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Trainhopping - In Search of the Wanderers

 Street Sheet (Canada) 14 June 2019

There are many reasons people become addicted to train hopping - good reasons. Freedom is maybe at the top of the list - But they pay a price for their freedom. Those who continue the lifestyle even though they go through frequent and regular hardships are truly worthy of admiration. (3097 Words) - By Rodney Graham

Street Sheet

Trainhoppers at peace. Photo: Rodney Graham

Some youth who take to train hopping are running from abuse and/or neglect. They find freedom from it.  However, some also find themselves in jail.  Not just from train hopping of course. Our system has marvellous, clever, and sophisticated ways of steering desperate young people towards jails and destruction.

Once one finds true freedom - That cannot be had for love, status, or money - They will often continue for years.  I think now perhaps if I had started train hopping as a youth - I may have met other young desperados like the ones I will tell you about. I might have learned a few good things. How to survive. Self confidence, self worth, resourcefulness, loyalty.  How to travel - Get away from abusive foster homes, nurse Racheds', and poverty pimps.  People and agencies who chew you up and spit you out.

Personally, I ran away for the first time at the age of 12 - from a group home.  I was not there for any wrong I had done.  I was there merely because I was abandoned.  I became an angry young man.   It was one of many 'escapes' for me.  I was very fortunate to be taken in by hippies at the time, who were traveling from BC to Saskatchewan.  Why do I say fortunate?  There is no reason to explain it - everyone knows the evil world we live in.  It is why people say train hopping is safer than hitch hiking.

I've been writing about train hoppers for a few years.  I have been trying to keep track of some of them.  12 actually.  Not an easy thing to do.  These colourful citizens often don't talk to friends or relatives for weeks, months, even years.  There are not too many places to send an e-mail from a train yard - And of course, hobos don't carry cell phones or laptops.

The main protagonists of the article The Train Hoppers , Dustin and Mackie, had responded very infrequently and I hadn't even heard for either of them for some time until I met Dustin miraculously in a campground last year - Which I will explain again a bit later in this article.  People have told me - It was meant to be.  However, I did train hop from Winnipeg out to meet them shortly after meeting and interviewing them in Winnipeg in 2004.

I was supposed to finish this article off as a prequel to the story I wrote almost a year ago ( July 13th, 2009) called  In Search of the Wanderers.  fact, I was supposed to write it and send it in two weeks later - In July of 2009 .  These two articles are follow-ups to the original article of 2004 The Train Hoppers, a story about the lives of modern day hobos.

Shortly after meeting the group of train hoppers 'in question' - as it were - I began interviewing or more or less documenting for myself young train hoppers - their e-mails and names and sometimes a little about themselves too.  In 2007 I created a website where other hobos in Canada could search pictures I took, not just in Winnipeg, but all across Canada - If they see someone they know they can e-mail me and I can contact the person they saw and give them the other person's contact info so they can reunite.  After a few years of talking to these citizens Ive noticed they often have trouble keeping in touch and I thought it would be nice to help with communication among them.  Someone might say, 'I don't need help communicating,' well, that's true but I'm just trying to be helpful that's all.

In Search of the Wanderers

I decided to try and find all of the train hoppers I met in Winnipeg in 2004.  I won't say where I met them.  It probably has nothing to do with me , but apparently skin heads have recently gone to the spot the hobos liked to hang at in the 'peg and fought with them.  Of course,outnumbering their victims each time.

I have also published the original article, The Train Hoppers with the name The Wanderers. But I was train hopping last year while writing In Search of the Wanderers, and hitchhiking, yes, hitchhiking! Shameful for any train hopper - I know.  I learned last summer how difficult it is - Or I should say I 'remember' how difficult it is to communicate and get things done when you are busy hiding in bushes, sleeping in ditches, dodging rail yard 'bulls' (Security guards) - as well as black bears and coyotes on the outskirts of cities and towns while trying to hop on freight trains. So this article is just now being published in Street Sheet and  street news service - but without apology - a freelance journalist/train hopper cannot be held responsible for irresponsibility or tardiness!

Here's a short excerpt from The Train Hoppers (Wanderers):

'I ran into Dustin and Mackie at Polo Park in Winnipeg. They had been trying to pan in front of the mall, without much success.

"We didn't have much luck here, " said 24-year-old Dustin, "We're trying to make enough to catch out of town and go to Edmonton. 26-year-old Dustin has been travelling for 6 years, Mackie for an incredible 10 years and hopping for 8. They met first in Vancouver one year ago then again in Calgary. They then train hopped to Toronto from Calgary. When I met them they had just arrived from Toronto and were heading west again to Alberta. I gave them my phone number and left knowing they probably wouldn't call. Fortunately, however, I ran into them in Osborne Village later that day and they introduced me to more squeegee punks than I had ever seen together in one place, as well as about a dozen train hoppers.'

That was in 2004 in Winnipeg Manitoba Canada. Some of them are friends now - and some are getting 'old' - in their 30s!  However, I still do not consider myself a 'real' hobo. I write about them - but cannot claim the proud distinction 'hobo' myself.

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest...

The Men That Don't Fit In (First Verse) - Robert Service

What is a Hobo?

'In the mid-nineteenth century, Civil War veterans who were in need of work after the war had destroyed much of America's economy hopped freight trains and travelled from farm to farm to work for whatever was offered. They often carried hoes with them. They called them "hoe-boys." Many historians agree that the term 'hobo' derived from the phrase 'hoe boy'. When you see cartoons of hoboes with a stick on their shoulder and a knapsack they were actually carrying a hoe with a knapsack tied on the end of it Young men worked in gardens for a few days room and board -- The work they did was arguably not very necessary work, but an agreement whereby the hobo was given a full belly and maybe a pillow for a night. They would also do odd jobs like washing floors in a hotel, for example for a night's stay and a hot bath. Hoboes have always been distinguished from other "street people" because they did work at times, but wandered from place to place by freight train.'

Like the charming hobo of old, some of the new train hoppers in Canada carry their tools with them, but for these young tramps in Canada, their tool of choice is not a hoe like the hoboes carried, but a squeegee - Unfortunately, like the hobo of old also, authorities often pass laws against them and squeegeeing is being made illegal increasingly in Canada. 'Squeegeeing is washing car windows at intersections for change.  Many work at casual labor companies for a while or even 'settle' in a town or city for a year or two - but they then hear the call of the lonesome whistle and pick up and follow the train.

My Journey Westwards:  Saskatoon Saskatchewan

I left Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada heading westbound last year on June 6th, 2009 in search of the wanderers I had met five years earlier.  I guess I thought the date of D Day would make it more fun eh?  But as usual for me, it was fraught with Irish bad luck from the start but it morphed slowly into a wonderful and luck filled odyssey in the later weeks of my journey.  I spent some time in beautiful sunny Saskatoon Saskatchewan, a fine little city in northern Saskatchewan Canada.  I would certainly recommend the friendly little city to anyone, especially young people.  They have a popular University - The University of Saskatchewan.  It is a bit hard to find affordable short term housing but not impossible. Try Kijiji (Short term housing)  if the riverbank is not your cup of tea.  The Patricia Hotel, a popular university kids hang out has rooms for as little as $35 a night and used to have a hostel with $16 dorm beds.  I've been staying there for 20 years now- when in town.  It was Spartan, to say the least.  It was once rated 'the worst hostel in the world' because it was located over a wild nightclub - the dance floor directly below the dorm rooms.  The lockers would rattle to the beat of the music.  Also, the old bunk beds were from Second World War era army surplus I was told.

However, I found it humorous and would sit in the lobby and watch the European Twinkies come in with their $500 back packs and $200 hiking boots. They would go upstairs and then 5 minutes later come running down and demand their money back.  Quite entertaining. I actually liked it there because I didn't mind the Spartan nature of it at all and am always a night owl anyway - not sleeping till 3 AM most nights.  I like writing between midnight and 3 AM usually. So I had the whole place to myself. How selfish - I know!

But seriously speaking I recommend the place.  It's a fast growing little place of 220,000 , a respectable night life, especially on Broadway Avenue where many university folks enjoy the many clubs there.  The panhandling is not bad at all because of lack of other panhandlers - after all, it is a small city.  I only met three hoppers there at the Fringe Festival- they were novices, Tom hopped for 2 years though.  All are from from Toronto. Tom, 22 yrs old, Harley, 19 yrs old, and Andrea, 19 yrs old.

I was told Regina is not good for panhandling, but I don't know for sure because I never panhandle myself really.  The Turgeon Hostel is only $25 dollars a night and has a big kitchen, lounge area a, and is close to the Cathedral District - a progressive area where a person might possibly panhandle or busk.  I was also told the city is hard to hop out of.  I met a group of hoppers in a park who told me that in June of 2009.  But, again, can't be positive of that.  Canadian Pacific (The low line) runs through Regina, which is the capital of Saskatchewan, a Midwestern agricultural province, where potash and uranium are the big industries of this prairie province.

Calgary Alberta

In Calgary last year I had a hard time because I am not familiar with the yard for westbound trains.  To make a long story short I failed.  I took a 'shamehound' bus to Banff and then hitched to Field where I spent a fitful night trying to sleep along the mountainside near Field waiting for a train.  Had trouble sleeping because I discovered I kind of fear the dark, especially in a black mountainside with strange noises that sound like bears and wolves sneaking about. In the morning, although I had slept little and realized that having a hammock was a great idea for train hopping - I realized I had not only nyctohylophobia - fear of dark wooded areas but also menophobia - fear of bears.

Field British Columbia

But I did manage to catch out mid day the next day.  But while I was having a peaceful coffee in the beautiful sunny Sunday morning mountain air - a huge black bear with a strange look in his eye came sauntering up the tracks towards me. When I was 9 and living with my family (Who were still together) I was met by a huge grizzly who was fishing along the river in Stewart BC.  I had gone down before the rest of the family and he just walked by me and, as I said to my family, "smiled" at me, took a big shit and then swam across the river. Probably because he smelled pesky humans coming.

This bear was different however, he was not antisocial at all.  He took a look at me and decided he wanted to come right towards me - for what reason I don't know.  I picked up my backpack and ut it on slowly and talked to him quietly.  I didn't remember to leave the food though.  I walked backwards from my little campfire and slowly he followed - all the time wagging his head back and forth like a dime store toy on a car's dashboard. For half a kilometre he followed.

I walked backwards up the track with him following. Once he raised up on his haunches and flared his nostrils. That shook the morning cobwebs out of my head!  I moved toward the side of the track once to see if he would go passed but he followed as if to follow me up the mountain.

As we walked he never got closer than about 20 yards.  As we approached the little town of Field BC I pulled my bear whistle from my pocket and blew it.  The only response was that he flared his nostrils again.  Upon the approach to the dozen or so little houses that line the side of the tracks along the mountainside I blew the whistle again and turned around with my back to the bear. I was thinking of maybe hopping over a fence into a yard but decided not to because I became aware that in most of the back yards people were standing and watching.

It must have been an interesting sight for these apparently very clean well shaven men, women and children.  Some of them were wearing suits and ties. On their way to church obviously. A woman stood looking intently.  She had a look of concern - but not fear - on her face.  The two young boys, wearing ill fitting suits started laughing and their mother scolded them.

Slowly the people in the backyards started turning as if embarrassed for being intrusive and staring too long - they politely walked slowly to their parked cars.

As I approached the crossroads an old pick-up slowed and stopped on the tracks.  An older man with a full growth of facial hair beamed at me, "Good morning...looks like it's gonna be a nice one", he said looking up at the sun rising over the mountain to the east. "Don't worry about old Charlie," he said, "He's harmless, we thought he died of old age, he hardly comes into town anymore."  He drove off before I could answer him.  I noticed old Charlie had walked right around the pickup and was heading right down the tracks.

I slept across the highway on the other side of the river.  I did catch an intermodal and enjoyed a ride to Revelstoke and some beautiful scenery.  I was spotted   by a bull - probably from a highway overpass and pulled off the train in Revelstoke.

It wasn't a miracle, me meeting Dustin in a campground after being pulled from the train in a town I had no intention of stopping in.  What makes it miraculous is that my main goal of the trip was to find Mackie,  Dustin, and some of the other train hoppers I had met.

All I knew is that they were living in Vernon BC. Information from a train hopper passing through Winnipeg.

After being pulled from the CN train at an intersection just west of Revelstoke I walked up a country road to the highway and began hitch hiking west.  Feeling a bit groggy from not sleeping all that well the bushes the night before I decided to walk and hitch as I walked towards a campground a couple hundred yards up the highway. I saw their big sign ahead. Campground, it read.

When I got there the door to the office was open but nobody was there.  Seeing a pop machine and chips I left some money, took a pop and bag of chips and headed back to the highway, but upon leaving a man drove up in a pickup.

He talked me into stay the night and I began setting up my tent in a isolated corner back of the campground.  As I was setting up a pick up pulled up next to me and a guy about my age got out and asked if he could use the spot I was eying myself. "Sure," I said, "I'm just by myself , I'll take the smaller sight next to you."

As the man was setting up his tarp, it began to rain slightly.  Then a jeep pulled up and a young man got out and started helping the older fellow.  In no time they had their rig up.  I looked long at the young guy.  I thought to myself:  it couldn't be Dustin.' But it was.

I don't know how long it will take to find them all now. Maybe it will take my entire life.  I don't know.  But I think it may take a very long time.


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Originally published by Street Sheet. ©



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