Blood on the Tracks

Vollmann trades the bourgeois life for vagabonding—and a freight car with a view

Jan 29, 2008
Outside Magazine
Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann

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"CATCHING OUT"—SLANG for hopping a train—has long been an obsession for William T. Vollmann (a writer who knows from obsession: see Rising Up and Rising Down, his seven-volume, 3,300-page exploration of violence, published in 2004). In Riding Toward Everywhere (Ecco, $27), the National Book Award winner sets out to taste the freedom of the rails, briefly inhabiting a world between "citizen" (your average workaday square) and the true hobo, who'd rather carry a nice piece of sleeping cardboard than a mortgage. Lying in the weeds waiting interminable hours for a train, dodging the railroad-company "bulls" who could throw him in jail—or beat the curiosity out of him—the famously discursive Vollmann dives into a rapidly disappearing subculture and crisscrosses the West, from Salinas to Cheyenne. He's not aiming to write a history of tramping, but stories of tramps like Pittsburgh Ed and encounters with quirky folks like Cinders, the Great Grand Duchess of Hobos, provide a strong taste of the wandering life. Nor does he try to give a detailed chronology of his ramblings, though by the end of the book it feels like you've been sacked up next to him for months. Instead, in bursts of descriptive prose, Vollmann captures his adventures with Whitmanesque euphoria, happy to forget the human dramas in favor of watching the West clank by, "gazing down through the pine meadows into the blue and indigo mountains ahead, heart-stopping beauty that brought tears to my eyes, so amazing that all of this was part of one country, which was my country." Hopping a train makes him feel free, he writes, and "for some indefinite period, which while it lasts is as good as forever, my own sad life, with its rules, necessities and railroad bulls, will not be able to catch me."

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