BOXCARS AND BACKSEATS

In Features /

By Chelsea Miya

The train grunts and wheezes, belching diesel fumes as it gathers speed. You run. Your feet pounding the ground, sweat dripping down your face, looking for the perfect place to attack.

You take a deep breath and jump. For a half a second that seems to stretch on forever you soar through the air, your heart pounding in your chest — will you make it? Your hands catch hold of the metal rails.

And suddenly you’re riding the swell of the train, the wind ripping through your clothes, the tracks a blur beneath your feet.

It’s like surfing a 125 ton wave carved out of steel and hurtling down the tracks at speeds of up to 200 kilometres an hour. One wrong move and you’re dead.

But it’s worth the risk for you. You’ve got to get home and you don’t have the money for a bus or a plane. This train is your only chance.

If you know what you’re doing, you can ride the rails for free — or appeal to the kindness of strangers to hitch a ride.

More than that, hitching is a culture. A way of life. One that’s managed to find a new place in our environmentally and economically ravaged world.

“I never travel in conventional ways,” says veteran hitchhiker and train-hopper David Jackman, 20.

“Travel is too expensive. Gas is too high. I don’t like wasting more than I need to. It’s the down and out way to travel without causing any harm to the environment. If other people are going the same way why not hitch a ride?”

The dangers, however, are always present. Two of Jackman’s friends have lost their legs train hopping.

“They were trying to get on a train and slipped and couldn’t get back up,” he says. “Their legs got pulled underneath the rail cart. Now they’re both living in wheelchairs.”

There are almost 60 fatalities a year from trespassing on trains in Canada, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

And the danger doesn’t stop there.

“All the odds are against you,” Jackman says. “The train cops are against you, the railroad workers, most of the people you meet in cities even. If you get caught a lot of times you’ll just get thrown off. But sometimes you’ll get a huge fine. Sometimes you’ll get jail time. Sometimes you’ll get the shit kicked out of you by the train cops and just left in the middle of nowhere.”

But the risk, Jackman says, is part of the thrill.

“You feel more human,” he says. “It’s exhilarating. It’s adventurous. It feels almost like riding a bicycle really fast through a field or a forest. It’s unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced.”

Jackman has train-hopped across Canada. And this past summer he hitchhiked from Winnipeg all the way to George Brown College in Toronto so he could tour the campus.

Sleeping in abandoned trucks and under porches. Washing your face in McDonald’s washrooms. Carrying your entire life’s possessions on your back, and not knowing which city you’ll be in when you wake up the next morning.

During the Great Depression, over 250,000 teenagers in the United States were living on the roads, hitchhiking and train hopping from city to city in search of opportunity and adventure.

Today, anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 people still train hop and many more are hitchhikers.

And modern hitching isn’t just for hobos. When Charles Moffat first hitchhiked across North America at age 18, he wasn’t homeless. He was in love.

“I went down there to visit a girlfriend. I met her on the Internet and hitchhiked all the way down to Ohio in the snow, and then when I got there she dumped me.”

Moffat didn’t have a plan when he left home one morning in the middle of the school year. Only a backpack full of poetry, an art history textbook and a bunch of dirty laundry.

“I basically just ran off,” he says. “By the time my parents figured out I was gone I was already across the border.” Moffat’s great aunt and uncle were killed by hitchhikers.

“They were out near Nova Scotia and they picked up two guys dressed in army uniforms, and they killed them and took their car. It was a gruesome scene.”

But he still says hitchhiking’s bad reputation is only due to “a few bad eggs.”

“The most dangerous thing is those idiot rednecks that swerve at you.”

Travis Tasker, 22, has hitchhiked and train hopped since he was 12 and says the worst that has happened is people splashing him with puddles or giving him the finger.

But hitching isn’t glamorous.

Jackman almost died after being stuck out on the side of the road for two or three days with no food.

“Some guy pulled over and gave me a sandwich,” said Jackman. “He basically saved my life.”

To avoid these worst-case scenarios, always tell people when you go hitching. Don’t carry too much money. Stick to smaller highways because it’s too hard to pull over on freeways. Look presentable —“it’s like a job interview.”

If you’re thinking about train hopping bring enough food to last three or four days. And lots and lots of warm blankets.

“There’s good and there’s bad,” said Jackman. “The sun can be shining and you can feel wonderful, comfortable and at peace with everything. Or it can be raining and you can be soaked and miserable. You’re cold, shivering through the night. You can’t focus on anything. And you want to get home, but you can’t. You’re on a train in the middle of nowhere.”

Tasker was living on the streets when he started hitching. When he was at his lowest point in life, the kindness of strangers gave him rare hope.

One time he had been walking for hours in the rain when a girl pulled over and offered to give him a ride.

“She only had a little bit of money, but she opened her wallet and gave me half of what she had and said ‘I hope this works.’ I remember giving her a great big hug. I never saw her again, but it always stuck with me,” he says. “Most people would never do that to someone they’ve never met before and probably would never meet again. More than even the money, I was thankful for the compassion.”

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