By Bill Kohlhaase
“Becoming a hobo goes far beyond dropping out. That something is part strength, part weakness, both pure freedom and an absolute prison.”
–Dale Maharidge, The Last Great American Hobo quoted by William T. Vollmann
The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about train hopping. By then, he’d decided I was a shiftless, longhaired hippie of dubious political beliefs and used silence to show disapproval. But driving back down from Lake Arrowhead to Riverside after a family outing in search of snow we began—I don’t remember how—talking about his experience riding the rails. He told stories I’d heard a few times before, how he hopped freights between New Orleans and south Texas and how some Depression-era boxcar carried him to St. Louis and eventually to the Midwestern town where he met my grandmother and took a job, not ironically, with the railroad. Most of the talk was about practical matters: where to catch trains, when and how to jump off, the dangers of riding up top or between cars, spiking boxcar doors open, how to avoid the bulls guarding the rail yards.
While I did my share of haunting rail yards and climbing around boxcars, I never overcame my fear of catching on or jumping off moving trains. I had one exhilarating and frightening experience mounted on impulse—where was I going?—that ended some 20 miles outside of town when the train slowed to a crawl and, panicked, I leapt to a bruised and knee-scrapped landing.
You wouldn’t think William T. Vollmann shares those fears. The prodigious writer, a National Book Award winner for his novel Europe Central and author of a 3,000-page study of violence, traveled through Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and once walked to the North Pole. But he does.
“I am not a brave man at all, but a cautious, even timid soul who makes himself pull off one stunt after another for his own good,” he writes in his account of contemporary freight hopping, Riding Toward Everywhere. The book holds enough tales of broken bones and severed limbs, even death, to justify his fears. But Vollmann pursues them and the uncertain freedoms of “catching out,” conducting a risky romance with a disappearing lifestyle.
Facing his fears is only one of the attractions that brings Vollmann to the rails. He sees America—its beauty and its ugliness—best from the picture window of an open boxcar. He loves the uncertainty of not knowing where a freight is headed. It puts him in touch with a mostly invisible underclass of Americans who live beneath bridges and in thickets next to the tracks (his last non-fiction book, Poor People, explored impoverished lifestyles). It allows him to connect with “back then,” an earlier generation, much like I did with my grandfather.
Best, and most American, it allows him the chance to challenge our “security man” society.
“Every time I break an unnecessary law, doing so for my own joy and to the detriment of no other human being,” he declares, “so I regain myself and become strong in parts of me that the security man can never see.”
Vollmann views train hopping not as a crime but as “an unauthorized borrowing property of others” the chance to become “a microbe on the trunk of a [corporate] elephant.” That Vollmann does this voluntarily—“Hey, you guys hop trains for fun!,” one yard bird marvels—tells much about the man.
Indeed, Vollmann and his traveling companions enjoy advantages not available to real hobos, whispering to each other on cell phones while hiding from bulls, dining in restaurants, buying Amtrak tickets when they can’t find out-bound freights. Somehow, this heightens Vollmann’s narrative, holding him separate from the experience, an observer as well as participant. Mostly, this book is a meditation on what it means to be restless, to know that basic human desire—“I have to get out of here”—a statement he repeats endlessly. His goal is to go everywhere and nowhere at once in pursuit of “Cold Mountain,” a Zen-like state of contentment that sometimes blurs with the all-American notion of Big Rock Candy Mountain, the sweet place just beyond imagination. Threading themes from Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, Jack London and other American writers Vollmann seems to settle on Kerouac’s simple declaration for guidance: “Everybody wants to GO!”
Vollmann’s musings sometimes stretch too far, tending to trivialize his obsession with rootlessness. “Isn’t running away from everything the same as running toward everything?” he wonders to no meaningful conclusion. But this “shadow play” also serves him well. Weaving hobo encounters, the disapproval of “citizens” including his father, tramp graffiti, tales of rail-riding women and violent encounters with the notorious Freight Train Riders of America with his own bright experiences and literary bent, Vollmann has discovered an America lost behind its current conformity. We’d all be wise to catch on.
Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann, Ecco, hardback, 270 pages, $26.95