Hopping an Eastbound Freight

“And the end of all our exploring  

will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time”

T.S. Eliot

I had left the academic life behind. Locked all my possessions in a van parked on a side lot at a ferry terminal. Packed a backpack for the road and headed out. I was off to see the great works of art in Europe. I had heard about hitching rides on freighters across the Atlantic and I thought I’d give it a try. First I had to get to the eastern seaboard. So to that end I hitched a ride north to Vancouver, B.C.. There I planned to ride the Canadian Pacific Railroad east.

When I got to Vancouver I made my way to the train station. I had not completely made up my mind to hop a boxcar, but when I learned it was going to cost me $120.00 to ride a passenger train I decided to go the “hobo way”.

At this point you’ve got to ask yourself….What would possess someone to forsake the comforts of an air conditioned sleeping car, a regal diner, and a glass lined passenger car at a mere $120.00, for the cold bump and grind of an open boxcar through the Canadian north in the middle of October? Put it down to the thrill of the rushing wind, the anonymity of the ride, the solitary musings of a single soul on an uncharted adventure through the open fields and mountains of the north.

I took a bus about 10 miles east of Vancouver to Port Coquitlam where the railway switch yard was. I bought $10 worth of nuts, seeds, cheese, peanut butter and bananas for the long ride ahead and sat down in the under brush next to the yard to wait for the train to be made up. I had ditched the aluminum frame of my backpack to make it more rail-riding friendly, and now I busied myself re-enforcing the attachment points where the shoulder straps attached to the pack, with steel guitar string.

I had asked the yard workers about the destinations of different trains in the yard, and when the eastbound train started to clatter and get under way I picked an empty boxcar and climbed aboard. This train rolled all night and in the morning I was in Kamloops, B.C.. We rolled all that day through the Rocky Mountains and reached Calgary, Alberta that night. The weather through the Rocky Mountains was fine and the scenery was fantastic, with nothing between me and the sheer snow dusted cliffs but the open boxcar door. This was living. Exhilaration mixed with a little bit of fear.

I had picked a car fairly close to the engine and after bumping a few cars at different stops along the way my car was three cars back from the engine.  This would not have been a big deal under any other circumstances but the closer you are to the engine the smokier it gets. When we entered a tunnel at one point, smoke came pouring in the door. I panicked for a half second thinking I was going to asphyxiate. I knew from the map that there was an extremely long tunnel through part of the Rockies and when I came out the other end alive I was relieved only to be crestfallen later when I saw from the map that this was just a small tunnel and I had awhile till the long one.

Here I was faced with two choices. Stay with the train and take my chances or get off at the first opportunity. It is October in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and I hadn’t seen anything of civilization except for the occasional glimpse of highway here and there for a long time. When the train did stop at a side track to let another train go by and I had my chance to get off, I stuck with the train.

To be continued…….

Check out this podcast about modern rail-riding hobos. It goes into great depth exploring the culture and ethos of the contemporary rail bum.

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