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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"This button isn't working. It's screwed up."
"Try another terminal."
Not the terminal in my car, I hoped.
As I sat there, listening to the scratchy, mysterious
messages, I was reminded of the interactive fiction
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.
"103.3 CFRO: London's Rawk Alternative."
"Is that you I hear, Mr, Stillson?" a women's voice
says from the radio
Inside the box are a plethora of spring water bottles.
Knowing they'll never miss it, you snag one.
"BEEEEEEEP" screams the radio.
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. ---
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.
"I have to get to Toronto," you say. "I don't have
"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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.