Hi friends, here’s an old story… Please note – I haven’t ridden a freight train in nearly ten years. This was way back in 2005, when I was still in school in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, and going to see Washboard Hank on Tuesday nights at the Peterborough Arms. Enjoy!
There ain’t nothin’ sweeter than riding the rails – Tom Waits
When you spend all winter working, lounging and drinking, all in disproportionate amounts to each other, and all indoors, the first few days of warmth are like the unbinding of the shackles of boredom. Suddenly, you can do all of these outside, not to mention bummin’ around a little more comfortably.
I’ve always had a fascination with trains. I’ll walk down to the tracks at certain times to see if the westbound is on schedule, or listen at night for the whistle of the eastbound. Once I went down to the station on a Thursday night to catch a train; that was my first time hopping. It satisfied a certain void – I’d always admired the hobo lifestyle, but assumed it was long gone – another victim of modern times; progress – whatever you want to call it.
After that first ride I didn’t need to do it again for a while. I wanted to do a longer trip, and eventually did, but in the last few months I haven’t taken the opportunity. There’s always something that seems really important, or else it’s too cold. To get away from the tedium of “normal” life you sometimes have to really steel yourself.
Last night I was out on the porch – it’s spring damnit, or so we’re unconvincingly told by the calendar – and I heard the familiar call. That Lonesome Whistle, those Train Sounds Through the Distance tugging at my heartstrings. It was a Thursday – every Thursday for months the thought of catching out had crossed my mind. Without really planning on making a trip, I grabbed mitts and a toque, just in case I wanted to fool around hopping on and off for kicks. That’s always a thrill. On the way to the tracks I reasoned I might as well ride to Havelock – it had been a while – and really, why the hell not?
I wonder if it’s a characteristic of train hoppers to feel guilty as their ride advances. In the glare of the headlights, I see two points of view. One is that the engineers never even consider the thought of people catching their train, and also that for ninety-nine percent of people, to stand by the tracks as the train approaches means nothing more than watching it roll past. The other has me imagining that passing cops are reading my mind and know what’s going on, and sees me scheming to look innocent. Really, I force myself to believe, nobody cares. Not in a small city where the tracks don’t really go anywhere anyway.
So I let the engines roll by – one, two, three. A little excessive power for the twelve-car consist. Surprisingly, the first few cars are rideable. Around here, mostly everything is grainers, or at least covered hoppers. Some of them have that sweet platform at either end but it seems that more and more don’t. There’s just a coupler, some little beams, and the glistening steel limb removers spinning below. That just wouldn’t be fun to ride.
Generally the trains through Peterborough don’t stop in town, although I’m sure that once the crew parked the train right downtown to go for coffee. This one wasn’t stopping, though, and it was the fastest I’ve ever caught on. The ground is flat; the tracks curve away (so the crew can’t see you). I run along the ladder. It’s moving about as fast as me. First the left hand; then the right, one rung higher. A good step up and I’m on, climbing up to the platform.
Immediately I climb to the car ahead and drop into the little hole – it’s the kind where there’s no floor in the hole, just a beam and the wheels. But I just need to stay out of sight for the first crossing; I won’t be in there long. The platform itself is good. Pretty soon we’re across the river, still crawling along. At the edge of town, Botulf siding, I consider hopping off. What the hell am I gonna do once I get to Havelock? I wonder. Who cares – stay on, you need the wind on your face, the stimulation of an adventure even this brief.
As soon as we leave town I have no regrets. With so much power and so little load, we pick up speed instantly. Soon we’re cruising – only 30mph maybe, but it feels like three hundred. The roar of the steel, the clicking of the rails – the dim landscape, still illuminated by patches of snow, racing by below.
Whenever the train slows a bit I climb up the ladder, to catch the scene that was imprinted in my memory on my last ride – the daylight glare of the headlights shining on the rails and trees out in front, highlighting the silhouetted outline of the engines and the first couple cars. At this time of year, there are no leaves on the trees, and they glow unearthly against the infinite blackness of the sky.
But as soon as we speed up, I’ve got to get down fast. I’m alternating back and forth between the back ladder of one car and the front platform of another. I feel pretty comfortable doing this at slow speed, but not when we’re cruising. This train really rocks – in the most literal sense – on the winter-weary tracks. I keep thinking about the possibility of trains rolling over (they seem pretty tall and wide on such narrow rails), or at least jumping the tracks. Again though, rational thought is comforting – nobody cares enough that I’m on here to even contemplate it, and trains sway like this all the time. I hold onto the ladder and make sure not to get caught without a grip on something.
I’m always noting little things about trains that I’ve never seen before. This trip provided a sad new observation – the cubbyhole on the standard “Canada” or “Alberta” style grainer was welded shut. That was such a perfect spot to hide from the prying eyes of the hostile bull. You have to admit that there was never any real reason for the hole to be there in the first place, but I took the covering up of it as a personal attack against riders. What reason could there be to close the hole other than to keep people out? I see the freight train as a means of travel gradually dieing off – not only are there bulls to outsmart, but a smaller and smaller proportion of equipment is physically rideable. We really try hard to restrain the more adventurous types.
It might be a bit of a sidenote here, but you should all read Jack London’s The Road. He tells you all about riding the rails in the early 1900s. Everything from hobos waiting on a grade to catch out because the train would be moving so slowly, to the brutal conductors killing people with coupler pins on a rope, to the excitement of outsmarting the crews of passenger trains. It was a time when people took more responsibility for their own actions, rather than always looking for scapegoats. I bet railways would let us all ride if they weren’t so concerned about liability.
Back on the train I’m thinking this sort of thing – the mind really jumps around. Physical sensations are all kind of surreal. The wind is cold but the body doesn’t notice; the light rain is a pleasure not an aggravation. Some old songs roll off my tongue out into the deaf darkness: “I was riding number nine, heading south from Caroline…” Some of them gain new context as I improvise lyrics for the circumstances. It’s easy when there’s nobody there to judge you. “Can you hear me?” I shout. Of course not. There’s nobody there – it’s just me, the train and the night. It’s an unbeatable sensation – but maybe just to us railway fanatics.
We roll into Havelock around 1:00AM. The one thing holding me back from riding was the thought of getting stuck out here for the night. It’s not that warm yet, and there’s nowhere to stay. I’d slept in, slothlike, till noon in the morning, so I’m nowhere near tired enough to just pass out. And since the Havelock Hotel got knocked down a couple months ago, there’s nowhere to go for a beer. The town is dead, hitchhiking is pointless – what does one do?
My “solution” was to walk to the nearest shelter. This turned out to be pretty good, at least compared to other places I’ve slept. It was a little shed behind the grocery where they store all the old cardboard boxes. There was a padlock on the door – but it wasn’t closed. That’s an invitation if I ever saw one. For a few hours I tried to sleep on a mattress of cardboard, covered as best as possible by, of course, more cardboard. This was futile.
Around four, I finally got up the courage to go where I should have gone straight away – back to the railyard, where the engines were still humming. It might be a little risky, but really, what would they do even if they did catch me? I climb into the middle of the three units, open the door and walk into a wave of heat. My toes, by this time, are frozen numb, so I take off my boots, and sit in the engineer’s seat, with my feet up on the heater. I stayed there for an hour or so, always vigilant, ready to make my escape back into the shadows, but of course nobody came.
After five, I went for a coffee at a Mac’s Milk, and felt the “you’re weird” eyes of the clerk burning into me. Just like all my other paranoid worries, I’m sure this was all in my head. Any highway-side shop sees its share of people it doesn’t recognize. By five-thirty I was on the road again, and caught a ride home pretty quickly. By seven I was back in bed.