rolling no where book cover

Rolling Nowhere

Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes


From the book jacket:

Hopping a freight in the St. Louis rail yards, Ted Conover embarks on his dream trip, traveling the rails with “the knights of the road.” Equipped with rummage store clothing, a bedroll, and his notebooks, Conover immerses himself in the peculiar culture of the hobo, where handshakes and intoductions are foreign, but where everyone knows where the Sally (Salvation Army) and the Willy (Goodwill) are. Along the way he encounters unexpected charity (a former cop goes out of his way to offer Conover a dollar) and indignities (what do you do when there are no public bathrooms?) and learns how to survive on the road.

But above all, Conover gets to know the men and women who, for one reason or another, live this life. There’s Lonny, who accepts that there are some towns he can’t enter before dark because he’s black, and Pistol Pete, a cowboy who claims his son is a doctor and his daughter a ballerina, and Sheba Sheila Sheils, who’s built herself a house out of old tires. By turns resourceful and desperate, generous and mistrusting, independent and communal, philosophical and profoundly cynical, the tramps Conover meets show him a segment of humanity outside society, neither wholly romantic nor wholly tragic, and very much like the rest of us.


Winner of American Library Association Award

“His adventures translate well into print, and much of Rolling Nowhere is so vivid that every few pages the urge to clack the dust from one’s own clothes is almost irresistible.”

— The New York Times Book Review

“His vivid, sensitive account of this dreary, often humorous and always compelling odyssey explains life beyond the pale of comfort. Rolling Nowhere is a book that stays with you”

— Los Angeles Times

“There is something clear-eyed, unaffected and all of a piece about his narrative and his character which makes both of them likeable, and more than that, somehow worthy. One can imagine Rolling Nowhere becoming a minor classic.”

— Baltimore Sun”

“Fascinating in some ways a searing indictment of the way this country treats its poor, of how wasteful we are of our resources, both physical and spiritual also a unique look at a seedier side of life an honest portrayal of life in the slow lane, where just getting by is an art in itself.”

— Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“An excellent account the next time you’re sitting dead in the roadway in rush hour traffic, read this book.”

— Dallas Morning News


From Rolling Nowhere, Chapter 11:

We almost kept going when we reached Spokane. Often I have wondered what might have turned out differently if we had.

The idea of stopping in Spokane to work a day or two had been discussed since Fargo. The St. Vincent de Paul charity store there employed transients, paying them partly in cash and partly in the necessities of life: food, clothing, showers. Sleeping bags, in particular, were the currency Pete and BB hoped to receive, for though they each slept in two, one inserted inside the other, often wearing all their clothes, the bags were too old and thin for the autumn nights ahead.

But just a few steps off the train, BB stopped. “Wait a minute,” he said. “It’s Friday night. Tomorrow’s the weekend, and St. Vinnie’s ain’t open on the weekend. We’d have to wait till Monday.”

“Forget it, then,” said Pete. “Let’s keep on going.”

They had already turned around when I spoke up. It was Thursday night, I asserted, and tried to prove it to them by count¬ing back the days since the last weekend. But both of them refused to listen. Just then, however, a brakeman swung out from between two cars, not far from us, and I posed the question to him.

“‘Course it’s Thursday,” he said, laughing. BB and Pete were humorless. Silently they changed directions again, and we arrived at a weedpatch not far from where they had jungled up just a few weeks before. The tramps had been traveling so much that they were the victims of their own kind of if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium syndrome

I was up at dawn. Arrive at St. Vinnie’s much later than that, BB said, and they might already have all the guys they needed. Because of his ever worsening wound, Pete would not work; instead, I would donate the bedroll I earned to him, since I already had the best bedroll of the three, and BB would keep the one he earned. We were, after all, partners, and among partners, as Pete had said, it was “all for one and one for all.”

But BB, strangely, lingered over his coffee, and then spent a lot of time helping Pete wrap his hand in a clean bandage “borrowed” from the first aid kit of a caboose. “You better get goin’,” he said. “I’ll finish this and be right over.”

The work involved a lot of loading trucks and moving furniture. I was somewhat annoyed as the day progressed and BB failed to show, but other things kept my mind off it. One was the arrival of a police car and paramedics at the loading dock of a plant across the street. “Old Willy’s been hurt,” I heard one of the workers tell another. It seemed that Willy, a well known personage around the yards, often slept under the dock. Apparently, the night before an eight by eight inch wooden beam had fallen on him while he slept, pinning him and fracturing his ankle. It was midday now, and he had just been discovered. After learning Willy was still alive, though, nobody seemed worried: “He’s got it good, now. Two or three weeks in the hospital, with clean sheets, a real roof over his head, new clothes, free food, nurses … I want to go there, too! Only there’s no wine. Poor Willy!”

My salary, at day’s end, was a small pouch of Bull Durham tobacco, rolling papers, two dollars, and the bedroll for Pete, consisting of a green blanket, comforter, and a length of twine.

Back at the jungle, BB and Pete were packed and ready to continue west, this time to Wenatchee, in central Washington. Pete grunted his thanks for the bedroll and then sat silently. After rekindling the fire, I reached for my knapsack to get out a can of chill I knew I had there. But … one of two straps on the knapsack had been left undone, and not by me. Odd. Maybe Pete or BB had needed some little cooking item, I thought, and had taken a quick look to see if I had it. It was a violation of etiquette—you never went in another tramp’s pack without permission—but probably not serious.

Yet the chill was not where I had put it. And where were the old cotton gloves I used as hot pads when cooking? And my knit hat that was gone, too. Suddenly I became alarmed. I looked over toward the campfire BB was sitting there, chewing on a match and staring into the flames and Pete was gone. My railroad maps the maps I had not told them about, which had been so hard for me to find, had been hidden at the bottom of the pack. Now they were gone, too. Apprehension grew in my stomach. To mention this or not to …

“Hey, uh, BB,” I said, deciding. “Were both you and Pete around all day?”

“Well, yeah, I believe we were,” said BB, closing the only route of escape from the impending conflict.

“That’s funny. Stuff is missing from my pack.”

“Oh, yeah? Like what?”

I recited the list, including the train maps.

“I didn’t know you had no train maps.”

“Well, I did.”

BB chewed silently on the match, not looking at me. “So, you want to search my pack, right?”

“No, I don’t want to, but I don’t know any other way to go about this.” The offer had caught me off guard.

“Well, there it is. Go ahead. I got nothin’ to hide.” He gestured toward his small carry bag. I looked at his bedroll, too, to which he had tied Brandy Lee. If he had offered to let me search his little bag, the stuff was probably in his bedroll.

“Okay if I look at your bedroll after that?”


I approached his pack, on the ground next to BB, my anger growing. I knew I had to ask this of them if I didn’t press it, what would be taken next? How far behind the loss of respect for my property would be the loss of respect for my person? Yet, as I reached into BB’s bag, I was scared. BB, clench fisted, hovered above.

“Careful my knife’s in there,” said BB. It was an oblique threat.

My missing gear was not in the bag. I stood up. BB straightened, too, raising himself to his full height, a head above me. I gestured toward the bedroll.

“What should I do with Brandy Lee?” I asked.

“You’ll leave her right fuckin’ where she is, you son of a bitch!” snarled BB.

I stepped back. “You said I could look in your bedroll.”

“Sure, you can look in it,” he said, “but if you don’t find your map I’m gonna bash your motherfuckin’ head in.”

It was just like with Roger. Everything fine one second, and then the next bam. Complete changeover. But I was not drunk, and I had a dispute to resolve with BB.

BB advanced. I took another couple of steps backwards, out of the range of his fists, and put my hand in my pocket. “I don’t want no trouble, BB just my stuff back.”

He wasn’t even listening. BB, prison trained, was sizing up the fight. He stopped walking toward me.

“I see you got your piece,” he said, eyes on my pocket. “Well, I got mine, too.”

He thought I had a gun, a mistake that would work in my favor. He claimed to have a gun, but I was almost certain he did not: few tramps did, because of a gun’s high pawn value. Also, BB almost certainly would have told me about it before, in his own menacing way, if he did have it. But things were moving too fast. All I knew was that BB had stopped moving toward me. And his knife, in the pack, was closer to me than to him.

“Look, man, all I want is for us to be fair and square with each other. You don’t want your ass whipped by me, and I don’t want mine whipped by you. So play it straight with me.”

“I tell you what, if I didn’t have no faith in the sumbitches I was travelin’ with, I wouldn’t be travelin’ with the motherfuckers,” said BB, drawling at triple speed. “And if I lost somethin’, I wouldn’t go lookin’ through your shit, I’d say, ‘Yeah, I take your word for it, man,’ and all that. And then I’d just go lookin’ for the shit.”

“If I didn’t find it,” I returned, “I’d owe you an apology, and I’d give it.”

“I don’t accept fuckin’ apologies, I sure as fuck don’t,” said BB heatedly. “They ain’t worth the fuckin’ paper it’s wrote on.”

Pete, I noticed, had quietly returned to pick up his gear, and was starting to leave. BB, still hollering, started to do the same. Along with his own bedroll, he picked up the one I’d gotten for Pete. I moved suddenly toward him as he did, my only offensive move of the night.

“You’ll leave that,” I said.

He drew back from the blankets, cursing me. He and Pete, with Brandy Lee trailing, began crossing the yard toward the tracks.

Pete’s neutrality infuriated me. “Hey, Pete,” I cried after him. “What ever happened to ‘all for one and one for all’? Here we are, friends one minute and the next you split without a word. What happened, did you lose your voice?”

“You shut the fuck up, man,” said BB, turning around and shaking a fist at me. “You ain’t been straight with us.”

“What the hell do you mean by that?” I said. But they disappeared into the strings of trains. I stood alone in the field, desolated and stunned. More than two weeks of round the clock companionship had just unraveled in about three minutes.

Gradually my heart slowed, and replacing the anger and adrenaline was fear. The field seemed suffused with BB’s malice. I was afraid that he might circle around, trying to catch me unawares while I slept. I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything at all. I repacked my gear and walked away, disposing of Pete’s bedroll in a ditch as I headed toward the main road. I didn’t want any tramp to have it.

To my disgust, two tramps walking in the opposite direction approached me to ask about the jungle conditions. I answered curtly, but they kept talking, filling me in on life at the Spokane rescue mission, though I hadn’t asked. Slowly, I began to listen; it sounded like a good destination. Then, to my surprise, I told them why I was leaving the jungle. They seemed genuinely sympathetic. “Town’s about five miles from here,” said one. “You oughta take the bus. Got change?”

I did not.

“Here,” he said, and handed me a quarter, dime, and nickel. “That’s handicapped fare, so just make sure you look it. And if that mission’s full, you just come back and jungle up with us, okay?”

“Okay,” I said. The moment I turned, my eyes flooded with tears. I waved them good bye without looking.


Roll on

A little bit twangy country, a little bit Coen Brothers, Rolling Nowhere journeys down those mythical train tracks. By Alice Wynn. Originally published in Metro Spirit – Augusta, Georgia.

Four men standing in hallway with graffiti on the walls

AUGUSTA, GA — It’s no surprise that Atlanta band Rolling Nowhere was inspired by a touch of wanderlust. Formed in early 2009, their name was taken from the Ted Conover book of the same name. In the ’70s, Conover, an Ivy League student fascinated by hobos, dropped out of school and immersed himself in their way of life.

Rolling Nowhere brings that same spirit to their music as well.

“All of our songs are either about being lost or wandering, hitting the railroad tracks, just a lot of vagabond, beatnik-type stuff,” said vocalist and guitarist Brad Cochran.

Cochran, a Rome, Ga., native inspired by the Beat writers, ended up on the open road as well.

“I moved out West when I was 21, and I went from being a clean-cut athlete to being kind of a grungy, bearded beatnik living out of the back of my truck, hopping trains and doing all sorts of crazy stuff.”

He moved from Wyoming to Atlanta and, after he went through a divorce, he bought a guitar.

“I’d never really played music before,” he said. “I just wrote a bunch of songs.”

He wrote music with a roommate, but when his roommate moved back to Boulder, he found himself stuck with a bunch of songs. One day Mark Petty, who had previously played in heavy metal bands, called him and told him that he bought an upright bass, so the two started playing together.

“We ended up doing a couple of open mic nights and people just encouraged us from there,” he said.

When they were offered a gig, the two were unsure if they could pull it off, so they recruited dobro player Reed Van Hooser. They recorded “The Lonesome EP” last year and things started getting underway for the band.

“We didn’t ever intend to be a live band, just a studio thing, and the ball started rolling and it’s been one show after another and we really haven’t went out there looking for anything,” Cochran said. “Everything’s kind of came to us so far. [We’ve] been really, really fortunate.”

Six months ago, they added mandolin player Cory Chambers who also shares songwriting duties. Matt Green came along as well, playing banjo, mandolin and drums.

“There’s really no ego in our band,” he said. “Everything seems pretty effortless and everybody gives 100 percent all the time.”

While Cochran cites the Mississippi Delta blues as an influence, alt-country band Son Volt, The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and singer-songwriter Gram Parsons proved influential as well. But a unique combination of genres came together to form Rolling Nowhere’s sound, what he terms as “stoner country.”

“I always wanted to fuse that real lonesome country, kind of Hank Williams [sound] with that kind of acid-fried psychedelic side because I’m a real big Deadhead,” he said. “I thought it was a unique mixture.”

In fact, one night a guy in a bar told the band their music sounded like a cross between the music in “Raising Arizona” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

And even though Rolling Nowhere is Cochran’s first band, never even having been on stage before, he decided from their first show to be 100 percent himself when performing live.

“I say what’s on my mind when I get up there, I don’t try to portray some fake mood I’m not in,” Cochran said. “Our whole goal is playing as hard for one person as we do for a packed house and really feeding off the energy, because you always touch somebody.”

“And I always seek that person out,” he added. “It’s really cool because by the end of the night we get to know our crowd and every place we play is a different personality and a different experience.”

The band is looking to have an album completed by the end of September, perhaps get some of their songs on some indie film soundtracks and maybe hit the festival circuit next summer.

“[We would] love to play Merlefest in the future,” he said. “But really, we’re just thinking of getting this album done and whatever way the wind blows, we’ll follow it.”

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