HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — A little after 6 in the morning and everything was in place. Ensconced under an overpass in Montreal the tell-tale signs of success surrounded me: soggy cardboard, recent trainriders’ tags and a sleeping homebum told me that the site was well-known as a portal east to the Maritimes. Like clockwork, my train pulled in at 10:30 a.m. and I made camp. Stringing my hammock inside the rail car, I popped a still-cold can of beer and felt pretty smug about my trip east.
We rolled over the Pont Victoria railbridge at 11 a.m. and I couldn’t have been happier.
Four hours later, holding a bilingual appearance ticket from the Le ministre de la Justice on the outskirts of Quebec City I wondered whether my luck had changed. In the past two hours, my hat had been taken by the wind, my hammock had snapped under my weight and now I was looking at a hefty fine for trespassing.
It all went down as we pulled into the Joffre Yard outside Quebec City. I took a peak to see a police cruiser charging toward the train. Crap, I thought, maybe someone had spotted me even though I’d ducked at virtually every crossing.
We ground to a halt and I heard a car door slam and the crunck of gravel. Not even breathing, I almost prayed and tried to think quietly. Slowly a long pole with a mirror rose up over my rail car. It was like something out of War of the Worlds as I looked at the cop looking at me through his panopticon-on-a-stick contraption.
“Get out guy,” he ordered with a slight French accent. He seemed happy to greet me; I was less enthusiastic.
I asked how he found me. He answered that he “always” checks this train in the summer. Its relative speed to Halifax (about 24 hours) and the fine weather makes it attractive to riders, he said. So for the last three years, Canadian National has had the railcops check each car. I watched him as he did just that with his parascope, checking each 48-foot and even 53-foot rail cars.
That said, a $141CAN fine is still cheaper than buying a passenger ticket from Montreal to Quebec City. And people say Amtrak is a rip-off. The rail cop laughed heartily when I pointed this out.
Declining his offer for a ride into town, he agreed to take me to the highway. I fished out a piece of cardboard from a Dumpster and scrawled Nouveau Brunswick with a magic marker. Those French-speaking Gauls ate it up. I didn’t have to wait more than five minutes for any rides.
Somewhere in eastern Quebec I got a lift from a grizzled and tanned older guy in a minivan. He was “affiliated” with Hell’s Angels and trying to make good time to see his son who had been hospitalized in a mountain bike accident. He was a generous sort, sharing his cigarettes and booze as we took turns almost-falling-asleep-at-the-wheel in rural New Brunswick.
“I can’t read these fucking signs they’re all in French,” he grumbled at the roadsigns.
The highway signs said ‘Nouveau Brunswick’ — it might’ve been written in Russian as far as he was concerned.
Dawn was just creeping up when I found the railyard in Moncton. By this time I was close to delirious from a lack of sleep. I wandered around the yard – it’s layout confused me – looking for a friendly worker to ask which trains go where. I didn’t want to end up back in the Joffrey Yard in Quebec staring at a cop through his mirror-on-a-stick again; I knew that much.
I sot of wore out my welcome in the yard. The few workers avoided me in my cart. After I was still hanging out after a long junk trail had left the yard, someone called the cops because there they were. Two federal Mounties (they ride Ford Crown Vics now, unfortunately) called me over for questioning.
I spun them a yarn about being dropped off hitchhiking by a railroad worker and getting lost in the yard trying to find an exit. For the third time in my life, I was in the back of a Canadian cop car being driven to the highway.
It’s not too bad being an undesirable in Canada. While U.S. cops might drive you out of town, in Canada they chauffeur you.
I saw my train again, rolling fast south of Truro, Nova Scotia. It was in the distance, hugging the shoreline and I felt bad for not being on it and good that I was going to beat into Halifax despite all of my screwing around in Moncton.
Halifax itself is a pleasant enough place. The seedy port has been largely converted in condos. It still has a slight air of being an imperial outpost of the British Empire but more often it’s like a leafy college town you’d find in New England.
Last night an old Scotsman nicknamed “Scotty” told me how you used to get 10-pounds of fresh fish if you stood a fisherman a couple draught beers. The fishing fleet’s all gone now but there’s still the port. The second-best deepwater port in the world, a bartender tells me.
Time to get off this bloody computer and see the sea.