I: 1996

I don't recall the very first time I heard about freighthopping -- may have been Gretta's account in her zine, Mudflap -- but my reaction was: People still do that?! followed by I wanna do that.

It was almost a year later that time and circumstances presented a chance to try it. Having learned (some) from my aborted cycling trip across Canada, I didn't shoot my mouth off to (as many) people. When I did, I was struck by the almost universal response that the idea provoked -- first wonder, then envy. This contrasted with my bike trip, which provoked wonder, but not envy. But the idea of freighthopping instantly captured the imagination of everyone I knew -- being a hobo clambering up into a boxcar was in their realm of desirable possibility while pedalling across a continent wasn't. There was good reason that it had been the subject of a feature in youthculture-parasite magazine Details.

I got first-hand advice from about four freighthoppers. Along with zines and "manuals," I had read Jack London's The Road (an engrossing account of his days as a teenage hobo) and tried to pick up enough lingo to "pass" as a "blowed-in-the-glass profesh" hobo. My favourite part is when a railcop or "bull" yells at Jack, "Hit the grit, you son-of-a-toad!" The grit, or the gravel alongside the rails, was to play a part in my adventure and I am glad to have a name for it.

I had sent everything ahead to Toronto (excepting a selection of clothes I hoped wouldn't scream my bourgeois status). I felt ready to go. And, at 5:30am yesterday morning, I got up and went.

The Canadian Pacific railyard in Port Coquitlam (Poco) was an hour away from mine and Max's central places. Max had packed better and been awake half the night, assailed by doubts and visions of sudden death. I was perky and confident and had packed poorly, eventually slinging my two litre bottle of water on a backpack strap to free-up-my hands. The sudden and trip-threatening back pains I had had the previous day had even subsided a bit in their extremity.

After circling the perimeter of the yard and breaching at a quiet part, we walked around the area, talking to a worker here and there. We were looking for the Friendly Yard Worker, the one that would point out a eastbound grain-car or even a washroom equipped "pusher" (secondary engine), the person that almost every account I had read affirmed the existence of. Perhaps we were too cautious -- perhaps Friendly Yard Workers take Wednesdays off. Regardless, the workers were neither a help nor a hindrance, hot nor cold to us. They were neutral elements in the yard environment, as equally dangerous and desirable as the train cars they moved about.

A freight train is "made up" with cars that are shuffled and ordered via the system of rails, and we decided to get on a train that was being made up rather than jump it as it was rolling out of the yard. We ran alongside it, tossed our gear in and climbed aboard as it came to a complete halt. I had seen a flash of a blue-shirted worker as I got on, but I still tried to secrete myself in the small round hole at the end of the can shaped car. I noted the cubbyhole's smallness, the several beer bottles (labels unreadable), and the grunge before the blue-shirted (and bearded, it turned out) guy appeared and asked me to come down, citing probable death and some other incidental and unmemorable reason. Crawling off and finding Max, I asked about the next eastbound train. He pointed to the far set of trains across the yard, and explained that this train wouldn't be a train for "hours and hours in the future."

As Max and I sauntered over to the entirely dead far tracks, we pondered the meta-train. What is a "future train?" When exactly does a train achieve trainness? And when is a guy just trying to get you out of his area so he doesn't catch any flack?

We reached the edge of the yard, where it crossed a bridge and where -- rumour claimed -- it slowed down enough for freighthoppers. Near a patch of woods, there was a couple of pieces of railway ties in a spot of shade that called out "Hunker down and set a spell, 'bo."

As the hours crept away, so did the shade, and we moved closer and closer to the trees and looked anxiously to our water supply. It was hot and dry and we were dressed for the cool nights of rushing wind that we anticipated.

Just as the shade situation became critical, a freight train emerged from the heart of the yard. We were about thirty feet from the tracks, and even before the locomotive had passed we broke cover.

Then the bull broke his cover, and came charging towards us with headlights blazing and dust rising like a cape in his wake. It was a blue car -- rudely contradicting my research that said that bulls rode around in white trucks or cars, usually in white hats -- and I recall feeling a trace of annoyance at this fact as the car crunched to a stop.

"Hi guys," said the bull, in the chummy tradition of security folk everywhere. He wasn't wearing a hat at all, but was wearing a gold corporabadge on one hip and a gun on the other. "A gun," Max stated, to himself.

We were caught, and were given a warning and a lift out to the gates. Max chatted with him as I sat in lightly-frustrated-stunned mode, and discovered that he had been in the business for thirteen years. He also admitted that people often freighthopped, a bit of honesty we didn't expect -- we assumed he would deny it entirely -- but he transcended the cliched role of authority figure despite the CHiPS glasses and brown moustache.

A few steps away from the gate we decided to hit the CN yard. The journey between the suburb that we were in and the suburb the other yard was in was fraught with disturbingly out-of-context familiar situations. Approaching a hotel to look up the yard's address in a phone book. Finding a bus route that would take us to the desired place. Seeing little made-up girls reading scary-but-not-too-scary paperbacks, listening to teenaged conversations about kickin' some ass, and even more vapid conversations by longhairs on the economic potential of cyberspace. All average sights on Vancouver transit at the city's privileged outer orbit. But we were traveller, sort of, and the morning had painted us with the grime and fatigue that marked us as Other. We were at our most vulnerable then, deprived of our element, fucking up bus transfers and everyday things. Easy pickings for anyone who would have cared to attack.

Walking the two miles or so to the yard, and half-heartedly hitchhiking, we were asked by two young girls in a stationary car where Playland was, an amusement park that Max and I knew only by colourful bus ads. After they drove off, I commented that I thought it was in the inner core -- how could they be so far from it?

"And why didn't we ask them for a ride?!" I flashed.

"Do you think they were making fun of us?" wondered Max.

I thought about it. The driver's braces-sparkly smile became mischievous in my mind. Playland was far, far away for us, with our sun-baked hides and trudging limbs. "Huh," I answered.

Eventually CN-Intermodal grudgingly admitted its existence with signs and entry roads. We went in the long way around and walked down the tracks towards the place where we could see cars being shuttled back and forth. A train came by that had been gathering steam since the downtown yard and we dove into the brush beside the rails. It was wonderful brush that ran the whole way parallel to the tracks, thick and yellow as wheat, yielding as rippling water.

We eventually approached two guys who were leafing through a shiny issue of Mayfair one of them had pulled out of his semi. They were drivers for the trucks that the freight was loaded on and off of.

"Sorry to interrupt," smirked Max.

Despite it being no more desirable to approach a man with a porn mag than it is to scare a skunk, we were committed. So we tried a few questions about when the train being made up was going out. The moustached guy told us we were on private property, and I indirectly responded by saying that we had heard that there was sometimes extra space on these trains.

The other guy kept himself oddly hidden behind the door of the semi, for any one of several reasons. Despite this reticence, he told us it was going out about six or seven, several hours from now. Satisfied, we left the property and found a place beside a sideroad to crash that, while utterly visible, was soft and not very busy. A lady in an unmarked caddy stopped and told us to move. "You're liable to get killed," she admonished.

At about 5:30, we made our way back to a place that we figured was close enough for the train to be going slowly but not close enough to get spotted. Crushing down some of the wheat, we made a hidden enclave which was a bare ten feet from where the train would come by. We lounged for several hours, debating the likelihood of the constantly circling planes being employed as hobo-spotters and the barking that we heard belonging to vicious guard dogs. We talked about the reasons why we were going to where we were going, gave details of personal histories relevant to whatever we were discussing, but nothing comprehensive. In general we idled in the same way that the huge diesel engine in the yard idled.

At 8:30, the whistle sounded and we rolled to readiness. What happened next is very difficult for me to piece together chronologically, so rather than recreate it here's some snatches:

The locomotive passes, the engineer looking the other way.

We burst out of the bushes, and no bulls burst out.

It appears to be going slowly enough, so I run alongside it and toss my bag in.

I yell "Get on" to Max.

I grab on to a railing, with no corresponding ladder, and am pulled along for several inhumanely long strides until I let go, somehow remaining upright.

I notice how the grit beside the tracks taper off to a steep thinness.

Max gets on.

It speeds up.

I am unable to run on the thin grit and make few grabs while stationary. My hand is thrown off, rudely.

I make one grand effort, running, grabbing, holding, and the train throws me. I lie on the grit for a second, wondering if my ribs are as busted as they feel.

I get up almost instantly, watch Max's ascent up the ladder with a combination of relief and envy. His worried expression and slowly receding figure burn out and supersede any past images of the Hollywood Hobo.

The train's length and deceptively slow movement are salt in the wound, and I follow the train until I am out of the yard, praying for a slowing-down that never comes.

Outside the yard, the transit had stopped. My dust-choked throat needed some liquid badly, and my water was now on its way to Winnipeg. The sprinklers of the surrounding lavish estates just outside the yard seemed to be the answer, but I couldn't bring myself to thrust my weak presence beyond the neutral zone of the sidewalk despite dry heaves indicating the severity of the situation. Luckily, I came across a wet patch on the sidewalk and waited for the sprinkler to sprinkle me and my gaping mouth. It was as stingy as a priest's blessing wand, but sustaining nonetheless.

I felt my ribs and found them intact -- my body's durability a compensation for its lack of agility and speed. I reminisced on another time that my body had asserted its nature over my ambitious designs: I had sprained a hand trying to learn at 20 the rudimentary skateboard skills, determined to join the beautiful swooping urban angels.

I made it to my friend Meesoo's at about 10:30 and crashed out after a bath. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I heard the corner taking squeal of the Skytrain on its monorail route, and in my dispirited state it seemed mocking. I was plagued by the image of lucky Max staring up at the sky, drinking in the starlight like it was cold water.

Today, however, I got up and had a ticket on a jet plane booked before noon. Then I sat down to write, before my verbal rendition -- that truncated, dramatic bag of half-truths more interested in impressing than in expressing -- swallows up the reality of small moments.

I don't know how I'll look upon this little adventure in the future. But I suspect that seeing Max carried away, the look on his face, my tumultuous feelings -- I suspect this strange, complex, bittersweet memory alone will be enough to wash out the bad taste of the crow I'll have to eat.

Less than twenty-four hours have passed since Max looked back. The train probably hasn't stopped since he got on. I hope that he doesn't become hobo jam. I hope he's able to get my bag.

II: 1997

I had just finished lunch at a sports bar as short on vegetarian delicacies as on class. But it was paid for, and I was there to talk to my cousins.

Dave, mid thirties, is a lawyer and is making inroads with the Liberal Party. He asked me if my anarchist friends vote.

Chris, early thirties, is in real estate and works on the floor above his older brother -- and I suspect never lets him hear the end of it. One of his first questions was about my "sweetie," who's no longer my sweetie.

Firmly ensconced in power tie culture, but I like them well enough. At least seeing them is more of a pleasure than a familial duty.

I left them around 1'30, and went for a little walk to kill time before the 330 bus. It was fall, a fall I missed to dearly in Vancouver -- cool, bright days dabbed by colour and pervaded by the smell of (ah!) burnt leaf. And I was walking, becoming more energized with each step, when I realized -- no better time for trainhopping!

Since the iron horse bucked me in early August (see Freighthopping Follies), I had been looking for an excuse to make a second attempt. As the freight trains passed Paul Hong's, where I had been staying the past few days, I'd say, "Looks like it's going slow, doesn't it? It ain't." As we'd drift off to sleep, and I'd hear the screeching of the turn like mocking laughter, I was want to mumble, "Sounds like it was going slow, don't it? It ain't."

I was pleased when a relatively short walk from downtown brought me to the CP Intermodal Yard. I had called them up but the address they gave me was for a street no one could direct me to, so I followed the tracks like they were tracks. Before long, I beheld a train, its one eye burning like a blind Cyclops.

Just before I got into the yard, I noticed what I presume was a hobo's set down: a small enclave in the trees, outfitted with two lawn chairs. I considered using the facilities, but I didn't want to run at all -- my plan was to enter the yard and get on before the beast had started to move.

Past the No Trespassing sign and towards the train. I had to walk on the tracks, which is always a drag -- the oil soaked planks are spread at a distance cunningly devised to require extra long or short steps. And as I approached it I was worried that the damn thing would start up and I would have to run alongside, on grit the size of rubick's cubes.

I passed the first engine (or pusher) but it was empty. Otherwise I would have asked where it was headed. It had two pushers, and remembering what other hoppers had told me about empty pushers, I climbed the ladder and got on. It was a small little room with padded chairs.

Lots of windows, too. So I had a seat on someone's old Financial Post and scrunched up. I was visible from about half the windows, if people had climbed up the window. It was about 300 at this point.

I put my bag on my lap and my hands on my bag, so if someone popped or glanced in they would see a tiny huddling sod with both hands clearly visible, i.e. not reaching for a butter knife or a squirt gun.

I was hummin'. I'd like to blame my shakiness and speeding mind on caffeine, but I had only had a cup. The radio crackled to life.

"Trying 1211. Six cars left."

Code for hobo on car six? I sat, expecting the door to open at any point. Nothing but more messages about cars, numbers, buttons. I got out my book and started reading about pirates and their contributions to anarchic theory.

"This button isn't working. It's screwed up."

"Try another terminal."

Not the terminal in my car, I hoped.

Nope.

As I sat there, listening to the scratchy, mysterious messages, I was reminded of the interactive fiction computer games.

Engine Room

You are in a small room, surrounded by the thrumming of the diesel engine. There are comfortable chairs here. There is a box under one of the chairs, and a garbage can with a bumper sticker on it. "Call ahead to Quebec Street." comes from the static radio. You are parched.

>READ STICKER

"103.3 CFRO: London's Rawk Alternative."

"Is that you I hear, Mr, Stillson?" a women's voice says from the radio

>EXAMINE BOX

Inside the box are a plethora of spring water bottles.

>TAKE BOTTLE

Knowing they'll never miss it, you snag one.

"BEEEEEEEP" screams the radio.

>DRINK WATER

Ahh!

I played these games a lot as a teenager, spending days on ends in their entertaining puzzles. I realized, just recently, that these games have very little interest to me now, and I attribute it to the fact that my lifestyle is adventurous enough.

I was thinking about how great it would be if the train started moving when I realized that I had no idea as to which direction it was headed. The plan had been to ride it to Toronto, but... heck, if it's headed the other way, I could be in Detroit by nightfall! Or Chicago the next day, if it didn't stop!

How exciting, I thought, and almost hoped it was so.

Detroit was where I found out how much I loved decrepit, falling apart cities. I had been there with a newspaper conference two years ago, with Nandie, Des, Dionne and Athol. The women were gorging themselves on hair products, seeing as Detroit had cheap and varied products for Black hair. Dionne even got a straight haired wig with which to scandalize the conference's New Year's Eve party. She looked good, of course, but she'd look good in a mop. With the stick attached.

As they ran up and down the street, I went into this diner to use the washroom. I'm not going to detail at length the surreal experience I had in that building -- suffice it to say that it involved a revolving door, directions from a group of card players in a room behind the kitchen, three flights of stairs to the bathroom, the prototype for the door peephole, and a design of toilet seat I had never, or since, seen. When I rhapsodized over it's unintentional glory to my friend Ed he capsulated my feelings exactly -- it's like finding a broken diamond ring in the dust.

Interrupting my thoughts about Detroit was my bladder, damned walnut that it is. I looked at my watch and resolved to hold it in till 500. I took out my bookmark, a grey sticker of a funky-haired alien girl, and continued reading Pirate Utopia.

I had been saving the sticker for something special. Basma had given me eight of the hand-made stickers, and I had given all but one of them to a small group of diverse and appreciative friends. I decided to put it on the wall, but hidden away where only a fellow sneak was liable to see it. It would say, Hi! Someone similar to you was here! I have been cheered by similar marks of passage...

I read a while, ignoring my bladder. Did you know that there is not one autobiography by a pirate? That all we know about these renagados and traitors to Islam is from second hand accounts, many by priest and other horribly biased sources? It gave me added resolve to do what I'm doing now, on a bus speeding towards Toronto.

At 500, I peed into the water bottle, sealed the top and secreted it behind a cupboard. I planned to toss it when we got moving -- a state which seemed simultaneously immanent and never-to-be. ---

>WAIT

You wait five minutes.

The train starts to roll! Unfortunately, the door opens and a fresh-faced young man comes in. He sees you immediately and his face registers mild shock.

>BEG

"I have to get to Toronto," you say. "I don't have any money."

"You can't stay on here," he says. "Besides, this train is going to Detroy-it."

"Maybe I can get work there," you say desperately. "No one will see me."

"You can't ride," he says, and mutters something into a walkie-talkie.

>LEAVE

You get up, and open up the door, and climb down onto the grit. Shooting one look back at the slowly moving beast, you slink out of the yard. Then you remember -- you left your pee bottle behind. You wonder: Does pee go rancid?

You have achieved the rank of Rail Kid, with a score of 30/200. Would you like to Restore, Restart, or Quit?

>RESTART

III: 1998

The peak moment, I would have to say, was when I crawled out of my hole and looked out over the side to see a deep green valley that the darkness had given a wonderful -- almost tropical -- mystery. The lack of any walls on the grain car alcove (or, as I thought of it, my "deck") and the corresponding open bridge made for a view that was second only to flying. And it was somehow better, because I was on this big lumbering elephant of a freight train that was improbably speeding across a tightrope of a bridge. All without the benefit of an umbrella or tutu.

It was like me, in a way -- an equally improbable freighthopper, succeeding without the benefit of physical prowess or stealth. Ben and I had skulked around the yard for almost three hours before he found a train that was going the right way and wasn't crawling with workers. During that time I tripped over a fence (one that was mostly-but-not-quite squashed down for your prowling convenience) and fell flat on my face in the most treasured of slapstick conventions; jumping down from a car that wasn't quite right I landed poorly enough to allow my 60 lbs. pack to topple me over backwards; at some point in the evening managed to lose my watch without noticing. But scoping out the yard wasn't without its enjoyable moments -- even the pratfalls, being without any sprains or consequences, had a so-awful-it's-funny appeal.

When Ben suddenly whisper-yelled "bull!" and disappeared into the darkness (he was wearing black, naturally) I dutifully "ran" after him, my tan t-shirt bobbing like a beacon to any who cared to look. But Ben's not to be blamed, what with a sketchy legal history and my strict instructions to abandon me at any chance of getting caught. Anyone who cared to catch me could -- I was the slowest runner in his elementary class even without a 70 lbs. pack.

A quick sidenote about this backpack, in case you're thinking I'll bet he overpacked or some such thing. One reason why it was so heavy is because I had a full large ziplocked bag of cooked pasta, another of rice, and four litres of water. To get to Vancouver, I was expecting to spend three and a half days -- if everything went perfectly, with no stopovers in grain depots in Saskatchewan -- as a stowaway inside a metal floored railcar.

It was a false alarm, although I didn't mind -- I had always wanted to run from the bulls, as long as they didn't catch me and give me a cauliflower ear 1920s style. As villainous as they are in Jack London's yarns about freighthoppin', they did it in such numbers that they must have seemed like swarming lice to these (lucky to be) working class men -- the cost of putting down the infrastructure for this ultra-modern form of transport was probably fresh in everyone's mind, too. Most of the times I have been caught, the workers have been disarmingly sympathetic, mostly concerned with safety, and I've never even been fined. I get the feeling that they feel almost flattered that I'd want to get on board of the outmoded and dirty machine they work with every day -- or perhaps it's a kind of perverse gratefulness they have for the romance the hobo story has lent to freightyards in general. Stories transmute today's leaden "social problem" into tomorrow's freespirited golden hero, although I doubt a squeegee punk would put it quite like that.

And before this story disappears beneath a wash of commentary and history, I should say that before I crossed the valley and after we ran, some other things happened. Such as us hiding in the alcove of one of the cars, to make sure we weren't being followed, and Ben having a smoke. As much as I hate smoking, it was indisputably a Hobo Moment (tm). Ben's wild-eyed snaggletoothed grin peeking out from a bramble-bush beard undoubtedly helped make it so: in fact, Ben, with his appearance and incessant gathering of esoteric rail-lore lets me forget the fact that he's a 21ish guy from (like me) the suburbs.

And undoubtedly he has a talent for freighthopping -- unlike me. Adept at climbing fences and crouching in the darkness and keeping track of which trains are moving and which aren't. Beyond going to the ends to check for engines, and thus increasing risk of exposure, this is only way to discern the trains that are bound for glory from those that shall be idle for days/weeks/months.

After we left the yard at one point and re-entered at another, Ben pointed to a train that he had seen move. I hadn't, but I nodded, and went to check out the grain car that was to be my cabin deluxe while Ben waited in the bushes. We traded a few furtive goodbyes and I ran back and squished my backpack and 6"3' of stiff human jim into the cubby-hole.

Have you seen those puzzle games that are a picture cut up into squares, all mixed up? And you have to slide them around, sometimes thinking two and three moves ahead, so that you can get them into proper order? This is much like what I was doing -- getting my knees around my ears so I could fit the backpack into the narrow part there and have enough room to slide the sleeping mat under my bum -- when I felt the sudden delicious lurch. Seconds later, the train's old parts started to squeak and then scream in a secret language that I, in my echoey chamber, felt I understood the gist of. Let's roll.

I didn't dare move until we were well out of the yard, and then chanced a look out. All around me was the urban landscape I love: its loading docks with its obscurely jargoned signs, the servant's entrances to a thousand buildings.

Eventually, I crawled out onto the ensuite and looked around, stretching out on the roomy floor and gazing out rapturously. The utter joy I felt was only heightened by my equally utter exhaustion, my frazzled nerve endings only too ready for messages of happiness. That's when we passed over the valley.

There was only one thing to do, really. So I did it -- belted out Roger Miller's hobo classic, "King of the Road."

As I came to the softly repeating last lines we were entering a yard, so I scrambled back into my hole. Pulling my knees in after me, I started to wonder what kind of shape my body would be in after the 80 or so hours the trip to Vancouver would take -- yoga would have been helpful. But when we started up again I found myself following my legs and feet into sleep.

When I woke up, we were stopped in a yard somewhere and the sun was out. Sudbury? The Soo? I heard the crunching of boots on grit and tried to make myself smaller, mostly by mental projection rather than any physical means. The person stopped and did something, but I went unnoticed or ignored. I looked out and confirmed my suspicions -- the pin from the connector had been pulled, and when the train left it would be without my little grain car. Shit.

I packed up and moved on. For the next few hours I tried a variety of methods to get on another train to BC, as exhausting and stressful as they were futile, and eventually made my way to the road. I recognized the intersection. I was at Markham and Finch, Scarborough, a stone's throw from my mom's.

I had freighthopped from Etobicoke to Scarborough, cunningly avoiding the $2 fare on public transit. But when I thought back to the valley and the moment when I felt like a true, blowed in the glass profesh rail kid, I had to smile. Sure, it had a bitter, cynical edge -- but what true hobo smile didn't?

#

The trainy stamp belongs to Basma.