When Harry Partch began picking fruit, riding the rails, sleeping under the stars, and discovering the bounty and arduousness of hobo life in 1928, that very existence was vanishing from the American scene. Having filled the West, railroad mileage peaked during the Great War and then slowly began decreasing, restricting the hobo's movement. Tractors, combines, chain saws, and steam shovels all came into widespread use in the years after the war as machines replaced human labor. As settled towns sprang up throughout the West, timber, mining, and farming companies began to rely on a local labor force instead of a wandering one. As Partch discovered firsthand in the early 1930s, hoboes were forced to roam farther and farther afield, with fewer options for movement, to find enough work to survive.
Although faster harvesting techniques and more and newer equipment stymied the need for hoboes throughout the West, no invention threatened the hobo way of life more than the automobile. Suddenly, hoboes were not the only Americans who regularly took to the road. The freedom to go where they wanted when they wanted, a defining characteristic of hobo subculture, belonged to anyone who could afford a car. And Henry Ford determined that anyone would mean everyone. Instead of gleaming tracks moving masses of people in single directions, slivers of highway threaded the nation, moving individuals in multiple directions.