For several years, NBA-winning novelist and respected journalist William T. Vollmann has engaged in recreational hobo-ing, a hobby that may sound self-consciously quirky, but which has a much deeper meaning to the author. In his book Riding Toward Everywhere, Vollmann describes what it takes—and what it's like—to dodge the railroad bulls and "catch out," rolling through the American countryside and getting off wherever a train stops. For Vollmann, hopping trains is the opposite of standing in lines, staying on the legal side of fences, and getting wanded by security guards. It's about reclaiming the idea of wilderness and freedom of movement in a country where nearly every remaining open space has been parceled and tagged, and the naming rights sold.
The only problem with Riding Toward Everywhere—though it likely won't bother some readers—is that Vollmann takes the same approach to his writing that he takes to his life. At no point in the book does Vollmann lay out his hobo history in a clean timeline, or document his travels with an eye toward orienting readers between Point A and Point B. Instead, he describes the darkness under bridges as he and his partners wait for a promising freight, and the adrenaline rush of nestling into a car undetected. Along the way, he meets people. They have stories; he has stories. The scenery is stunning. And when the train slows down in a not-too-dangerous place, he hops off, with a newfound appreciation for the comforts of the domestic life. (At least until he gets the itch again.)
It's worth following Vollmann's more rambling passages to pick up the particulars of hobo culture, from the meaning of the graffiti in hobo jungles to the process of earning trust. But Vollmann doesn't blindly glamorize a lifestyle that he only plays at. He also describes the terrifying aimlessness that takes hold of some riders, and the constant threats from violent, racist gangs who use living off the grid as an excuse to act like savages. Embracing the wild America has never been a safe way to pass the time. But for Vollmann, the other option is to live "like a citizen," and that isn't acceptable either.