Like a good anthropologist

"Rolling Nowhere" begins with a warning from the author, Ted Conover.

Writing an introduction to a reprinting of the book he wrote two decades ago, he sounds a little frightened by his own youthful adventures. Partly, he admits, because he is a father now.

"Enjoy the book, have your own adventures, and be careful out there," he writes.

It's the last thing you read before you dive head first into this incredible four-month adventure Conover undertook as an anthropology student at Amherst College.

It was 1980, and Conover was curious about the life of the American hobo. Instead of walking into a hobo jungle with his notepad, like a good anthropologist, Conover left behind his comfortable life completely and walked straight into a life of train yards, food stamps and deteriorating alcoholics.

The world he visited no longer exists. Regulations put in place after Sept. 11, 2001, to protect trains from terrorist attacks have gotten rid of the last of the hoboes, according to Conover's foreword. In many ways, this book is a historical document.

During his four months on the rails, Conover let his beard grow, let his belly empty and found himself curled up regularly with "the tramp's blanket" (read: a bottle of wine) before noon.

This is the kind of book you can't put down after you've begun it. First, Conover is young and honest about everything he is going through. He questions his own identity as the child of affluence and a college student on the verge of graduation.

Before I picked up this book, I was one of those people who idealize the train tramp lifestyle. For most of the past century, musicians from Woodie Guthrie to Bob Dylan have painted the tramp's life as an enviable picture of freedom.

In contrast, most of Conover's tramps are not on the rails by choice. They have spent time in jail. They are unable to hold a job because of addictions or other destructive elements in their personalities. They are elderly men whose children have disowned them. They are the scavengers who travel from town to town trying to maximize welfare benefits such as food stamps and nights in homeless shelters.

By the end of this book, you'll never listen to a train pass without thinking about the characters that parade across Conover's pages.

He concludes, "If I violated the hobo's privacy in these pages, it was in order to share those glimpses of his life and character that taught me my greatest lesson: that the hobo is not 'one of them.'"

He is one of us.

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