This was the winter of 2002. I had been riding in Canada for almost a month. I had made the decision to seek warmer climate, so I chose to head south through the border near Malone, New York, where I would cross into the USA.
Montreal, Quebec, has always presented its problems. The railroad police were on keen alert for trespassers in the Ville Yard. Another concern was immigration. The police were alerted when any train came into the yard that had come out of the USA and over the Lasalle Bridge crossing the Saint Lawrence River into Montreal.
I had planned on catching-out of the Ville Yards after sunset, so I would stand a much better chance to get away with an illegal crossing once I entered into the USA at Saint Stanislas Point.
After midnight I made my way to the south side of the Lasalle Bridge & made camp as the temperature was 10 degrees outside! The freight train that had come across the bridge an hour earlier had been moving a bit faster than I had hoped, so I repacked my duffel bag and threw out what heavy things that I could do without. By making my pack lighter, I would stand a better chance at hopping the next train heading my direction once it rolled upon and over the bridge. I threw out two pairs of dirty britches, four shirts, and an array of smaller whatnots. Actually I wound up making a smaller pack but not lightened it. I maybe lightened my load by eight pounds. Though this doesn’t sound like much, once my train came rolling across the bridge I would be able to run faster and this would then be worth it.
Dawn had come and gone and no train, so I hid my backpack underneath the bridge under some red-colored, discarded canvas and walked into the small township of Kahnawake for hot coffee at Tim Horton’s famous coffee-shop. Kahnawake was actually on a “First Nations People” reservation. (The exact same as an American Indian reservation here in the USA). The temperature now was five degrees back at the bridge, so it was great having hot coffee that morning!
After four cups of great tasting coffee, I now had to walk back about one mile to the bridge. As soon as I walked out the door of Tim Horton’s, I could both hear and see the train that I had waited on all night. It was starting it’s very slow creep onto and across the bridge. I ran as fast as I could back to the catch-out spot, grabbed my gear from under the tarp, and stood next to the train that was now passing in front of me at around five mph. I hopped inside an open boxcar. Thank God! The reason this time for the train’s slow speed had to do with the frigid weather outside. Speed restrictions are given on bridges if the ambient temperature is cold enough for a certain amount of time the steel rails contract to the point that they can snap clean through, causing a derailment, so regular maintenance crews inspect these rails continually for this condition of breaks. I actually had lucked out because the weather was so cold this day that my train was running slowly.
After I boarded the boxcar, I right away broke out my down-filled army sleeping bag and laid it on top of my cardboard flap I had toted along with me that night so I would have something insulating to sit on while I waited for the train. Carrying cardboard, in fact, is one of the most important things that anyone can do in bitter cold climates when hopping freight trains! Another thing that you must do when you are in extreme cold climates is take your water container to sleep with you inside your bed roll while sleeping or in your coat during your waking hours. Not all the time do you have to walk around with this container on you, but it’s good to place it inside of your coat for about five minutes for every half hour. This keeps your water from freezing solid and rendering it useless.
Our top speed on this trip out of Montreal was no faster than 25 mph, so it took the train three to four hours to reach the Canada/USA border, which we crossed as though no border was there. This was great! No immigration or railroad police at all. The weather was too cold for them to be getting out and watching every train that crossed. I was now almost in the town of Massena, New York, when we finally stopped to swap out the locomotive units. The units have to be swapped & put on another train thats headed back to Montreal. The same is done with the train that just came up from the south, so we got their units, & they got ours! So now we had a set of Conrail units, and the other northbound train now had a set of C.P. units (Canadian Pacific).
I now was rolling southward toward the town of Watertown, New York, and this train’s destination was Buffalo. As we rolled into the Conrail Railroad Company’s yards, I noticed that security in the yard had been beefed since this train had not had its check at the border, or so I thought. As the train stopped in the switching area of the yards, I took all of my gear, flopped it onto my back, and started my walk out of the yards, when I heard a voice on a bullhorn! The voice commanded me to put down my back pack and put up my hands in the air where they could be seen. It was the Conrail Railroad Company Police! The cop asked me where I had come from. I told him that I rode in on a freight train from Albany’s Selkirk Yards in order to keep out of even more trouble, because if I’d have told him that I came in on that train that came out of Canada, I’d have been in greater trouble I thought. He asked to see my identification. After I showed my Alaska state ID-card, he ran a background check on me to see if I had any outstanding warrants, which I didn’t. He then gave me a verbal warning for trespassing and told me if he caught me on the property again, he would be forced to place me under arrest and have to then take me to the iron-bar hotel. Afterward I slowly made my way to McDonald’s for hot coffee and a warm, satisfying meal of a double-cheeseburger.
Now I surely had to wait until nightfall before I could catch-out on a westbound freight train! The clock had shown me that the time was nearing 7 PM, and since this was January and also this far north, the dark night had now been upon me for at least three hours. I slowly again made my way toward the railroad yard to catch-out. Around 10 PM a west bounder came up for crew-change and I safely boarded this mixed freight train on another boxcar, rolled-out inside my bed roll and went to sleep before we even took off west toward Chicago.
During the dark of night, I had traversed through Cleveland, Ohio, and on through Toledo, Ohio, crew-change points all of the way to Hammond, Indiana, by daybreak. I had gotten on a mixed freight train that was making great time. Too bad I would have to get off her once I got to Chicago. We pulled all the way into the Homewood Yards in Homewood, (a suburb of south Chicago).
Later that morning I walked out to the south end of the Homewood Yard. Just as I got to the south end yard departure area, an all-grain train pulled up and stopped for clearance to move over onto the mainline and out of the yards. The engineer opened up his frozen side window of his locomotive unit and asked me where I was headed. I told him anywhere south! He told me in a loud voice that they were taking this train as far south as Champaign, Illinois, where they would crew-change there, but the whole entire freight train full of grain would be going as far south as the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, to where the grain would then be offloaded onto a grainer ship, then hauled over-seas to starving nations! He had asked me then if I had a warm enough sleeping bag. I told him the truth that I in fact did have a nice, warm, (actually too warm) sleeping-bag, but he still asked me if I wanted to ride in the last rear locomotive unit where I could stay warm inside of the cab! I gladly accepted his offer and was then inside this train’s unit cab riding in style! Inside this warm, dry cab I had free bottled water, a small fridge, bathroom, & four different heaters to choose from that I could use to keep myself warm during the trip!
I only had one problem! When I got off the last train I hadn’t yet gone to the store to buy food for the next leg of my trip, so even though I had a nice warm, dry unit to ride inside, I had no food at all to eat! After we had traveled around 75 to 80 miles south, the conductor came back to the unit that I was riding to check on me and get to know me a bit better. Also he wanted to find out what shape that I was in financially. After I told him about my food situation, he brought back to me half of a bologna sandwich and a whole bag of Dorito’s corn chips to eat. Then handed me a twenty dollar bill from himself and a twenty dollar bill that he said the engineer had wanted to give to me as well! This still didn’t cure my food problems, but the bologna and chips helped out a lot. I was able to stay on for two more crew-changes after Champaign.
Fulton, Kentucky crew-change had its arms wrapped around me once we got there! I had to bail off here to buy more food for the next leg of my trip south, so after bailing, I walked way out to the Wal-Mart of Fulton and went crazy inside of the store I was so, so, hungry! I bought around five days worth of food here. Then I had to haul it back to the catch-out camp underneath the hiway bridge that crosses the railroad switching yards. Once at my catch-out camp, I remembered that time I had come through Fulton on a train riding with a crack-head. That had only been a year since that had happened, so that memory was then still so fresh in my head. It gave me goose-bumps of laughter and sorrow.
After about three hours at catch-out camp, it had really warmed up a lot this day! The weather was around 45 degrees outside, so I leaned up against the concrete pillar of the bridge and lightly napped. I woke to a passing train that entered the yards from the north an hour later. I tentatively watched each railcar that passed me up for a ridable car. There it was: a very nice “plug-door” boxcar passed as the train come to a complete stop to crew-change. I grabbed my gear once again & walked up about two car lengths, and popped myself into this boxcar and fell to sleep. After I had caught up on my sleep, I knew I needed to be awake once we pulled into Memphis, Tennessee, since the railroad police here could be pretty rough sometimes. By jumping off the train outside the yards, you stood a much better chance of not being caught.
I was in luck again on this trip, I thought, because once we pulled through the city limits of Memphis after sunset, I could ride all the way into the yards and not have to get off. We pulled into yard limits of the ICG (Illinois Central & Gulf) after midnight. I was close enough to the front of the train to see that we were only doing a crew-change and would not be yarding out this train. I was ecstatic! This meant that I would be going as far south as Jackson, Mississippi. Oh, this was so nice, being able to travel from Montreal all the way to Jackson, Mississippi in three days! What a nice winter-time run I had made so far on this trip. The temperatures were now near 60 degrees warmer than what it was 76 hours before.
We pulled into Jackson around 10AM the next morning. The weather was about 55 degrees outside, and I was so darn happy to now be thawed out! While we did our crew change, I got to thinking that as long as I was doing so good on miles and time, that I should just go ahead and stay on the train. I had enough food/water, why not? So about seven to eight hours after Jackson, the train pulled into the “Norfolk & Southern” railroad company’s yards down in New Orleans, Louisiana. As soon as I bailed off my boxcar, another railroad policeman spotted me and ordered me to do the same thing as the one had in Buffalo! This time I would have a very different outcome.
After I was handcuffed, placed in the back seat of his police vehicle, and taken to the yard office, he then called the regular city police of New Orleans to come pick me up to take me to jail! After he found out that it was going to take some time yet for the other police to take me into custody, he said that we were now going to play a game. If I were to get his question right, that he would let me go free! I told him that I was game and would at least give it a shot if it would keep me from going to jail in New Orleans!
The question was, “What was the the year when there were more miles of train tracks that existed?” Oh my God! I knew this not! I answered, “Was the year 1930?” he said, “Wrong”! He said that the year he knew for a fact was “1932”. About 45 minutes later the city of New Orleans policemen arrived and took me downtown. After hearing my story about the railroad cop’s trivia question, they wrote me out a paper trespassing ticket, then turned me loose to go as I pleased, instead of placing me in jail! They said they didn’t think that it was fair for him to have done me that way. Also there was absolutely no room for me in jail, especially for a tiny trespassing charge anyway.
After taking a city bus out to the Gentilly Yards in New Orleans that the CSX Railroad company owned, I caught out on another train and rode out west toward Houston, Texas, where five days later, I rode to Los Angeles, California, all by way of riding on freight trains.