about ‘Itchy on the Fence’. How has your musical journey gone?
Wolfy: We work on original material and have recorded some the songs. We’ve played together about a year-and-a-half and started in Alaska with a band that came down to the lower 48 to do shows in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Nicole: We perform a handful of gigs at clubs but lay all the time on the streets. It depends on the towns and what they are lie. Sometimes you may make only $3.00 the entire day and other times you might make $100 bucks in an hour. Nashville is really good. It’s saturated with music and has a lot of musicians playing on the streets. Sometimes you get crowds of people that only give you a dollar, but other times it’s a lot different.
Many times you get people looking down on you. Once this man drove by us in a fancy car and shouted: ‘Suicide is an option’. He wouldn’t even get out of his car. Other times people scream ‘Get a job’. And the funny thing is, we do have a job. This is our job.
Wolfy: There is this mass misconception of laziness about travelers, but we work harder than a lot of people. We make music 10 hours a day and its highly interactive.
Nicole: We don’t sit and do what we do half-assed like people do with lots of other jobs. We’re trying our hardest to be interesting to people. I get restored when we travel to the West coast because people get what we’re doing and we’re paid handsomely for it. Washington is cool, San Francisco, Oregon, Portland – there’s a band up there that we play with. But it’s also what you make of it. We’ll hit Farmers Markets in Portland and make some pretty good money.
Review: So what is the most challenging component about this lifestyle?
Wolfy: It becomes part of life. You learn about the self-preservation side of things and being able to keep yourself safe. If you’re camping somewhere you don’t know you sleep with one eye open and sometimes might have to walk 4 miles to find a good place to sleep and walk back to town. If you’re in San Francisco things people take for granted become big issues, like finding somewhere to take a pee. It comes down to all the basic routines that you might take for granted we need to plan out.
Nicole: The biggest challenge for me is to ask people for food. That is hard. It’s not begging but it feels like it. If you see somebody with leftovers walking out of restaurant, asking them if you can have it is hard for me. Asking people to give me something – that’s the most challenging thing for me.
Wolfy: People pay money to see bands and comedians, so if I’m performing on the street and see somebody with a box of leftovers, I don’t mind asking them. You might get bread and you might get steak or shrimp; but I’ll play you a song for it or tell you a joke to earn it. At one point in my life I would hammer nails into my face to get a sandwich, but I learned to earn my keep. And there really is no such thing as a free lunch. In other countries that are considered Third World there is a famine of the body. But in this country there is a famine of the soul.
To learn more about ‘Itchy on the Fence’ check out their facebook page.