More Eastbound Freight

You’ve got to bear in mind that as soon as you enter any railroad switch yard you are trespassing on private property. They don’t want you there. That’s why they hire railroad police, the “bulls”. To keep you off the trains. But it’s such a long porous  border the most they can do really is to patrol the yards and try to stop you from getting on, or intercept you as you are getting off (as I would learn later). So as soon as you hop a boxcar (or any other car), you are taking your fate into your own hands. Nobody knows you’re back there, and it’s not in anybody’s interest to give your presence a second thought. It’s not as if the engineer is going to stop the train and come back and say “Are you really sure you’re alright with this?” This was the reality as I approached a long tunnel through part of the Rocky Mountains on the Canadian Pacific Railway in my open boxcar. I had taken the risk, and now the repercussions were real. What had otherwise been an adventure of excitement coupled with a little bit of fear suddenly became a misadventure of great fear and zero excitement. I had an earlier experience of fright when the train went through a shorter tunnel and I thought I was going to perish from the diesel fumes. I knew from my map that this longer tunnel was coming up, and I had come up with a plan.

I had one chance to get off the train after the panic of the first tunnel when the train stopped at a side track to let an oncoming train go by, but being left in the wilderness of the high Rockies with minimal survival gear and limited food spelled sure death. I stuck with the train and now I got ready to bolster my chances of coming out the other end alive. I had experienced the seven mile tunnel on the Burlington Northern Line through the Cascade Mountains under similar circumstances while riding to Eastern Washington to pick cherries one summer. It had been a dirty experience but I had survived. I also had the camaraderie of several fellow riders and we were able to take comfort in our common plight. I was now alone and my fear ran unchecked. I knew this tunnel was longer than the Cascade tunnel.

Here was my plan. As we approached the tunnel I unrolled my sleeping bag on the floor and got in and pulled the flap tight over my head. I had dampened a washcloth and now covered my face and breathed through the moist cloth.  It was a futile gesture, but it was all I had. Carbon monoxide would pass through my cloth barrier, but I was buying time. For what seemed like endless hours we rolled through total darkness. A couple of times I thought I was fainting and pinched myself just to be sure I was awake. I kept snuffing the air to see if it was really that smoky. When we did finally exit the tunnel I was shaken but  unharmed. I would ride uneventfully all that day and through that night to reach Calgary, Alberta, where in my eagerness to be moving after sleeping in a cold boxcar all night, I went with the train without asking the yardmen where it was bound. This train took me about a hundred miles south and left me on a little side yard in the middle of the endless nowhere of the plains of Alberta.

After grasping the reality, I stuck out my thumb and hitch hiked to the nearest town of Lethbridge. From there I hitched a hundred miles or so to Medicine Hat. In Medicine Hat the yardmen told me how I could get into one of the diesel engines. On the long trains they usually run three engines and the second and third engines are great places to ride on a cold night. After the bruising cold ride in the boxcar I was willing to chance it and when the train stopped I climbed into the third engine. It was nice and quiet and warm and I easily fell asleep. The only hitch to riding these “spare units” is you have to hide in the lavatory every time you come into a town because the engineer will come back to check the gauges. Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up to an engineer climbing over me to get to the controls. He went on his way and nothing came of it. I went back to sleep and the next time I woke up it was light out and again an engineer was stepping over me to get a reading. He looked down and I looked up and said”Hi”. After he left I fell back in a doze only to be brought-to by a sharp kick. It was the railroad police. After checking my ID and threatening me with six months in jail he pointed to the highway and told me to go. So I was back out on the road which would lead to its own misadventure.

To be continued…..

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