A Father Passes The Rules Of The Rails To His Son

Writer Ted Conover once spent a year riding freight trains. Recently he retraced his route, this time with his son, Asa. They speak to NPR's Scott Simon about their unusual — and illegal — journey.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thirty years ago, Ted Conover wrote "Rolling Nowhere: Riding The Roads With America's Hobos," an account of his time hopping freight trains across America. Asa, his teenage son, read the book last year, and asked his father if he'd show him how to hop a freight. So Ted Conover's account of a father-son adventure appears in the July issue of Outside magazine. And Ted and Asa Conover join us now from our studios in New York. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

ASA CONOVER: Thanks for inviting us, Scott.

TED CONOVER: Thanks.

SIMON: Asa, did you really want to do this, or was this just a, a lighthearted remark you made to amuse your father, and damn he took it seriously.

A. CONOVER: Well, after reading the book, it seemed like he had had a lot of fun on the train. And it was interesting to me to do something that he had done that really started his career as well. And I knew that he had taken my mom on a train before they got married and I thought, if she has done it, I deserve to do it.

SIMON: So there you guys are in the rail yard in Denver. The first train comes rolling along and Asa, it looked good to you but Ted, not to you? What was going through your heads, respectively?

T. CONOVER: In my head is the knowledge that in the movies, you catch a train that's moving. But in real life, professional tramps prefer to catch a train that's stopped because it's more likely you'll be fine afterwards. So I really did not want to hop a moving train with Asa.

SIMON: Well, tell us about the - that moment, Asa, when you became - what's the phrase I'm looking for here?

A. CONOVER: A temporary tramp?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: (Laughing) All right.

A. CONOVER: Well, it was one of the most exciting things I had ever done. And it's very fulfilling for me because the dad I know who writes books is different than the character I see in his stories. Often I don't believe the things that he's done because at home, he's a very law-abiding individual. And I was very excited to see him guide me on a quasi-legal journey as he described it in the article.

SIMON: I don't want to downplay the fact that this is illegal. I mean, people should know it over and over again. And I wonder, Ted Conover, do you have any concern that your son now thinks it's OK to break the law as long as it's fun?

(LAUGHTER)

T. CONOVER: I hadn't thought I'd been such a rule-abiding kind of dad. But he informed me that I had. And I, so I kind of felt I was undermining a lifetimes work of teaching respect for the law. But on the other hand, you know, I consider it a victimless crime. And I caution everybody not to try this without a great deal of forethought and preparation.

SIMON: Asa, reading the article, it sounds like you wanted to get off after the first day.

A. CONOVER: I wanted to get off after about the third day. I realized once we had moved around a bit that the majority of the experience ended up being waiting, rather than getting on trains or riding them. And the other thing I found is that once you're on board, it's very loud. And even though I had expected to be talking to my father on board, it was really difficult to have conversation. We'd have to kind of shout at each other. And so most of the time I was lying. I'd be reading, or listening to music if possible. And the views we saw were incredible. Some of the most beautiful places I've ever been. But you can only take so much of just lying in the same place, especially when it's very loud and you have to wait on hot tracks for a train to come, not knowing if it's going to be there. And I had had about enough of that after the third day.

SIMON: We should explain you guys slept in motels, too.

(LAUGHTER)

A. CONOVER: Yeah, that is true.

T. CONOVER: We did it the easy way. The total easy way. My original immersion involved basically just looking for people doing this professionally to hang out with and eating with them, smoking with them, drinking with them. With Asa, that wasn't the goal. We were out to spend time together in this unique American way. And yeah, I wanted to share something from my life.

SIMON: Did - let me try to put you both on the spot a bit, what did you learn about each other?

T. CONOVER: I think I learned more about me than I learned about Asa. One of the things I learned was that I'm different now that I have a son. Back then, I could take all kinds of chances, and did. What I didn't expect was that I would be so nervous all of the time on this trip. I was totally nervous. And it was such a relief to be done and neither of us was hurt. I do think, the same time I feared the day he read my book and asked me to ride on a train, I was also looking forward to the day I'd get to see if he could do it. And actually, what the trip was mostly about, you know, when your kids get into high school, they're less interested in spending time with you. And to be able to have your kids full attention, for hours, is kind of a cool thing, especially as they get older. So that was probably the best part of the whole thing.

A. CONOVER: I don't know. I think it was a very important experience for both of us because it showed me a side of his life that I didn't really know before. And it was nice to see before I left home for college.

SIMON: Speaking with us from New York, Asa Conover and Ted Conover. Ted Conover's article about their adventure on the rails appears in the July issue of Outside magazine. Gentlemen, very good to speak with both of you.

A. CONOVER: You too, thanks, Scott.

T. CONOVER: Thank you, Scott.

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