Introduction - what Czech tramping is

Brief history of Czech tramping
in the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia

     Tramping, as understood in the Czech Republic, is a unique unorganized movement of people
who spend their leisure time wandering about the Czech countryside, backpacking all they need
to survive a few days of camping. The word "camping", however, should not be mistaken for the activities usually undertaken in commercial campsites (huh!), i.e. putting up a huge tent
(or parking a house trailer) among hundreds of other campers, plugging in a portable idiot-box
(TV) or at least a radio, sunbathing, fishing, and talking about weather, fish bait, the best TV
soap opera, occupation, taxes and other bullsh*t.

     A tramp is someone who would pack a sleeping bag, army canvas, mess-tin, spoon, knife
and couple of other items, such as camera, cigarettes, hiking map and a few cans of cheap food
in a rucksack (either a hiking pack, an army backpack or whatever suits his/her needs) and
catching the first possible Friday evening train (or stopping the first car whose driver would give him/her a lift) leaving the city, and heading to the countryside. In the late evening, having made
a few kilometers on foot and, usually, having a couple of beers :o), the tramp finds a suitable
place in a forest where he/she takes out the sleeping bag, makes a fire and, having had a simple meal, gets asleep lit by the dim reflection of burning ashes and twinkling stars (provided it is not raining, snowing etc.). There are also many places which are visited regularly and which are
called "camps" by the tramps. In such camps one can usually find a fireplace, some logs or
benches to sit on, supply of wood (if you're lucky), sometimes a (more or less) sophisticated
shelter or even a cabin, and - of course - people with similar preferences. Tramps call each
other "comrades" and, though independent and unorganized, there's usually a strange feeling
of proximity and intimacy, perhaps springing from similar experiences, philosophy, values and
historical context. Some tramps form small groups which are also called "camps" which is most
likely a relic from times when tramps used to visit the same place (a camp) every single weekend
in larger extent than they do nowadays.

     From all what has been said so far you may have gotten an idea that tramping as described
here is not a new phenomenon. If that's true, you are right. To get some brief information about
the history of the movement, just scroll down and read on.

     It all began shortly after the World War I., when young men, wearing corduroys and colored
flannel shirts, started to appear in the valleys of Moldau (Vltava), Sazava and Berounka rivers
(south to Prague). They could be seen climbing steep slopes of local forests, sitting around fires
and sleeping covered only with blankets or just with their coats. They were called "wild scouts"
then, which was derived from the organized scout movement founded in Bohemia shortly before
the war by A.B.Svojsík who, influenced by E.T.Seton and R. Baden-Powell, launched one the
first scout organizations in Europe called "Junák - Czech Scout".

     However, where the wild scouts came from remains a mystery and, frankly, it is possible that
this all began spontaneously. One of the essentials of tramping is - and always has been - outdoor camping. The first people practicing it were young members of tourist and sports associations,
who used to travel from Prague to the city's surroundings on foot or on boats, as well as the early scouts. Among the tramp predecessors we should mention were also army deserters who were hiding in the area during the war; some of these people later became the first tramps. Other
tramps were recruited from among the members of Czech woodcraft associations and, also,
of the scouts organization, because while the free time activities offered by the latter movement
were good enough for young kids, and perhaps for adolescents as well, the Czech scouts organization, though far less army-like than the original English model, had little to offer to older teenagers seeking more independence and liberty.

     The following years saw a huge boom in the number of people joining the movement and
tramps also started to appear in other areas within Bohemia as well as in Slovakia. Throughout
the country new camps appeared out of nothing, and new cabins and sport grounds were being
built. Gradually, in some cases, various sports activities prevailed and tramp camps turned into sports teams out of which many internationally successful sportsmen were recruited. There were
also several attempts to unite and organize the countless tramp bunches under a common association but, perhaps because of the very nature of the movement, these were not successful
in the long-term.

     The tramps also came up with a special kind of music of their own. The musical side was,
of course, influenced by then-popular jazz and swing melodies, but the lyrics remained unique, featuring Wild West themes, lyric confessions of love to a beloved female tramp, and fellowship. Tramp songs became so popular that they were even broadcast, performed in cabarets and theaters, and widely accepted by a large portion of mainstream society. There were also several tramp magazines published, though most of these did not survive for long, and a tramp motion picture was shot as well. The existence of the film, despite being condemned as a "commercial
love story in tramp scenery" by majority of tramps, also proves the fact that tramping was an important phenomenon at the time.

     On the other hand, not all society shared favorable feelings towards tramping. Tramps had to survive several attempts by the authorities aimed to "tame" the movement. One of the notorious crackdowns upon tramps was so-called "Kubat's Act" (named after then-provincial president)
which, besides other things, also prohibited common camping of unwed persons of opposite genders. Fortunately, the application of this legal document was in the hands of ordinary officials
and therefore was quite often observed rather vaguely. But the worst was to come - the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and World War II.

     As an independent and uncontrollable movement, tramping was a pain in the a** for Nazi authorities. Many tramps took part in illegal document dissemination, sabotages etc., others fled
to France and later to Britain where they joined Czechoslovak units fighting Hitler's Reich, such as CS fighter and bomber wings.

     Another dark period for the tramps started in 1948 when the communists came into power.
This era of persecution was to last for over 40 years. Although during this time the official
approach towards tramps has been subject to changes (varying from accusations of subversion
in favor of "imperialist" states in the fifties to other times when tramping was more or less
tolerated) the dominant official opinion always was that tramps were relics of capitalist society
and, as such, shall be given no rest until they would disappear from the face of the better socialist world. But they never did, despite vexation from the part of communist police and State Security.
Moreover, the tramp culture lived on and even flourished, sometimes covertly, sometimes just cleverly masked in a way that would allow it to be a part of official activities. In the sixties' country bands, many of whose members were tramps, became extremely popular thanks to a fact that
the regime believed that country music was part of the culture of "oppressed American workers".
We saw many folk singers and bands as well as purely tramp-music groups becoming widely acknowledged by the public. Since then it has, in some cases, been hard to tell the difference between folk, tramp, and country music in the former Czechoslovakia and in the Czech Republic, because each of these kinds of music often features some attributes of the other types.
The tramps have never stopped to gather in their camps and follow their ideas, whatever they
are, which make the movement so unique, and never really abandoned the lifestyle they have chosen, be that military-focused tramping, tramping affected by Wild West romanticism (cowboy style, Euro-Indian movement, Czech American Civil War Association) etc. After the collapse of
the communist regime we experienced a period when tramping was "fashionable", which badly damaged many of the very basic ideas making up the foundations of the whole thing, the ideas
that always welded the tramps together in times of oppression - the ideas of fellowship and tolerance. Fortunately, it looks like that tramping is not a matter of fashion anymore - those times
are gone - and it seems that the common ideas and values that once gave rise to an unparalleled movement are slowly being restored and that we will, even in the money-focused third millennium, have the opportunity to choose a lifestyle in which a fellowship - or friendship if you like - is
something that counts and one can count upon.

     At this point the author would like to take the opportunity to express one last wish addressed
to everyone who might have chosen this way of life, something a tramp often wishes somebody
setting off for a journey:

 

"I wish your trail would be dry, friend."

Autor článku - P.Hubka