Traveller's Tales 5. 'Riding the rails from Medicine Hat.'
RIDING THE RAILS FROM MEDICINE HAT
Medicine Hat is a nice name for a town, and with its location on the prairies of Alberta it summons up images of Western history, Native Americans, snake-oil sellers, and wagons drawn up by the river among the cottonwoods.
Maybe it was like that for a while, but when the Canadian Pacific Railway reached there in 1883 the town grew quickly owing to abundant deposits of natural gas, coal, clay and good farmland. This ‘Pittsburg of the West’ soon had brick and glass factories, potteries and mines.
Today with a population of about 60,000 it’s still doing well, with plenty of jobs. It now calls itself Gas City, and the days when the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine used to wait for the bison herds to pass through the gently sloping valley are long gone.
It’s also reputed to be the ‘sunniest place in Canada’, but when I passed through in early September 35 years ago there was an icy wind carrying flurries of snow, and the heavy dark clouds threatened much worse.
It has stuck in my memory all these years for the hostile way some of its citizens treated hitch-hikers. I’d come from Vancouver on Highway 1 over the Rockies with a succession of friendly drivers, with the last truck bringing me from Calgary 250 miles away. It was still a long, long way to Toronto, Quebec, and then down to New York, but I was confident it would all go fine.
Until I got to Medicine Hat.
The truck driver had already warned me I’d see a change in the people.
‘From Vancouver, and over the Rockies we’re all pretty liberal. But when you get to the Prairies it gets more God-fearing and backward. You’ll see.’
I take such warnings with a pinch of salt, but as I walked to the outskirts of town, I sought refuge in a coffee shop from the biting wind that was exposing the inadequacies of my clothing.
But I’d barely pushed through the doors with my backpack, when the owner snarled at me
‘Can’t you read?’
I looked around in bewilderment as all the clients swivelled in their seats to look at me.
‘That sign on the window. It says ‘No hitch-hikers.’
To hell with him. I was cold and hungry.
‘What makes you think I’m hitch-hiking?’
He opened and shut his mouth like a beached fish while his in-bred brain sought an answer.
‘I’m walking from Vancouver to Winnipeg to raise money for charity. Motor Neurone Disease. My brother died of it.’
I’ve never had a brother, but at least it allowed me to sit down in the warmth and place my order. It would have been embarrassing if everyone had showered me with donations, but sweet revenge if the idiot owner had offered me a free meal.
No need to worry. Nobody even asked me about my epic 2,400 km walk and I got billed the full amount.
I strolled eastwards down Highway 1 to open a little distance from the café before I stuck my thumb out again, and on the way I passed a long-haired, weasly youth in a doorway.
‘Hey man,’ he called. ‘Got a cigarette?’
I gave him one.
‘Where you headed?’ he asked.
‘You’ve got no chance. Believe me I know this town. This is a hitchers’ graveyard.’
I shrugged. ‘I’ll give it a go.’
He was greasy and twitchy and I could imagine drivers developing a heavier accelerator foot when he flagged them down.
‘You’ll see that I’m right.’ He sucked on the cigarette eagerly.
‘I’m taking the freights tonight. One’s leaving at about 8. If you don’t get a ride, you’ll find me over near the station at 7.30 or so.’
‘Good luck man.’
I walked on my way.
The idea of riding the freights always gave me a Jack itch of the Kerouac and London sort. What better way to see the Americas than rolling along in a boxcar through deserts, mountains and prairies, feet hanging out the door: and all for free?
I’d done it once before in Arizona, and remembered the sprint along the slippery gravel inches from the huge wheels, the awkward height of the doorway that required a clumsy leap and belly flop and a wriggle with legs flailing. I wasn’t even certain where the train was heading, but that didn’t matter too much. I sat in the doorway and watched the sunset and then unrolled my sleeping bag and dozed.
I awoke with a jolt as a bed-roll crashed into my face, followed by a grunt and wheeze as hands grasped the opening and a figure vaulted in, much more gracefully than I had.
From the orange lights of the freight depot I could see he was a large guy with a shaved head and he watched me warily as I sat up.
‘Hi,’ I ventured.
‘’Hi,’ he replied. ‘Mind if I join you?’
‘No problem. Plenty of room in here.’
Just then another figure could be seen outside running flat out as the train picked up speed. A bedroll landed in the doorway, but to my surprise my new companion kicked it straight out again.
‘You bastard!’ came an angry shout.
‘What you do that for?’ I asked.
‘I guess from your accent that you’re not from round here.’
‘Right. Well there are a lot of psychos round here and I don’t want to keep one eye open all night in case I get jumped.’
I looked at him. Muscly shoulders, prison tattoos, stubble and bad teeth.
‘You wondering if I’m a psycho too?’
‘Yes, I was,’ I smiled back a little nervously.
‘Don’t worry. I’m one of the good guys.’
And so he turned out to be. Nevertheless I did sleep with the largest blade on my Swiss Army knife open in my sleeping bag just in case, with the biggest danger that I’d roll over and stab myself.
This took place in an era when riding the rails was less dangerous than it later came to be.
Originally founded by a group of Vietnam veterans in Montana in 1984, The Freight Train Riders of America grew to several hundred members who were proud of their links to far-right militias or racist groups like the Aryan Nation.
Attracting a wild bunch of druggies and psychos over the years they are thought to have committed several hundred murders, with the killers almost impossible to catch. For a start the victims were fellow hobos of no fixed address and probably no I.D. When their bodies were found beside the tracks it was hard to say if they’d fallen off a train or were beaten and pushed. Anyway by the time the body was discovered the perpetrator could be hundreds of miles away.
The ‘Boxcar Killer’ Robert Joseph Silveria Jr killed 28 other hobos in a 15 year spree that ended in 1996. After bludgeoning his victims to death, usually while they slept, Silveria adopted the identity of his victims in order to claim ever more public welfare. When he was finally caught he had 28 food stamp accounts around America and was picking up $119 from each one, each month. He’s serving a double life sentence without parole in Oregon.
There was also Angel Maturino Reséndez (aka the Railroad Killer – what else?) who was responsible for up to 15 murders across the USA, Mexico and Canada. He attacked other hobos, but more often entered houses near the tracks, where he killed and often raped the occupants. He was arrested in 1999 and executed in 2006.
At dawn I got up and sat with my legs hanging out of the open door. The desert was glowing orange and I could see no roads or houses, only a few deer and two coyotes. The train was trundling along at about 40 miles an hour and by leaning out I could see just how long it was on the curves with more than 100 wagons pulled by two locomotives.
‘Get out of that doorway, man,’ called a raspy, angry voice behind me.
Joe had raised himself on one elbow where he lay on his blankets.
‘Do you wanna lose your friggin’ legs?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Never sit in an open doorway when the door is slid back towards the rear of the train. When the driver hits the brakes that door, which must weigh half a ton, slides down on that greased track and has taken many guys legs clean off.’
I could see the risk now, but still left my viewpoint with regret.
He got up and wedged a short railroad spike under the door.
‘I always carry one of these, and I should have done that last night, but I was too tired. Now our legs are safe, and also that door can’t slam shut and lock us in. See? There’s no handle on the inside. So we’d die of thirst, or end up eating each other!
‘You’ve got a lot to learn. For example when we get to Phoenix we’re gonna jump off half a mile before the station. If we don’t those railway guards are going to half kill us. Beat us up real bad. They hate anyone riding their trains.’
‘Phoenix? Is that where we’re headed?’
He looked at me in amusement. ‘What, you didn’t know where this train was going?’
‘It didn’t matter much to me. I just wanted to ride a freight train.’
He laughed. ‘That’s the way I used to be. It’s the rolling along that counts, not the arrival.’
Jack London couldn’t have said it better.
‘But be careful John,’ he said as we shook hands outside Phoenix. ‘Your ride sometimes takes you from hot deserts to 8000 feet in the mountains, where many guys have frozen to death. Cargos shift, many guys are crushed between carriages, and a jolt can throw you clear out the door. It’s also amazing how silently these huge trains move. They can sneak up on you like you wouldn’t believe.’
The statistics seem to bear that out. 784 people were killed in the USA in ‘train-related’ accidents in 2013, many of them while walking along the tracks.
And now, in Canada, a few months later, I had the opportunity to do it again. I still worked hard at the hitch-hiking for the next 4 hours, but no-one stopped for me. I got some abuse, a few fingers raised at me, and then, as I’d moved over to a fence line to take a pee, some guys in a pick-up swerved enough to ride right over my back pack, laughing as they did so.
My camera somehow survived, but my camping stove, and some souvenirs I’d been carrying ever since Central America were trashed.
I headed back to the station.
‘Told you so!’ said the weasel. ‘Medicine Hat. Arsehole of Canada.’
I couldn’t have agreed more.
We moved over to the large freight sidings while he gave me a quick lesson in freight - riding in this part of the world.
‘I spoke to a guy this morning and he said there’s a CN leaving at 8ish. Got to be Canadian National trains. Canadian Pacific guards patrol their trains at every stop and sometimes they’ll beat you up. I’ve heard they’ve even prosecuted some guys.’ He sounded affronted at the injustice.
‘This is a good time of year as the grain harvest is all heading East to Toronto and Thunder Bay. Enormous trains, over 2 miles long some of them, pulled by 4 locomotives.
‘Our train will probably roll in from Calgary, stop here for 15 minutes, and when we see it coming we’ll head over there on the edge of the lit area, by that shed, see?’
I nodded. This was exciting. A 1900 mile trip to Toronto for free.
‘Hadn’t we better get some food and water?’ I asked, when he told me we’d be on board for at least 2 nights.
‘Good idea, but I’m a bit broke. Can you get that?’ said Marty.
It seemed a fair swap for his know-how so we went to a store and got bread, cheese, ham, cakes, biscuits, several litres of water and cigarettes. Marty added a bottle of vodka too and some Cokes and I wasn’t complaining.
Soon headlights and a rumble and roar of diesel heralded the arrival of our train. Four locomotives were leading the leviathan, pulling a clanking line of grain wagons that stretched way to a distant bend and beyond. The train still hadn’t stopped as we walked briskly back to the shadowy area and was still moving as we took up position.
‘Looks like it’s going to keep going,’ I said.
‘It’ll stop when the engines get to the refuelling depot over a mile down there.’
So it did, with a clank of a hundred couplings and then it sat there hissing.
‘Come on,’ said Marty and he trotted over the tracks, climbed on a platform between a pair of wagons, and then hauled himself up the ladder to the roof.
I was relieved we needed no sprint to catch a moving train.
Standing up there you couldn’t see where the train began or ended - just a tapering line disappearing into the murk hundreds of yards ahead and behind.
There were 2 lids on the roof of each wagon, fixed with 3 wing nuts. I undid them, raised the heavy hatch and peered inside.
The grain reached a level about 3 feet below me.
“Do we get down there and sit on that?’ I asked. It looked dusty, but nice and cosy compared with this freezing wind.
Marty laughed. ‘If you did that you’d sink in there like quicksand and suffocate! It feels sort of firm at first, but the rattle and shake of the train gradually loosens it around you, and by the time you see the danger you’re out of reach of anything to pull yourself out with. You’d probably end up in a loaf of bread somewhere and freak out a housewife!’ he finished with a wheezy laugh.
I pulled by jacket more tightly around me.
‘We’re not spending the whole journey up here, are we?’ It was near freezing and would drop much further overnight.
‘Of course not! We wait here until the train’s out of sight of the depot, then we make our way to the locos. Only the first one has drivers – the others are empty with seats and heating.’
‘Wow! That’s great!’ Then I thought about what he said more clearly. ‘So how do we get to the front?’
‘Along the roof of course! It takes ages to pick up full speed, so won’t be doing even 40 by the time we reach the engines.’
I looked down to the tracks, and assessed the gap between wagons.
‘Bloody hell! Not sure I can do that.’
‘Believe me, it’s easy. Just step, step, step, step, HOP, step, step, step, step HOP. Don’t look down, but keep an eye out for low gantries and tunnels.’
There was an approaching and departing wave of metallic clanks as hundreds of couplings took up slack, and then we began to crawl forward. We lay down on the roof as we passed through the brightly lit station area and the city streets, and then Marty got up and waved me to follow him.
Fortunately there was a metal level walkway along the top of each wagon that provided a grippy surface, but when I got to the gap I couldn’t bring myself to hop across.
‘Come on John! Don’t think so much,’ called Marty.
I retreated a few paces then took two steps and jumped, landing awkwardly a long way past the gap.
‘No need to make a great jump. It’s really just a long stride.’
I began to get a rhythm going, crossing the next 20 gaps without any problem. Only about another mile and a bit to go. And then I detected an alarming change in the noise of the wheels. The clickety clack had doubled in volume, and glancing down I saw water glinting nearly 100 feet below. We were crossing a wide river and I threw myself to the deck until we reached the far bank.
Then it was up and onwards, and time was a-pressing as the train was slowly picking up speed and the wind and the sway was increasing.
I could see Marty several wagons ahead and tried to match his swift stride. Then he suddenly dropped to a crouch, and made a gesture for me to do likewise, and I saw a road bridge about to take my head off.
Once we left Medicine Hat it got pretty dark and I kept an eye on the distant sweep of the locomotive headlight to watch out for the silhouettes of approaching dangers. I just wanted this mad adventure to end and get up there to safety.
It took at least half an hour, but finally we were standing behind the locos, waves of black, diesel smoke stinging our eyes and throats, and swung down to the lower platform that led to the drivers’ cab.
I half-expected it to be locked, but it opened and we stepped into a beautifully warm space, with three padded seats, and an area of floor space that you could lie down on. When the door closed, the fearful clacking of the wheels, and the icy wind were gone, or muted.
Marty was grinning at me.
‘Not bad eh?’
‘It’s bloody heaven! I think we deserve a drink.’
It took 3 nights in the end, and the days passed staring out at a scenery of prairies and then more and more forest and lakes, with the autumn colours starting. Four more guys hopped on at different times, but no psychos that I noticed. When it got too stuffy and smoky inside there was a walkway that ran along the side of the locomotive where you could sit and admire the view, and shiver a little.
Twice employees of the railway company came on board to check some aspect of the machinery, but just said hello and made no attempt to throw us off.
As the Trans-Canadian railway advertises in their brochure for their tourist itinerary ‘Breath-taking Scenery! Friendly Service! World-class food.’ Well two out of three is fine, and as a legitimate passenger you’d pay close to a thousand dollars.
I’d had enough of Marty by the time we reached the outskirts of Toronto, and opted to hop off before we got to the freight depot. He was heading to the eastern suburbs of the city so chose to stay on board for a few more miles.
I shouldered my back-pack, shook hands with my companions and headed out to the ladder.
It was 8 a.m and the traffic was queuing up at the level crossings, the drivers cursing at the approach of a 2 mile long train that was going to make them very late for work.
But hey! What’s this? A very greasy and sooty-faced guy was hanging off the ladder of one of the locomotives, carrying a backpack, and wearing jeans and some sort of South American alpaca wool jacket. Freedom personified! Some of them, on their way to the office or factory, must have felt a twinge of envy and a yearning.
I jumped, and good job the train was going slow and I’d kept one hand on the ladder, because otherwise I’d have pitched head-long to the ground and maybe been diced and sliced by the wheels for good measure.
I steadied myself, let go of the train, and ducked under the barrier to the streets. Two guys in a pick-up sniggered at me and yelled something insulting, but they were probably from Medicine Hat. Most of the drivers stared ahead in frustration watching the countless wagons, all painted in the same drab colour, and the hypnotic flash of the gaps between them. The rumble of the thousands of wheels made the very ground tremble, carrying some of the 17 million tons of wheat and wheat flour that were exported from Canada last year.
But did the drivers marvel at the size of the trade and the fertility of the prairies despite their short growing season? They did not. They tapped their steering wheels in frustration cocooned in their heated, music-filled capsules and cursed the train and that bum who’d just got off it, who had a jaunty step as he headed for a café where he would order a massive cooked breakfast washed down with strong coffee.