Train hopping started gathering mainstream popularity around the time of the Great Depression when migrant workers searching for a cheaper solution to paying for transportation out west started hitching rides on open box cars. Since that time hopping has declined a fair bit within the homeless community, but leave it to stoners, hippies and wayward travelers to keep the hobo lifestyle alive. Of course it's also good for those who like to take advantage of the brief Canadian summer before the weather turns into total bullshit again.
I sat down with Thaddeus Lenover, an intrepid young hesher who recently got back from a month and a half excursion starting in Toronto, going all over Ontario, through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and back. Here's what he had to say.
Vice: So where did you start?
Thaddeus: My friend Ryan and I started our trip in May of last year in Chattam, Ontario. From there we went to London, Toronto, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Regina, Melville, Swift Current, Calgary, all the way to British Columbia. It took a little over a month.
What gave you the idea to try?
Work, man. I was bored and wanted to travel. It's also harder to find work here than it is out there. I was there for around eight months and I did all kinds of work. Mushroom picking, commercial fishing, and was a groundskeeper for a marina for a couple months. I loved it. It's also easier to be homeless out there. People don't really care what you do. I found myself sleeping on the beach a lot. Having a good time, y'know?
What made you come back?
Yeah, it has its ups and downs.
Fair enough. What did you bring with you?
I had a nice green leather bag with a buck knife, couple fishing lures, all black clothing so I blended in at night, and my skateboard.
What'd you do for food? I imagine lots of "beans in a can".
I would buy fruits, and every chance I got I would hit up a Bulk Barn and fill up with trail mix. It's good and easy to carry. Put it in a sack and you're good to go. It lasts a while and it keeps you alive you know?
Rolling into the Rockies on a beautiful day. I was probably worrying about getting asphyxiated in the upcoming spiral tunnels (a set of tunnels that spiral up, across and down inside a mountain range) when I took this. Everything worked out great, though.
Was this your first time?
First huge trip I'd say. But I've been doing it since I was a kid. Growing up there was a train yard in my backyard and I would occasionally hop on a train to get to school, it was great. As I got a little older I started taking it around Southern Ontario, just for fun and to see where I would end up. Doing these little trips made me want to actually try across Canada. After going on my last one I'm definitely going on more long excursions.
I imagine figuring it all out is complicated, how do you know which trains to get on and which ones go where?
That can be tough, there's a lot of inside knowledge that you need to know. If not, you could be sitting for hours trying to figure it out, which is inevitable at some point or another. Before my trip I bought a Canadian atlas with detailed train roots that totally came in handy. You can ask the train yard workers and they can tell you which train is coming at what time and if it's possible to get on. My experience with the yard workers is that for the most part they are your friends and are willing to let you in on whatever you want to know. You have to watch out for the yard bulls though.
Messing around in a forest in Ucluelet, B.C.
Those are the security guys, right?
Pretty much. They are usually assholes and won't let you ride. You have to keep an eye out. They're usually in trucks patrolling around the yard. If you're unsure it's always good just to wait until the night to try and catch on to a train. Just in case, y'know? Wear some dark clothes and wait it out - heightens your chances of getting on.
Sets the mood. Any run-ins with bulls, or cops?
Yeah, in White River a cop saw Ryan and I get off a train and leave the yard. We had to wait an hour or so to get onto the right train. Figured we'd grab something to eat. The cop came over and told us to start walking and leave the town. He said he could tell that we had no business there and he wanted us gone. He ended up driving us to the edge of town and said if he saw us in town we'd go to jail.
Sounds eerily like the first Rambo movie…
We ended up missing the train we needed to get on and this sucked because it was nine o'clock in the morning so we had to wait it out until night time to sneak to the train yard and leave. We later found out from other travelers that White River is full of abandoned houses and people traveling through town crash in them. Which isn't a big deal but I guess that's what the cop figured we were planning on doing.
So which train cars are you supposed to ride?
Well box cars used to be ideal but now if you find an unlocked box car you're lucky. It's super rare. If I can I'll ride a C-Can 52. They actually call them 53s because they have a foot margin of error. It's good too because in that extra foot you can put your bag and things down so it's not so tight. Sometimes they'll have big yellow platforms in between the cars that you can ride on too. It's pretty rad because you're pretty much out in the open. Another thing about 53s is that they are considered priority cars so they usually go far and fast. "Grainers" are considered junk cars because they tend to go a little slower but it's an option. There are two areas at the front and the back of the car that are totally separate from the grain and can fit three or four people on each side. That's about it for ride-able cars.
Ever have to jump off?
Yeah dude, it is the worst. When trying to catch a train, Ryan and I would run along side, I would be in front and he would be running behind me because he was the faster runner. So one time the train was picking up speed, I threw my bag and quickly got on. Unfortunately it started going pretty fast and Ryan couldn't get on and I had no choice but to jump off. I got completely worked. Luckily didn't break anything, but I hurt my knee pretty bad and was shook up. Could have been worse though.
Tasty little Cabezon I caught one day while staying at my friend Mike's tree-house.
Yikes. Memorable sites?
Man, out West is so beautiful: crazy landscapes filled with animals, it was amazing. It looked magical. I would do it all over again just for that. In Moose Jaw Ryan and I saw where they flip and load tankers and it's a fucking toxic wasteland. It looks like apocalyptic shit you see in movies. Train workers in complete gas masks and suits surrounded by giant pools filled with oil for miles and miles. It's something you have to see for yourself. I had a camera with me, however it was at night and we couldn't risk getting caught by the flash going off.
Hot ass day from Toronto to Sudbury. Watching the city turn to cow fields then deep woods then marshland then barren wasteland and then Sudbury. This is probably the first time me and Ryan left our small-town train-hop comfort zones and realized we were going all the way.
Easily the shitiest part of the trip was trying to get out of Calgary. The line runs right through downtown which makes for close cop calls and frustrating complications. We found a nice big tree at a library and tried our best to stay out of the rain. Being in the worst mood and situation we couldn't help but laugh at ourselves. How about other train hobos?
Yeah mostly in Kamloops, Bristish Columbia. A couple people around my age, few homeless people, and a bunch of normal, older people who had been doing it for years, who still got a kick out of it. That was cool to see.
Any advice for people thinking about trying?
I'd say go for it. You get to see a side of Canada not many people get the chance to see. How far you're going should affect how to dress and what supplies to bring. If you're going on a short, fun ride, fuck it. Go with nothing. But if you're going on a serious trip you should try to bring a bag, not too heavy with some food, water, maps, knife, compass, and some beers don't hurt either. Again, try to wear dark clothes to avoid being seen at night. It's good to go with someone. You have to have patience, because sometimes you can be waiting days for your train to come.
Cool! Good luck on your next trip.
PHOTOS BY THADDEUS LENOVER AND AARON WYNIA