Vollmann Hops Trains, Lives to Tell All 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.
NPR logo

Vollmann Hops Trains, Lives to Tell All

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18939012/18938984" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Vollmann Hops Trains, Lives to Tell All

Vollmann Hops Trains, Lives to Tell All

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18939012/18938984" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


William Vollmann has traveled with the MushaHadeen in Afghanistan, he's camped out at the North Pole. So it's not really that surprising to find him riding the rails. His latest book, "Riding Toward Everywhere," is a story about his adventures hopping freight trains and the characters that he met along his adventures.

I sat down with him the other day to find out what's so exhilarating about catching out.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: How and when did you start riding the rails, catching out, as you call it?

Mr. WILLIAM VOLLMANN (Author, "Riding Toward Everywhere"): Well, I was writing a novel called "The Royal Family," back in the late 1990s. The protagonist is that a failing private detective who ends up going completely bankrupt and becomes homeless. And I wanted the homelessness to open out into something. And I thought, well, doesn't he start riding the rails? It sounds kind of romantic and at the same time, it's not really very high budget. That's about all he could afford. And I figured I should start doing it and the first time I did it, I loved it.

MARTIN: Describe the sensory experience of that first time when hoped on the train.

Mr. VOLLMANN: Well, I remember I was talking to a homeless woman who often rode the rails and she said that every time she would ride in a box car, she would have an orgasm. And I can't say it was quite that good for me. The sensation of being in a box car is sort of like being in a kernel of popping popcorn.

My friend Steve whom I often go with brought a hammock one time. He thought he was very high-tech. He set up the hammock in the box car and he was just whirling around and around and around and around at high velocity. It was hilarious to see.

MARTIN: Now, tell me a little bit about the strategy. How do you do it? How do you identify a train that's good to jump on or not?

Mr. VOLLMANN: Well, speaking of strategy, I should say that my publisher made me sign a clause in the contract promising that I would never ever recommend any dangerous or illegal activity. So of course, I can't recommend this…

MARTIN: Of course not.

Mr. VOLLMANN: …or say that it's good.


Mr. VOLLMANN: I can't tell you how to do it.

MARTIN: Do not try this at home.

Mr. VOLLMANN: But if you were going to do it, here's what you would do.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. VOLLMANN: you look for a double track because double track means that one train has to pull over and wait for another train to go by. If there's just a single track, there's no reason for the train to stop.


Mr. VOLLMANN: So double track is where two facing trains meet and one makes way for the other. You try to learn about your switches. Where there's a switch, tracks branch off. One track goes to one are. One track might go, say, to Klamath Falls, the other to Winnemucca.

The train companies make it too easy. So you have to sort of talk to people who know. There are train hoppers atlases that I have seen. It's very, very fascinating. But it really comes down to as a hobo named Badger told me is that when you're hopping trains, there are no experts. Most of the time you're wrong.

MARTIN: Most of the time you're wrong.


MARTIN: Who are these people that do this habitually? I mean, and I'm assuming that there are people out there who lives on trains and just go from train to train. Are there people always homeless or are there people who just do this as a hobby?

Mr. VOLLMANN: I expected to see many, many more hobos. You know…

MARTIN: And when we say hobo, we mean someone - this is their life.


MARTIN: Yeah. Okay.

Mr. VOLLMANN: That's right. In Kerouac's books, you can read about a boxcar or a flat car with 50 hobos all together reading the funny papers, munching on fruit that they've stolen from some orchard, and everything is quite jolly. I never saw anything like that. Most of the time that I have ridden the rails, I've met no one.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. VOLLMANN: Yeah. It's much harder to ride the rails than it used to be and it's much harder for hobos to work. People used to be, for instance, fruit tramps. So migrant workers, too, used to ride the rails. But that is less and less common. So you might find the occasional wino or paranoid schizophrenic and then there are some people who are hobos for the love of it. And you still see them from time to time. Those are the real experts. There are some wannabes like me. What I ride rails is for the beauty of the landscapes that one sees.

MARTIN: Describe some of that. What are some of the images that stick in your head from these experiences - of the landscape, of the country?

Mr. VOLLMANN: I remember going through much of Wyoming on the deck of a chemical car and seeing antelope, eagles, untouched landscapes as far as I could see. Because a train will go many, many feet out of it's way, maybe even a mile, to avoid gaining or losing a foot or two of elevation. So it doesn't follow the contours of roads. And instantly, you can feel that you're in 19th or even 18th century America.

MARTIN: In your book, you do describe graffiti in the underpasses and in these tunnels that these travelers, hobos, scroll their names and their memories of places. That struck me as interesting because you would think that the kind of person who would ride rails is a transient soul who's not so interested in - wouldn't be so interested in marking their place, their territory in some particular location but that's not the case. Why was there that feeling, that I want people to know I was here?

Mr. VOLLMANN: I think it's a human thing. I think we all do it. We keep snapshots, we write diaries. We like to say Kilroy was here. And hobos like to interact with one another. They like to say, you know, I'm going to punch you so and so next time I see or I'm looking for my girlfriend. Have you seen her?

MARTIN: So they would write these things on train tunnel walls?

Mr. VOLLMANN: Sometimes. You know, the hobo signatures, I guess they're called monikers, and you know, we still use the word.

MARTIN: Did you have a special hobo name?

Mr. VOLLMANN: No. I'm just a fauxbo

MARTIN: A fauxbo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And, finally, what is your preferred mode of transportation nowadays? I mean, I imagine someone like you likes to maybe ride motorcycles.

Mr. VOLLMANN: Well, my preferred mode of transportation, if I care where I am going, is anything. And if I don't care where I'm going, it's definitely riding the rails

MARTIN: that's William Vollmann. Author of the book "Riding Toward Everywhere." Check out our blog later today, npr.org/bryantpark to see a slide show of the trains and some of the people William talks about in his book.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.