dodging railway bulls, riding free for 3,600 miles:
a modern-day hobo's journey across canada
by matthew power for blue: the adventure lifestyle
vol 3, no. 6
(december 2000-January 2001)
Today is the day. It's early August, but this far north the summer is waning fast, and I am ready to begin the long trip from Vancouver to New York City. The plan, hatched around a campfire on the beach a week previous, is to ride the Canadian Pacific rail line 3,000 miles east, across half a dozen mountain ranges and the vast wheat ocean of the great plains.
I wake up to a gray dawn on Wreck Beach at the western edge of Vancouver, wrapped up in a tent fly that has kept out none of the night's drizzle. A mist rises off the Georgia Strait revealing Vancouver Island in the distance. I wake up Pike, my traveling companion since we met several weeks before in Southern Colorado. He's from Clearwater, Florida, with a bushy beard that doesn't hide a babyface. Pike is a much more experienced trainhopper, who I hope will serve as a fitting guide for our a trip. Neither of us has ever been on this line, and aren't really sure what we're in for. All we have to guide us are a few notes cribbed from some trainhoppers in Eugene, Oregon, and a diner placemat printed with a rough map of Canada. But greater journeys have been undertaken with less.
After packing up our gear, we ride a bus to the eastern edge of the city where the yard of the CP lies hidden behind a row of warehouses. We stock up on supplies for what could be a five-day ride: trail mix, granola bars, dried fruit and as much water as we can carry.
We walk several miles to the yard, and the long low sound of a train whistle grabs our attention. The trains from this yard, according to my rough notes, are only going one way. Although Canada is the second largest country in the world (after Russia), it is remarkably linear; 90 percent of the population lives within 200 miles of the US border, and freight lines only run where they are needed. The Canadian Pacific line shadows the Trans-Canada Highway, the main artery running 3,000 miles from Vancouver to St John's, Newfoundland, in more or less a straight shot. We're catching out to go all the way home.
We find a hidden spot in the trees about twenty yards from the tracks to sit and wait. It is a truism with riding freight that you spend as much time sitting around and waiting for the train as you do actually riding it. Even with a tip from a friendly worker about when the train is pulling out, you are a nonpaying customer and on the railroad's schedule.
Pike lectures me as we sit in the shade. "What we want is a hotshot, high priority freight that's going express from the coast to Toronto. Usually they're pulled by four units. That's gonna take us four days non-stop, except for crew changes every eight hours or so. It'll be loaded with mixed freight: car carriers, piggybacks, gondolas, forty-eights. Tankers are unridable. There might be some grainers, which are good to ride in, but try and pick a double-holed grainer over a single. There's more room. Don't get in a gondola that's carrying anything. The freight tends to shift, and it can squish you like a bug. And always throw your bag off first when you get off. If we get in an empty boxcar, make sure you stick a railroad spike in the door to hold it open, because if that door closes with you in it, they might not find you for months. But we probably aren't gonna ride any boxcars. They're only on junkers. Oh, and if we go in a tunnel, wet a cloth and cover your nose and mouth."
I get him to explain to me that a unit is the train's engine, a piggyback is a truck trailer loaded on a flatbed, a gondola is an open-topped cargo container, and a forty-eight is a double-stacked cargo container that can go on a boat, train or truck. Tankers are sealed oil cars with no place to ride, and grainers are for carrying dry freight like grain and fertilizer. A junker, which we want to avoid, is a low-priority train that stops to let hotshots by and probably isn't going very far.
There's a whistle, and the low thunder of a train taking up its slack as it heads out. I feel like I'm going to puke from sheer terror at the thought of running up after a moving train and climbing on. From where the rails vanish behind a copse, the rumbling gets louder and, in what seems like slow motion, the first engine bursts into view. I can see the engineer, leaning out the window, his forearm on the sill. I swear he looks straight at me, even though he's 50 yards away and I'm well hidden. Three more engines pass and Pike is throwing his pack on. I follow his lead, feeling drunk, blood roaring in my ears along with the clacking of the train as it slowly begins to pick up speed.
"Come on!" Pike screams. "It's just gonna get faster!" So he starts running, his pack bouncing up and down like it's got a kangaroo in it, and I follow. We scramble up the embankment by the tracks, the train speeding up.
"Pick your ride!" he shouts. The cars going by are long grain cars, with ladders and short covered porches, maybe four feet by eight, on both ends. I jog alongside the train, trying to keep up, the gravel giving way under my feet and the cars sliding by. I place one hand on a ladder rung and the train jerks ahead, but I hold on. The sensation is like having a large dog tugging on its leash. But this dog weighs thousands of tons.
Hanging on, I try to put one foot on the bottom rung. It won't reach, so without thinking I put my foot on the hub around which the flashing silver wheel turns, just behind the ladder. Visions of dismemberment flash through my head.
Stupid, stupid, I think. I step up onto the bottom rung with my other foot, leaving the ground and trusting my full weight to the train. The disembodied sensation of taking off in an airplane pales compared to catching hold of a train and not letting go. It's like grabbing the landing gear as the plane taxis up the runway.
Suddenly, all the nausea of anticipation is gone. I am flying. I get both legs up on the ladder, and swing around, stepping onto the small porch at the front of the car and see Pike jumping on two cars back.
The train is going over a highway overpass. Dozens of cars pass under me, and I wonder which one is going to call the Mounties on a cell phone. An opening, at the back of the porch, is about the size of a manhole cover. Inside is a little crawl space, just big enough for me and my pack. Everything is covered with a thick coating of diesel dust and rust. I squeeze through the hole.
Darkness. The violent shaking of the car. A cacophony of the thousands of pieces of steel that make up the car rattling staccato. It smells of pigeons. I turn like a breech birth to get my head back out the hole and see the countryside flying by: sun dapple through leaves, fields of hay, orchards a month from harvest. The sound of the grainer is almost musical, the thunderous boom of the empty hopper traveling back to the wheat fields of Saskatchewan after hauling tons of grain to the coast, the falsetto of a braking wheel against the track, the machine-gun crackle of the slack being taken up in a mile of railcars as they begin to roll.
Instantly we are in the absolute black of a tunnel. The world closes in around me and I cover my mouth and nose with my shirt. I can't tell if I'm hyperventilating from fear or asphyxiating on diesel fumes. It seems endless, and I shine my flashlight along the rough-hewn walls only a foot away from the train's sides. The tunnel seems haunted, dug and blasted by ghosts a century earlier. It is an enormous relief when we burst back out into the light and clean air.
The Canadian Pacific Railway was derided in Canada's parliament in 1871 as an "act of insane recklessness." After approval, it took 14 years to complete and was one of the most intense building projects in history. It served to unify Canada as a country, to tie a psychological knot between St John's, Newfoundland, and Victoria, British Columbia, 4,000 miles apart. The railroad was built by Scots, Irish, French Canadians, and some 8,000 Chinese coolies (a phonetic pronunciation of k'u li, "bitter strength"). Some 800 men died building it, in rockslides, avalanches and tunnel collapses. They also died of scurvy and pneumonia. Men would stumble carrying ten-gallon drums of nitroglycerine and blow themselves to pieces. They drove the railway through some of the most impenetrable country on earth for a dollar a day, and now Pike and I are borne along it, reading the marks they left behind like hieroglyphs. In the tunnels you seem to hear the echoes of picks and the calls of the work gangs.
The sun sets as we pass beneath the shadow of the Coast Range, a line of rainforest-cloaked, glacier-capped peaks marching up the west coast all the way to the Tongass of southeastern Alaska. Soon the lush coastal forests give way to a drier landscape and the train snakes up along the Fraser River Gorge, the milky gray water swirling in great eddies as the train rumbles over trestles spanning tributaries hundreds of feet below.
Twilight falls and a crescent moon rises. A hundred yards ahead, the engine is a fire-breathing dragon casting a beam of light against the immense stone walls as it rounds bends. On an island in the middle of the raging river hundreds of feet below, a group of people stands around a bonfire, their rafts pulled onto the shore. We see them, but they have no idea that Pike and I exist.
I stand there for hours, unable to take my eyes off of the passing scene. This rolling connection with the landscape is travel reduced to its purest essence. When night falls, we roar through an anonymous lumber town, a huge conical scrapwood burner erupting red-hot sparks a hundred feet into the air until they wink out among the cold blue stars. I am standing on the porch with a hand on the ladder. If I fell off out here, no one would know.
There's the argument that trainhopping is illegal and dangerous. Absolutely true. We are facing a CAN$600 fine and extradition back to the States if we're caught. And it is risky, the train jerking violently, making sudden stops, rattling over trestles hundreds of feet in the air. A moment of inattention would leave either of us a pile of carrion for the black bears and eagles. Still, the risk seems to fall behind when your feet leave the ground.
Pike tells me about two girls hopping together. One lost both legs and her friend had to drag her to the highway by her backpack straps. The Federal Railroad Administration reported over 500 train-related fatalities in 1999, but doesn't keep separate statistics for the number of these that were hopping. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada reported 109 train-related fatalities in 1999, over half of which are attributed to trainhopping. The risk is real, but on that car with the moon over the Fraser Gorge, there seemed to be nothing more beautiful.
The towns, farther and farther apart, pass by in moments. In the middle of the night the train shudders to a stop in a darkened yard. Pike and I huddle in the crawl space, wrapped in sleeping bags. Suddenly there are footsteps in the gravel right next to us, and voices. An icicle of fear goes through my heart. We've been caught already!
The footsteps get closer, they're right outside the hole. Just when I'm about to come out with my hands up, I hear the telltale rattle of a spraypaint can being shaken. My fear melts instantly and I stifle a laugh. A bunch of kids tagging a train in the middle of the night. Pike sticks his head out of the hole and says "Hey, what town are we in?" The kids take off running, despite Pike's crying after them "It's all right, we're just hobos!"
We have become ghosts to the stationary world. The anonymous artists never finished their tags, but the raiI system in North America has a rich history of hobo graffiti, itinerants marking their date and direction on the vast web of the rails, with a whole set of symbols devised to communicate and help each other out. Names like Flange Squeal, The Artful Dodger, Bag Man, Broke Toe and XLR8 adorn cars from Vancouver to Miami.
The hobo population boomed as industrialization displaced workers and a mobile workforce was needed to do the labor of westward expansion. The railroads were the only way to circulate this large mobile workforce. They followed harvests, camped in "jungles" on the edges of cities, and moved to wherever there was work. The Depression swelled their numbers to millions, whole families rode the rails in search of opportunity, and the hobo subculture in North America hit its apex.
An extraordinary amount of American history has flowed along the rails that cross the continent. After World War II, the primacy of the automobile led to a decline of the railroads. There were mergers and closures of many of the independent lines, and massive government bailouts. With the decline of railroads the hobo culture went underground. Most people consider it a thing of the past. Why should you hop trains when you can take a Greyhound?
But a small and thriving tribe of people still do it. Most, like the hobos of the Depression, are the displaced who have been left on the margins of our thriving economy: refugees from Mexico and Central America, homeless vets, alcoholics, anyone who doesn't fit into the tidy box of capitalist culture.
And of course there are people like Pike, who do it for the unalloyed sense of freedom it provides. That's why I've joined him. Stealing a ride in the belly of the beast that carries fertilizer, televisions, oil, nuclear waste and cows to slaughter all across our continent is liberating because it comes in under the radar of the market. It can't be bought or sold. There are no Extreme Trainhopper sneakers to purchase. Unless you get caught, trainhopping doesn't cost a dime.
All the next day we wind slowly into the Rockies toward the Great Divide, through fields of wildflowers and bright blue glacial streams. The palette of colors is impossibly bright, with glaciers looming thousands of feet above us like great pieces of sky fallen on the mountaintops.
Our train dead-ends in Field, BC, the engines disconnect. Now we have to get to the next crew change spot to try and catch another train. We hitch 100 miles to Calgary and so bypass the famous spiral tunnels outside Field, where the train does two consecutive loops inside the mountain as it climbs. I don't mind not having to spend 20 minutes in that black, fume-filled hole. At Calgary the mountains end and the plains begin an uninterrupted flow across the continent. "You can see Regina from here," our ride tells us. There are 500 miles of treeless prairie between us and there.
An oil rig roughneck rides us through a hundred miles of sagebrush and pumpjacks bobbing their heads like awful metal birds drinking oil from the earth. He lets us off in the town of Red Cliff, where a long grain train happens to sit sided by the road. We jump down, shoulder our packs and run through the grass to the rail bed, climbing on just as the train pulls out.
A litany of towns pass by: Medicine Hat, Maplecreek, Gull Lake, Antelope, Swift Current. We never know exactly where we are, figuring out by random signs and landmarks where the train is taking us. In the unendurable expanse of the plains, east is all that matters for the moment. A tiny wooden sign, surrounded for miles in every direction by nothing but waving wheat, informs us that we are in Saskatchewan. Over two hundred square miles and a million people, two-thirds in cities, Saskatchewan exudes a loneliness that makes me think of the Russian steppes. Many of the towns are known only from the names on grain elevators. Their only reason for existing is to provide a place to load the millions of tons of wheat a year hauled to the urban centers and coasts. They loom up out of the plains like skyscrapers, a beautiful weathered functionality that inspired the international style of Le Corbusier. In the flaming red sunset we roll past a doe splayed by the side of the tracks after being hit by our train. We pass a flock of migrating pelicans in a lake at dusk. The sound of the train fades into the background, and I sing Woody Guthrie's "Hobo's Lullaby" off-key to Pike, but he's already sleeping.
We wake up in Moose Jaw, an outpost in the middle of the endless wheat fields. The train shudders to a full stop and we sneak off through a drainage ditch of cattails. A lift tells us that Moose Jaw is what the Indians thought this bend in the river looked like, or maybe what the first settler used to repair his wagon wheel.
An hour later, in Regina, we walk to the railyard, climb a fence and wait for a train to pullout. A bull drives back and forth in his white pickup. A string of grainers starts edging out of the yard and we scramble on, diving into a hole before we're seen. I've gotten much more adept at climbing on a moving train now.
I look back out from the hole and I'm greeted by two smiling faces sticking out from the back hole of the car ahead. A boy and a girl, maybe 15 and 16, all dreadlocks and bright smiles. Suddenly, the train takes a sharp left going out of the yard and the kids across shout, "Jump! this train's going to Saskatoon!"
Saskatoon, 350 miles to the northwest, is the last place I want to go. We throw our packs off and jump, landing running in the loose gravel. By some miracle and a little grace, I'm the only one who doesn't face plant.
The kids are returning to Winnipeg after a rave in Regina, neither has a car or money and hitching in Saskatchewan is difficult, especially with dreadlocks. That pretty much leaves freight riding as the only option.
Another train is pulling out, two bright red units pulling mixed freight. The engineer looks right at us. My heart drops. The boy, whose name I don't even know, walks right up to the engineer and they gesticulate over the roar of the engine. The boy runs back, grabs his pack and gestures us to follow him as we climb up the ladder into the second engine.
"What did you say to him?" I ask.
"I said, 'Are you going to Winnipeg, eh?' " he replies with a smile.
Canadian Pacific has provided us with hydraulic chairs, a computerized readout of speed and weight, a bathroom and a refrigerator. We patch up our cuts with the first aid kit and sit back for the 12-hour ride to Winnipeg. The engineer gets on the intercom from the lead engine and says to us, "Stay down until we're out of town. And don't touch anything."
The number one rule of riding trains is to never damage rail property. We know he's putting his job on the line by giving us a ride. If we get caught, he'll just pretend he didn't know we were there. We speed through the night, sleeping splayed on the chairs, on the floor, watching the dark prairie tear by out the open window.
In the morning, the sun rises like a new penny. The vast roll of wheat fields gives over to stands of poplar and cottonwood, and we pull into the huge switchyard of Winnipeg. A dozen tracks wide, trains are being broken down and built up, trains emblazoned with names of forgotten rail lines, companies swallowed up by mergers, their rolling freight rusting reminders of a time when rail freight was the only game in town. Now the Trans-Canada Highway carries a huge share of the cargo.
As the train creeps through the yard, a flock of pigeons bursts from the darkness of an open boxcar, flashing silver in the morning light. This train is the hotshot, a high priority freight train to Toronto that we've wanted all along. But now we have to get off because the crew is switching shifts and we don't want our guy to get in trouble.
We go to a diner near the tracks and in the bathroom I see how filthy I am. I'm covered in rust and oil, like AI Jolson with a big Cheshire cat smile on my face. For some reason it makes me happy, and I don't want to clean up. Bruised and worn out from the trains, Pike wants to try hitching again.
We are in the Kenora yard at nightfall, a light rain is falling. We're worn out and arguing over trains or hitching, and both refusing to compromise. I decide to wait for a train no matter what. Pike decides to sleep by the highway, believing he'll have better luck hitching alone. This is where we split up. Pike will head south to Florida, I will go over the top of the Great Lakes to New York. He walks away into the darkness. A beautiful loneliness washes over me.
I sit all night under a bridge in the rain, waiting for a train. Everything sounds like a train: the downshifting of trucks on the Trans-Canada, car horns, distant thunder, my own heart beating. I can't sleep. I'm feeling sordid, sitting in the weeds by the track's edge, five days out of Vancouver. Whenever a bull drives by, I duck down.
In the middle of the night the roar of a passing train wakes me up. I look up and see it's a westbound hotshot, rolling right past an eastbound hotshot on the secondary track. Heart racing, I throw everything in my bag, throw the bag on my back, grab the ladder and step up. In a moment I'm sitting on the porch of a forty-eight, going through the predawn chill at 60 miles an hour. The stars wheel overhead, tracing our arc over the top of Lake Superior.
As the sun rises I pass through a country of abandoned cabins, jack pines and birches in a sea of muskegs, still black lakes with clinging mist.
The bogs of northern Ontario were as much a technical challenge in building the railroad as was going through the Rockies. It was like building a house on a sponge. Engineers would try to fill in the swamps with gravel to lay the rail bed down, and the soupy mud would swallow the tracks whole.
We come out on bluffs above Lake Superior, which stretches like a black ocean away to the southern horizon. I feel like this train is the only place I belong. I slip easily into the habit of hiding when we roll through towns, I feel the rhythms of the wheels as a function of my own body.
The train shudders to a stop with a rattle of slack action. The sounds of the forest, previously veiled by the train, rise up in an instant chorus. There is no town, maybe they are just waiting for a switch signal to side for another train. I hear frogs, bees, birdsongs, wind in the leaves. And there by the tracks, not ten feet away, is a heavily laden raspberry bramble.
The train is at a dead stop. I jump off and grab raspberries by the fistful, scratching my arms, the sweet juice running down my neck through the rust and oil. Maybe only bears have ever eaten here, I think. Maybe I am the first human ever to eat from this patch, a hundred miles from the nearest town.