RIDING THE RAILS By Michael Mathers (1973)

ONE HOT afternoon about 25 years ago, a teen-age boy stood at the edge of a truckstop in central Indiana, thumb out. He was hitching across the country, from Boston to California. Another and much older hitchhiker stood not far away. Rides were few, and the two got to talking. Their highly practical subject: the best way to travel cross-country at little or no cost. The older man proceeded to put the case for freight trains. He had a thousand stories to tell, stories that made hitchhiking by car seem a tame business indeed. (Why was he doing it himself then? Because he was on a brief detour away from any railroad line.)

Before the two parted company, having shared a ride part way across Indiana in a cattle trailer, the older man had identified himself as Chicago Slim, an off-and-on hobo for 35 years. He had explained a great deal about railroads and hoboes both. He had shared his mission-donated lunch and his cheap wine.

As for the teen-ager, that was Michael Mathers, later the author of this book. Inspired by Slim's stories, he hopped his own first freight the very next day. A wild ride into Illinois on a gondola car filled with heaving and shifting pipes both thrilled and terrified him -- and when a big pipe slammed into the back wall of the gondola a few inches from his head, very nearly killed him. He went the rest of the way to California less eventfully, doing standard hitchhiking.

But as the terror faded, the thrill revived. He came back home mostly in boxcars (far safer than the open gondolas); and by the time he reached Massachusetts, he was hooked. All during college he rode freight trains out west for summer jobs, and rode them home again in the fall. He came to know many hoboes, though as yet he did not spend any nights in their "jungles." After graduation, he continued to use this inexpensive form of transportation, only now he carried three cameras and a tape recorder with him, and he did stay in jungles. He was consciously preparing to write a book.

Usually books written in this deliberate way suffer for it. Setting out with tape machine and camera to capture some colorful bit of life leads to a whole range of problems. At one extreme you wind up depending on your machines to write the book for you. Take a lot of pictures. Record a lot of interviews. Pick the best of each. Then stitch in a little narrative, and Voila! a book. Right. A slick, unthinking, commercial book with no point of view.

At the other extreme, there's a point of view, all right, but not much landscape to be seen from it. The author is so conscious of himself as doing Something Interesting that he winds up occupying most of the foreground himself. He's gone, perhaps, to visit the rain forest in Surinam. The book begins with the entire story of how he raised the money for the trip. Soon you get the big incident about the airline surcharge for his cameras, the humorous moment when he ran out of film on the Rio Tapioca, his first encounter with a Guianan bullet tree. What you don't get is Surinam.

You do get hoboes in Michael Mathers' Riding the Rails. And railroads. And drama. And stunning pictures. And a sense of having yourself stayed in a jungle, and having yourself crossed the continental divide in an open boxcar. Whatever dangers there are in deliberately having an experience in order to write a book about it, Mathers has avoided them all -- in part, perhaps, because love of his subject preceded any thought of exploiting it.

The book has three separate strands, deftly interwoven. First is Mathers' own narrative, beginning at that teen-age moment when he met Chicago Slim. He's a born writer, and he knows exactly how present in the narrative to be -- just which few of his own adventures belong in a book that centers on hobo life.

THEN THERE are the 65 full-page photographs. Somewhere around 40 of them are of the kind you might want to cut out and have framed, or form a committee for the sole purpose of awarding prizes to, and the other 25 aren't bad, either. Mathers had the advantage, to be sure, that his Interesting Material is exceptionally so. Hoboes tend to have character-filled faces and striking clothes. They photograph well. Four pictures in the book include a man called Denver Red. (Having given up families, hoboes generally give up family names, too.) Though Red's actual facial structure is quite different from that of our Civil War president, each of the four shots reminds me of a slightly dissolute Abraham Lincoln. There is the same brooding quality, the same homely strength, the same touch of sorrow. Red is alone. Hoboes like Shorty and Step-and-a-half and Pasco Slim have memorable faces, too. And as for the scenery, a view of a mountain peak above Stevens Pass, Montana, framed by the open doors of a boxcar with three tramps sitting in it . . . it's enough to make an Easterner like me think I'd better hurry up and move west to start a new life. I could hop a grain car, maybe.

Finally, there are the 70 or so tape-recorded quotations from hoboes scattered through the book. Here, too, Mathers benefited from the nature of his material. Hoboes not only photograph well, they have strong things to say. Some, indeed, are folk philosophers. The same impulse that drove them onto the rails has kept them puzzling about the meaning of life.

But clearly the material also benefited from Mathers. An ideal listener, he brought out the best and deepest in these relatively inarticulate men -- and also the funniest and most casual. The man called Black Jesus, for example, will sit down and really think out why he's a hobo, why, as he says, "I always got the yearning and desire to take a journey." Or dark-eyed Sundance will tell what sounds like a traditional tall tale about the fastest and slowest freights he has ever hopped. It might almost be Paul Bunyan talking: "I rode so fast on a hotshot one time I passed a mudhole and a tomato patch and they was a mile apart. I passed them so goddam fast they looked like tomato soup. After that I caught a local -- a real slow train and he stopped at every house, and when we come to a two-family house we stopped twice. That was in Arkansas."

That's a beautifully paced story. Riding the Rails is a beautifully paced book. It is one of the gems of photojournalism -- and there are not many.

Noel Perrin teaches literature at Dartmouth College. Note on Availability: "Riding the Rails" is out-of-print; copies can occasionally be found in second-hand bookstores.