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for people who care about the West

Riders and writers, hobos and fauxbeaux


Riding Toward Everywhere
William T. Vollmann
188 pages, hardcover:
$26.95 Ecco, 2008.

Embittered by the policies of the Bush administration, disillusioned by the general fear growing within our society and slowed by age and poor health, National Book Award Winner William T. Vollmann sets out on a series of freight trains through the Western United States. He has no destination in mind, only a yearning to discover something pure, something American in the best sense of the word.

His is not the life of one of the real, hard-up hobos, whom he describes throughout Riding Toward Everywhere with a sense of pity. Instead, he enjoys the ease and freedom that comes with being a "fauxbeau" -- someone who has a line of credit and a stable income and  rides the rails for the sheer hell of it, always knowing that he can jump off at the next stop, get a hot meal and a motel room, and then take a plane or Amtrak home.

But as Vollman travels along the coast, through the mountains and across the deserts, the landscapes he describes are more personal than physical. The prose is a rambling meditation on that inner space that separates one person from another. "How can I say what I saw, heard, smelled, tasted and felt," he asks. "You may have visited Wyoming; you have probably seen grass; very likely you've followed a fence; you could be familiar with the outlines of antelopes. But have you seen what I've seen? Did I see what Steve saw?"

Like a freight train suddenly switching tracks, the narrative changes course seemingly at random. At one moment, we are contemplating the stars from a moving train in California. The next moment, we are somewhere in Vollmann's past, walking the rail yards of Portland with a former lover or imagining the life of a Northern California rancher.

Riding Toward Everywhere could just have accurately been titled Writing Toward Everywhere. The prose leads us from here to there to everywhere in between, and is filled with dreamy superlatives and childlike -- at times almost childish -- imaginings. But ultimately, the book is about one man's search for his own personal paradise, however fleeting it may be. It is also a call for all of us to defy our fears and find our own sources of bliss.  "I go my own bumbling way," he writes, "alone or in company, beset by my lapses in bravery, energy and charity, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there. That afternoon I was there, and those Wyoming hours have crystallized within my memory into a jewel of infinite depth, whose contemplation brings me joy."