Hey out there in computer world! I borrowed Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes from Robarts Library at the University of Toronto.
Rolling Nowhere is the first book by Ted Conover, an investigative journalist who has made a career out of immersing himself in the social world he intends to take as his subject matter. Conover wrote this text while he was still a student at Amherst College. Inspired by his anthropology classes, he decided to embark on an adventure of social as well as geographical exploration, as he traveled the America by train, posing as a member of the hobo underclass. Through his travels, Conover finds that in the early 1980s people with meager means of support still resort to hopping freight trains as a means for transportation and survival.
Rolling Nowhere is a story of Conover’s entry into, and participation in, the lifestyle of the travelling hobo over the period of several months in the early 1980s. Much of his text notes Conover’s feelings and thoughts about what he is doing, his determination to go through with his plans despite his fears, his desire to speak with his family or the acknowledgment that his behaviors and attitudes are being changed by his adventure. Much of the text is also descriptions of the people he meets or the experiences he has with them, however Conover’s self-transformation is really the subject of his book.
The text begins with the author’s naive efforts to catch out for the very first time, as he simply headed to the train-tracks one night to try to find a train to hop. He quickly found Leroy after his travels began, who gave the author a quick education in the dynamics of train hopping and tramp living. From that point on, Conover, lived among the hobos, riding trains with them, eating at missions and sleeping at Hobo jungles. He began to smoke and drink with the men (and one woman) he met, and witnessed their forms of behavior directly.
The persistent themes of Conover’s book are violence, scarcity, addiction, and isolation. Conover witnessed pointless violence between the hobos, however he also witnessed the hobos victimized by people, particularly children and adolescents whom he said “attacked the only kind of grown up they could get away with attacking.” Real accounts of such attacks have made headlines in recent months and are probably an ever-present possibility for the vulnerable poor. Conover acknowledged that many hobos have fallen outside of society due to trauma in their past, and often nurture an assortment of critical personal issues that make it difficult for them to reintegrate into society. He observed hobos as people who are socially detached from one another, even when they appear to be engaged in friendships. Conover noted that the men who ride the rails are prepared to separate without sentiment at any moment, or worse, turn violently on one another over matters that may seem trivial.
Conover ascertained that while the train moving, the hobo is safe. Danger looms when the train approaches its destination, as rail security, police, and potentially worst of all, other hobos, may be present at the stop. Conover recalls a few close calls between himself and other hobos, and he describes some scenes of hobo on hobo brutality, however for the most part he avoided engaging in violence himself. A single cruel act is committed by the author when he realizes a hobo was trying to enter his boxcar while the train was moving. Conover insisted that to enter an occupied boxcar without asking its occupant is poor hobo etiquette, and when an invader grabbed hold of his car, Conover stomped on his fingers to force him to release his grip. This one scene is shocking and almost creates a sense that Conover has crossed a boundary set by his middle class values, into the moral realm of the career hobo.
While I was reading Rolling Nowhere I was expecting the text to end with some kind of stomping, like the sort Hunter S. Thompson described himself receiving at the hands of the Hells Angels in the epilogue to his account of the motorcycle club. Instead, towards the end of Conover’s text, he described narrowly escaped the light of a police officer, probing the boxcar he was hiding in in Tulsa. Conover described Tulsa as a “hot” town, where the police were intensely active in the search of illicit train passengers. Conover then rests under an overpass and creates a sense of dread through his reflections upon all of the threats a hobo has to be concerned with, and expresses a profound lethargy over this constant worry. He thus extends this dread to a kind of sympathy with the real hobos who did not share in his luxury to return home when they felt the adventure was over. This feeling of dread Conover develops is palpable, however, and is perhaps as profound a means of conveying the danger of the depicted lifestyle as Thompson’s final experience of brutality at the hands of the notorious bikers.
Rolling Nowhere describes the sincere effort made by a middle class young man to enter a social realm occupied by desperate and often dangerous men. Conover lived as closely to the ideal hobo lifestyle as possible, without betraying his origins to any of the people he met on the road. People came to respond to him as a fellow traveler, and he appeared to develop an insightful understanding of hobo society. His reflections on the ways of living and methods for survival adopted by the train-hoppers he met are interesting enough that they should be acknowledged by researchers of this subject matter.