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Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  793 ratings  ·  83 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
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 ...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 ...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 ...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).
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 ...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
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
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'?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
John  J. Pittl
Dec 23, 2019 rated it liked it
It's nothing like riding a boxcar.
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
Bonnie Ene
Aug 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A must read for your adventurous spirit
Jun 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Another enjoyable and thought provoking adventure from Ted Conover.
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
David Ward
Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes by Ted Conover (Vintage Books 2001) (305.568). This is Ted Conover's first book, and it is his initial foray into participatory journalism. It is clear that this is a formula which works well for him. The instant tale finds the author as an extremely young man learning to hop freight cars. He learned the craft well enough that he spent several months riding the rails from Missouri west to Denver, northeast to Fargo, west to Seattle, south ...more
Tim Boroughs
May 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
I was looking forward to this book but frankly it was repetitious and quite dull. The author recounts some random journeys he took riding the rails in the US circa early 1980's. In every place he hops off he pretty much just goes to charities for handouts and meets assorted miscreants, most of whom exhibit symptoms of mental illness. When not scrounging hand outs Conover and his cohorts sleep in makeshift shelters of cardboard and junk in "jungles" on the outskirts of towns. Conover attempts ...more
Mar 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: kindle
Rolling Nowhere was originally written in 1984, so it might not be quite as relevant today. This edition (published in 2001) has a foreword from the author acknowledging as much.

Conover took a few months to "ride the rails" as a tramp. He lived the tramp life, talked and rode with fellow tramps, and took notes to share his story.

The story has a lot of waiting around and times between train rides. The descriptions of the train rides themselves are better than the descriptions of tramp life, but
Oct 13, 2011 rated it liked it
This is a very decent read, but I didn't give it more stars because I have the same discomfort with it that the author has when he rereads it after 20 years (it was republished--first time around was 1981): the lack of maturity and the pretense of vast experience that he had as a young man, just out of college. It also annoys me when people make a decision to put themselves in danger in order to experience "the other side" and then go on and on about how rough that life is for them, when we know ...more
Jack Waters
Jul 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Ted Conover decided that he'd take his curiosity re: hobo and tramp culture into his own hands by riding the rails and living with them for a year. His journey fulfilled some expectations of his, and set his worldview into a fizzy at points, whether it involved fights, true communal spirit, run-ins with the police, catching up with friends at Evergreen in Olympia (and finally feeling welcome in a real world setting while there, or being dangerously close to friends and family while being the ...more
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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 ...more