Story

Train hopping across Canada… minus a foot

Great adventures often begin with a drunken decision. Spending that summer in my shit hole town, somewhere beside Toronto, I was as bored as any other 15-year-old kid. My friend had just inherited a large sum of money and spent it all at once on hundreds of cases of his favourite beer. Black Ice, I think it was. We spent the weekend sitting behind the public school near his house drinking case after case. We got to talking about snowboarding and how it was possible to ride all summer in Whistler because the glacier never melted. Then and there we made some kind of plan to head west. We weren’t sure how we’d cover the nearly 5000 kilometres between us and the snow but we were down for whatever.

The next day we bought a car for $400 without papers. We rolled out-of-town at night with our boards, beer and about $40 in change between us. We caused a lot of shit along the highway stealing plates and doing gas and go’s and the car got taken away from us before we even got out of Ontario.

We caused a lot of shit along the highway stealing plates and doing gas and go’s and the car got taken away from us before we even got out of Ontario.

With our court dates months away we hit the road again and stuck our thumbs out. We were experienced hitch-hikers but new to these remote highways. Hours would pass without seeing a single vehicle. While we were stuck for hours chucking rocks at road signs, trains running parallel to the highway would confidently chug by, one after another. Finally after being stuck for three days outside Swift Current Saskatchewan we were desperate. A freight train heading west was passing and we made a run for it.  We tossed our snowboards and bags on first, barely dragging ourselves on afterwards.  A little confused and a lot excited we hid down and prayed for a smooth ride to Vancouver.  It didn’t work out but at that moment I was hooked! I’d chase that steel dragon and ride it through some of the greatest adventures of my life.

Possibly the greatest gift hopping will give you is an incredible degree of patience. The majority of the time -like 70%- is spent waiting for a ride. Often you just get stuck somewhere and wait for days in a bush or under a bridge. Like when Phil and I spent 5 days squatting in a bush outside Edmonton. Nothing was going past. Finally we caught out and when we arrived in Jasper we found out why there had been no trains. Front page of the newspaper showed a major derailment. A train that we actually tried to catch but there was no rideable cars, only oil tankers that after passing us had gone on to tip over and explode, spilling their guts all over the trackside. Seeing those images of twisted steel, we could only imagine what our bodies would have looked like had we been on that line.

Possibly the greatest gift hopping will give you is an incredible degree of patience. The majority of the time -like 70%- is spent waiting for a ride.

Some routes are really best avoided. I took my chances when I crossed the border a second time. Passed out, when I woke the train had stopped and there were bright lights coming into my little hiding place. Suddenly I was being screamed at. Ordered to come out, slowly, hands first or I’d be shot.  They sounded really irate and when I came out there was 8 of them all with their guns pointed at me. It was border patrol. I got thrown down hard on the gravel service road and cuffed. They thought I was smuggling drugs and were tearing into me until they figured out that I really was just a kid dumb enough to travel this way. After that they took me in but were pretty chill and even let me access my bag and I was able to sneak a few pictures in my holding cell.

Jack Kerouac wrote “better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.” But catch a ride in a slave engine and you can sleep comfortable and free. ‘Slaves’ are supporting engines that are remotely controlled by the lead unit. They have air ride seats, heat or A/C, a bathroom and even a fridge and hot plate. When you are freezing cold or thirsty, these is the best.  Only trick to them is that sometimes workers come on and check them. It happened to Gabe once.  They came on, found him and he took off just as another train was passing. Seeing it as a way to escape he tried to catch it, only was going too fast. He jumped and grabbed the ladder but his shoes, being wet, slipped on the bottom rung. His right foot passed hard through the ladder and hit the spinning wheel behind it. There it was pulled into the axle cover and shredded. Torn off just below the ankle.

Jack Kerouac wrote “better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.” But catch a ride in a slave engine and you can sleep comfortable and free.‘

Trains are unpredictable. They do weird shit. I’ve been on the back-end of one cruising along comfortably only to wake up in the middle of nowhere on a line of cars that had been abandoned by their engine. No train yard, no town to speak of, nothing. Just fucking trees. Nothing to do but guess the direction of the closest highway and start walking. So, sometimes hopping trips turn into hitch-hiking trips. Which is great! You get picked up by cool people because dick-heads don’t pick up hitch-hikers. Each new ride is a trip in itself. Folks will share their craziest secrets and stories with a hitcher. Sometimes they’ll get super stoned while doing so. This dude would turn right around to the back seat to make eye contact. Driving into oncoming traffic with hippies is fun but not a cool way to die.

I woke in a bad way when the cold water had soaked through my sleeping bag. A puddle had formed where I was perched on a slab of metal just wide enough for my body. Exposed to a lightning storm and in the worst possible place, as the Canadian prairies have some of the flattest and most open landscapes on Earth. Hundreds of miles of fields in all directions and barely a single tree on the horizon. Cruising through it on a double stacked intermodal car that was all metal, we could see and feel every bolt and it was only a matter of time before our train was struck.

Looking down to either side of me and seeing the wheels spinning and tracks sliding past underneath, I imagined the electric shock that would jolt me right through, so if I survived being electrocuted to death I’d still be shredded to bits on the tracks. I tied my sleeve around a bar in hopes it might hold me in place. Frozen and soaked, we sat expecting to die at any second. The end of the storm was always in sight but since we shared the same path and pace so the clouds stayed with us.

Looking down to either side of me and seeing the wheels spinning and tracks sliding past underneath, I imagined the electric shock that would jolt me right through, so if I survived being electrocuted to death I’d still be shredded to bits on the tracks.

Exhausted we thought about breaking into the trailer for shelter but it was a crazy mission. To get to the door required balancing across a slippery thin bar that was just a couple of feet off the ground that sped past below. The door, eight feet away, needed to be cracked and swung open somehow while still balancing on the cross-bar. We figured we were gonna die anyway, so we went for it. And glad we did. The inside of the car was dry and full of boxes of Cheetos. We climbed to the top and comfortably passed out on a bed of squished cardboard.

We eventually made it to Whistler but I had lost my board. I couldn’t steal a new one so I didn’t ride the glacier. It was all worth it though. That summer I learned more than I could have in a lifetime in my shit town. I experienced enough to write a life story and for me at 15 it was just a chapter.

Story and images by Rick Indeo



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