Write to us at: (address is not clickable)
True Stories by Steve Keely
THE RAILS SING, EH?
June 10, 2005
It’s all about the trains. They hiss and snort, line nose-to-tail like elephants, and will carry or hurt you.
My road partner is Brit financial journalist Tom ‘Diesel’ dyson. Our startup yard is the flat middle of the Saskatchewan prairie, a one-crossing town named Melville, with the goal of Vancouver, B.C. on the Pacific. The mid-May barrier is the snowy ‘hump’ or Canadian Rockies. It’s raining corn and wheat in the Melville freight yard.
We sit on packs in an inch of rainwater on the floor of a container car in a long string of more of the same. An overhang container blocks the hard drops that pool on the floor. A half-mile away, at the head end, two locomotives whistle ‘Cannonball’, the couples catch in a drumbeat back at us, and our car lurches west. Sooner than later, we tire and lay in the jiggling water, he inside a sleeping bag on a sponge mat and me in mine enveloped by a leaking garbage bag. The hobo perspective is that the land rolls by, especially at night. Rivers ice alongside the train during the climb into the Rockies. Diesel peeps at me shivering, grins and proclaims, ‘It doesn’t get better than this!’
I’d flown into Calgary, Alberta two days earlier, on May 19, taken a room at a hostel, and inquired about bus transportation to Melville. I’d never met Diesel, as we were hooked up a month prior via Email by a mutual freight aficionado who bowed out of this trip. I also checked the Calgary street scene of cordial ruffians bundled in the spring thaw around the ‘Sally’ or Salvation Army. ‘You gotta be stupid to catch a Canadian freight these days,’ a stiff reported. ‘Since 911, another alleged, ‘The railroad bulls search each train. It’s jail time or a big fine for the first offense.’ This flew in the face of my wide-ranging experiences in USA where sympathetic rail workers and bulls help tramps get out of town. I didn’t believe him.
Big city Sallies are coast-to-coast clearinghouses for lowbrow travel as is this trip’s aim. Through Calgary conversations, I learned about freights, locker storage, missions, thrift stores, jobs, and food lines. These ‘homeguard’ or local street informants rarely hobo but cruise with weather and caprice for week stints at different Sallies. They know the policies and locations to use the services to the utmost. Sallies and missions are generally religious run with mandatory sermons before the meal and bed. The best sermons and worst song voices escape their windows. A call for sinners at service end brings forth a handful who ‘cry for Christ’ for free Bibles and fast supper and bed tickets. Some are truly saved, but most are pretenders. The mission thrust, besides saving sinners, is to clean the man so one morning with dignity he may visit the ‘slave market’ for a job in working up and out of skid row.
The Mustard Seed food kitchen served chicken and ‘Forty-fives’ (beans) that evening to over 100 Calgary street folks. These were cordial, even intellectual, compared to the USA counterparts. The regular citizens outside on the sidewalks were likewise sharp but oppressed by the chill and politics, white and stagnant as Elmer’s Glue. South of the border – ‘Left-handers’ they call us – we Americans are in contrast stupid and exciting.
Greyhound USA had lost my only bag on the short ride to the Phoenix airport to catch the Calgary flight, leaving me just days ago wearing what some call my gay CIA flowered shirt that allows me to walk into any office or country, and shorts. No toothbrush or razor, just a paperback. I spent two hours in 40 calls from the hostel to Greyhound USA but got nowhere. So I went to the zoo, and caught a bus for Melville.
‘Canadian politics stinks!’ griped a blonde caressing her longhair boyfriend in the seat behind me. ‘Corrupt to the toenails, eh?’ he added. ‘But it’s not so bad in the East.’ Yesterday the pair got on the bus in Vancouver after being rousted by a Swat team from their boarding house. Someone had smelled Methamphetamine cooking in the room above theirs; the raid proved it true. The innocents were forced to vacate on the spot, and this couple pointed to the greener pastures of Quebec.
The ‘Dog’ or Greyhound in Canada is cleaner, better organized, and the riders and drivers friendlier than in USA. There are no nasal threats of imprisonment for smoking and drinking over the intercom as the bus pulls from stations, and there are videos. Countless, little prairie towns reminiscent of 1950’s USA with sniffing dogs, banging mufflers, and Woolworth stores paraded by. I, the ‘discard artist’, stepped into one of the omniscient Thrift stores and outfitted with used clothes and a book for $12 USD, and slowly warmed for the first time since alighting in Canada.
The Trans-Canada Highway #1 with its green-and-white maple leaf highway marker runs 5,000 miles cross-country from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Unlike USA interstates, it varies from two-lane farm road to limited access divided highway, and the scenery runs from boring in the prairie to spectacular in the mountains. This was the prairie, miles and miles of it.
All the while, my mind was on the dream freight ride: I studied the yard layouts and workers and engineers from the distance of the bus. The two rail goliaths are Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and Canadian National (CN). The Dog follows the nation’s first cross-country rail and stops in freight crew-change towns every six hours or so. As late as the 1960’s, people settled in the West along the rail line when there were few schools, so the government created CPR School Cars. A teacher traveled in a rolling schoolroom to prairie stops, got sided for up to a week to teach, and then left for another area. Each car had desks, a blackboard and library. Literacy spread in this manner across the prairie.
Diesel and I were to meet at the Regina, Saskatchewan bus depot at high noon on May 21, and to recognize each other by my shirt and his big blue backpack. I arrived early, toured the streets and museum, waited at the station to no avail, and then walked to the library to Email him. ‘Where are you?’ he had written minutes earlier from the same place. ‘I didn’t see you at the station, so thought to go to the library computers. I’m headed back to Greyhound.’ I dashed off that we were thinking in parallel, and picked for him without success among the rousting ‘library birds’, and returned to the station. There I spotted only a young man with a green duffle and small blue pack with whom earlier I had spoken – he owned a Brit accent that I mistook for Canadian. He squinted at my green Thrift jacket over the Hawaiian shirt, smiled like a Cheshire, and extended a big mitt. ‘Tom ‘Diesel’ dyson. You gave me that name by Email.’ ‘Doc Bo Keeley,’ I returned. There was a flash rapport. He looks like Dennis the Menace grown up, and thoughtfully brought me the duffle with a sleeping and garbage bag. We caught a Dog to Melville the day before the Queen arrived in Regina.
Rain obscured a theoretical sunset from our container perch in the diminutive Melville yard. The freight jerked, rolled West and the Canadian Rockies drew nigh like a white stripe across the horizon. Diesel scooped freezing water into an inch floor hole and astounded me with, ‘It’s hard to be cold at this moment.’
Tom dyson is the managing editor of ‘The Daily Reckoning’ and the co-author of ‘The Daily Reckoning Weekend Edition’, a weekly wrap-up of contrarian investment analysis. Before joining that Baltimore team, he worked in London at Salomon Smith Barney and then Citigroup as a CPA on a bond trading desk calculating the traders’ daily profits and managing their books. His passions were always finance, writing and travel. Three years ago, the London straight job dragged him down, he quit and moved to Colorado to work as a bank teller and snowboard. One day a freight train passed that launched a one-month rail odyssey through Mexico, USA and Canada. A year ago, he merrily took the ‘Daily Reckoning’ job in Baltimore and began weekend freight excursions up and down the East coast, but couldn’t find a road partner.
They called me Doc Bo long ago. A moniker is normally bequeathed by another tramp, but my stamp came at a college sociology class ‘Hobo Life in America’. I’ve caught 280 freight trains, really just a summer boxcar tourist, and all in the USA. My dream has been to hold down a ‘rattler’ across the Canadian Rockies.
Our gracious host today in Saskatchewan, closing on the Alberta border, is Canadian National Railway. Like other modern corporations, CN is the result of the merging of numerous – about 200 - older and smaller roads. It was government owned for 75 years until privatized in 1995. Diesel calls it the world’s classiest freight system. Everything about it – the yards, rails, workers and trains – squeaks of clean efficiency. Don’t need no ticket to ride.
Our sleeping bags seep last night’s Melville rain on the container car across inclining Alberta. The metal platform measures 8’x10’ with 4’ walls from prying eyes. It’s at the car rear with four stacked containers soaring two stories above and in front of us. The bulwark thwarts wind and faces from approaching trains, and evades a shifting load in an emergency stop - #1 killer of hobos. My experience is that a full cross-country journey will have one emergency stop, though the load may remain stationary. We’re on a CN main line, of course, so usually another track runs in parallel for opposing traffic. We duck and shift gear from coming trains every thirty minutes to avoid being spotted.
The caution is because there are two rides that railroads don’t like to see hobos on: The intramodal container and the piggie-back (semi-truck vans) trains whose valuable cargos are separated from greedy fingers by one peg the thickness of a penny nail with a seal. Break a seal and it’s an automatic six months in the slammer. Ours is a ‘unit’ intramodal train with a ¾-mile string of solely containers. These boxes were no doubt boated from the Orient to a port in Canada or USA, transferred onto a train, transported to metropolises, unloaded, reloaded with goods bound for the Orient, and the process reversed. It happens that this freight has two hitchhikers secreted in the line of containers. Intramodal freights started to cut into the truck industry in the 80’s when my concentrated time on the rails ended, and hence I rely on Diesel for intramodal intelligence.
‘Containers become cost-efficient alongside highway trucks when the travel distance is over 300 miles,’ he notes in a green region east of Edmonton, Alberta. ‘Hence the rise of … Ulp!’ We duck. A freight sitting ‘in the hole’ on the adjacent track lets our priority train pass, but the engineer has stepped from it to observe our train roll. Diesel groans, ‘He lifted his radio as we passed. I think we’re busted!’ A savvy hobo wears his ‘slicks’ or boots and can abandon ship in a tick. We jam gear into the packs and sit below the walls. The train rumbles for miles, so we breathe easier. It finally slows, and I peek to see flashing lights at an intersection a quarter-mile ahead. One bo with light gear might skip and melt into the woods, however the wet sleeping bags weigh us like bricks and the Mounties are on us like falcons. We hear them climb the cars ahead, and then up our ladder. ‘Gentlemen, step off the train!’
The train halted strictly for us. Bells clang, cop ‘bubble gum’ lights twirl, and traffic snarls at the intersection. One CN bull and three Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) frown in our escort. The ‘harness bull’ in blue uniform pipes. ‘How are you feeling?’ He is a dick, balding, forlorn and especially so after driving out from Edmonton to apprehend us. ‘Warmer,’ I parry. He reddens and mutters, ‘You’re out of my jurisdiction now.’ In contrast, the three Mounties are professional, cool. ‘Do you have weapons?’ one asks. They aptly search the soggy packs. ‘Do you grasp the dangers of riding freights,’ one with a stereotype handlebar mustache questions. ‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘I taught a college sociology course on hobos.’ They run our ID’s and order us into a patrol car. ‘We’re taking you to a transit station for Edmonton.’
‘We must issue petty trespassing tickets,’ explains a Mountie en route. It’s a hefty $250 USD fine but he postdates the court appearance until after we’ll exit the country. They tell us that a warrant will issued if the fine and court appearance are ignored, but the ticket shall be purged in five years. It’s on par with a traffic citation and shouldn’t show on the immigration computer. The RCMP is Canada’s national police service, keen as any in the world, and even a notch above the California Highway Patrol. The railroad bull radios the Mounties, ‘Tell those two tramps if they’re caught on any train in Canada again, it’s straight to the magistrate.’ Railroad police – the bulls or yard dicks – have an historic rep as the bad guys. Yet, in the USA, my opinion is that bulls are capable specialists. The CN cop was just a bad seed or enjoying a poor day. We chat with the RCMP about hobos until reaching the transit station. ‘Makes me want to try it some day’, muses one in dropping us.
Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, lies on a green valley carpet protruded by grey buildings. There are galleries, colleges, some fine architecture, and the world’s largest mall. The citizens seem bridled by others’ beliefs, bowed in their gait, and content to circle about day after day. Collars are looser in the University area that we ply for food and a Laundromat. Diesel steps into a tattoo parlor for directions and emerges minutes later shaken. ‘The tattooist distinguished me as a hobo off the bat and forced $5 into my hand. I was afraid to refuse it. He wrote an address saying we had a place to stay.’ Soon, another man exits the door and says huskily, ‘Don’t crash at his place’. The eventualities are: The money was an invitation to theft at night, to pander drugs, or sex, or was simply a cordial offer. ‘I’m not going to chance it,’ Diesel decides.
Fortunately there’s a backup who issued an open invitation years ago. I call Rip MacKenzie who cries, ‘You’re welcome!’ We find him, coincidentally, deep in a ‘Railway King’ screenplay about his real great-grandfather who founded the Canadian Pacific Railway and, as the story goes, before the old man dies he hobos with his great-grandson the rail he built. We discuss the screenplay late into the night, and it’s only family obligations that prevent Rip from joining our journey across Canada.
The next morning Diesel bolts upright in his sleeping bag and announces, ‘I’m not afraid of CN. The bulls don’t scare me. I’m going to ride their train over the Rockies!’ I calm him down. The first time a bull nabs a bo is a ‘gimmie’; the second time is punishment. I explain that though we’re tagged in the CN computers, it’s unlikely that CPR has heard of us. Only CN runs from Edmonton, so we should switch modes to Greyhound to explore the Northern plains and Yukon before pursuing the dream ride on CPR.
The Edmonton Greyhound men’s room end stall offers the only mirror writing graffiti I’ve seen outside of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks:
,erif eht ni denrael yeht snossel eht yb deiruB
gnitabed sehctaw elihw gnitiaw fo emitefil eritne na koot ti ekil demees ytinretE
reverof erusaert dna eruseem ot stnemom hcihW
.erusaelp rof rovaedne yreve gnireves elihW
An hour later, and the day after the Queen left Edmonton, we buy 7-day Dog passes and launch a marathon tour.
The bus climbs Yellowhead Highway #16 into the snowcapped Rockies where every five minutes a passenger shouts, ‘Bear…elk…bighorn…bison!’ and the rest crane their necks this or that way to watch the animals lick salt from the roadside. Jasper Park, the most northerly and grandest in the Canadian Rockies, is a place I’ll return to hike. Only Diesel seems distracted by inner thoughts. In Jasper town, he marches off the bus with pack in hand and sits, chin in hands, repeating, ‘I hate the bus! I love the train!’ a hundred yards from locomotives crashing car strings in a small CN yard. A brakie reports that the first westbound isn’t until the next morning, so we reenter the bus as Diesel tears his hair.
The passengers, a mixed lot, are mysteries each from different origins and bound for other destinations. I’m thrown into John Steinbeck’s ‘Wayward Bus’ and furtively hope for a breakdown that will reveal us in the wilds. A high school girl is returning home after dancing for the touring Queen in Edmonton; many obese tourists hug the windows in search for beasts; a high ratio of travelers are employees of the Athabasca Oil Sands. Diesel snaps to at that mention, though I can’t say why. He questions the blue-jeaned toughs about the worksite, production and prospects. There are tens-of-thousands like us, we’re told. ‘Twelve-on-and-twelve-off… draw pay… leave the hellhole… PARTY till the money runs out!’
‘I ain’t met a Brit before,’ remarks a stocky welder. ‘Can you show me a Sterling note?’ My good-natured companion grabs under his jeans to the money belt and pulls a fiver. ‘Keep it close to your balls, eh?’ observes the heavyset worker who examines the note, whistles through gold front teeth and hands it back. I gather he’s the provincial wrestling champ and outdoor welder at Athabasca. At a Prince George, B.C. stop, in the middle of an endless Spruce forest, Gold Tooth offers to guide us into the woods next to the railroad yard to await a westbounder. But an Athabasca electrician warns us that one year ago, 50 meters from where we stand, he was struck in the head and robbed. I tug Diesel by the elbow and say, ‘We don’t go off with that gorilla after he’s seen the money belt. Let’s ride on.’
Sometime at night, as we nap on the cushions, the bus driver angles the bus northwest toward Prince Rupert, B.C. and awakens us at sunrise at a remote highway T. ‘Your stop, eh? The Cassiar Highway. It gets lonely, so take care.’ Diesel’s brilliant hatch will have us hitch north from here one day through bear country to avoid a two-day bus ride around a circuitous route. Birds, crickets and squirrels join a forest symphony around a single gas station – closed - at a bridge at the start of the highway.
Remarkably, a sprite, elderly lady is helping a traveling disc jockey break into his rental car where the keys dangle in the ignition. She gets him underway and sidles to us. No lake in the Rockies is bluer or more reflective than her eyes. My mind shouts, “Maude!” but I stammer, ‘You aren’t the ax murderer?’ ‘Harold and Maude’ was an early-70’s film about a teen looking for life beyond his yard who hooks up with oldster Maude through their mutual habit of attending funerals. ‘Heavens no, boys! Climb aboard.’ she chirps. We jump into a new van and enter the forest-swept Cassiar Mountains.
She sits erect at the wheel as she did a week ago at the San Francisco onset, and is driving the Alaskan Highway to meet her son in the forty-ninth state. She has seen the world, bicycled across China… planning the trips around cemeteries. ‘They’re so interesting, don’t you think?’ In Egypt, she fell into a crypt. ‘The ground gave way, and I looked up for an out. I had a flashlight so it wasn’t difficult.’ She touches her shirt collar. ‘This is the lucky blue flannel. Of course, I’ve sewn the rips.’
The Cassiar Highway #37 connects the more northwestern rain forest with the jack pine and spruce forests of the Yukon. It’s some of the best mountain scenery on the continent. Out there, away from the gravel and pavement, survive grizzlies and mountain goats though we see only brown and black bears. The road also serves as a landing strip in places. We pass the continental divide at Dease Lake and progress into the Yukon. The Coast Mountain range grows larger on our left west flank. Maude, entertaining with her travel stories, drives the distance to the Alaskan Highway #1 junction. At sunset, with sadness all around, we part at the road’s northern terminus where she nonetheless waves gleefully, and wheels northwest. We stand stranded at another woodsy T.
It rains. Our thumbs catch the breezes of infrequent trucks grunting up the opposite grade. An hour later, a pickup snatches us. The driver is a ‘splinter belly’ or bridge builder with a Sad Sack face on a grizzly body. He opens caringly, ‘Better to pick you boys up before the bears do.’ He soon turns into a dirt lot with a small neon sign sputtering ‘Roses’. No power line comes this far north along the Alaskan Highway, so each establishment runs a generator. We enter a cabin-bar where the lady proprietor argues nose-to-nose with a patron about the jukebox selection. They hold half-filled shot glasses like pistols. ‘Rose,’ softly interjects Sad Sack, which stops the fray. ‘These poor boys hitching in our woods don’t have much money and want a room. What can you do? ‘ She beams from her loins, and replies, ‘There’s a back cabin I can let go for $40.’ ‘Now, Rose, does it have a TV?’ ‘No,’ she admits. He produces a wad of bills and hands her one. ‘Give them the best.’ I protest but his bear chest heaves and the Sad Sack face withers. Canadians have been funny with money, and we take the gift.
On the early road in pine perfume, we walk four hours unable to flag a ride into Watson Lake, B.C. I pull a calf muscle beating the hard pavement, but Diesel slows patiently, in his way, continually waling ahead for me to catch up. His head swivels at the town limit and he howls, ‘A signs copse!’ We enter two acres of street and town signs and learn this is the world famous Sign Post Forest. It started in 1942 when a homesick U.S. Army G.I. working on the Alaska Highway erected a sign pointing and stating the mileage to his hometown of Danville, Il. Other travelers followed his lead to a present total of 60,000 signs. We exit and get bites at a half-dozen fast food restraints until the Greyhound stop.
At one, a middle-aged Yukon Native Indian, seeing our packs, greets, ‘Mornin.’ He’s light olive-skinned and tall with sunglasses. ‘Why do you wear them,’ I ask?’ He removes them and stares with blue eyes into mine. ‘I’m an albino, as was my great-grandfather. That supposedly makes me special in the tribe, but acts are more significant. When I was six, I rode a bicycle into a stonewall without knowing how to brake. The bike bent but I was unscratched, and that’s why they call me Stonewall to this day. We share our snacks and he warms to us. ‘There’s overt friction between the Yukon Indians and Whites. The present policy is separation by putting us on a reservation. Actually, we have a choice of sitting on the reservation with subsidized housing and a few-hundred dollar per month dole, or leaving. I personally live there but come to this town to take odd jobs and out of boredom.’
I throw out ‘Watership Down’. ‘In this book, a housing development forces a group of rabbits to abandon their warren. The little band strikes across the countryside and encounters obstacles such as a stream, bean field and iron road. They meet another warren where the rabbits are strangely philosophical, and pass. At a farm they find an Efrafa warren that is ruled like an army camp by a tyrant buck. The rabbits there aren’t allowed to leave despite overcrowding. Some of the original band risk their lives to lead members of the philosophical and the oppressed warrens to the safety loft of Watership Down.’
‘Well,’ remarks Stonewall, ‘There is the tribal law and enforcement.’ The prime law is that each person respect his elder.’ He looks over my partner and me. ‘I am his (Diesel’s) elder, and you are mine. There are other rules and customs but these are nothing without enforcement. The degree of punishment depends on the crime, but something serious is dealt with by a beating to within an inch of your life.’ No one blinks. ‘There is room for mercy. I recently forgave my wife for stabbing me in the femoral artery that nearly killed me after I hugged a female friend. My wife was drunk with sorrow with the knife.’ We rise to make our bus. ‘Indians react differently to firewater – alcohol – than Whites,’ he clarifies. ‘It makes us crazy. Many newborn have fetal alcohol syndrome.’ We shake hands whereupon he gazes skyward and utters a guttural thing in his native tongue, then smiles in parting, ‘I’m happy to share some tribal secrets with you.’
We Dog it east into Alberta passing many Alaska bound vehicles. The Alaska Highway stretches 1,400 miles from Dawson Creek, B.C. through the Yukon to Delta Jct., Alaska. The road opened in 1948 as a muddy, twisting track bulldozed by the U.s. Army Corp of Engineers. Our day’s section is asphalt interrupted by one-mile gravel gaps. The bus pushes south through Dawson City, and onto a spur route to Ft. McMurry, Alberta in the center of the Athabasca Oil Sands.
His Secret Itinerary
Diesel squirms as we pull into the Ft. McMurry terminal and step down. He finally explains,
‘A small reason for the Canadian trip is to find investments for my newsletter ‘The Bull Hunter’. I’ve struck a deal with the publisher where I use alternative transportation to locate opportunities around the world. Freight trains are just one mode. The next issue may be ‘Latin Like Me’ where I – and you if desired – trek Mexico disguised as Mexicans and sneak across the Rio Grand as illegal aliens. The following issue could be bicycling the jungle Transamazon Highway to locate a trade route from Brazil to China to supplant the Panama Canal. It’s an anecdotal newsletter, of course, but the financial rec’s are my signature – quirky and sound.’
The town of Fort McMurray grew recently and rapidly to 40,000 atop the largest oil deposit in the world. The biggest machines work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to dig and separate the oil from sand. We breakfast in a all-night café where a representative slice of the tens-of-thousands of hardnosed workers provide a Wild West charm. A thin electrician cocks his ear at Diesel’s accent and asks why we’re here, and then offers to drive us around. He tells us that Athabasca black gold doesn’t geyser up but is bonded with sand within a sandbox twice the size of Lake Ontario. Great machines transport, crush and separate two tons of sand per barrel of oil – 160,000 barrels daily - that’s piped mostly to the USA. The generous driver bids us adieu at the Greyhound with, ‘You missed the Queen in Ft. McMurray by two days!’
The bus spills with workers with fat wallets leaving the pits. They work 12-hour, 14-day stints and then vacation two-weeks, often in international junkets blowing their wallets on booze and girls. The monthly cycle repeats for years. It seems that 10% are married, and an equal number save a fair amount of their princely wages. One welder informs that it’s easy to get work at Athabasca but hard to leave until one flunks a piss test. Crack cocaine and meth have replaced pot as the drugs of choice because they stay in the urine only a couple days compared to marijuana’s one month. ‘The piss test has caused a meth epidemic here. Of course,’ he concludes, ‘A hard hand has the right to live it up during free time.’
One young Caterpillar truck driver describes his job. ‘ I sit two-stories up in a queue of Caterpillar dump trucks. When my turn comes, four scoops from the 10-meter jaws of a digging shovel fill the load with 350 tons. The truck engine is 3,400 horsepower (about the size of a locomotive), and I haul the sand at 1 mph on 13’ tires to the crushers. As a matter of fact, I quit yesterday. The wages at Ft. Mac are sky-high but the cost of living matches them, and a married man can’t make it. I’ll take a job elsewhere at half-pay or buy a farm and raise a happy family.‘
We touch Calgary in time for evening chow at the Mustard Seed. Most major Canadian cities boast a Needle, or ‘syringe’, as Diesel deems them - one skyscraper with a pointer. It’s the city center and unwitting hoboemia marker. Hoboemia is generally located in its shadow, so we work toward it and shift into a flow of hungry street people. Soon we claim the end of a line stretching around a block into the door of an old, brick building. This is the venerable food line, and virtually every North American large city offers at least one. Those ahead, and now behind us, include the homeless, low incomers, addicts, folks on dole, and single mothers with kid strings and one hanging out the blouse.
Cheerful staff smelling of shampoo and sporting nametags serve us. We sit by two Native Indians who, by their strong necks, tattoos, and quick eyes, have held down freights before. Our table becomes a greedy litter since the first finishers earn limited seconds. Diesel, the vegan, slips meat onto my plate, and I pass my rolls to the Natives. One asks, ‘Passin’ through?’ ‘As a matter of fact,’ I reply. ‘We hope to catch a freight to Vancouver.’ ‘Well,’ he says. ‘The bulls climb every car like bugs to rustle the bums. Go to Fort Calgary Park tonight and wait for the first westbound to roll out real slow. Nail it! They all go to Vancouver.’
To the Rails
Easy as that, we have directions and hump the packs a mile to Fort Calgary Park. We settle in the pines littered with ‘dead soldiers’ or empty booze bottles a quarter-mile from the yard tower that is the yard nerve and communication center. It’s an ideal spot to wait for the sun to disappear.
The hours drag. One mixed freight steams by too fast. Actually, Diesel hopped adroitly onto a ladder but I couldn’t make it with a game leg, and he returned. A seasoned tramp eschews the ‘fly catch’ for the many pitfalls: Uneven ballast, stick-up markers, off-balance backpack, slippery rungs, and the temptation of a fast ladder. We discuss the relative merits of waiting at a mainline vs. infiltrating a yard. He likes to sit in wait, hoping to be awakened by rolling stock or the ‘hobo alarm clock’, an automatic switch. I prefer to penetrate, glean info, and board before a freight pulls out. A week ago, CN caught and put our names in their computer, but this is CPR territory where we’re unknowns.
We determine to wait thirty minutes before moving, and are rewarded by three advancing units hauling an intramodal train. The fly catch is to trot alongside a ladder until matching its speed, grab iron with one hand, then the other, then a foot and climb aboard. I never board a freight moving faster than my jog, and this quick starter is too fast even for my partner to latch to. We shrug, and start for the yard interior via city streets to skirt the tower where sits the yardmaster who controls traffic, and sometimes the bull.
An overpass spans the 20-track breadth of the CPR yard that becomes our perch above the tower eye for over an hour. It’s like overseeing a battlefield. Yard ‘hogs’ or engines growl, car couples bash everywhere, ‘silent rollers’ or engineless strings creep off the hump hill, workers jump on or off quads, and headlights pop up. We try to figure it. The vast yard cannot be fully appreciated from the overpass, so we enter deeper. There are more hours of walking, and once a crew van mistakes us for crew and stops, but we hurry on. Dawn finds us back under the original pines with the dead soldiers. We snooze-in-wait, Diesel’s favorite tactic, until he elbows me and points to a long intramodal freight halted at mid-train in front of us.
Before a train pulls out, an electric clicking along the airline signals a brake test that triggers the adrenalin. Within a minute, the loco whistles, there’s a shout, ‘Cannonball!’, the couples clash, the car pitches ahead, and it’s rock-and-roll. There’s nothing like catching a freight – not the first breast nor last breath. We lay low behind the steel walls until the freight clears the yard. Now we burst out of the city into starlight, and that white swath of mountains is palpated by the increasingly laboring engines and cooling air. At sunrise, the adrenaline has dissipated and we bounce gently on the floors of facing container cars.
The sun in my face awakens me as the freight braces a curve along to a river cutting a valley between white-topped mountains. Bear, deer, elk and wild horses graze the right-of-way. An eagle darts into the train updraft. Higher still the rail climbs. A sign reads ‘Glacier National Park – Canada’ and the slopes harden and bare under melting glaciers and waterfalls. We live the railroad dream through the Rockies.
The freight threads in-and-out tunnels and dripping snow sheds. Out of the blue, the tracks aim straight into a towering range. At 14.7 km, the Mount McDonald Tunnel through the B.C. Selkirk Mountains is the longest railway tunnel in North America. We enter a hole and the lights go out. Inside, the sway and gentle grade for twenty minutes isn’t unpleasant, and the locomotive smoke bouncing along the ceiling doesn’t reach our noses at mid-freight. The locos thunder, a round light appears and we exit. On the west side of the pass, I watch the track join the older line leading around the mountain to the original 1911 Connaught Tunnel. I gaze across the car into Diesel’s black face. Soot coats our gear, the car, everything, and he grins thinking (I know), ‘It doesn’t get any better than this!’
Filthy as spades another day, our black heads pop up-and-down at mountain crossings. We drink the last drops and eat the final apples, read through the vibrations, and chat above the steel chime. Somewhere a sign posts ‘Continental Divide’ and the track descends to the Pacific. The landscape becomes less harsh with rolling hills pocked by farms.
Our carrier is Canadian Pacific Railway, the other of the two RR giants. When CPR completed Canada’s first cross-country rail along this very road in 1885, it opened up the Canadian West to settlement and united the nation. Towns sprang up - Millord, Kamloops, Spences Bridge – along the modern densest CPR segment between Montreal to Vancouver. Today, CPR is a national icon and the leader in bulk and intramodal transportation, plus a couple bos. Diesel reports that recently the company started using mid-train remote-control locomotives to allow their freights to run two miles long, though ours with a string added somewhere after Calgary is about one mile.
The train stops center in a single track along a mountain river. Freight riding is perpetual problem solving, like smudge chess. Why should the train stop on a single line? Diesel vs. Doc Bo - His accountant mind is quick though I have the weight of experience. “Probably something in the track,’ I submit. ‘Maybe a yard jam ahead,’ he counters. Suddenly, the engines ‘dynamite’ or break with a BANG from the train as the brakeline disconnects releasing pent-up air. The set-off is the hobo nightmare. ‘They could pick up a string of cars ahead,’ I proffer. ‘No. There’s mechanical trouble,’ he asserts. We watch the two huffing ‘units’ pull a few cars out of sight.
We crawl a slope to the river to drink like thirsty animals. The water takes a bit of smudge too, and then we flop on the sunny shore to continue the game. ‘Sooner than later they’ll return to solve a mechanical problem,’ Diesel stresses. ‘Later than sooner,’ I disagree. He says to sit it out, but I suggest a swim across the river to hitch a rural road to the next yard.’ We compromise by walking west. A muffled growl comes around a bend and the ground shakes. The two units pass and reconnect to the freight. Caught flatfooted, we sprint to a shaggy-headed engineer in the lead loco. ‘Seen you earlier, eh?’ he yells down. We discover that a split brake hose forced him to drop that ‘bad order’ down the line. He’s generous considering that a rotten tramp may cut an airline for an emergency stop to get off. ‘Look lively, boys. This train leaves in five minutes!!’ That allows us to reboard. We end the dialogue, ‘If we’re nabbed by a bull, we never spoke to you,’ and the engineer replies in turn, ‘An’ I never seen you boys.’
The rails scream and spark from the Rockies to the Pacific. We could hide in hunger behind Yield signs with dirt-n-pores that must grow out. The rails sing my name, or is it Diesel calling?
Port yards - where rails meet water - are ‘hot’ and crawl with bulls. We hop off the freight prior in Pitt Meadows, B.C., five miles east of Vancouver Port, and take a local bus into Vancouver. Canyons of a new type envelope us. Guidebooks praise this ‘Most livable city in the world’ as a hub for art, culture, commerce and transport including the railroads. Nevertheless, we take the tramps’ tour along Grandville St. bohemia where the duties are laundry and a mission.
The sidewalks coast-to-coast across Canada are littered with cigarette butts and pennies as economic indicators. This is the smoking-most country in the world. Discarded long butts mean strong times, but Canadian citizens smoke down to the bitter end. Diesel suggests that the $6-a-pack price undercuts the normal indicator. On the other hand, he collects pennies from the gutters and dozens jingle in his pocket. ‘It means either good economic times or currency inflation,’ he claims.
At the ‘Gathering Place’ Community Centre on Heimcken St. the receptionist suggests the ‘nose bags’ or free sack suppers at 6 pm in the parking lot, but when I thank her cordially someone of discernment in the back orders, ‘Give them the works!’ and we’re handed a shower ticket and $5 vouchers each to the in-house café. We figure a Brit accent and tramp’s limp go a long ways in raising kindness. We could overnight at one of the many town missions that most bos shun for potential ‘grey soldiers’ or lice, and a mission stiff may smell of urinal soap in his pocket to kill the ‘crumbs’.
Instead, we kip at the West Vancouver beach apartment of our contact Don Osborn, a writer of song and music contracts. We can almost dive from the third-story apartment into the 137-meter Kitsilano Swimming Pool where Diesel, part fish, is overjoyed. We pour over the options for the second half of the trip: CN, CPR, Dog… And I introduce a novel idea of going south into the USA and freighting on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) to the east coast. He nearly jumps out of his boots in response!
(Continued in Part II)
For more of Steve "Bo" Keely's writings
Visit the Hobo page on www.greatspeculations.com!