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Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  874 ratings  ·  89 reviews
In Ted Conover's first book, now back in print, he enters a segment of humanity outside society and reports back on a world few of us would chose to enter but about which we are all curious.

Hoboes fascinated Conover, but he had only encountered them in literature and folksongs. So, he decided to take a year off and ride the rails. Equipped with rummage-store clothing, a be
Paperback, 304 pages
Published September 11th 2001 by Vintage (first published 1984)
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Jonathan Ashleigh
Oct 07, 2014 rated it liked it
I read this book because riding rails with hoboes was something I always wanted to do as a child. After reading this book I no longer felt the need. The experiences of this book are told in a very real way, and it does describe what life for rail-riders is like. But, the story is lacking and, like the title, goes nowhere.
Dov Zeller
Apr 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Part anthropologist, part immersion journalist, part social critic, though with, I think, a unique idealism and a unique realism, Conover strikes me in this, his first book, as a stubborn, gifted, curious, meditative young man beginning to shape a passion and a narrative approach that has lasted all these years. "Rolling Nowhere" reveals him as someone who will to to great lengths to write from a position of insider, though he does so without ever losing sight of his social and cultural position ...more
Apr 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
As a young man, in his early 20s, Ted Conover traveled on foot and by rail over most of the Western states, first with hoboes and then with undocumented farm workers from Mexico. In his travels, he discovered two itinerant worlds, sometimes overlapping, that are often misunderstood, and invisible to most Americans. In many ways naïve and sometimes too trusting, Conover also discovered the limits of his middle class upbringing. His first two books, "Rolling Nowhere" and "Coyotes" were based on hi ...more
Jan 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
What is most interesting about this book about riding freight trains with the tramps and hobos is that this is from the early 80s, not present day. I know lots of folks who ride freights and many of them have written zines about it. If this book was more present day, I might view it a bit different. Essentially Conover was an east coast college student who decided to experience tramp life riding the rails. He went about it as a bit of an anthropological study and gave himself to it 100%. His exp ...more
Mar 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A worthy heir to Gonzo Journalism- "Hell's Angels" with hoboes. A very funny and more than a little bit frightening book. A great read! I will look for others by the same author (who made this flavor of immersion journalism his career). ...more
Jeff Mauch
Jul 25, 2021 rated it really liked it
The idea of hopping trains and riding around the country seems like a entertaining adventure until the reality of it all comes crashing down. Conover, like most of us, saw the romanticism of the tramp, particularly the more written about one's of the great depression era, but during his travels in the 1980s found out it wasn't quite true. Conover spends a few months learning the ropes to discover if there are still people out there living this way and thankfully he kept a journal and took very g ...more
D. B.
Jan 04, 2015 rated it liked it
I couldn't help thinking of the song "Common People" while reading this song. Conover captures some interesting details of the culture and customs of riding the rails, but the sense that "if you called your dad, he could stop it all." I read the Rolling Nowhere because I was looking for an in-depth history of hobo culture in the U.S.--a book that does not appear to exist in any form--and looked at whatever I could find on the subject. Perhaps my problem with the book is with my own expectations; ...more
Apr 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I really like Ted Conover. He's a great storyteller with an ethnographer's flair and nowhere is this more evident than in this, his most 'gonzo' book, about riding the rails with hobos. Conover's book reads like an ethnography which perhaps isn't too surprising considering he first thought of it as an anthropology thesis, despite some criticism from his professors. It went on to become, at least in my opinion an american classic, giving us a snapshot of survival and freedom on the raggedy edge o ...more
Jul 25, 2011 rated it liked it
I read Ted Conover's second book "Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America's Ilegal Migrants" (1987) before I read "Rolling Nowhere" and think that "Coyotes" is a far better book if you are going to choose only one. It is more polished in prose and, I think, has a more interesting story to tell. Nevertheless, "Rolling Nowhere" is very good book and a recommended read to those who have ever wanted to hop a freight.

Conover rode the rails in 1980 and the account of his journey gives depth of
Sep 09, 2011 rated it it was ok
I thought a book about hoboes would be more compelling, honestly. I liked the idea--a young, privileged, white college student takes to the rails to find out what it's really like to live this lifestyle. What's most compelling, to me, is that Conover didn't have a book deal or a travel stipend--he just wanted to do it, so he did it. The book came later.

However, I was hoping for more analysis, more context. What I got was a day-by-day account of Conover's experiences on the rails. In the introdu
David Szatkowski
This is a worthy read, but somewhat dated as to details (the events narrated take place the '80s). I do not suggest a trip as Conover took, but the characters that he describes are interesting. I also suggest that the last chapter raises the questions I had been thinking of as I was reading the text. That is - what 'variance' are we as society willing to tolerate, and why? What room do we make for those who cannot or do not fit into what we define as 'normal'? ...more
Jonathan Hiskes
May 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Conover rides trains across the American West for several months in 1980 or so, befriending hoboes and learning about their lives. His reflections are about what you'd expect for a college-age white male from the upper middle class slumming it for a while, but it's still a lively mix of reporting, anthropology, and adventure. ...more
Jul 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting book written by a (then) 22 year old college student in the 80's after he decided to take some time off from school to "ride the rails" and study the hobo/tramp culture. Although hobos riding on trains are mostly now history, the culture of these homeless people most surely parallels that of today's homeless communities/culture. ...more
Jul 31, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had always heard tell of my great-grandfather riding the rails after he got back from the war, and feel satisfied a bit by reading this. The writer's naivete is often difficult to get over but it fills a void on railroad literature.
If only someone tough and full of symbol lore wrote a memoir like "You Can't Win" by Jack Black, now that would really be something.
May 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I was going to give this book a 4 but, after reading the last chapter and the author's view of what he had learned through this experience, I give him a 5. He went from young adult to manhood while riding the rails. This book was written 40 years ago but was very interesting nonetheless. He was extremely brave and writing about this experience gave him a whole new career. Kudos to him! ...more
Nov 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
I first heard about this book from a NRP The Moth Story Hour. I was instantly intrigued.
This book definitely brings a light to a poplation of men and women who we may not give a second thought to. Very well written book!
Feb 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Rare is the book that brings my weary eyes to tears at the very end of reading it voraciously late each night.

Read it
Brian Beatty
Apr 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not my favorite book about hobo life, but a great (if likely dated) read for those tempted to hit the rails.
May 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Pretty good insight to the world of the modern-day hobo.
Jun 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Another enjoyable and thought provoking adventure from Ted Conover.
Bonnie Ene
Aug 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A must read for your adventurous spirit
John  J. Pittl
Dec 23, 2019 rated it liked it
It's nothing like riding a boxcar. ...more
Sam O'H
Jan 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed it. I'm interested to read more of this author's books. ...more
Joshua Steinberg
Oct 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
What an adventure!
Apr 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is an interesting and unique book. I learned a lot about the collective and individual experiences of hobos. Along with the narrator, I really entered another world.
Michael Lu
Mar 01, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone willing to learn more about Hoboes
Recommended to Michael by: Mrs. Balmeo
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars.

C'mon, it's another "rich kid rides the rails" book, man. You just reviewed one of those in 2013, Riding Toward Everywhere. Why do this one, too?

Well, for one, it was recommended to me. Two, Conover is not a one-off writer who just penned his experiences, like the above book and, say, A Walk Across America. He's an investigative journalist who "goes deep," immersing himself in the environment he wishes to report on.

This was his first effort, as a college student studying anthropology
Aug 09, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Conover wrote this book while he was still an undergraduate at Amherst; but it establishes his method as an author. He is a combination of cultural chameleon (spy), investigative journalist, anthropologist, autobiographer and social commentator. He pulls off this combination nicely. Paul Theroux, at his best and least obnoxious has a similar style of telling true stories; but Conover is more political and engaged--in his action and focus. I haven't read John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me"--the ...more
David P
Nov 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel, memoir
Ted Conover, raised in Denver and educated at Amherst, read about hoboes riding the rails during the great depression and wondered if they still existed. In 1980 he took a break from his university to find out, and this is his story.

Yes, hoboes still ride the rails west of the Mississippi. Black, White, Mexican, even a few (very few!) women. They own what they carry, their food is often scavenged from dumpsters, their clothes come from charities, many are addicted to cheap booze, and they are
I picked up Rolling Nowhere after rereading Ted Conover's ,cite>Coyotes, which is a really brilliant narrative of his immersion into the world of illegal migrant workers.

Rolling Nowhere caught my eye as it chronicles his experiences as a 24 year-old riding the rails in the early 1980s, an era when I thought hobo culture had died out. He does a good job reporting on the lifestyle, and for that the book is definitely worth reading. Where it falls a bit flat, though, is that it is definitely being
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Ted Conover, a "master of experience-based narrative nonfiction" (Publisher's Lunch), is the author of many articles and five books including Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes, Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America's Mexican Migrants, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the Pulitzer P ...more

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