Jasper to Vancouver

august 2004

It's amazing how you can doze through the sounds of industry. Overnight the yard filled up completely, and I hardly even noticed. My friend Skware's train (eastbound she hoped) was still on the nearest track, and I assume she was still in it (this is about six hours after she first crawled into the grainer's hole).

Knowing a little bit about rail operation in Jasper I headed to the west end of the yard, where there's a road crossing. There are lots of trees around too, so it was no problem to hide out. I planned on sleeping a while till a westbound rolled my way.

I didn't even get to though. I walked to the south side of the tracks, found a place to chill, and almost immediately a mixed freight pulled out of the yard. "Now or never" - everyone must get that feeling when they commit. A few tankers rolled by, then a couple grainers. Perfect. I haven't hopped much so I feel most comfortable on a grainer, where you can hide in the hole when you're paranoid.

Hopping was easy - I was on the outside of a curve so the units were out of sight, and nobody in the yard pays much attention. The train was just creeping along. Gradually we picked up speed as we climbed towards Yellowhead pass.

It didn't get the highball for a while though. We passed a bunch of workers before long - spread out along a couple miles of track - and I got a little cocky about sitting out on the platform, thinking nobody seemed to look at the train at all.

It was cool in the morning. There was still mist on all the ponds, but the sun was burning it off fast. I sat on the platform on something (I can't remember what now though - it wasn't the brake end of the car but there was some chunk of metal to sit on...) with my toque, mitts, sweater and jacket, and basked in the radiance of the sun whenever we curved the right direction. It was a real disappointment to find that I'd lost the earplugs I made a point of buying the day before.

Past Mount Robson on the other side of the pass the train took the lower of two routes - this is the junction of the line that goes to Vancouver with the one to Prince George (where it crosses BC Rail) and Prince Rupert on the coast. I was certain the lower one went to PG, and while it wasn't a huge deal it meant at least a doubling of the time it would take to get to Van.

I'm not sure exactly what happened - there might be another cutoff for the line to Vancouver, or I might just not have known where I was - but somehow I dozed off and awoke to find myself in unfamiliar territory, seemingly travelling south, and past little stations that made me realize I must be on the right track after all. Even so, I wasn't sure of that until I hit Kamloops.

At some siding in the middle of nowhere we were going real slow. I was out on the deck just enjoying the ride, till we went by some rail workers, and one looked right at me. I wasn't too concerned at first, but then the train stopped. I leaned out the side to have a look. Nothing. If they'd seen me they would know I was on one of only two grainers. While waiting for the train to roll again, there was the sound of radios, faint. Just in case, it seemed like a good idea to throw all my stuff into the hole and climb in there with all the dirt until we started to roll again. And it was worth it - there was the sound of tires or boots on ballast, and it stopped right outside the car. "I don't see him - I'll watch for him at West End" is what I heard next. That's a pretty close call, but soon the train was rolling again.

I waited in the hole for a while, hoping to get past "west end" without getting caught. After a few minutes I got back out onto the platform. Too soon - at a grade crossing I saw the CN truck, but luckily they didn't see me.

The hole was filthy. It was full of old newspapers, chunks of carpet and years' accumulation of dust and other debris. In the mid day it was nice to sit in there. The thick steel of the railway car holds the coolness of the night before for awhile. Not long enough though. As the afternoon wore on, the hole turned into an oven. I only rode in there if it seemed like somebody might see me, but climbing in and out is a pain (especially if you're 6'3") and before long I gave up trying to stay even remotely clean. It's not a bad size in there though - big enough to sit in comfortably, and to lie down if you're not too picky. It was really the heat that was most miserable though.

I thought I was really planning ahead in Jasper - I had some food, some water... Not enough of the latter, I learned. By the time I got to Kamloops I'd been out of water for a few hours and was feeling pretty parched.

Kamloops is the second crew change out of Vancouver, so about twelve hours travel time or so. It was a tough call to get off the train, but when you're really that thirsty you should probably do something about it.

Thirst was thwarted though - obviously I was a bit paranoid walking around the heart of a big freight yard, looking for a quick way to find a drink. I was worried about catching a new ride too, so when the one I'd been on aired up I found myself running back to the security of the grainer - into the hole again, where I waited close to two hours for some switching before we were on our way again. And what a relief to finally be on the move - out in the country, I could take a break from the deadly heat of the hole and try to enjoy the relatively cooler breeze on the platform. As the day drew to an end and the sun gradually went down the car kept radiating heat, so I sweated most of the way to Vancouver.

I found out at some point that I was now in the first car behind three units. An hour out of Kamloops I had another close call with a worker, too. He was off the train to uncouple it a few cars back. He had a camera, which seemed a bit weird - I guess he was just getting a shot of the BC Rail unit that was tacked on. Now that CN has taken over BCR they're pooling power, and likely will repaint them before long. At this siding all we did was add some ballast cars. More back and forth switching, which meant more hiding in the hole and avoiding eye contact with the conductor.

Eventually it was dark. There was no worry of being seen; we only passed on the outskirts of towns, and there was no traffic on the roads. For miles we raced through the Fraser River canyon - around long curves, through tunnels, over bridges. Once in a while I would see the headlight of a Canadian Pacific freight following its equally tortuous route along the other side of the gorge. I lied there on the platform in agony - dry tongue hanging out, sweating, ears blasted by the squeal of the flanges. At the time it was really painful - but it's the memory that makes it all worth while.

At a crew change I woke up from a half-sleep. We were stopped, it was dark, it was quiet. Another chance to get water? It would have been a good one but I was afraid of being left behind. So I just sat there - for a good half hour, and waited till we rolled on out again.

From this point to Vancouver I have no memory. Mostly I slept through that awful noise, but I think I spent some time more or less comatose too. Finally we hit the city. Big, fenced in, well-lit rail yards announced our arrival. We just kept rolling though. I had no intention of hopping off in a bad spot unless I had to, and it turned out to be the best thing. We stopped briefly in the yard, then moved slowly westward, past the engine shops, closer to downtown.

When we stopped in sight of the big Skytrain bridge over the river, I bid my ride farewell. The light turned green and it lumbered slowly out onto the old swing bridge across the Fraser, into downtown Vancouver. I was out in some industrial area, it was 5:00 am and I had nowhere to go. I walked over towards the Skytrain, found some shitty water, and slept on a concrete pad, which, I found out later in the morning, was surrounded by some of the juiciest blackberries I've ever seen. A nice little ending to a great, albeit agonizing, trip.