Dewey Wright has seen a lot in his 15 years of hopping trains, hitchhiking around the country, living in the woods and panhandling on the streets.

He has been hit by a truck, yelled at, sworn at, told to get a job and was once picked up by two criminals who led police on a chase through two counties, he said.

“I’ve been on the road since I was 14,” he said. “I’m 29 now.”

I met Wright last week as he was sitting on the curb at the entrance to Waterville Commons Drive off Main Street in Waterville, holding a cardboard sign that said, “Travlin and Broke, Anything Helps.”

He was barefoot and skinny and had bad teeth, but said he prefers to live on the street to working a 9 to 5 job in some office somewhere.

“I’ve been getting by like this for years. The first time I ever asked somebody for money — we call it ‘spanging’ — I was, like, 13 or 14. I just found it so easy to get money off people or fast food, so I was like, ‘Why not do that?'”

Cars and trucks passed Wright as he sat there. Some drivers waved or beeped their horns at him, but no one gave him any money while I was there for about 45 minutes.

The soft-spoken, blue-eyed, red-bearded Wright was wearing torn camouflage pants, a Cookie Monster T-shirt and a dirty bandanna tied around his neck that his girlfriend, Sunshine, gave him. Sunshine was sitting up at the nearby Wal-Mart parking lot in her van reading a book with their three dogs, Booger, Bubba and Angel, as Wright asked people for money. Sunshine is disabled from having a lot of arthritis, he said.

“I’ve got it, too, mainly in my joints. I’m about to go for my disability as well.”

It was hot and humid, but Wright said he likes that kind of weather for spanging.

He and Sunshine, 44, are part of the Rainbow Family, or people who gather in the woods or fields in places all over the world to socialize, reflect and be in natural surroundings, he said.

“Rainbow’s been going on since the early ’70s,” he said. “Some of the people have regular jobs and houses. They just take off for a couple of weeks at a time. Some people set up kitchens in the woods to feed everybody. Some of them ride around in buses and RVs and set up temporary kitchens.”

For Wright, being on the road started as a necessity, he said. He was born in Carbondale, Illinois, and grew up in Metropolis with his mother and two sisters. His mother’s boyfriend was abusive, and Wright got kicked out of the house at 13, he said.

“I had a drug problem — he did, too, and my mother did. I wanted to travel. I started hopping trains when I was 14. I started hitchhiking when I was 16. I’ve been doing it on and off ever since. It’s all I really know, you know? I’ve been to 48 states. I have, at different times, done odd jobs. I’ve done construction and this and that, and retail. But I can’t work around other people. I get too anxious. I have issues working with people, and, of course, I have issues with authority also.”

Wright said he gets $194 a month in food stamps from the government, which also subsidizes the cost of his cellphone.

The amount of money he gets from spanging varies, he said. The largest sum anyone has ever given him at one time is $3 or $4.

“The most I have ever gotten in a day is like 400 or 500 bucks — when I was younger. It seems like the older I get, the amount goes down.”

One time, he was hit by a truck and it messed up the ligaments in his legs, so he limps a little when he walks. He’s also been sick with colds or the flu, but manages to get better without having to go to the hospital by getting over-the-counter medicines.

“I got food poisoning once or twice from eating food out of the trash.”

He has been hungry. Not often, but it happens and he finds ways to get food.

“I’ll dig in the dumpster. I’ll go to Little Caesar’s. They make pizzas ready to order, and they usually have pizzas they’ll throw out at the end of the night.”

After we spoke a while, a bare-chested young man approached Wright and gave him a cold strawberry drink.

“I love it out here,” Wright said. “I see the kindness in people, but I see the badness in people too, you know? Some people can be nice, some people can be mean. Not a lot of people understand how we live.”

Probably the biggest misconception people have about folks like Wright is that they’re alcoholics or drug addicts, he said.

“Most people out here may seem rough and ragged-looking and we may smell bad, but we’re really actually nice people. We’re kind and loving people.”

Wright likes being free and able to live in the woods or in the van and just enjoy life, he said.

“I try to explain to people, we’re not all cut out to live in a house and work all day. We all have different purposes and things. If we were all doing the same thing, it’d be a dull place. You got to have people from different walks of life. It makes this world go ’round better.”

Wright got up from his perch and walked barefoot over the hot pavement up to Wal-Mart, where Sunshine was giving the dogs some water next to a silver van. The van doors were open, revealing a mattress, a cooler and clothing packed inside.

Taped to the van was a cardboard sign bearing the word, “Smile.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, click here.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: