Skip to main content

Riding Toward Everywhere

Review

Riding Toward Everywhere

Is
there a sound more romantic than that of a distant freight train
whistle, stirring the imagination and giving birth to dreams of
escape and adventure? Who hasn’t pictured himself clambering
onto one of those trains, speeding off into the blackness of the
night to an unknown destination? In RIDING TOWARD EVERYWHERE,
National Book Award-winning novelist and journalist William T.
Vollmann (EUROPE CENTRAL) gives voice to that yearning, offering
his impressionistic vision --- freight train rides as
“parables” --- of both the joyous freedom and the
perils of a life riding the rails.

Vollmann’s book consists of a loosely stitched-together
collection of prose poems, sketching his own trainhopping
experiences --- “catching out,” as those who ride the
rails term it --- and portraying the lives of some of the denizens
of that world. There’s little in the way of chronology or
conventional structure to the book. Vollmann and his occasional
traveling companion Steve Jones, a pudgy, middle-aged fellow who
seems to ride the rails in order to find his way quickly and
economically to the best fishing holes, board freight trains
throughout the Northwest United States, from Roseville, Oregon to
Cheyenne, Wyoming, relishing the freedom of the pursuit and yet
recognizing that the potential for a catastrophe always lurks
nearby. Interspersed with the account of their travels is
Vollmann’s expedition into the “hobo jungle,” as
much an anthropologist there as he is a fellow traveler.

The men and women whose stories Vollmann tells are depicted in a
sobering portrait gallery at the back of the book: gaunt,
hollow-eyed, aged far beyond their years and living on the margins
of a society far from the consciousness of the
citizens” (Vollmann’s derisive italics)
who represent to him bourgeois respectability. Colorfully named
trainhoppers like Pretty Polly, Pittsburgh Ed, Cinders, Frog and
Guitar Whitey (who has logged some seven decades on the rails)
share their blunt and occasionally humorous stories with him. Far
from being simple tales of robust freedom, they’re tinged
with isolation, sadness and loss. In these brief, empathetic
portrayals, Vollmann attempts, not always successfully, to
transform them from faceless hobos into flesh and blood human
beings.

There is constant danger on the rails, from the obvious risk of
death by injury with each mount or dismount to the exposure to
thugs and robbers. Vollmann writes of violent, racist gangs like
the FTRA, Goon Squad and Wrecking Crew, and shares examples of
their disturbing graffiti in a series of stark, black-and-white
photographs. Although the world Vollmann describes primarily is
inhabited by men, he offers the stories of a handful of the women
--- “Diesel Venuses” --- who have found their way into
this life.

Vollmann also links himself to some of the titans of American
literature who have celebrated life on the open road --- the
“ecstatic openness of Kerouac’s road voyagers,”
the “dogged cat-and-mouse triumphs of London’s
freight-jumpers” and the “canny navigations of
Twain’s riverboat youth.” It’s a fertile literary
tradition, and Vollmann’s homage to it is frank and
heartfelt.

But it would be misleading to suggest that RIDING TOWARD EVERYWHERE
is nothing more than a romantic tribute to the hobo life. Vollmann
is no anarchist, but he is harshly critical of the bargain he
believes Americans have made to trade elemental freedoms for
perceived security. “It is the security men,” he
writes, “the necessary evils who make each succeeding year of
my life more unfree than the one before, these are the ones whom I
hate and fear.”

A good share of the pleasure of RIDING TOWARD EVERYWHERE lies in
Vollmann’s lyrical descriptions of his train riding
experience in passages like this one: “Montana trains crawl
high under the rainy sky, heading toward stumpy grey peaks like
bearclaws. Whitewater keeps exploding between the moss-bearded firs
and spruces, pillowing upon rocks and ledges, then speeding blindly
on beneath that gloomy sky.”

RIDING TOWARD EVERYWHERE isn’t likely to inspire a new
generation of Americans to take to the rails in search of
adventure. For Vollmann and his pal Steve, it’s a pastime in
which they can engage before slipping back into their more
conventional lives. For those likely to live out their days in
train yards and on boxcars, it’s an existence fraught with
loneliness and danger, and yet, Vollmann seems to say that the
experience of pure freedom it provides offers some rough and
partial consolation.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 23, 2011

Riding Toward Everywhere
by William T. Vollmann

  • Publication Date: January 22, 2008
  • Genres: Memoir, Travel
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0061256757
  • ISBN-13: 9780061256752