While I normally fly, this year I found myself traveling by train to visit family for the holidays. I didn’t grow up with trains or even subways–in Texas, car culture has always reigned supreme–and so, riding an Amtrak still feels like a novelty, even in my adult life.
On a recommendation, I recently picked up Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere, a memoir about his time spent living with America’s hoboes and riding around the country on trains. Conover goes from the Rockies to the Great Plains, up and down the West Coast, and through the Southwest, camping under the stars, living in hobo “jungles,” and finding his way to missions. Along the way, he makes and loses friends, learns how to jump a train, and survive in foreign places.
Now I can’t say I expected to pick up any life lessons from his journey, but as it turns out, there are some useful things that a man on the road can teach you that might apply to your life. Here’s some of what I picked up. Early in the book, when Conover is still learning how to jump a train, he finds himself getting frustrated by both the infrequency of the train departures and his inability to catch the right one.
“Only when I sat down in a small field in a huff,” he writes, “fuming over the inefficiency of the mode of travel I had chosen, did I realize that impatience, too, was a product of my inexperience.”
In other words, Conover is saying you can’t always apply the same expectations for every situation. While I’ve found this to be true (and frustrating as hell) while traveling to foreign places or trying something new, I’d never quite put it into words before. For Conover, who writes that he is used to moving quickly, he has to come to terms with the fact that “the rails were not meant for people in a hurry.”
As a college kid on the road, Conover finds himself trying to blend in with people of all different backgrounds and education levels. On a train to Yuma, Arizona, with two other tramps, he remembers the concept of the Doppler Effect, which he learned in high school, as he listens to a nearby signal bell change its pitch as their train passes it by.
When Conover decides to tell his boxcar companions about the Doppler effect, they don’t react well to it. What he thought would be interesting came off as a little bit weird or maybe showy. “Some knowledge alienates,” Conover writes, “school-learned knowledge, shared on the rails, seemed to almost always.”
Sure, this example is extreme. But as I’ve moved through my professional and social life, I’m constantly reminded of moments when I didn’t necessarily need to explain something, even if I thought it could be useful. No matters your intentions, people don’t always respond to what you might think is a teachable moment. Oftentimes, as Conover learns, it’s better to just enjoy a train ride or leave a mystery unexplained.
Speaking of mysteries, while looking for temporary work in Salt Lake City, Conover and two other tramps fall on some bad luck during their search. After employment offices fail them, they decide to seek out churches to work in exchange for food.
Buddy, one of Conover’s cohorts in Utah, instructs him to “look for the churches with the tallest steeples.” He goes on to explain that these are likely “the richest” of the churches and more apt to have funds or spare food for workers.
Reading that, it was strange to think that I’d never really thought about how everyday things I see, a Salvation Army sign, a treeless park, a grocery store with a pulldown grate, or a church steeple, all signal a very specific system at work or an intentional design. Those are the details that you don’t always notice, and that go a long way to explaining what you see in front of you. And if you pay attention to the details, as Conover learns to do, you will find them.
By Adam Chandler. This piece originally appeared in the We Work Magazine. Republished with permission.