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Jasper to Edmonton, sort of

 

Browning once wrote:

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp /
Or what's a heaven for?"

He understood, before its time, the spirit of train-hopping.

I'd spent five enjoyable days in western Canada: riding first-class on the Skeena through the northern Rockies; driving up and down the stunning Icefields Parkway; hiking in the mountains and on Athabasca Glacier; luxuriating in a hot-springs-fed pool; jumping around on a trampoline during a homestay in Jasper. Now it was time to get down to real business, hopping a freight 235 miles across Alberta to Edmonton, where my flight home would originate.

Early in the morning I dropped off my rental car at the Jasper train station and considered hiding in the woods beside the station. But the eastbound pulled in before I could even act. I was standing on the station platform with an idle VIA passenger train between me and the freight. I had to jump it here.

Out of desperation, I charged through the VIA train's open vestibule and onto my grainer. A car inspector saw me but honorably turned away. Off we went through the eastern portion of Jasper NP, into an alpine paradise where rock-and-ice sawtooth peaks loomed over glittering lakes. The forest fragrance, the wind, the sunshine, all the sensory pleasures of hoboing were present in full force. Train-hopping can be so delightful at its best that, regrettably, it will take a body bag to stop me.

All good things come to an end, though. The landscape flattened out and the Rockies receded into the irretrievable past. Now rolling, forested hills and intermittent lakes, a northern version of Minnesota, predominated. From time to time, I peered up dirt roads that temptingly led nowhere.

Somewhere short of Edson, I fatefully decided to move to the last car, a grainer. From its deck, I could enjoy an unobstructed view to the rear, but conversely, bystanders would find it much easier to spot me.

Everything fell apart in domino-like fashion 20 miles short of Edmonton. I had left the door open by sitting on the last car's deck and leaving one leg outside the cubbyhole for comfort's sake (the cubbyhole is cramped). When I saw the railroad worker jump onto the middle of the track to eyeball my car, I knew trouble was brewing. It takes a zealot with a bug up his ass to spot an exposed leg at 30-40 mph and to phone it in. Unbeknownst to me, the CN bull was in the vicinity working an accident.

Within 5-10 minutes, the train had halted. I still figured that police pursuit was likelier in Edmonton and saw only low grassy fields around the train. There was nowhere for me to hide and no roads, I thought, for the bull to drive. I decided to move up the train's length and sit in another car - if he did arrive, he might not want to inspect 20-50 cars looking for me.

Only seconds had passed, however, when the bull's vehicle came roaring through the grass. Yeesh! What kind of police-state operation was this? He summoned me over and informed, "You're under arrest for trespassing. Put your hands behind your back!" Out came the handcuffs and suddenly we weren't in Kansas anymore.

It looked like I was about to encounter Correctional Service Canada. This was my 3rd run-in with a bull - 1992, 1996, 1999 - and disagreeable though they are, I always knew days like these are part of the bargain.

A second bull, as well as my betrayer Earl the railroad worker, rolled up. The second bull expressed disbelief that a database check had turned up no outstanding warrants for me. "Really, none at all? Does he have any money?" he asked, hoping for a vagrancy charge.

"He's got a place to stay and a plane ticket to the States. And more money than we carry," Officer Telcs replied. "Maybe we should roll him! Just kidding." My arresting officer fancied himself a comedian.

Telcs turned to me. "I see that you're an American. Look, I'm not stupid! You have a plane ticket out of here and I know that you'd never come back for trial. I'm entering you in the CN database, but I have to let you go. [The paperwork]'s not worth it!" For once, foreign citizenship had proven advantageous to the offender, an unlikely outcome in Turkey or Singapore. He looked hard at me for signs of glee, but even I knew to keep my mouth shut.

I discreetly asked him about CN informant policy. "All CN employees are supposed to report riders," he answered. "Most don't. Earl does." Later I wondered what he thought of his little helper Earl.

Having seen my clean record and plane ticket, his assurance that I would not be morally polluting Canada for long, Telcs took off the cuffs and morphed into a hospitable local: improbably, he drove me 20 miles to the nearest light-rail station. Thanks to that boost, reaching my accommodations was a snap. Along the way, we talked like buddies about our trips in Canada and America and I startled him by picking up on his last name and speaking Hungarian.

I'd escaped real trouble because of a bull who turned generous, yet another topsy-turvy development in the crazy world of train-hopping. The dependence on a cop's good mood always rankles, though.

Soon thereafter, I had wrapped up my strictly legal sightseeing in Edmonton and was back in California, back in workaday routine. I've had, like other hoppers, wild times, great highs, crashing lows short of death. But increasingly, joyful memories notwithstanding, I question the transformational nature of any experience. My strengths, such as they are, have not grown. Nor have my weaknesses diminished.

After nearly being killed on a failed K2 climbing expedition, Charlie Houston reflected: "I remember thinking that after that experience nothing would ever upset me again, I would be a different person, that I had been miraculously saved for some purpose I didn't understand. But it didn't take very long before I was back in the real world, a real person, and nothing much had changed." The ending is always the same.