My first freight train jump was a proverbial learning to swim by being thrown in the deep end. Unlike the unnecessarily abusive analogy, in freight-hopping there aren’t any safer alternatives. The *cough* illegal *cough* nature means no schools, no instructors, no online tutorials.
But the first steps into a new world are one of life’s joys, and I researched with gusto. There is one book, Hopping Freight Trains In America, by Duffy Littlejohn, which provides just enough information to get you in trouble. The exact when, where, and how remains a secret. I asked homeless people — turns out they aren’t as transient as thought. I managed one phone call with someone experienced, a friend of a friend living in North Carolina, but he was gruff, suspicious, and discouraged me from trying. I thought he was an asshole at the time, but years later would come to appreciate his mentality. Not everything needs to be shared.
Undeterred, I boarded a passenger train and got off on the outskirts of the city near a rail yard that looked promising. Crawling under a fence, I wait in the bushes, watching. It starts to rain. Hard Vancouver rain. Soaked, I decide it’s better to wait on a train than off and I jump into a grain car.
In 2004 I fulfill a lifelong dream of hopping a freight train, going from Vancouver to Jasper (see: https://www.buildering.net/2004/11/02/leaving-on-a-freight-train-dont-know-when-ill-be-back-again/). After that first taste of hobodom, I I vow to take on a longer trip across Canada. It isn’t until the summer of 2009, now back at work, that I make good on my promise.
In the hole. Unity, Sask. km 1612.
On my 2004 trip, I didn’t see a single other person, so for the cross Canada freight train trip my goal is to find other hobos, travel from hobo jungle to hobo jungle, make fires in barrels, drink wine from a box and eat beans from a can. I will stop to drink coffee (or whatever coffee-substitute…I don’t drink coffee) at diners from Nowheresville BC to Nowheresville Nova Scotia.
I almost convince a pretty girl to come along. Her idea of wearing a sundress, “I always wanted to ride a train in a sundress,” paints a nice mental image and suggests that I may have downplayed the hardships of the modern-day freight train hopping experience a bit. Ultimately she decides that we will probably end up killing each other and declines.
I book three weeks off from work, and spend the first day gathering supplies. My only criteria is that everything is black. Black shirt, black jacket, black jeans, black pack, and black duct tape to cover everything else that isn’t black. I turn my red sleeping bag, with black lining, inside out.
The CP mainline between Vancouver and Calgary crosses the Rocky Mountains, at one point going through a mountain instead of over it. There are two tunnels, each 2 km long. Given the steep grade of the tunnels, trains creep through here very slowly. I calculate 20 minutes of tunnel time. There are legends of hobos asphyxiating in the tunnels due to the lack of oxygen combined with diesel fumes from the engines. I affectionately name the tunnels the Spiral Tunnels of Doom. I buy (black) garbage bags and practice hyperventilating into them. A quick swipe of air before going into the tunnels should be enough to last me for 30 minutes.
Real hobos eat from cans. Louis Creek, BC. km 490.
In addition to the essentials, I bring along an HD video camera, 25 DV tapes, 5 batteries, charger, tripod, and a tent — the latter a rather non-hoboesque luxury, but I hate mosquitoes. Traveling light I am not. I consider buying a scanner, but decide that knowing exactly where a train is going and when would reduce the experience to somewhat akin to the engineer’s up front. Cliché yes, but adventure lies in the unknown, however contrived that unknown may be. In the future, should I decide that waiting countless, mind-numbing hours in the bushes for the next train to leave isn’t adventure, I will undoubtedly invest in a scanner.
I set out at the east end of the CP Port Coquitlam rail yard and am immediately spotted by a worker. “You’re in a bad spot. There’s a rail cop right over there.” I thank him and get the hell out of there. Ten minutes later an RCMP car pulls up to where I just was. Determined that this trip will not end before it starts, I decide to catch a train “on the fly” just outside the yard. This proves to be difficult, as most trains are already moving too quickly by this point. As mindbogglingly heavy as trains are, they accelerate very quickly — like 0 to too-fast-to-catch in about 10-20 seconds.
I wait in the bushes for a train with a rideable car close to the front, ready to leap out just as the engine passes. An hour later I spot my ride, a grain car eight cars back from the engine. I sprint to catch it. Proper technique dictates one throws their pack on first, then jump on. This requires you have a pack light enough for throwing, which I do not. I catch the ladder, pull myself up, and jump in the grainer’s cubbyhole without being spotted.
On on-board, riding freight is a relatively stress-free method of travel. There is no fighting for survival on the freeway, no decision making, you go where the train goes. You only have to be good at the game of hide-and-seek, where it’s the seekers job arrest you, or, historically, beat the shit out of you and leave you stranded 100 km from anywhere.
I put in some earplugs and fall asleep.
430 km later I awake in Kamloops. The CN and CP lines diverge here, with CN heading north to Edmonton and CP heading east Calgary. My train heads north — the same direction as my 2004 trip. I have yet to ride the CP track, supposedly the most beautiful ride in North America. However, the ride to Edmonton is no slouch and there are no spiral tunnels to contend with. I move out onto the deck to enjoy the scenery and fresh air. The tracks parallel the North Thompson River, a pristine and largely uninhabited area of British Columbia. I spot the occasional vehicle on nearby Highway 5. They look alien — like tiny space pods — passengers in their own separate universe.
I climb up a ladder and poke my head up over the top of the grain car. I spot a worker standing beside the tracks, looking right at me. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. There are many reasons why an experienced hobo will tell you to stay off the ladders, being highly visible ranking near the top.
They knew, at least twice. Jasper, Alberta. km 872.
If the worker calls it in, the cops will set up two police cars on either side of a road crossing ahead, and stop the train at exactly my car number. I consider moving back a few cars to throw them off. The only way back is up and over the cars, and in the mountains an overhanging tree branch or tunnel can knock you the off train or kill you on impact. Reason two for staying off the ladders.
The train pulls into Jasper and stops. No sign of police. I wait. A helicopter flies overhead and I panic. A bit paranoid perhaps, but a close friend has been greeted by police cars, dogs, and a helicopter after a motorist spotted him surfing on top of a train. Granted the chopper didn’t show up until after a failed foot pursuit, and the dogs didn’t arrive until the chopper failed to find him. The dogs found him though — they’re good at that sort of thing.
The chopper passes. I bolt to the rear of the train and jump on a different car. An hour later the train starts back up and we are on our way. Thank you Mr. Rail Worker for not giving a shit.
I’m much happier riding at the rear of the train. It’s harder to be spotted by crews up front, and I’m less likely to have my section cut out. Trains are built with the front cars being the first to be left behind at intermediate stops, and the rear section in for the long haul. The only annoying thing about riding at the rear is the jolts. Slack in the couplings between the cars adds up, and a sudden acceleration or braking up front jolts the rear cars significantly. Think roller coaster times five. It can be enough to knock you off the car. Reason three for staying off the ladders.
It’s dark and I sleep out on the deck. I wake with the train stopped outside of Edmonton, a healthy 1230 km from Vancouver. I plan to get off here, fuel up, recharge the camera batteries, and go to the West Edmonton Mall. Seriously, I fucking love that place. At least I did the last time I was there when I was 12. I plan to stay in one of their hotel theme rooms, specifically the igloo room. They also have a room called “Canadian Rail,” but instead of hobos, barrel fires, and beans, the it’s fashioned like the inside of a passenger train sleeper car. *Yawn.*
However, it’s 3 am and the train is at least 15 km outside of town. I can either sleep in a field until morning and hitchhike into town, or sleep on the train and make progress. I still have two liters of water, so I get back on the train. So much for taking my time and meeting the locals. Goodbye West Edmonton Mall — you’re still rad in my mind.
Gramma and Aunt Sonja. Preeceville, Sask. km 2304.
Eastern Alberta and Saskatchewan are excitingly flat — not an oxymoron. Having spent the last 20 years nestled in the mountains, I find wide open spaces refreshing. The train dies in Saskatoon. I guess they need empty grain cars there as much as anyone. I hop over a few tracks, narrowly miss being spotted by some workers on an ATV, and get on another train that is airing up. You get a good idea of when a train is leaving based on what its air brakes are doing. A sudden release of air means they’ve cut the engines from your string — you’ll be waiting there awhile. A slow steady hiss means things are all good, you’ll be leaving eventually. A sudden increase in air means you are leaving now — hold on.
I pull out of Saskatoon with still no break from the ride. I’m out of water, but it is awfully hard to pull yourself off a perfectly good train. Depending on the line and stop location, it could be days before something suitable stops again.
It’s 400 km to the metropolis (pop. 4522) of Melville, Sask — my absolute get-off point. From here I plan to hitchhike north to visit my grandparents in Preeceville. I’m really out of water. It starts to rain and I collect a bit in a garbage bag laid out on the deck. It tastes like ass. I’m riding a tanker car carrying who knows what toxic shit, I wonder if I’ve poisoned myself. Transport Canada forbids toxic chemicals from being transported by road, but on the rails it is A-OK. Every time a train derails a million fish die.
I arrive in Melville at 2 am. I’m thirsty — around 24 hours since my last drink, not including the sips of poison-water. The city is asleep. Nothing is open. I find a pop machine and jam it full of quarters. The Dasani “water” is “lemon” flavoured and tastes worse than toxic garbage bag water. It’s arguable which is healthier.
I sleep in a field across from an A&W and awake to the whirring of golf carts. The “field” turns out to be the rough on a golf course. I am roughing it. Heh. Roughing? Ya? ya? *Fart*. After the best fucking burger and root beer of all time, I catch a ride with some natives on their way to Canora. I love natives. They always pick up hitchhikers and are the nicest people on earth.
Riding a 48′. Winnipeg, Manitoba. km 2926.
These natives are full on born-again Christian, not uncommon, and they are fired up. They’re on their way home from a tent revival meeting. I tell them I’m already saved from the fires of hell, and they seem disappointed. Primo captive audience witnessing opportunity lost. A peculiar thing, it is — the modern day Christian native. With the fully abusive Christian-led assimilation of their religion, language, and culture, natives have every right to want nothing to do with it. I suppose it’s a testament to the forgiving nature of the people and the evolution of the faith.
From Canora I hitch to Preeceville with the pastor of the Methodist church there. Christians 2, Heathens 0. He doesn’t try to convert me. Nice chap. He organizes a soup kitchen, although Preeceville has no homeless population. From what I gather it is a social event for lonely elderly folk. Feeling high on the good of humanity I arrive at my grandparents’ house and enjoy a much needed break filled with home cooking and laughter.
I was born and raised in Preeceville until the age of 12, but the town feels foreign. Rig workers from Alberta taken over en masse, with their $60,000 trucks, bad music, and amazingly hot wives. Walking the streets elicits stares, like I’m the one that doesn’t belong.
I head back to Melville at dusk and jump on the first thing heading east — an intermodal train, a fast mover. Up to this point I’ve been riding slow junk trains, which consist of grainers, oil tankers, flatbeds, and other miscellaneous cars. Low priority goods. But intermodals carry shipping containers filled with really important garbage from China, stuff consumers are just dying to have.
I find a 48’ well car with a 40′ shipping container in the bottom and 48′ container stacked on top. The “T” shape makes for a perfect hobo home, a 4′ x 10′ well sheltered above from wind and rain. I can stretch out fully and to take in sights without being overly visible. I’m lucky, 48′ cars are pretty rare — rail companies prefer 53’s. They can fit more shit from China. But the 53’s don’t have a bottom, only slats for the containers to sit on. This makes things difficult for hobos. Riding on the slats is called “riding suicide,” as a strong jolt can send you under the wheels.
Taking in the scenery. Sioux Lookout, Ontario. km 3368.
For the first time all trip it’s cold. Bloody cold. I put on all my clothes and lay in my sleeping bag but still can’t sleep. I wait for the warmth of dawn. Winnipeg is ahead. The entire city is basically one big rail yard and security is prevalent here. I roll right on through. Perfect. The sun is out now and I fall asleep.
We are moving at a respectable 90 km/h and I’m in high spirits. I’ve never been east of Winnipeg before (plane, train, automobile), and even if I’m caught now I’d consider the trip a success.
We pass through northern Ontario, full of lakes and trees and nothing else. There’s no roads within a 100 km. I see someone fishing on a lake and wonder how they got there. I later learn that the VIA passenger train will drop you off wherever you like, and return whenever you specify. Now that’s service.
The long walk. Dunrankin, Ontario. km 3900.
We stop at a siding and the mosquitoes are rapacious. I cover myself in DEET. Now they fly two inches from my face and ears and annoy the hell out of me. I listen to my iPod and try to ignore them. They call for backup. I can hardly breathe without swallowing one. I swat, stomp, kill every mosquito in my vicinity and convince myself there must be a limited supply. Eventually the train starts moving. Thankfully the mosquitoes can’t keep up.
Another sleep. Wake. Sleep. Wake. There’s really not much more to it. I listen to music and occasionally pull out the video camera. I talk to myself and sing out of tune. I wonder if this experience is supposed to contain an epiphany on the supremacy of the bohemian lifestyle. Or I discover what the lesson was from Kerouac’s “On The Road” which I never finished. Or something, anything. But I can’t get beyond the basic joy of moving, when moving, and wondering why we’ve stopped, when stopped. My lack of self-actualization makes me question if my soul is too far gone, which depresses me and I drop the subject altogether. I do think I’m having fun though.
So far my goal of connecting with other like-minded folk has been fruitless. Besides Preeceville, no chance to stop into small towns and breathe in Canadiana. Travel by rail simply isn’t convenient for this. It’s long hauls, long waits, and uncertainty of your next ride. Maybe it’s doable if you’ve got more than three weeks paid vacation. Maybe if you’re a real hobo and not playing one.
I haven’t found any sign of other hobos. Nobody hanging around the stops. On the off chance someone else was riding on my train, it would be almost impossible to tell. I look for hobos on oncoming trains, none spotted.
The train stops in Nowheresville, Ontario. It’s early morning, and I’m huddled in my sleeping bag for warmth. I hear the squawk of a radio nearby. Shit. I hear the crunching of ballast beside my car. ”Twelve cars back. Somewhere around there.” Shitfuck. I gingerly slide over to the side the sound is coming from. The well is 4’ deep, but 6’ off the ground. To look in, you have to reach up and peer over the edge. My only chance is that he doesn’t pull himself high enough up to look straight down. I hold my breath. Silence. More silence. “There’s nothing here. Twelve cars?” Squawk. “Yup, check the other side.” Shit. To get to the other side he’ll need to climb up the ladder of my car, getting a perfect unobstructed view. But no. Crunch, crunch, crunch. He walks back to the other end of my car. Ahhh…other END not other side. Phew. “Nope, not here.” Squawk. “Ok, I’ll pick you up.” The train backs up and picks him up.
Foleyet, home of the famous white moose. Yep, it’s a moose. It’s white. No joke. km 3980.
My mind is racing. Ok, that wasn’t a cop. How did he know I was here? Did he really not see me? If he did see me and wasn’t letting on, was it because he was being nice, or was it a clever trick to keep me on the train until the rail cops could sort it out in the yard? Fuck that. I jump off the train and run back, way back, to find another car.
The train starts moving, and I still haven’t found a car to ride. All suicide 53’s. Shit. What’s that up ahead? Not a 48’. The train is moving too fast now. Damn they pick up speed quickly. Great. Where the hell am I?
I’m at a siding somewhere. All sidings have a little white marker sign, and mine reads “Dunrankin”. I look on my rail map — I’m between Hornepayne and Foleyet. Judging from the map it looks to be about 80 km to Foleyet. There isn’t a road anywhere. I consider my options. There’s only two: walk or wait. I wait, trying to gauge how frequently trains pass by, and what the chances of two meeting at this siding are. After two hours, only a single train has passed with no reason to slow down.
I’ve got three liters of water and am feeling like a tough guy, so I lighten my pack and start walking. 15 km later I collapse, unable to push on. Yes, I’m one giant pussy when it comes to walking. Decades of skateboarding, snowboarding, and parkour — activities involving jumping around like an idiot — have done a number on my knees and the arches of my feet. Patellar tendonitis is a bitch.
I pitch the tent and drink the last of my water. The ballast has shredded the edges of my boots, removing the whole sole in one piece. I duct tape the soles back on to keep from walking on my upper liners. Trains pass through the night. I’ve set up camp near a siding, hoping to get lucky. Thinking back to Dunrankin, I wonder how they knew I was on the train. I must have slept through the meeting of an oncoming train at one of the sidings. Usually trains blow by at full speed, but occasionally they’ll do slow “roll bys” to inspect the other train and make sure everything is in order. They must have spotted me then.
Ballast shredded boots. Brampton, Ontario. km 4700.
In the morning, I consider my options. There’s only one. I wait. It’s worth noting at that I did not bring a cell phone. I do not own a cell phone and do not want a cell phone. It’s 2009 and I’m proud of holding out on having one. This is the only time in my pleasant cell phoneless life that I’ve considered I may NEED a cell phone.
A few hours later I hear music. Odd. A truck-on-rails is approaching, its FM radio blaring out of loudspeakers on the roof. OK, play this cool. I signal to them with the appropriate level of urgency. They look puzzled, slow to a halt, and state the obvious. “What are you doing way out here?” I tell them I hitchhiked into Hornepayne, and decided to walk the 170 km to Foleyet after not being able to hitch out. An improbable story. I tell them I’ve been walking for five days and am out of water. They reach into the back seat and hand me a couple of bottles. “The company gives them to us for free.” I show them my boots, and ask if they give me a ride into town. They happily oblige.
I eat their lunches and drink their water, promising to pay them back in town. They are headed home for the weekend and are in good spirits. At one point one of them jumps out and gives someone hell for “working on his permit”. Each truck needs a permit from dispatch to be on the rails. This other guy is holding up the show and we can’t leave until he’s done. Fucking yahoo.
My Hornepayne story quickly breaks down. “How did you end up in Hornepayne?” “I hitched in.” “From WHERE?” “Uhhh…Manitoba?” They stop pressing me on the matter. Turns out Hornepayne is at the end of a dead-end dirt road, not exactly a hitchhiking destination.
They drop me off 1 km outside of town, “This is a rail town, we can’t let people see you in the cab.” I’m eternally grateful. They don’t take me up on my offer for lunch. Foleyet has one general store and one diner, with one dead white moose in said diner. I’m no neophyte to taxidermy jokes, having believed for the majority of my childhood that Jackalopes were real, so I am skeptical of this oddity. But this white moose is the real deal, complete with photos documenting its life before its stubborn, misguided standoff with the sharp end of a locomotive.
Useful graffiti. Toronto Yard, Ontario. km 4700.
I wait for two days in Foleyet for a train to stop, but everything just blows by. I think of a joke my grandpa told me: a man pulls up in his sportscar to a kid on a tricycle. “Hey kid. I’ll race ya!” The man speeds off. To his disbelief, the kid shoots past him, legs a blur. He guns it and overtakes the kid. Once again the kid passes him. The man can’t believe it. They both stop at a traffic light, and the kid cries, “I’m glad you stopped mister, I caught my suspenders in your door.” I wish I had suspenders right now.
I give up on the purity of my cross-Canada only by freight goal and try to hitchhike to Timmins. Nobody stops. The monotony is broken only by the sound of trains passing on the other side of town. I hear an anomaly: a train coming in slow. I grab my gear and sprint through town, directly through the rail yard, and jump on a quickly moving 48’. It nearly tears my arms off it is moving so fast. I laugh maniacally. Goodbye Foleyet.
The friendly man at Novelty Shoe Rebuilders. Toronto, Ontario. km 4700.
The next 720 km to Toronto goes by without a hitch. I’m in great spirits, happy to be moving and thinking I’m clever in my own bumbling way. The scenery is gorgeous along the Georgian Bay. At night the horizon is blurred between stars and swarms of fireflies.
I jump off outside the Brampton yard, described by hobos as a “hot unpleasant yard with cameras and an observant bull.” In downtown Toronto I find the best shoe repair store on the planet and for $20 extra they give me next day service. The boots come back better than new.
I visit three of five Toronto rail yards, trying to catch something heading east. I start with the easiest and most obvious spots, but they either turn out to be heavily patrolled or trains don’t stop there. I see my first sign of other hobos — hobo graffiti. “Ravioli,” complete with a Warhol-esque soup can, is my favorite and seems very active. Each tag is dated and the direction given. I find one as recent as a month prior to my trip.
I work my way to the bigger yards, ending up in MacMillan. Most yards have one mainline on which all trains leave. MacMillan has four, each heading in a different direction. Trains to any destination can leave from any mainline.
Steve and his newlywed wife Jenn. Quebec City. km 6075.
I try to gauge the “Canadian-ness” of the train, as many trains leaving this yard are heading for Chicago or New York. The Canada/USA border is monitored with x-ray and infrared scanners. Not a good place to be. I pick a train with lots of CN cars heading east. It picks up speed and I pray it doesn’t turn south. It turns north. Then northwest. I begin to recognize the scenery. Shit. I’m heading back to Manitoba. The train is moving too fast to jump off and there’s nothing left to do but wait. 420 km later it stops in Capreol, a suburb 20 km north of Sudbury.
I’m now two weeks into my trip, with only one week left to cover the remaining 2500 km. Not wanting to risk another Toronto fiasco, I take a shortcut and hitchhike to Montreal. I’ve been packing very little food to try and keep my pack manageable, and consequently I’ve lost 15 lbs since leaving Vancouver. In Montreal, I eat poutine three meals a day for two days.
I easily catch out of Montreal, finding a grainer just as it starts to rain. Steve, my friend in Quebec City, wants me to stop and say hi. My train dies there so what the hell. The time is pleasant and I’m glad I stopped. You can’t help but be excited about life when you are around Steve — he exudes energy.
Slowly crazy going am I. Saint Pascal, Quebec. km 6241.
I head back to the rail yard and nothing is happening. I swat at mosquitoes and eventually fall asleep. The next afternoon an intermodal pulls in for a crew change. I can’t find a 48′, so I frantically run from car to car looking for a 53′ with a suitable place to perch. I try to avoid line of sight with a security camera mounted high up on a pole. It doesn’t work. Within minutes a rail cop truck speeds towards me. I run into the bushes, he jumps out of his truck but doesn’t follow.
I give up on this train and wait until dark. Nothing arrives in the night. The only train coming through here is the daily afternoon intermodal. After sitting in the same bush for 30 hours, and with only three days left before I have to be back at work, it’s either get on the next intermodal or it’s time to quit.
The next intermodal pulls through and I spot a 48′ close up to the front. My downtime wasn’t completely wasted. I’ve discovered that there are many more security cameras than I originally noticed. They are spaced every 50 m throughout the yard. I make my way through the bushes up to the front of the train and literally crawl across an access road to avoid line of sight. I climb onto the car and wait. Come on train. After twenty nerve wracking minutes of listening for the sound of footsteps or an approaching truck, the train starts moving. Joyous.
I drink a celebratory beer and play a tune on my harmonica. It’s cliché but I earned it. The next stop is Halifax. End of the line. 21 days and 7091 km later. I arrive with just enough time to book a flight back home, and am back in the office the following morning. “How was your vacation?” “Ah good.” “Get up to anything interesting?” “No, not really. Just a lot of time relaxing.”
Hobo Bubblegum Cigarettes. Halifax, Nova Scotia. km 7091.
Ard Arvin is a writer for buildering.net, read by dozens. His articles have appeared in four shitty local newspapers, a “lifestyle” magazine, and a climbing magazine. His high school English teacher once begrudgingly admitted that he could write, after giving him a B grade — crushing his dreams of receiving a university scholarship. He forever despises her for this, but is thankful for the push towards engineering, where objectivity reigns supreme and a star student would never receive a B.
For those looking to wrassle their own train, see Hopping Freight Trains in America by Duffy Littlejohn, and the train-hoppers group.