The yard sticks - Page 3

A train-hopping trip from the Polaroid Kidd's hobotopia to William T. Vollmann's tramps -- and the truths in between
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Photo by William T. Vollman

Though free to roam the rails under that big Western sky, they seem as herded and docile as those last few sad bison living out their days at the end of Golden Gate Park.

As in his last book, Poor People (Harper Perennial, 464 pages, $16.95), Vollmann records somewhat incoherent interviews with these subjects, an approach that stands in for sociology. While the elliptical conversations do give a somewhat impressionistic take on what life on the rails is like, Riding Toward Everywhere's subjects are hardly representative. Like Brodie, Vollmann is in thrall to a particular aesthetic. He's committed to sensationalizing the ugliest aspects of the rails, to obsessing over swastika tags and crude drawings of women's genitalia scrawled by bums on boxcar walls.

While spending much of Riding Toward Everywhere looking for the Freight Train Riders of America, a half-mythical hobo gang whose members supposedly will "kill you for $5 in food stamps," Vollmann fails to mention possibly the largest population on the West Coast train lines — undocumented Latino farmworkers. In my own experience hopping trains, I've shared food, water, and a sweet sense of humanity beyond language with such laborers. (Just last October, when I got off a train that stopped at the bridge over the American River in Vollmann's hometown, Sacramento, I looked back to see five Latino guys carrying their belongings in Safeway plastic bags, scurrying up the embankment to get on the train before it started moving again toward Stockton.) Their presence on the rails is so great that I'd venture to say that if train cops actually tried to stop them from riding, an apple would cost five bucks, because there'd be no one left to pick them.

Still, despite self-consciously labeling himself a "fauxbeau," the 2005 National Book Award winner gets most details of train hopping right. Insider safety tips — don't forget to put a rail spike in the boxcar door so it can't slam shut on you! — are well represented, and Vollmann is especially good on the sights, sounds, and feelings of actually being on a train. He captures perfectly that indescribably victorious moment when your train is finally leaving the yard and it starts to accelerate just as you pass the cursed patch of weeds and litter where you've been hiding from the yard bull for 24 hours. Riding Toward Everywhere is most enlivening when this old pro simply lies back and describes what he sees out of his boxcar door.

Unfortunately, it turns out Vollmann doesn't have even a relatively short book's worth of train-hopping stories. After the excitement of a handful of train rides described early in the book, he pads the page count by dusting off other writers from the past and their takes on the road. Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway are, predictably, quoted at length. Mark Twain's raft on the Mississippi makes a guest appearance. Riding Toward Everywhere, it turns out, is a lot like a freight-train ride itself: in the beginning it's really exciting and feels like it could lead anywhere, but after a while it starts moving so slowly that you can't wait to get off!

Yet Vollmann's book still has something to say about the search for real freedom — about its elusiveness and the price of trying to find it. "And we flee in search of last summer or next summer," he writes, "but there's no harm in it if we know all the time it's only a shadow show." Somewhere between the eternal search for next summer and the eternal search for last summer is the real ache Vollmann feels in his bones as he struggles to climb aboard a boxcar. In the years between the kid that Brodie photographs hanging off the back of a speeding freight train and the incoherent drunk living by the tracks that Vollmann interviews, there are cherished bits of freedom.

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