The image of the hobo, riding trains and boxcars cross-country, conjures another time and place in America when destitute people hitched free rides and wandered the nation for work and a place to call home. Riding Toward Everywhere is William T. Vollmann’s portrait of the contemporary hobo, a subculture of men and women who have dropped out of mainstream life and travel the nation by freight cars. Not all the train-hoppers are necessarily poor or homeless; some do it for the thrill, and some, like Vollmann, do it for experience and research.
What is the attraction of train-hopping? Is it the excitement of getting away with it, of “slumming,” of capturing what it must have been like in America’s past? Vollmann’s guide—a somewhat lackluster Virgil to his Dante—is a man named Steve, who has a home and wife and has been traveling the rails since he was a young man, collecting magnificent experiences and gazing on the beauty of the national landscape from the boxcar, gratis. He tells Vollmann that in general, the conductors and other employees (such as railroad “bulls”) did not hassle him or his friends when they train-hopped, because they understood the call for the voyage. [End Page 162]
Riding Toward Everywhere has a calmer feel, more assuredness, than any previous Vollmann book. Gone are the frenetic run-on sentences; the long, poetic paragraphs; and the grand philosophizing on politics and morality. Vollmann finds a Zen-like joy in the simplicity of the “pouring rain, then birds and frogs, fresh yellow-green wetness of fields.” After sleeping outside and in boxcars, he appreciates the comfort of a warm bed more than he ever has before. “Whenever I injure or tire myself on the rails,” he admits, “I can rest, whether at home or in a flophouse.” He has a choice to walk away from the hardships of hobo life, whereas others do not.
Comparison to On the Road is inevitable. He cites The Dharma Bums more, though; like Kerouac, he is traveling for the sake of experience, to see America and explore its soul. He writes: “As for me, where was I going and where was here? That was as mysterious to me as the shine of spittle on the track of an old bridge. As Kerouac’s guru Dean Moriarty says: We give and take and go in the incredible complicated sweetness zigzagging every side.” Vollmann feels a kinship with Kerouac because he starts his travels from the Bay Area, as Kerouac did, and visits many of the same areas found in On the Road—among the Southern California migrant workers, among the hipsters of Denver, across the flat plains of Montana and Wyoming. He also cites Jack London, Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, and John Steinbeck—their literature of wandering and escapade—making Riding resemble a work of quasi-literary criticism, especially when he muses about Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories as the trains he rides go through Idaho and Michigan.
Is this book about riding the rails, or is it a quirky discourse on twentieth-century American fiction similar to D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature? References to Hemingway, London, Twain, etc., are fitting. Vollmann goes from state to state in his boxcar journeys; his gaze reminds him of the literature associated with different places in America, whether it be the Northwest or the Southeast. Mississippi conjures up Samuel Clemens, and Colorado is Kerouac. Vollmann is a writer, after all, acknowledging the masters who came before him, like “many of Hemingway’s protagonists . . . [who] can look at a landscape they have never seen before and suspect that it will be good shooting country.”
Where are all these train-hoppers going? What is the end goal? Vollmann hears references to a place called Big Rock Candy Mountain, which he determines is either a giant crack-cocaine metaphor or the label for a personal paradise, a Shangri-la, an ideal and truly democratic America that embraces all freedom and equality. Vollmann calls this vague autonomous zone...