This is an example of paradox: The statement can't be true, but it is true. When taken literally, it is obvious that railroads do not ride upon their passengers; trains ride upon tracks. However, when interpreted figuratively, there is truth in the statement--Thoreau's truth. He means that we do not control our technology, that it serves instead to control us. In Thoreau's day, the railroad represented modern technology as rail lines were expanded to cross the continent. He viewed this "progress" as being, in fact, a negative--one that acted to destroy the natural world, pollute the environment, and reduce the quality of life by making it more complicated and fast-paced.
We have to pay to ride on the railroad. In order to be able to pay, we have to work to earn the money. So although we seem to be traveling in fast and without effort we do not take into consideration the amount of labor we had to put in to pay for the train ticket. In Thoreau's opinion it would be better to walk to wherever we are going, and probably better still not to go very far at all. His friend Emerson said, "Travel is a fool's paradise." Thoreau wrote: "I have traveled quite extensively, in Concord." He didn't believe you had to travel very far to see interesting and beautiful sights. Some people travel great distances without really seeing much of anything. The railroad just adds complications, expenses, and stress to life. The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote a cynical poem about travel titled "Le Voyage," in which he includes this exquisite line:
Amer savoir, celui qu'or tire du voyage!
Which can be translated as: What bitter knowledge one gets from traveling! Distance lends enchantment. We think that far-away places are going to be special, but when we get there we find that they are often very ordinary. As Emerson says, "Our ghost goes with us." They lose their glamor just because we are there. We can't escape from ourselves.
Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.
He had followed the parkway as far as New York, and all the way, there had been a constant stream of cars, two and sometimes three lanes of them in both directions--a movement so implacable it looked like a headlong flight. Their brows furrowed, their muscles tensed, the drivers, often with whole families in the back seats, charged straight ahead as if their lives were in jeopardy, some of them not knowing where they were heading, or heading nowhere in particular, just desperately filling the empty hours with noise and speed.
Georges Simenon, The Rules of the Game
Quote: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” (66)
Explanation: When Thoreau writes, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us”, he is simply using a paradox to symbolize that technology controls society. Obviously, a train cannot ride upon its passengers. However, if one were to analyze this phrase figuratively, one would realize that Thoreau means that technology is something that controls people. Technology is used almost everyday and seems to take over the time and lives of other people. Often people find themselves spending too much time on the computer or too much time writing emails on their phones. Thoreau is trying to remind readers that technology is not as important as we think it is. Thoreau believes that the railroad pollutes the environment and is very detrimental, as it is noisy and negatively expanding throughout society. Thoreau uses his thoughts to tell society that technology is only harmful and keeps people from doing natural things, such as noticing the real beauty around them. Thoreau lives in the woods. The woods are obviously simple living as there is no electricity, technology and fancy shelter. However, Thoreau living in the woods positively reminds him of the real natural beauty that surrounds him. Thoreau once never speaks about being distracted by the television or the computer, as the people within our society are today. Ultimately, Thoreau is commenting on the negative aspects of technology using his paradox.
Hope this helps!