First Catch Out

On the evening of July 4th 2002, I embarked on a voyage in the spirit of America's greatest heroes - real and fictional adventurers like Kerouac, London, Hayduke, Alexander Supertramp. These men embody the spirit of living what you believe, doing things the hard way, in the wild or on the road. My perspective as an outsider is that this is what America was raised on, but it often seems to be lacking these days. You can look for it all you want, but the best way to find it is to go out and try it.

Of course this wasn't really on my mind the night of the 4th. I was mildly aware of the date, but the fact that I had chosen this evening as the time to try hopping a freight train was more due to convenience than attempting to honour the 'Joel McCrea heroes of the American night' (paraphrased from Lonesome Traveller). I had Friday off work and thus would have time to hop a train traveling either direction through Peterborough, ride it to the end of the line at Havelock (in the east) or Toronto (in the west), and still make it home (by thumb, bus, or possibly another train) in time for work on Saturday morning.

My home town, Peterborough, used to be on the Canadian Pacific's main line between Toronto and Montreal. In the early 20th century, though, the CPR built a more direct route along the north shore of Lake Ontario that bypassed a lot of towns that were thriving along the older route. By the 1960s, a large section of the line was torn up, so that through traffic came to an end. Today, the only reason there is any rail service to Peterborough is to serve a 3M plant at Havelock, a mine north of Havelock, and a Quaker Oats plant in Peterborough (check your box of Life cereal: "Made with pride in Peterborough, Canada"). There is minimal service to a couple other small industries.

With such a small demand for rail service it is surprising that the hundred miles or so of line is still active, but apparently there is enough volume being shipped to warrant an out-and-back trip from Toronto almost every day. There is no set schedule, but for a few weeks prior to the trip I had being paying close attention to when trains were moving, and in what direction. Late Thursday night seemed like a good candidate for catching an Eastbound, and I knew from experience that trains travel very slowly through Peterborough - especially at night, when they don't whistle for crossings. If nothing came during the night, I was prepared to wait until about noon the next day, sleeping somewhere within earshot of the tracks.

It was with all this in mind that I set off for downtown at eleven o'clock. I locked up my bike at a grocery store near the old station, and wandered around for a while, finally settling down on a bench by the river to read (always bring a book). When it came time to sleep, I checked the most obvious spot first - in the bushes near a bridge. It turned out to be a little too obvious. The cardboard that I could barely make out in the dark was already occupied by some other tramp, who was invisible until I was almost sitting on him. A quick, unacknowledged apology and I was on my way, to what turned out to be a better spot, near the station, which would allow me to climb the train from the old platform.

So it was that I fell asleep in the bushes beside Jackson's Creek, across from the station, my bag tucked under my arm.

I had slept about an hour when the low rumble and bright lights of my ride made its appearance. Could this be real? Barely. I have very little recollection of the next few minutes. It begins by standing bolt upright, staring into the three white eyes of a freight engine. It was moving very slowly, and I was pretty close, so I let the units pass by before approaching. I ran across the small bridge to the station platform at the same time as the train was crossing it, grabbed a ladder, and climbed. I have no memory of this action - did I use one hand or two? Which foot went first? Did I get on the grainer platform from the side or the back? The fact that I did all of this instinctively reinforces my opinion that I was born to do this.

The driver of a car at the first road crossing (about 25 metres from the catch out point) likely saw me settling in, but I was not worried about being caught. As we rolled across the Otonabee River bridge, I took in my surroundings: I was on the 'wrong' end of a grainer (where all the air brake equipment is - a decision which I had consciously made in my 'just get on the damn thing' haste), and it was the first car behind the two units. That may have been a little too hasty, but since I did not know what else was behind, there didn't seem to be a lot of choice. Moving slowly out of town, I was a little worried that the car might be set off on a siding, but as it turned out, the whole train went unbroken to Havelock.

Despite the fact that most riders say that rail workers are friendly, and the fact that there is very little chance that Peterborough or Havelock has a bull, I hid inside the cubbyhole with some old rags as we crossed the swing bridge over the Trent-Severn Canal. The system that the railway usually uses to negotiate boat traffic is to send somebody by truck to turn the bridge just before and after the train crosses. This allows boats to pass through most of the time, and gave me reason to think that it would be worth hiding in case the bridge swinger was still around. It turned out that this was not an issue.

In the dark outside of town I settled in a little. The floor of the grainer was a safe spot to leave my bag, with no worry of it bouncing out onto the tracks. As for myself, I found that the compressor made a pretty good seat, although I wasn't sure how safe it was to leave my feet down among all the steel bars and lines.

As we rolled past the siding on the east end of town, the slow speed of the train was enough cause for concern about dropping cars that I wore my pack, and leaned out the side of the car watching for anyone to climb down from the engine. This repeated itself a few more times along the trip - I was prepared to bail if it looked like anybody might see me. Finally, though, the train picked up speed and I was able to relax. There was no chance of being seen, despite being in a pretty wide open spot on the car. I did not know for sure what would happen at the Havelock yard, but that would sort itself out later. I settled in for the ride, and savoured a fantastic view of the nighttime farms racing by at thirty miles an hour, darkened enough that the urban fog of light that overwhelms the night sky was left behind revealing one of those perfect cloudless nights full of stars that are recognizable when seen, but otherwise unimaginable.

I had my doubts about how loud the train would be, because on another trip where I had ridden a flat car for three days (with the bull's permission, in Mexico, that's why I don't really count it as my first ride), noise was not an issue. Down by the wheels between two empty grainers, though, it was obvious that a pair of earplugs is probably a train rider's greatest asset. Every once in a while I took them off to feel the roar and the clatter of steel rolling over unwelded steel pulsing through my head, but that pleasure is one that can only last so long.

Grade crossings flash by, some lit, others dark. The whistle wails regardless. Being so close to the power, a rider can hear that romantic sound - loooong, loooong, short, looooooooooong - which must be drowned out towards the rear of the train. We cross rivers - the Ouse, the Indian. The old grain elevator at Indian River siding stands somberly in the dark, a reminder of days before trucks. And out from behind it, like a fire on the horizon, the moon is climbing orange and crescent through the trees. As the train slows once again, I climb to the top of my car to take in this festival of light - to the left, the Big Dipper and the belt of Orion. Out in front, the headlights' beam glows in the trees that want to bury the train in a tunnel of branches. And just off to the right, fighting for life against the glare of the headlights, is this magnificent moon, signalling that the time is right for me to be on this train, picking up speed, wind in my hair as I stand waist high above the top of the car.

A power line lit up across the track reminded me that it was probably not a really good idea to be up that high, although there would have been plenty of clearance. As the train swayed from side to side, I climbed back down to the safety of the platform. The only town on the way to Havelock is Norwood, and it came as a surprise that we hardly slowed down there. Apparently the residents don't mind the inevitable sounds of railways, as we whistled and roared past, crossing the main street on an overpass. Soon after, highway seven draws in parallel to the rails. There is no traffic - a few late night trucks, and one car that passes my ride, moving just a little faster.

We slow as Havelock approaches. This is the end of the ride for me. As the train comes to a stop for the brakeman to throw a switch, I disembark. There is not a lot of point in riding right into the yard, not that there would have been any threat of being caught. I debate my next move - with no schedule, it's impossible to say when I might get a ride back to Peterborough.

Settling down in some long grass, I hoped that the train would leave for Toronto early in the morning. This would have provided a good opportunity for photos, since I didn't take any at night. As it turned out, though, the crew slept till about ten, then bumped cars around for an hour, before heading north to the mines at Nephton. I gave serious thought to riding up there, but without knowing the area, I was not confident that I could count on a ride back down. As it turned out, there was a ride home waiting for me anyway, an acquaintance who was working in Havelock, but was about to leave for Peterborough.

Hopefully I will get a chance to ride the other way before long. These short trips quench my thirst for adventure in the short term, but I know that I need to make a journey by freight before I am satisfied with my life. With any luck I will ride to Thunder Bay in the fall, but just being a recreational rider isn't enough. What I really need is some Jack London road time to see for myself whether the romantic image holds true. Surely not all the down and outs are heroes, but how can we be certain without finding out for ourselves? Next July 4th forget about your Tiger Woodses, Barry Bondses, and Dale Earnhardts. Forget about the President and Dave Letterman and think of the truly tough - those who sleep under bridges, work for minimum wage, and think for themselves.