Riding the Rails

Rolling Nowhere    by Ted Conover

274 pp., Viking 1984  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      Ted Conover, raised in Denver and educated at Amherst, read about hoboes riding the rails during the great depression and wondered if they still existed. In 1980 he took a break from his university to find out, and this is his story.

      Yes, hoboes still ride the rails west of the Mississippi. Black, White, Mexican, even a few (very few!) women. They own what they carry, their food is often scavenged from dumpsters, their clothes come from charities, many are addicted to cheap booze, and they are likely to spend their nights in makeshift tents in "jungles" by the railroad, or at the "Sally" (Salvation Army), and at times, in a local jail. Conover discovers these harsh realities and allows the reader to share his impressions.

      What sets those hoboes apart from (say) the homeless of New York is their close association with railroads. A hobo's schedule may involve avoiding rail yard guards ("bulls"), boarding trains already in motion, huddling beneath "piggyback" trailers tied to a flatcar which is rolling at high speed into pouring rain, and arriving at unexpected destinations. His geography of the United States differs from ours, focusing on large railroad yards--Havre, Montana; Wishram, Washington; Colton, California, etc. Cities are rated by the opportunities they offer a vagrant.

      Who are these people? Why do they put up with such a hard and dangerous life, even the many who are strong enough to earn a living conventionally? Some, in fact, do work, especially illegal Mexican immigrants, who form a class of their own--speaking Spanish, keeping their dignity and working diligently, but living in a legal limbo. Most hoboes however hit the road because they shun any long term commitment: they are loners, outcasts of society, rolling nowhere.

      As the author befriends them (the associations rarely last long), he listens to their stories, often laced with fantasy, and find finds a great diversity. Hoboes do not lack ability and most can be surprisingly generous to strangers. But each seems to have his trail of trouble, of broken marriages, alcoholism, uncontrolled temper or unreal dreams. This book tells an interesting story, but seems to offer little hope for those that still ride the rails, whose greatest handicap is usually within their own minds.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 18 January 2002