home > stories > Coast to Coast, almost... Part 1

Coast to Coast, almost... Part 1

 

First Leg - March 28th, 2005

Pumped up from my first hop and heading back east from Victoria, BC, where I spent the winter, I decided to try and do the whole journey by freight train. Victoria is a beautiful spot, with many full dumpsters, warm climate, great Food Not Bombs people and a high minimum wage... But things were calling me back east again, namely two friends wanting my help to build a house this summer, and just wanting to be back in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. My friends in Ontario wanted me there by mid-April, which is not the warmest time in Canada, but hey, I was going for it!! Better to be cold on a moving train than cold beside the road in a snowdrift. I checked the weather and planned to hop out when it was a bit warmer... and sure enough in the last week of March there was a little heat wave (above zero, ha ha!!!) all across the prairies...

I took the ferry to Vancouver, BC with my university friend Laura. I stayed around her place while I checked out the yards in town, the intermodal/grain one north of East Hastings Street (CP) and the bigger main CP yard in Port Coquitlam. Check the bctransit website for detailed maps of the city. I knew I wanted to take the southern CP route through the Rockies to try and keep as warm as possible. Not much was happening in the downtown yard, though I did manage to get into it from a little park on Wall Street with a walkway that went across & down to the tracks. There was a lot of full grainers & intermodals just sitting there and nothing moving. I tested out the grainers with a rock to see if they were full... a trick I learned from my friend Milenkovitch - most of them were. I started walking & was just trying to get out when the bullmobile pulled up. They were two OK guys but were totally amazed when I told them that I had just walked into the yard across the foot bridge - they didn't even seem to know that it existed... Weird.

Next stop was Port Coquitlam Yard, taking the #160 bus from Hastings Street to Port Coquitlam Station, which borders right on the CP yard, you could walk into it right there through the unsupervised West Coast Express (WCE) station... didn't seem to be any cameras but it's probably watched like crazy anyway. Saw some trains being put together while I waited for the C40 bus to take me southeast, down past the Mary Hill Bypass into the industrial park by the Fraser River. I got out at the first stop in the park and walked east along the river, down the PoCo hiking/biking/yuppies-jog-their-dog Trail and found that it led right to the throat of the CP yard and the perfect chill spot to hang out and wait for a train to catch on the fly. I wasn't ready to hop just yet, but waited around and saw indeed the trains were for going slow enough here to hop.

I was back the next day (the 28th of March) with my pack and my warm clothes... Baklava, fur hat with earflaps, two t-shirts, sweater, underwear, longjohns, two pairs of pants & two pairs of socks, winter mitts and boots... picked up some cardboard (1000-mile paper) in the Tim Horton's dumpster to sit on and keep the cold off my butt. At about 5:00pm the waiting started. I was getting excited and paranoid at the same time - was that guy in the dark truck giving me a dirty look cause he knew where I was going & what I was doing? Why are there so many planes overhead? Isn't that the same boat that just passed twice before? A couple WCE trains shot by and gave me a little jump - people inside had no idea that I was there waiting to catch a train for free... I contemplated the long railway tunnel in between Revelstoke and Field; would I hitchhike that section or hop on a back unit before there, or just ride it out?

At 5:45 the first freight came by - a CP train, two units, with a bunch of gons and hoppers. Now this hop spot is right before a bridge, so you gotta make sure you have enough room to run & jump on and climb up and in before you hit the side of the bridge, or it's bye-bye hobo. I jumped on a hopper pretty far back and found that the cubby and deck both had those annoying cutouts which make it hard to stash a pack and you inside, but thankfully the deck behind me was open too and I stashed my pack in my first grainer and hid in the one behind mine (much like the last trip) until we were out of the populated area. I passed through a big intermodal terminal outside of Port Coquitlam and a couple more WCE stations. Saw some nice scenery & started climbing mountains but the sun went down pretty fast.

At 9:45 it was completely dark as we stopped for the crewchange in North Bend. I moved back a couple cars to another style grainer, the CP sausage. It had no holes in the floors but was awkward to put me & my pack in because of the angle - the hole is higher than normal so you have to go down & over with a heavy pack. I rolled out my cardboard and sleeping bag, as it was getting progressively colder as it was night and we were climbing in altitude.

At 3:15am it was stop-go-stop-go... I just went back to sleep until 5:15 and realized we had stopped in Kamloops yard. Nothing was happening and we were on a siding so I just waited. Two trains passed though on the mainline for crewchange somewhere down the line. At 7:45 I saw a worker and decided to go and have a chat. When I caught up to him he was pretty shocked to see me; our conversation went a little like this:

"Excuse me..."
"What are you doing? There's too many cops around here! And plus it's really dangerous!"
"I just want some help..."
"How did you get in here, did you hop the fence?"
"Nope, just rode in from Vancouver."
"It's too dangerous, and it's too cold in the mountains, you'll freeze to death!"
"I understand your concern, but I just wanna get out of here, and I need your help."
"I suggest you find another mode of transportation!"
"I was just wondering what was happening with that train over there." (pointing to my train)
"I'm working that train next, so get off it!"
"Is there anything else headed east soon?"
"I suggest you find another way... you could be killed out there!"
"I understand your concern but really the best way to insure my safety is to help me get on the right train"
"Well, that train is heading east next" (pointing to a grain train that had just pulled in)
"Thank you so much, I really appreciate that!"
"Don't let me see you again!"
"You won't... thanks!"

So I hopped into a much nicer red Canadian grainer and off I was again. After an hour or so waiting next to the highway just outside Kamloops in that crazy Canadian desert terrain we started climbing into the mountains. It was about 9:30am and a warm sunny day, though the temperature continued to drop as we climbed to the top of the Rockies. I napped and tried to huddle in my sleeping bag as much as possible for most of the day, conserving energy and keeping warm. At 1:00pm we pulled onto a siding at Malakwa, beautiful snowed in mountains on both sides and a fast little clear mountain stream beside the tracks, which I used to fill up my water bottle. 1:50pm was the crew change in Revelstoke - sat right in the middle of town pretty much, so my plan to get on a back unit was foiled, and I decided just to ride the tunnel out. I think I was too cold to want to move much anyway. After Revelstoke it started to snow and soon enough we hit the tunnel. It was long, about 5-7 minutes, but I didn't even smell a whiff of diesel - guess I was far enough back on the train that it didn't reach me too much. All that worrying for nothing. There was a moment where the train started to slow down quite noticeably and I started to get concerned but we popped out into fresh air soon after that. I missed a lot of scenery just trying to stay warm, unfortunately. I'd like to do this route again in the summer when I can hang out on the deck a lot more... Didn't make a note of the crew change in Field, I was probably too cold to bother.

We stopped just outside Calgary at about 2am and I got out on the deck to take a leak. The sky was so clear and everything was so quiet out there in the middle of nowhere... Until a pack of coyotes started howling, it sounded like right next to me! It gave me a little fright and soon as I was done I jumped back into my warm sleeping bag. We rolled slowly into Calgary, past a long stretch of track that went behind a bunch of parking garages with some awesome graf. Sat there for about 30 minutes, and just as I started to wonder if I should get off & find another train we took off again, on the mainline to Regina. This was a good train!

At about 3am I was awakened by the hobo alarm clock... We were stopped in the middle of some town somewhere, with my car almost right on top of a road crossing, bells clanging... I poked my head out to see a worker walking down the train toward me with a lantern, looking like he was inspecting cars or something! "I must have been seen somewhere!" my sleep-deprived and cold brain thought, and in a split decision I decided to get off the train... not take my pack or anything, but I thought it better to hide in the grass at the side of the track than stay in my cubby (?)... Only when I did jump off and hide, a car pulled up to the crossing and sits there with it's lights totally lighting up my grainer!!! I cursed my luck & sat tight. The worker walked by my car without event to the end of the train and then back, and thankfully the car at the crossing got tired of waiting and decided to turn around and find another road to take. Phew! I was out of the cold dead grass and back into my warm sleeping bag. We were off again!

By morning I thought the train looked shorter, so last night was probably a cut-out of empties somewhere. We're definitely in the prairies now, trundling through small towns and huge fields - huge fields of dirt & snow, as nothing is growing yet. I'm getting more and more wary of getting out of my hole, as it's so flat I can be seen from everywhere. I had a couple close calls, ducking into the hole as a worktruck drives right along side the train on an access road, and getting seen for sure by this old farmer dude in his pickup stopped at a crossing in the middle of nowhere - I just have to hope he's not gonna call me in. The scenery is nice though, sky is clear, and the sun warm.

At 4:15pm we stop for the crewchange in Swift Current (realize I've crossed two time zones & lost 2 hours) and I spy a CSX train heading east and think for a second about hopping on, just to say I've ridden another carrier... but just end up sitting until 5:30pm when my train moves again, into the evening. I'm cold and very sleep deprived by now and start chanting "mainline Winnipeg, mainline Winnipeg" over and over like some magic mantra that will cause me to get there on this train... Scary stuff... The sunset is beautiful but I just wish I was in some greasy Winnipeg diner eating pancakes and syrup.

In the middle of the night my train comes to a stop in Moose Jaw and the air is released... I hum and haw about getting on a new train, but there's plenty action in the yard with engines driving around building trains, the bull driving around in his bullmobile, and a bridge right above my head with a fair amount of traffic on it. My string just sits though, and isn't being broken up - maybe just a refuelling stop? I hum and haw some more and get out and walk around a bit when the action dies down a bit but the bull's still there driving the yard. I can't find any workers to talk to and don't wanna miss my train if it takes off again with my pack in it, so I just climb back in my sleeping bag and wait. Stupid idea in hindsight cause I konked out and later wake up at 7am in the town of Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan next to the grain elevator and the three buildings which they call downtown. I check my maps and realize I'm south or Regina, off the mainline. The chanting has not paid off. Lesson learned: when they start cutting out cars from your train on sidings, change trains ASAP, cause you're gonna be cut out soon too. Anyway, the Yellow Grass Diner had a great bathroom for cleaning off 4 and a half days of train dirt, and great pancakes & syrup. They even hooked me up with a piece of cardboard for a hitchhiking sign. The folks there were all farmer types - I especially liked the one old guy that rode his old cruiser bike to breakfast and his friends gathered round to hear him talk about how his ride was.

So it was a quick hitch into Regina thankfully, with a guy who was going there to fly out to Victoria (weird), to go to a curling tournament at the curling rink a block away from my old house (super-weird!). Regina was a bit harder to get a ride out of, but I was soon picked up by a cabbie that drove me all the way to Winnipeg and even right to the door of my friend's house where I was to stay! It was nice to travel in a car for a bit and have someone to talk to, even though he probably thought I was the dirtiest and stinkiest guy he ever gave a drive to...

part 2