Train tracks in Bagdad, California.
Jack Delano / The Library of Congress
Jack Delano / The Library of Congress
I haven't been on nearly as many trains as William Vollmann. In Riding Toward Everywhere, he writes about a world of violence and addiction by the rails — I've never passed through those junctions.
But I have seen the world from a boxcar door, and I do know why — once you've hopped a freight train — it's killing hard to stay away.
If you've ever climbed into a cold metal car and felt the wheels ka-chunk into motion, that feeling, all those feelings — the motion and sound and sight of the countryside appearing and disappearing frame by frame — they'll haunt you. And let's face it — trains haunt us anyway, even from a distance. They certainly haunted musicians like Hank Williams, with his "Lonesome Whistle Blow," the Grateful Dead with "Casey Jones," Woodie Guthrie with "New Baby Train," Gladys Knight with the "Midnight Train to Georgia."
I hopped my first train with a friend in New England a couple years after college, and my brain has never been the same.
Some things, once you see them, you can't unsee them. It could be a horrible thing, like an act of violence or a disfiguring disease. Or it could be a beautiful thing, like what you see from a freight train threading woods and backyards in fall time, in summer, or anytime. Being on a freight amplifies your experience of your own mind — sort of the way a drug might, or wearing headphones on a walk around the city, except that it's real. You really are in a boxcar. You really did slip past those kids playing touch football, or that moose, or that dog racing the engine and losing. You see the world that way, you can't unsee it. You'll plead with God for another chance at it.
So I told my kid brother, Brian, and he started wanting it, too.
I never should have let my brother know about the trains. I should have realized how strongly trains pull on kids, too. Brian would come to show me that himself. I ended up raising him for a good part of his childhood, and right about the time he hit 11 or 12, my brother took to the rails. And I mean really took to them.
He'd go missing around supper time, and then in the morning we'd get a call from the police in whichever small town they'd pulled him off in. I'd drive the hour or so to pick him up. Here he'd come, his backpack clattering with pots and pans tied on. We'd throw it in the station wagon and then drive home with me pounding the dashboard and hollering at him the whole way.
We both knew my arguing about against riding freights was artificial. If I hadn't been made by fate to call hoboing a venal sin, there's no place I'd rather have been than sitting by the tracks waiting for my next ride.
Whenever Brian went away, for summer camp or a visit home, I got another chance to catch out.
We lived together, my brother and I, each of us straining not to get on a freight train — tempted by every junction, every track, every whistle in the night. One time, we were at a summer stock production of Hamlet, and just at the grave scene, where Hamlet jumps up with that skull in his hand, a train came blowing through the night outside. My head turned toward the sound, and I felt my brother grow tense beside me, each of us knowing firsthand the junction it had passed through, only him knowing firsthand the one where it was heading.
My brother soon surpassed me in freight riding. Brian was super young and a guy and had a lot less to lose by crossing the border into Canada on the roof of a round-hole hopper. I was stuck with dreams of trains. My sleeping hours overflowed with images of families riding in boxcars outfitted with living room furniture. In my dreams, I'd catch trains into Canada — big trains, fast trains, slow trains, little trains like the ones that go around the zoo.
Toward the end of our time together, I took Brian for physical with a new doctor. The office was in an old train depot, and we walked in to find an enormous map of the U.S. rail system. It was maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, bigger even. Huge. My brother stopped. I stopped. We stared up at it, taking in the information — the possible rides.
I asked my brother if he ever dreamed about freight trains. He kept his eyes on the rail map and told me, "All the time. All the time."
I'll bet anything William Vollmann sees trains in his sleep, too, now that he's been on so many and published a book about them. And so, William Vollmann, you strange and wonderful writer, I dedicate to you a strange and wonderful song, the best song in the world today: Robyn Hitchock's "I Often Dream of Trains."
From William T. Vollmann's "Travels Toward Everywhere"
Author William T. Vollmann took a deep dive into the culture of "catching out."
Vollmann hopped freight trains around the United States, meeting hobos, tramps and prostitutes. He writes about his travels in Riding Toward Everywhere.
He says catching out has become much harder, as rail companies modernize. "The technology is changing, so there are fewer boxcars and more container cars," he says. "Everything is ridable to an expert, but . . . there are no experts."
Plus, Vollmann says, the hobo and migrant worker economy has gone dry. But for sheer sensory pleasure, almost nothing beats being on a train. He describes being on a freight train as something like "being in a kernel of popping pop corn." It's Vollmann's favorite way to travel.