Road Signs and Hobo Marks
by Lois Parker Edstrom
49 poems, Art: 18 Hobo Signs, 61 pages
To Order: Amazon.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
For most of us, recollection of what is now termed the “Great Depression” is forever
relegated to the history books or to anecdotes told by our parents and grandparents. Since
the generation who actually experienced those challenging years is fast disappearing,
Lois Parker Edstrom’s new collection adds a fresh perspective on this pivotal period.
Edstrom has immersed herself in the decade of 1930-1940, the primary years of the
depression. Road Signs and Hobo Marks place the reader in the “hard scrabble” life of
those who lived on the road, often whole families, without resources, without hope.
Edstrom’s poems reveal a heart that identifies with those trying to make ends meet and
about whom President Herbert Hoover mused,
About the time we think we can make ends
meet, someone moves the ends.
As your reviewer writes, America, and the world, is living through a similar period of
suffering and anxiety, as collectively we isolate to “slow the spread” of lives ravaged by
the Covid-19 Pandemic. TV screens display charts in the lower right-hand corner of the
ever-increasing numbers of people infected, of people dying. With the economy in tatters
and unemployment numbers rivaling those written about by Edstrom, I cannot help but
reflect on the human toll of both periods in history. If ever a collection of poems debuted
at just the right moment, this indeed, is that collection.
Road Signs and Hobo Marks is divided in two sections. Part I, consists of 22 poems,
focusing on a particular language used by hobos and hobo families as they moved around
the country in search of life’s necessities. Over time a unique system of markings
developed, which like insider trade secrets, alerted the next hobo about what to expect.
Edstrom even provides a chart of those signs. Nice touch. I found myself referring back
and forth between the signs and the poems written about each sign.
The opening poem, Song for the Road, sets the tone through an epigram by Lao-Tzu, “A
good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” Indeed, since the
depression-era sojourner had no fixed plans, other than survival, the markings scrawled
wherever a surface could be found, provided a quick reference on conditions at most
It is important to note that hobos are not tramps; they are not bums. The latter two work
only when there is no other choice. The hobo actively seeks work, retains his dignity, and
expects to be treated fairly in circumstances not of his own making. This excerpt from
Hobo Pride, illustrates the dignity of the hobo and the purpose of “signs and marks”
Their glyphs, a uniform code chalked
on light poles and fence posts,
aid those who follow: where to find
clean water, safe lodging, a kind heart.
Shelter conveys the meaning of the first sign (top left)
I can imagine the comfort
of this symbol: two wavy lines
supported by a straight, vertical stroke,
a small circle sheltered underneath.
Bindle Stick Faith would have taken on special meaning for people of faith, or even
marginal faith, for that matter
A cross marks the spot:
Talk Religion Get Food.
Edstrom writes an accessible, free verse style using couplets, quatrains and verse stanzas
of varying lengths. Her work is engaging and wise; she does not show off using fancy
words when an ordinary word will do. Her research has endeared these courageous
people to her heart. This is why the purchase price is nothing short of a steal.
Moving into Part II, we encounter a tongue-in-groove fit with Part I. These 27 poems
revolve around the rustic, rural life of the period (something all but forgotten) as well as
the universal human longing for home. I’m reminded of a famous line by Robert Frost;
Home is a place where, when you need to go there, they have to let you in. Part II is about
such longings. Indeed, Edstrom opens with a pregnant line from Charles Dickens; It is
not easy to walk alone in the country without musing upon something.
Who better to muse about home than these disenfranchised people? I imagine myself
walking among them; I imagine myself out of work because of Covid-19. I imagine
myself walking near a small community on the Olympic Peninsula known as Chimacum
A man moseys along the road
clutching a brown paper bag.
Ordinary, yet remarkable
how we trundle
along each day
balancing our ration
of simple joys,
Edstrom gently gains penetrance to these shared longings and quiet troubles in this
excerpt from The Wayfarer
How little you reveal. Do you hear
the sigh of unnamed longings?
Does your gaze rest in a cloud
Similarly, in Notes from a Rainforest
These secrets of nature,
how they saturate the inner life,
fueled with contrasts and contradictions
too large to fit the tote of our understanding.
I did not want to arrive at the last poem in Edstrom’s collection; such was this reviewer’s
fascination with Road Signs and Hobo Marks. The very last poem, Drift, became a bridge
for me between the hobo’s noble quest to get his life back and the longings for home and
permanency which reside naturally in most, if not all of us. The hobo was like
A foggy morning at the shore;
a heron ghosts out of the mist
floating by on a slim raft of driftwood.
However, the hobo was not merely drifting; his movements were purposeful for him.
Through no fault of his own, he had to do the best he could in impossible circumstances.
At times we need to drift
to clear our vision. We don’t know
what we’ll find until we wander.
Such is the timeless message of Road Signs and Hobo Marks.