Strange Cargo

Lessons from the Jack London Finishing School

Saturday, August 05, 2006

836 - Big Rock Candy Mountain

NOTE! To read this in chronological order please scroll down to the first post and start reading at the beginning. Thanx!

The green line marks my route on Canadian National through Canada.

Well, 5310 miles later and I'm here at my end destination. This fact doesn't really sink in for a day or two, but when it does it makes me a bit sad. After exiting the Rockingham yard I caught a bus to downtown Halifax and went looking for some familiar faces. The girls that I met in Winnipeg were coming this way and I'm hoping to see them again. After some wandering about I spot a few travellin' kids and go over to speak to them. As it turns out, one of them is Dale, who Rodney told me about back in Winnipeg. I decide to go have a look at the city and eventually find the VIA station and stash my pack in a locker there. While at VIA I got a quote on a ticket from Prince Rupert to Halifax. It's was almost $CDN 1600.00. Ha ha! After a while, from directions provided, I find The Arch which is a drop-in center for homeless and travelling youth run by an ex-catholic nun. After brief questioning they take me in and provide a shower which is welcome at this time. A meal is offered and I accept. Before leaving there I check email and such since they have an internet connection.

Going back into the city it seems that these fine Haligonians are of a rather liberal persuasion. The other thing that I discover about the populace here is that they are very involved in their community. I find this refreshing compared to the apathy that rules most american cities. The dominant accent here is decidedly Irish but without the rolling R's and not nearly as broad. The cost of living here is very low compared to what I have seen elsewhere in Canada, except maybe Montreal. Apartments are dirt cheap and the price of food seems to be somewhat lower than it is in Denver. After roaming around the city for most of the day I go retrieve my pack and go in search of Dale and his crew.

They are nowhere to be seen and instead I run into a completely different group of travellin' kids who are hanging out near the Sebastopol graveyard. It's getting late by now and these guys tell me that they're waiting for the graveyard to close in order to jump the fence in the back to sleep in there. I'm told nobody bothers you at all once you're inside, so it sounds like a good deal to me. After dark an attendant rolls up and closes the main gate which is a huge, heavy, wrought iron affair almost twice as tall as me. He speeds off and we all go around to the back side where the fence is lower. The Sebastopol cemetery is referred to as the burying grounds by the locals in Halifax. It was opened in 1749 and was used into the early 1900's. It's estimated that over 12000 people have been buried here, mostly in unmarked graves. The grave markers that are here are clean and simple in design and decorated in a pre-victorian gothic style with winged skulls as a primary motif. We roll out under a big oak after sharing of food and spirits and go to sleep.

The next day is spent just hanging around Halifax and observing this place. I really like it, and could definitely see myself living here at some point. This is the most attractive place I have been to on the North American east coast thus far. The climate is most agreeable and I think that I would love to visit in the winter to really experience it further. Towards evening time I end up down on the water and despite being somewhat of a tourist thoroughfare I decide to have a celebratory meal and drink to mark the end of the journey. On the way to find some grub, I pass a girl with a little dog of some unknown breeding and an accordion. She is kicking a ball across the pier, which the dog runs and brings back to her. While she is doing this she is playing the accordion. Pretty clever way to get some attention as nearly everyone is attracted to the dog. On the way back after getting some fish & chips and a beer I pass them again and now she is playing a pretty fast version of "There's whisky in a jar". I stop to listen because it reminds me of my own accordion and the lessons I took as a kid.

She takes a break after a while and I ask her if she is from around here. "No, Vermont" she says and adds "I travel a lot, my name's Beverly". After introducing myself I ask her how she gets around, because I have a hunch that she might be a freight rider. "Usually I hitchhike, but sometimes I ride trains" she says. I tell her my story and share my food with her and the dog whose name is "Tinker". As it turns out she has pretty much done the same route except for the distance between Jasper and Prince Rupert. This conversation reminds me of a saying that the hobo's home is everywhere and nowhere just the same, and I mention this to her. At the mention of this, a sadness is drawn across her face and she bids me adieu to return to the accordion. As I turn to walk away, the notes of a familiar song come through the air loud and strong. It's "Big Rock Candy Mountain" by Harry McClintock. I have to hear this, for it could not be a better ending to the casual meeting of two strangers who share a similar experience in life.

It is dark now, but I can still see the tears that are grudgingly making their way down her face... It makes me a little uncomfortable but mostly sad, because it seems I inadvertenly triggered the memory of sadness and time lost somewhere.
As I turn away a second time there are a few tears of my own rolling now, but I can't help but marvel at the beauty of it all.
I suppose this means that I will be seeking new adventures in order to learn more about life, for life is an unending saga of learning and understanding. But that will be a story for another time...

816 - End of the line


Awakened by a loud burst of white noise I look around to see that I'm in a yard of some size. Laying still in my sleeping bag I savor the moment of waking until I hear the crunch of boots on gravel, reminding me why I woke up in the first place. There are two voices approaching in the dark, the only visual cue I have of them is their spotlights bouncing around on the sides of the trains next to me. Bulls rolling the train on foot!? This is rather unusual.

There is no choice but to stay where I am, for even the rustling of my sleeping bag will give me away at this moment. As they walk by I can hear the guy to my left whistling a fast staccato tune to some obvious degree of merriment. A radio sparks to life and a voice says "Have you found those two,eh?", "No" is the reply. "Well hurry it up please!" comes through a scratch of static whine. "Jimmy's pissed eh?" says the whistler. "Eh." says number two. The men walk by, and as they do, twin beams illuminate the rear well of my car. I'm in the opposite end so they don't have a clear line of sight to me because of the wheels of the trailer. Moving on, number one resumes whistling, CN has happy workers...

Before long there is a volley of shrill barking echoing off the empties on the next track over and when I peek out from under my pig I can see that the two guys that got on in Joffre yard are getting yanked off the train. It's raining too. Damn.

After a while I figure out that I'm in the Gort Yard in Moncton,NS. The train works here for another 45 minutes before departing. The next time I wake it's to the sun climbing over the horizon while the train is slowly making its way into Truro. Realizing that there is only about an hour left of the journey I break out the stove and make some oatmeal and then a cup of tea before rolling up and preparing to detrain. Sitting on my pack watching the landscape fly by I'm suddenly hit by the unmistakable smell of ocean and the memories associated. A couple of minutes go by and then gradually through the trees, a view of the Bedford Basin in Halifax opens up. Soon the train is gliding along the shore with only a couple of feet of dirt and rock between the train and the water.

Before long the train is slowly rolling through the Rockingham yard in Halifax and I throw my pack and water off then squeeze myself out from under the pig which has been my home for the last 20 some hours. This yard is really small and is just a transit yard where westbound trains are built from strings of containers pushed out of the port facility nearby. There is a worker that saw me bailing off the train and he is joined by another one while I'm walking up towards them, away from the port. They say hello and welcome me to Halifax and wonder how far I have come.
"Prince Rupert" I reply and their laughter is deafening. This is kind of an awkward moment but after rephrasing my answer to indicate that I rode here from Montreal en route from Prince Rupert the laughter is replaced by a zillion questions, many of them about the railroad. After answering some of my questions, mainly how to get back out of the Rockingham Yard on a westbound they are off to tie down the train I rode in on. Before leaving I ask them if the bull is around and they just laugh, explaining that he is probably at Timmy Horton's with his buddies and usually never comes around until the evening departures start. The yard is littered with the empty shells of sea urchins and various other detritus from the sea, making me think of days past in my youth walking the Atlantic shore in Norway, another 4000 some miles further east. Too bad there's no tracks eastbound to take me away...

From maps that I memorized at Rod's house I know roughly where I am in relation to the city center. After leaving the workers I cut out of the yard by scrambling up an embankment and into the rear parking lot of a carpet store. It's about 9am but it's getting hot and I really want to get out of my long pants that I put on last night to ward off the chill after the sun went down. There is a small unlocked shed in one corner of the lot and upon opening it the only thing in there is a good size air compressor. After changing clothes in the compressor shed I'm on my way down the Bedford Highway and I can see a Timmy H. up ahead. This is no doubt the same place that the resident CN bull indulges in a coffee/sugar fix as it is almost directly across from the yard office. On approach I eyeball the TH dumpster but decide to let it be as there are two teenage girls in their worker-bee outfits standing in front of it smoking and talking animatedly. They don't even see me as I go in for a cup of coffee.

7316 - While travelling near or travelling far, keep your hands inside the car...

Quebec & New Brunswick

It's 7AM and I just woke from my slumber by the sound of a freight highballin' through. Supposedly the CHI-HFX intermodal comes through here and crew changes sometime in the morning. That train is my ticket eastward. I came out here last night in case they are early, and spent the night sleeping fairly well concealed on a cut of lumber racks that are parked right at the catch out.

Soon enough, a couple of hours later and after 6-7 junkers have rattled through, a long stacktrain eases on up and stops. A pig in a bucket is only three cars up so I trot on up there and get in. This ride is actually a semi trailer sitting inside an intermodal well car. The floor has a 4x10 flat section at either end, and is otherwise open except for two strips of grating for the wheels of the trailer to sit on. As soon as I'm situated the air goes up with the usual ticking,creaking and banging. Two minutes later the train jerks into motion with a tremendous boom and I wonder if the engineer is some class of greenhorn because that was the roughest start I've experienced in a while. Pretty soon I'm crossing the St. Lawrence river and on the mainline eastbound.

Later in the day at the Joffre yard outside of Quebec City the train stops for awhile and I see two other riders with a dog get in a well about 15 cars down from me. Refugees from the viking festival perhaps. By now it's pretty hot outside and I'm really glad for the shade I have under my pig. The suspicion that the engineer is inexperienced has been confirmed (in my opinion anyway) by the amount of slack-action, I'm only 20 or so cars from the units and it's bad. So I can't imagine what it must be like at the end of the train. I hope he doesn't bust a knuckle and break the train apart...

The heat is making me somewhat sleepy so I try to get a nap on but this proves difficult due to rough track. From where I'm hanging out, the wheels of the train are only about six inches away and when looking at them through a cutout in the wall of the car I can see that the car is not tracking straight at all and the wheel flanges are being slammed into the railheads on both sides as the car jostles back and forth between the rails. It seems somewhat violent and throws up plenty of sparks, but I guess I'm only mildly concerned...

The farmland of upper Quebec is getting repetetive so I settle down to read for the next few hundred miles. I'm reading "Police State America" which is conversely an account of transgressions on civil liberties in the US, and a discourse on the conequences thereof. After that I pick up "Black Hawk Down" (Mark Bowden) but now I'm in New Brunswick and my attention goes to the scenery instead. It is quite beautiful here, almost all deciduous forest over tall rolling hills with lots of water about. Cricket had told me about a series of trestles that thread the CN rails through a small valley in NB and just after hitting the golden hour the terrain opens up to a small town nestled in the bottom of the valley.

Soon the train is upon the main trestle and it is rather impressive. The trestle spans the entire town, going directly above it at a height of about 5-6 stories tall. The view from up here is unreal,the town looks like pictures I have seen of model railroads with painted in sunsets and static plastic people on their way along the streets to meticulously modeled houses. In the waning sunlight of the real world it looks like a Bierstadt painting in color and composition, but is idyllic as Arcadia...

Looking down over the side of the car I realize that the speed of the train is completely blurring the ties on the trestle, thus making it appear as though the rails are floating in thin air. I duck back down under the trailer to look out the bottom of the car and discover that this will probably be the closest I'll ever come to a magic carpet ride. Sitting on the edge of the platform down in my bucket I assume the lotus and pretend to be in charge of this conveyance. It's a wonderful moment of just letting everything go, enjoying the moment, and realizing who I am.

"Natures first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower; But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief.
So dawn goes down today, Nothing gold can stay..."

7306 - Squeaky Cheese and Beautiful Girls


My stay here in Montreal has been quite pleasant. I'm here at the house where Spoke, Oks, and Dave live. On getting up in the morning I go out to get some onions that Spoke mentioned were in the next door grocers dumpster. When I open the lid there is also a fair amount of packaged goods, lots of sour cream and couscous salads. The onions and the couoscous come with me and after getting some Carling Black Label I go to work making some onion soup. This ends up being a bigger project than I had anticipated, but it's OK. There's something about a well stocked kitchen that always puts me at ease. To say that I'm a good cook would be a stretch but I seem to make out OK most of the time. Anyway, I figure that I should do something to make myself useful around here. These folks are all complete strangers but don't seem to mind a traveller staying, or invading their kitchen.

Oks is still sleeping, he's more of a night owl and frankly reminds me in appearance of Tim Roth portraying Vincent Van Gogh in the film "Vincent and Theo". Oks is cool and we get along pretty well, I think we may actually have similar personalities. Oks doesn't say a whole lot but one on one he opens up quite a bit. Spoke and Oks have ridden trains quite a bit and I find this reassuring for some indescribable reason. I suppose it's just another familiar experience that we share as people. Scary & Piano are Spoke's two dogs, they are actually brothers and seem to be attached at the hips. Sometimes they sit next to each other in one of the open windows and watch the street down below.

Later on I go back out for more Black Label and discover that this part of the city is lined with shops, bars and cafe's on the street level and apartments directly above. Most are specialty shops, meaning that there are no variety stores a la Walgreens or 7-11. As I find out later on, there is a strong grassroots movement here to stop the gentrification that has decimated other neighborhoods in the city. As I walk down the street and experience the ambiance of life here it becomes very clear to me that urban renewal would not leave any room for the qualities that make this a way of life for those who live here now. The old men sitting in wooden folding chairs on the sidewalk, drinking coffee laced with the contents of silver flasks unveiled from under a vest or out of a coat pocket already seem to know what I'm thinking as they watch me go by.

Spoke is an attractive woman with a lovely voice and she seems to be quite articulate and informed. She also sings lead vocals in Ballast. Unfortunately I'm a little too shy to engage her in much conversation so I guess I'll never know what she knows. Her hair is a wavy, dark chestnut swath, loosely tied back over her shoulder in a way that makes me think of old dusty photographs from the depression years. She cuts a short but proportionally enticing figure that by the looks of it is bursting with life. The cadence and texture of her voice is what gets me though. Imagine opening a closet and finding a smoky black suede jacket with the crystals of spilled whisky on the cuffs and the dry remnants of white lilacs picked long ago in the pockets...

Oks and I go to a park on the St. Lawrence river right next to the CP line to see if there are any familiar faces there. Trains are being switched back and forth only a few yards in front of us and the noise is actually comforting, almost like a soundtrack playing in the background. There's a few travellers but none that I know. We hang out with them for a while drinking and talking. Everybody is pretty psyched about going to a viking festival tomorrow up in Quebec City. I find this kind of amusing that these Canadians are so excited about a chance to parade around in horns while getting smashed. Most are trying to figure out if they can catch a freight to Quebec City in time to get there for the opening ceremony. I would like to go but kind of want to stay here in Montreal to see more of the city. Pretty soon a girl shows up that has me in some state of confusion. For whatever reason, the impression I get is that she is very similar to me right down to the way she dresses. She is ofcourse much better looking than I am. Oks informs me that her name is Megan and that she lives here in Montreal. I'm too taken aback to try to initiate any contact with her, but the feeling that we are one and the same persists, I've never had this happen before... and I really don't understand what it means.

Another evening, Oks and I go down to a switchyard to streak up some cars and we end up on the top platform of a tanker drinking beer and just hanging out. There is a crew switching as we sit there but the yard is dark and they don't see us until a string gets pushed right by us and there is a worker standing on the rear platform. He jumps off, climbs the ladder to our tanker and then stands there bellowing at us in french. Eventually I tell him I don't understand and he says in a very heavy french accent "These trains, they cut you in half!" while pointing out of the yard. We get off and make like we're leaving but loop back to actually do the streaking. We were just taking a beer break you see...

One of the culinary curiosities of the province is Poutine. This is french fries doused with an onion based brown gravy and then sprinkled with fresh cheese curds. It's quite good, if somewhat dubious in nutritional content. If the cheese is fresh it will squeak when you sink your teeth into it. If sitting on a sidewalk patio while eating your Poutine you may watch the passing people and I must say the ratio of extraordinary female beauty is very high here. I won't venture as to an explanation to this phenomenon. It's quite remakable however.
Later on in the day I go back to the house and end up watching "Emperor of the North Pole" with Lee Marvin playing the part of "A No.1", a resourceful hobo determined to ride No. 19. Ernest Borgnine plays the part of a maniacal and blood thirsty bull determined to keep the hobos and especially A No.1 off his train. Classic Ernest Borgnine, this is a must see for anyone even remotely interested in the railroad.

Up in the top story apartment above us, Oks tells me a bunch of bikers from Amsterdam and Paris have made their home there. The other day while I was hanging out on the balcony, reading and drinking, a couple of them decide to stop by. These guys look exactly like the Hells Angels I know from Norway, long hair and beards, greasy jeans and leather vests, square toe boots and chain belts. It was always sort of funny to me how the European bikers have emulated the look of the Oakland, CA bikers from the 60's to the point that they appear like caricatures to anyone used to seeing what passes for biker culture in the States now. In many ways the Europeans are way more pure to the outlaw tradition as becomes evident when they offer me free drugs of my choice. I politely decline and explain that I'm content as I am. They understand and actually introduce themselves at this point; I'm in the company of Gert Jan and Phillipe. After offering up some onion soup, which they happily accept and slurp up with gusto, they go back up the wrought iron spiral stair case to their lair overlooking the city.

The last night of my stay here is at the International Fireworks Competition hosted by the city of Montreal every year. For six weeks in the summer there is a major fireworks show twice a week, and tonights show is the closer. This is the same park where I saw Megan so we're hanging out with some more travellin' kids again, but the numbers are diminished due to the viking festival. Otherwise the park is packed with people everywhere. The show commences and lasts for close to an hour. It is by far the most amazing fireworks show I have seen. The smoke hanging over the launch pad on the other side of the St. Lawrence looks like a giant piece of moss with it's green tendrils stretching skyward looking for light.