7 03 2009
Riding Towards Everywhere
William T. Vollmann
Riding Towards Everywhere
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The other day, I was moving my stuff from a dark, cold basement office in SoMa to the Sanchez Writer’s Grotto. My car was packed so full that I had to move the front seat up as close as it would go to the steering wheel. As I was driving down Harrison, I swear to god that I saw Bill Vollmann driving along in the lane next to me in an old Volkswagen Beetle.
I tailed him for a while, even once I knew it wasn’t actually Bill Vollmann, but some Mission hipster with a full handlebar mustache and horn rimmed glasses.
I don’t know why I did that. It was hard as hell to drive my car jammed up against the steering wheel.
“Riding Towards Everywhere,” Bill Vollmann’s book about “catching out”—hobo slang for riding a freight train without permission—romanticizes the forgotten conveyance and freightage of Manifest Density and the Westward expansion of the United States. The railways built this country. It wasn’t really until the 1950’s that we had an Interstate Highway System. Most people, but not Bill, forget that.
This is anarchy and freedom at its best and worst. Riding the rails isn’t about quick and easy transportation; half the time you have no idea where you’re going or when a train will pull out of a station. The hobo lifestyle isn’t much. The people aren’t friendly and are wary, sometimes violent, towards strangers.
What do you need? asked the woman in the bushes.
To catch out.
No. What do you need?
The other bush people waved me away, not threateningly, but urgently. They were accomplishing crystal deals; oh, yes; they were buying and selling the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Nobody would tell where the freight trains stopped.
And once you’re on, you risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere, being caught by railway “bulls”, or ending up in a completely different place than where you thought you were heading to. But, this is part of the fun Vollmann tries to convince us, channeling London, Steinbeck and Kerouac. Surrendering to the unknown, taking a leap of faith, these are the ways in which we learn more about ourselves. Most of us just want to get there; the space between us and destination is a nuisance, a hassle. Every step of the journey, however, is also not without significance.
Then I get it. Riding the rails really isn’t about transportation at all. It’s about pursuit. Pursuit of happiness, pursuit of ideals, but mostly, pursuit of some part inside us that has always been lost or missing:
Sometimes when I ride towards Everywhere, I believe in Cold Mountain. My aniticipations then are as substantial as the rolled bales of hay I see in Montana when the geese are swooping around river-islands; and in Great Falls a swollenfaced Indian woman gives me hope that I will soon be kissing Trudy’s or Prudy’s lips, maybe even right here in Lucky Nickel Casino; then the blonde plains are going north and Trudy waits just beyond a low blue horizon, the sky darj and heavy with everything.
At other times I am in pain, and all I can think is: I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.