Review

Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes

by Ted Conover



The first book by the award-winning author of NEWJACK (wherein
Conover takes a job as a prison guard at Sing Sing), ROLLING
NOWHERE is about a young man's odyssey as a hobo on the western
railroads. Originally written in 1980, when Conover was an
anthropology student at Amherst College, the book describes the
people and places he encounters while absorbing the subculture of a
vanishing breed, the American railroad hobo. Early on in his
journey, Conover is compelled by the "romance of the rails," but he
soon learns that hobo life is more than unbridled freedom and
romantic rebellion.

Conover's first hobo mentor is Lonny, a black Vietnam veteran he
meets in Missouri. From Lonny, he learns some of the hobo
vernacular: a "bull" is a railroad cop, a "Sally" is the Salvation
Army, where a hobo can get food and shelter, and an "empty" is a
railroad car that's ripe for boarding. Conover learns how to jump
trains and how to stay one step ahead of the hated "bulls." Soon,
he becomes comfortable as a hobo, hanging out with them in the
"jungles" of railroad yards and learning to raid dumpsters for
discarded food. He also loses his "conventional" attitudes about
begging and asking for government aid.

The hobo life isn't all careless fun. In Denver, he gets arrested
for loitering on a bridge and spends an unpleasant night in jail.
In Spokane, Washington, he nearly comes to blows with another hobo
over a suspected theft. In one small town, an old man asks him to
perform oral sex for money, and he refuses. In California, he works
as a farm laborer alongside illegal Mexican immigrants. He learns
how the Mexicans are systematically exploited and devalued. He also
learns about the "devil's bargain" of charity: you'll only be given
something for free if you sit through a boring sermon or otherwise
debase yourself. He learns that Janis Joplin was right: sometimes,
"freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Conover describes the unique form of camaraderie among hoboes. Like
hardened soldiers (which many of them were), hoboes never get too
close to one another. The life is too transitory for real
friendship to blossom. "Don't trust anybody" one hobo tells
Conover. He travels through a variety of western towns: Fargo,
North Dakota, Elko, Nevada, Bakersfield, California, and many more,
meeting a variety of hoboes. He listens to many hard luck stories
from his fellow hoboes, although a lot of these stories are pure
fiction. A hobo named Monty tells Conover about his experiences as
a member of the 101st Airborne fighting in the Korean War. Conover
later learns that the 101st Airborne were never in the Korean
War.

Throughout, Conover writes about his experiences with an insightful
curiosity. He paints memorable portraits of the hoboes with whom he
travels. ROLLING NOWHERE is, at times, a consciously literary work.
Conover quotes freely from the "tramp" tradition of Jack London,
George Orwell, and Jack Kerouac. Those with wanderlust in their
heart and a love of strong writing are sure to enjoy Conover's
fast-paced odyssey. Something Conover says in the final pages will
surely ring true after you've finished the book: "there's a little
hobo in all of us." ROLLING NOWHERE is sure to satisfy your inner
hobo.

Reviewed by Chuck Leddy on January 23, 2011

Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes
by Ted Conover

  • Publication Date: September 11, 2001
  • Genres: Adventure, Nonfiction, Travel
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375727868
  • ISBN-13: 9780375727863