SARANAC LAKE, New York It was a such a simple, fool-proof plan, only a genius at incompetence could foil it.
And when it comes to ingenious incompetence, I’m your man.
Canadian National has been sending a lot of freight down through Vermont along the New England Central, I’d heard, through to White River Junction. Why not take a scenic ride through the Green Mountain State?
It was 4 o’clock and still blistering hot on the shores of Lake Champlain. I found some high grass and shade and read about Paraguay while mosquitoes devoured me. The insect gunk I slathered on seemed to act more like a condiment than a repellent. When I wasn’t fighting a war of attrition with the skeeters, I fended for my life against carpenter ants the size and ferocity of toy poodles.
Between the poodle ants and bloodsucking mosquitoes, the time inched along slowly. But that was okay, because this was the weekend and as the logic follows, on the weekend you have fun. So I was having fun.
As dusk fell, I supped on tinned fish and cool Pabst, which I’ve found has the perfect protein-to-carbohydrate ratio; it’s a jealously guarded secret among triathletes, the old domestic beer and sardines regime that’ll prep you for almost anything.
At eight o’clock I heard that whistle blow. Something about that whistle, Hank Williams is a lot more eloquent than I could ever be on the subject. Once you hear the train, no matter how long you’ve been waiting, how hot (or cold) you might be, that excitement washes away any discomforts that might’ve been nagging you up ’till that point. Whatever’s happened up to that point, you hear that train whistle and you’ve got a clean slate.
It was a long mixed freight with three locomotives, I never saw the end of the train. It was slowing as two grainers passed by at about 10 mph. I jogged along side, trying to catch the second one as the train finally stopped. I climbed aboard and as I sat down realized we were on our way.
The sun was down now and we were treated to a pomegranate-colored sky as
we winded our way through rows of corn stalks. Fireflies winked on and off, looking for a lay on a Saturday night.
I was admiring the orderly farms, surprised that so much corn is grown in northern Vermont, as I settled down for a snooze. About an hour later, we arrived in the first town. Glimpsing a sign that said, “Fort St. Albans” or something, I was reassured we were making good time. It was the other signs said that didn’t make sense.
They had words I didn’t recognize like “vendre” and “ordinateur” with too many vowels and funny accents. Are there pockets of French speakers in northern Vermont? We went across a grade crossing when I noticed the cars didn’t have front license plates.
Ta-bar-nak, I’m in Quebec. But how? Perhaps next time I’ll bring the map.
The ride into Montral was something else. Slowly lumbering over the Champlain Bridge with the skyline in the background was something I’d been wanting to do for awhile.
At first I wasn’t too troubled. I’ll just call up my friends in Montral and say “Surprise!” and have a good story to tell as we throw back a few drinks. That is if I hadn’t left my phonebook at home.
We kept rolling through larger and larger rail yards. We even passed through familiar neighborhoods, but we had too much speed to think about quittin’ early. Finally, we stopped on the edge of Canadian National’s huge Taschereau Yard. The train slowed to a stop and I jumped off, landing heavily in the ballast. I hoofed away as the train resumed, picking up speed as the yard swallowed the train like a spider in a drain.
I surveyed my surroundings. It’s a shame that rail yard always are built in burnt-out industrial suburbs still suffering the ravages of a recent apocalypse. Maybe I was just bummed that I wasn’t in pastoral Vermont.
Applying baby wipes liberally to clean the soot and grime off my face and hands, I ran into a Holiday Inn to ask about night buses. The last one’s in the 3 minutes, I was told. At least I had a strip of Metro tickets in my wallet.
Not surprisingly, none of my friends were home. What did I expect at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night? They were out on the tear somewhere.
Fortunately, I have a good friend in the Catholic Church. The Vatican, as one of the world’s largest landowners has many-a-times proffered its hospitality. I nestled up under a pine tree on the lawn of the church, had a nip of whisky to stifle a shiver, and called it a night.
The night wasn’t without its lessons. Anyone needing a coyote to get’em into Quebec, my rates are quite competitive.