Smile Politely

The high tech hobo

“I still want to live this life, and I never want to pay rent, so this is the best thing I came up with.” — Nate Hanley

It’s tough to track down a hobo, which is part of the attraction of the vagabond lifestyle. Nate Hanley — who grew up in Decatur and played in the Champaign-Urbana band Bailey a few years ago — was living in his homemade camping trailer and was parked in a friend’s driveway near downtown Champaign until earlier this month. Then, one day, the trailer was gone. The friend’s landlord got wind of the arrangement and Hanley was forced to find a new parking spot.

I caught up with him last week at an undisclosed location on the outskirts of C-U. Hanley has a unique lifestyle; he’s more than happy to share the ins and outs of hobo-ing as long as you don’t try to find out where he dumpsters for his food. That’s privileged information.

Smile Politely: So, how did you come up with the idea for the trailer?

Nate Hanley: I was living in Oklahoma City in a tent in my friend’s backyard and I realized that it kind of sucks living in a tent in someone’s backyard. I didn’t have any income, but I had about $1,000 left, and I was like, what am I going to do with this $1,000? Am I going to just spend it or am I going to use it to meet a need that I have? I moved back to my parents’ house for a month and I spent all my time building this. I was going to buy a pop-up camper, but all the ones that I saw were $1,500, $2,000, and they were all from the ’70s and crappy. So I realized I could build one for myself, and a trailer was $300, and I figured with all the wood it would be less than $1,000. So I started looking online for plans for a trailer that I could pull with my car, and I saw a plan for these teardrop trailers. I didn’t really have a plan, I just started piecing stuff together along the way and making mistakes. Before I did it, I was telling my friends that I was going to build a trailer and they were like, “Whatever, dude. That’s crazy. Your car can’t pull a trailer.” But I was just like a hermit for a month and then I showed up and [it was all done] and they were like, “Dang!”

SP: You bought the chassis new, then?

NH: I bought the trailer from Harbor Freight, and it was like 300 bucks. I had to bolt the whole thing together, but that was ok, because now I know how the whole thing works. I had to wire up the lights.

SP: So you towed it up here from Oklahoma City?

NH: No, well, I built it in Monticello. It’s only gone like 30 miles from Monticello to here. I just got a job and I’m going to try to make as much money as possible this summer and then this winter I’m going to take it to Austin. I can make friends pretty easy and just be like, “Hey, can I live in your backyard for a couple of weeks?” I can help with the electricity bill.

SP: It seems like Austin would be a good place for that.

NH: Yeah, or I’m thinking of selling it because I can live in this barn right now and then I can build another one this summer. But I’m getting attached to it now that I have it. It’s seriously like my home.

SP: Literally.

NH: Yeah.

SP: So what all do you have? A refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker …

NH: Computer, stereo. I’m thinking of getting one of those hotplates so I can make bacon and eggs.

SP: So, last night, was it uncomfortably warm in there?

NH: It wasn’t bad. I got in about 11 o’clock, and it was a little bit warm. I’ve only got one window right now. I ordered another one so I can get a crossbreeze. I want to get a solar-powered vent so it will push air out. That’s going to cost me some money, but it’s ok. And I want to get some real solar panels for the top, so I can power all this without having to be on the grid.

SP: How many batteries would you need?

NH: I don’t know. Mostly it’s the fridge and I have to have it. All this food is dumpstered from different places, you know, so if I get all this produce or yogurt or something, I need to get rid of it.

SP: Where do you do your dumpstering?

NH: I don’t really want to say, especially if it’s going to be in an article (laughs). When I first got to Champaign, I didn’t think I’d be able to get anything around here, but there’s places.

SP: Who lives here [where you have the trailer parked]?

NH: This is a group of my friends from when I used to live in Champaign. Because I used to play music and I made some friends through that. These guys rent this farmhouse out here. I don’t go in the house, really, except to hang out. I don’t think they care, but one more person using the bathroom … that’s one thing I’ve learned from moving from place to place. That’s why I was in a tent before, because I didn’t want to sleep on someone’s couch all the time, but I wanted to be able to hang out with them and have a good time with them. So this is the best option, because I can move to my friends’ houses across the country.

SP: If they get tired of you, or you get tired of them, you can just move on.

NH: Yeah, or if I get kicked out by their landlord, like I did the last couple of weeks.

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