Riding Toward Everywhere

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Arelentlessly curious, endlessly sensitive, and unequivocally adventurous examiner of human existence, William T. Vollmann now takes to the rails. In the company of experienced fellow train-hopper Steve, Vollmann trawls the secretive waters of a unique underground lifestyle—subjecting both our national romance with and skepticism about the hobo life to his finely tuned, analytical eye. Carrying on in the footloose tradition of Huckleberry Finn, he offers a moving, strikingly modern vision of the American dream, ...

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Arelentlessly curious, endlessly sensitive, and unequivocally adventurous examiner of human existence, William T. Vollmann now takes to the rails. In the company of experienced fellow train-hopper Steve, Vollmann trawls the secretive waters of a unique underground lifestyle—subjecting both our national romance with and skepticism about the hobo life to his finely tuned, analytical eye. Carrying on in the footloose tradition of Huckleberry Finn, he offers a moving, strikingly modern vision of the American dream, brilliantly exploring both our deeply ingrained romanticizing of "freedom" and the myriad ways we restrict the very freedoms we profess to admire.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
“An immense literary talent.”
Washington Post Book World
“A writer whose books tower over the work of his contemporaries.”
“Intrepid journalist and novelist William T. Vollman’s colossal body of work stands unsurpassed for its range, moral imperative, and artistry.”
Los Angeles Times
“A monster; monster talent, ambition, and accomplishment.”
Carolyn See
In this modest little volume, Vollmann recounts several adventures riding American freight cars, or "catching out," in the company of a pleasant pal named Steve…[Vollmann's] in search of authenticity. And for all the length and tenacity and even exoticism of his earlier work, he's a true-blue, understandable American of the nonconformist variety.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In this sometimes heavy-handed though brief (especially for Vollmann) memoir of hopping trains and riding the rails, Vollmann, National Book Award winner for Europe Central, explores a personal and national obsession. "From a certain open boxcar in a freight train heading the wrong way," he writes, "I have enjoyed pouring rain, then birds and frogs, fresh yellow-green wetness of fields." Taking to the rails out West, Vollmann sometimes travels with buddies pursuing the same thrill, the same freedom people have long associated with railroads. Other times, he meets up with grizzled hobos and degenerates, reflecting on himself and his reasons for risking life and limb to see America from a speeding freight train. "Whatever beauty our railroad travels bestow upon us comes partly from the frequent lovely surprises of reality itself," he says, "often from the intersection of our fantasies with our potentialities." While he never really gets around to fully explaining his own reasons for doing so-he makes long, curlicue allusions to his restless soul and search for deeper meanings of things-Vollmann pieces together a kind of patchwork portrait of the lusts and longings of a nation torn by social inequity and riven with anger about the current state of affairs, especially but not limited to the war in Iraq and the ongoing sadness of American overseas misadventures. Through the self-indulgent mist, though, a sharper picture emerges. Vollmann captures an ongoing romantic vision of America-a nation always on the move, nervous and jittery, and never really satisfied with itself. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

How many of us have mumbled or possibly even shouted, "I've got to get out of here"? These are the watchwords of train hoppers, spirited adventurers who escape "everywhere" by stealing rides on freight trains. Vollmann, winner of the 2005 National Book Award for fiction (Europe Central), is dedicated to firsthand experiences for his literary inspiration; in this unusual contemporary travel book, he shows how he and various hobo companions take to the rails to see the United States from empty railroad cars. Vollmann frequently references classic works by Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London-authors who write more about the journey than the destination (he includes a list of sources). He also provides interviews with traveling companions and the many people he meets during his quests, which usually begin at "zero-dark-thirty." Accompanying black-and-white photographs reveal what life is like on present-day rails and show the friends, foes, and harsh graffiti of train hoppers. Recommended for larger public libraries.
—Joyce Sparrow

School Library Journal

Adult/High School -Vollmann records his recent adventures freight-train hopping in the United States. He weaves together the sights, sounds, emotional rushes and terrors, and sentiments about friends and former lovers with observations on modern hoboes for whom the rail line is still home and classic American authors who conveyed the spirit of the road (Hemingway, London, and, of course, Kerouac). The vignettes are thematically arranged with a generous collection of candid black-and-white photos following the text, illustrating the people, crude signs discussed, and even the moods described in the storytelling. The portrait of outsider life is accessible, compelling, and a welcome surprise for teenage boys who can't succumb to a welling sense of wanderlust but who can enjoy it vicariously. Vollmann's presentation of canonical classics may inspire some to move from this to books typically assigned rather than chosen freely.-Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia

Kirkus Reviews
An introspective, idiosyncratic tribute to train-hopping, replete with nods to Kerouac, Whitman, Hemingway, Twain, London and Thoreau. Hyper-prolific novelist, short-story writer, essayist and journalist Vollmann (Europe Central, 2005, etc.) "catches out" freight trains, sometimes alone and sometimes with his nimble, chubby, middle-aged friend Steve. They evade railroad bulls in dreary train yards, often hunkering down in rainy darkness and drinking beer until they see their chance to climb aboard. Conformity, rules and regulations are clearly anathema to the author. He writes of his loathing for "the unfreedom that is creeping over America," a place he likens to a railroad humpyard where "cars and citizens can be nudged down the hill onto various classification tracks." Train-hopping is his response to the recurrent feeling, "I've got to get out of here." It's all about freedom, living more intensely and seeing things that he would never see otherwise. The landscapes and wildlife Vollmann glimpses along the way make this in some small sense a travelogue of the western states, but he has a much greater interest in human behavior. He explores hobo jungles and seeks out lifelong train-hoppers to interview, trying rather unsuccessfully to extract from them the truths of their sad, dangerous, lonely lives. More than 60 amateurish black-and-white snapshots by Vollmann capture trains, train yards, views from the open doors of freight cars, hobos and a distasteful assortment of graffiti, often hate-filled and featuring crude, sexually explicit drawings. Boarding a freight train with an unknown destination is a gamble, he writes, "much like life; you don't know the future."Sometimes entertaining,sometimes annoying: an essay that takes the reader on a trip around the author's psyche but otherwise seems to go nowhere. Agent: Susan Golomb/Susan Golomb Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 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. --John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061256769
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/23/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 998,524
  • Lexile: 1050L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California.


Fearless, ambitious, and wildly original, William T. Vollmann has been lionized as one of the most significant and influential voices in contemporary postmodernist literature. His dauntingly voluminous books, a hodgepodge of fiction and journalism, are marked by bold, often beautiful language. They also spring from personal experience: Volmann is famous for total immersion in his subjects. His research has taken him to the ends of the earth – to the North Pole, to war zones around the globe, and (perhaps most famously) to San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin district to gain a better understanding of its notorious denizens..

Vollmann roared onto the literary scene in 1987 with You Bright and Risen Angels, a bold and quirky debut novel that chronicled in allegorical fashion the bitter battle between insects and the inventors of electricity. From that point on, his books became less surreal and more gritty. In 1992, he wrote his first "official" work of nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show , an impressionistic chronicle of his experiences among the Afghan rebels in the early 1980s. Since then, the prolific author has produced an unstoppable juggernaut of prose, most notably installments in his towering fictional sequence Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes and a labyrinthine seven-volume treatise on violence called Rising Up, Rising Down. Published by the iconoclastic publishing house McSweeney's in 2003, this magnum opus was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

In 1999, The New Yorker named Vollmann one of the 20 best American writers under the age of 40. In 2005, he was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for Europe Central, a 750-page series of linked stories set in Germany and Russia during World War II. His journalism continues to appear in such magazines as Esquire, Spin, Gear, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. In addition, he has founded the Co-Tangent Press as a vehicle for publishing his own limited edition art books.

Good To Know

Vollmann wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while working as a computer programmer.

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    1. Also Known As:
      m the Blind, Captain Subzero
    2. Hometown:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 28, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Santa Monica, California
    1. Education:
      Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

Read an Excerpt

Riding Toward Everywhere

Chapter One

A Short Essay on Freight Trains

I am my father's son. On a recent Christmas, in the bakery which not only is the best in town but never forgets it, we were waiting to pick up our pie, and my father came to my side to chat with me. One of the highest sugar-and-butter arbiters, who puts the public in its place even in seasons when it cannot overwhelm her, commanded: Sir, you need to stop blocking the line right now!—My father turned to me and remarked conversationally: Give some people a little power and they turn into Nazis, don't they?

My father grew up in an era when to be an American—a white American, at least—was to be yourself. In some respects his generation was more ignorant, complacent, self-centered and parochial than mine. For better and for worse, it actually believed in progress, which is to say that it was also more sure of itself, comparatively self-reliant and accordingly less corrupted by toadying—more American in the best sense. My grandfather's time must have been even more individualistic. With his by-Gods and goddamns, my grandfather laid down opinions without great reverence for the judgments of others. —I just don't know, Bill, he said once at a museum exhibit on the history of female suffrage. Maybe we shouldn't have given women the vote. What do you think? —And he got his reward: glares of hatred and outrage from all ladies present. —Does contrarianism equal freedom of thought? I prefer my grandfather's abrasive and frequently tedious self-assertion to my neighbors' equivalently wrongheaded chorus. But should Ilabel him any the less conformist? He once told me that if I had been his son he would have beaten my differentness out of me. It was his faith that American authority could do no wrong, in evidence of which I quote one of his pronouncements: You know what burns me up? All those rioters complaining about the police trampling on their rights! Don't they get it? When there's a riot, those sons of bitches have no rights! —As for my father, his epoch was the heyday of the Organization Man, and he respected rules, hierarchies and technocratic methods more than he knew; he simply happened to be good enough to make some of the rules. I once asked him why he wore a suit every working day, and he replied that one picks one's battles and he had more interesting battles to fight than dress code skirmishes. He was right. When I need to meet somebody important in Japan, I wear my suit. It is probable that my father enjoys his suits more than I do. In any event, fortified by them he looked factory managers in the eye and told them exactly where they were screwing up. —Weren't you just a little hard on those guys? an Associate Vice-President inquired—an accolade my father reported with glee. He taught his students without fear or favor, never missing a lecture in all the decades of his career. He worked hard, lived the life he chose, and said precisely what he thought. On his desk lay a paperweight engraved with his favorite motto: Bullshit Baffles Brains.

I am my father's son, which is to say that I am not exactly my father. In some ways I am shyer than he, in others more extreme and bold. My father believes that drugs should be legalized, regulated and taxed. So do I. My father has never sampled a controlled substance and never will. I've proudly committed every victimless crime that I can think of. My father actively does not want to know which acts I have performed and with whom.

I still go to the bakery my father hates, and the woman who told my father to get back in line nods at me. My father will never go back there. Perhaps if I were more my father's son I wouldn't patronize the place, either. But I am less proud than he, more submissive—or maybe more indifferent.

I work hard, make money, not as effectively as my father did but well enough to get by. I say what I think, and sometimes get a reward surpassing my grandfather's: death threats. So far, I've never missed a deadline for a term paper, a review, a manuscript. I perform the mumbo-jumbo of voting with belief in my heart, I've not yet won even a jaywalking ticket, and unlike my father, whom I fault in this respect, I refrain from opting out of jury duty; instead, they mostly kick me out.

My father hates organized religion, probably because he hates the God who killed his little girl back in 1968. I find religions variously bemusing. My father likes nice cars and is a sucker for the latest gadget. I enjoy the few mechanical devices which are simple enough for me to understand, such as semiautomatic pistols. My father hunted in his youth and still occasionally shoots handguns with me, but has come to disapprove of civilian firearms ownership, an attitude which disappoints me. He has voted Republican most of his life, but he and I agree in hating the current President.

My father has lived in Europe for many years. I am not sure that he realizes how much his native country has changed. People don't dare anymore to talk back the way he used to.

As I get older, I find myself getting angrier and angrier. Doubtless change itself, not to mention physical decline and inevitable petty tragedies of disappointed expectations, would have made for resentment in any event; but I used to be a passive schoolboy, my negative impulses turned obediently inward. Now I gaze around this increasingly un-American America of mine, and I rage.

So many of these developments are well-meaning. Children must buckle up in the school buses, and, speaking of children, I had better not enter into conversation with a child I don't know, in case the parents brand me . . .

Riding Toward Everywhere. Copyright © by William Vollmann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

A Short Essay on Freight Trains     1
So Quiet and Smooth and Lovely     51
A Tawny Coyote Looked at Us     55
I Think We're in Switzerland, Cat     95
Back Then     117
I've Got to Get Out of Here     119
Diesel Venus     125
A Stick of Dynamite     139
A Cold Sun Crawled Silently     151
Grainer Astronomy     155
Lost and Found     177
Exploding Off the Wall     187
Sources     191
Acknowledgments     199
Photographs     201
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