Riding Toward Everywhere

By WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN

Free-spirited Yankees were not in love with the railroad from the beginning. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, believed locomotion would demolish Americans’ innate freedoms by making them slaves to a machine. “We do not ride on the railroad,” he wrote in Walden, “it rides upon us.”

Perhaps Thoreau was right — and our sleep-deprived, workaholic culture springs from the iron horse. But today the train isn’t viewed as the source of this problem but an escape hatch — especially for freethinkers. Case in point: William Vollmann’s new book-length meditation on hopping freight trains.

“When you gamble on a freight train,” Vollmann writes in Riding Toward Everywhere, it is so much like life: you don’t know the future.” How true. Throughout this meandering, cumulous cloud of a book Vollmann hops on, hoping to go north and winding up south. Fabulous vistas give way to skuzzy, weed-choked roadsides, viewed from inside stalled, sweltering boxcars.

This is not exactly the place one expects to find well-to-do men nearing 50 (Vollmann travels with friends), but Vollmann is not your average weekend warrior. The National Book Award?winning author of Europe Central and a 3,000-page study of violence, Rising Up & Rising Down, among other books, is something of a saintly seeker in a world of vicarious experience.

Researching his novel The Ice-Shirt, Vollmann traveled to the Magnetic North Pole and slept out on the tundra, to better understand his hero. It was in the same vein that he smoked crack to get to know the prostitutes he mythologized in his California epic, The Royal Family. As a reporter, he has traveled in Bosnia, Colombia, and the far East, asking people along the way why they were destitute; he collected their answers in his anguished 2006 book, Poor People.

Like Mark Twain before him, Vollmann believes there’s a lot of America out there left to see and explore, and Riding Toward Everywhere is a continuation of that project. Only there’s a more wistful, personal note struck here than in his previous work. The book begins with references to Vollmann’s own independent-minded father, who is worried his son’s getting too old for such shenanigans. “I’d come back from the Magnetic Pole,” Vollmann complains, “hadn’t I?” Somehow, these can’t be reassuring words for a father to hear.

Vollmann lights out anyway, limping along thanks to a barely healed pelvis injury, his bravado further quelled by the residue of several small strokes. He comes prepared. Vollmann is kitted up, as the English say, with oilskin pants, several liters of water, vitamin pills, jerky, and, of course, a flask. He even has an orange bucket upon which to stand so as to better reach the trains, and later, to urinate into. Compared to the hobos he is keeping an eye out for, he is practically on a package holiday.

In this he resembles Henry David Thoreau. When Walden‘s author went to the woods, he actually just squatted down on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land. It’s even been said he snuck off for hot meals. Vollmann isn’t troubled by such details: “Walden gives me pleasure and makes me braver. So does riding the rails. If this essay can do the same for you,” he continues, “then my material comforts, even if in your eyes they render me a dilettante — or a hypocrite, have been useful means to that end.”

The book succeeds because Vollmann knows well enough to look outside himself. From town to town, track yard to track yard, he susses out hollow-eyed, gap-toothed men (and occasionally) women who huddle under overpasses and around hobo hearths, making our “steel spiderweb” their home. When they won’t talk, he pays them for their stories.

They have homey, poetic names like Pittsburgh Ed and Badger, but their lives do not easily lend themselves to gusts of lyricism. One man Vollmann meets says he was abandoned at the tracks at age five and has been riding ever since. Another darts his head left and right constantly. Eternal vigilance is etched into their faces, which Vollmann beautifully captures in a series of photographs appended to the book like the shots Wright Morris once took of his vanishing plains.

Vollmann’s interview style is to lean heavily on the speaker’s voice, sometimes stripping away quotes, as if to say: their story is as important as mine. It’s a gesture, but it feels sincere. As a result, Riding Toward Everywhere ably shows that rail riders don’t have different aims than everyday citizens, as Vollmann describes the 9-5ers. It’s just they have a different way of going about it.

One man named Ira is constantly running, forever edging away from direct contact with others. When Vollmann asks him what he plans to do wherever he is going, Ira always answers, “Oh, I dunno, just relax, maybe get a little snack, work on my finances?” Another man recommends gulping down a beer after you give blood: “Cheap high,” he says, “goes right to your head!”

Although Vollmann isn’t shy about partaking, whatever the substance, he is keenest to find nature’s natural high. In the sections where his train finally pulls out into the wide-open American landscape, he is practically drunk with appreciation. “Dawn was a blinding turquoise slit,” he writes on a journey out of Laramie, Wyoming.

“I had no reason on earth to go to Cheyenne,” he writes elsewhere, “not until then, gazing down through 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, my country.”

Sentences like this make it enormously clear that Riding Toward Everywhere is a patriot’s book. Like the author of Walden, Vollmann is deeply troubled by the state of his country and writes in a spirit of resistance. By capturing America, he hopes to change it. Thoreau accomplished this sitting still; Vollmann does it in motion. You needn’t be chasing the Diesel Venus or squatting in Concord to realize both were on to something.