ST. HYACINTHE, Quebec — Get caught or get stranded. Neither was certain but I’d have to move soon or else that train would pull without me. No guts, no glory, I kept telling myself. I was in the wrong part of the Halifax railyard when I realized how little time I had.
Between me and my train was a second locomotive full of workers with radios. It was a suicide mission to run out into the open with no cover.
Peering through three stationery junk trains I could see my freight idling, my ride back toward Montreal. I’d been caught and ticketed a few days prior and didn’t want yet another court date or hefty fine. I resolved not to risk it, doubled back on my word and leapt out into the open. Scrambling over a couple of lumber cars, I was just around the bend from the idling locomotive. My freight began to roll.
Car after car passed on the highway, I was in the line of sight of the locomotive now and the yard office was around the bend. I willed myself invisible as I counted each unridable pass me as the train picked up speed. It was at the very ass-end of the train that I saw my ride. Running with my pack, I drew up to the ladder and jumped. I caught the railing and clung for dear life before vaulting over it and landing with a loud thud inside the well between the container and the coupling of the rail car. At the moment we passed the yard office, not 10 feet from my car, I pressed myself against the wall praying they wouldn’t see down to my hiding place. We lost speed and began to slow.
The train stopped.
Quieting my breathing, I listened. There was the distinct crunch of gravel as someone approached my car. Busted for sure, I realized.
A dreadlocked head popped up peering into the well; I don’t know which one of us looked more startled.
“Mind if we ride?” he asked.
How many are you?
About eight, plus dogs, he said.
I told him there was another ride further down– but as I answered the train lurched forward. We were aired up and rolling.
“Please don’t trip,” he said as my bucket began to fill rapidly with guitars, dogs, girls, boys, packs, beer and the usual accoutrement of a freight train journey.
In all there was 10 people and four dogs. That’s exaggerating — two of the dogs were puppies.
I was conflicted. While I welcome their company (and their Moose Dry Ice beer) nothing brings heat down on you harder than 11 people and four dogs crammed into two freight cars. Whatever, it was a party and I was glad to be a part of it.
Several had been recently bailed out from the jail in Halifax having smashed up part of the downtown in a protest of the Atlantica economic summit the week prior. All had been at the protest which the Halifax newspapers and locals in the taverns were still talking about in disbelief: there hadn’t been running street battles in Halifax between riot police and black-clad Anarchist protesters in quite awhile.
I don’t know what we were protesting, I just wanted to smash things, the youngest told me.
When the booze had about run out we crammed into a puppy pile and tried to sleep. I dreamed of vein thrombosis with their deadly blood clots as I tried to shift my legs. The sun rose the next morning and New Brunswick was before us. Mist rose from the glens and valleys and roared past small lumber operations and minor towns as we headed toward Edmundston.
The group wasn’t exactly discreet, nor was I. We took turns riding on top of the containers though we ducked down for major crossings and for railworkers. But we were waving at school buses and little old ladies. It was only a matter of time before Jean Law appeared to pull us off in some small French town.
When we spotted the same worker twice traveling in a van spotting us, we knew it was trouble. Our train slowed shortly after midday and there was two RCMP police cruisers parked. Damn federales, I muttered.
End of the line, we realized.
They climbed up the coupling and peered down at us. We tried to look unthreatening.
“Do you have any firearms?” the eldest federale asked with a clipped Acadian French accent. We had a hearty laugh at that.
“It’s just regulations,” he said apologetically.
One by one we were searched and questioned. The lead cop was good humored and took our ribbing well. The other cops, a man and a woman. were young and our tickets were more on-the-job training for their benefit than to teach some grizzled dreadlocked Anarchists with rail tattoos a lesson.
One listened to our guitar playing with interest and offered that he was a musician.
The CN railworker who’d spotted us was there. I asked him what the big deal was — why bring the heat down on us?
“It’s very unsafe If that train derails, we’re the ones that have to clean up the bodies,” he said trying to sound like a protective parent.
Come on, you’re a railroad man, I told him, you know that statistically speaking rail travel is a lot safer than automobiles on the highway.
Being a railroad man, he couldn’t argue.
We were issued with tickets for $100CAN each. I was stupid enough to give a real name and address.
We were run for warrants. A few were smart enough to use an alias. One girl who protests a lot, turned up a restriction that forbids her from carrying a crossbow, concrete or chicken wire. What she had done with any of the three to earn that restriction, I wouldn’t want to imagine.
Then we each had our picture taken. For reasons not clear, the RCMP wanted a big group photo. Perhaps like fishermen documenting a big catch, they wanted it for their wall. We were enthusiastic and all smiled. We begged for a copy. Finally, he passed around a sheet in which we wrote down our emails and he promised to send us a copy.
The lead cop then made a speech — in French — explaining that he had pulled us off the train because he was answering a complaint from the railroad. Hitchhiking was illegal in the province but he recognized that we had few options so he wanted us to leave any way we could without generating any complaints from residents, he said.
Stuck in the minuscule town of St. Leonard, New Brunswick about a mile from the Trans-Canada highway, Edmundston — the next crew change for freights — was a good 40km away.
I bade farewell to my new friends and hit the highway. It began pouring and I was glad I’d packed full raingear.
It wasn’t easy getting picked up at first, but two long lifts later I had made it to Drummondville, Quebec about 40km from a good friend’s town. I called for rescue and and sat up on a hay bale waiting for my ride while working on a 12 pack and Stephen King novel. Watching the sunset over the farmland straddling the main highway, I reflected on this year’s miserable 0-2 record for getting busted on Canadian freights.
Now I’ll hafta get me a job to pay my debts to Canadian society.