Adapted from an article written October 2008.
As summer exhales its final hot breaths over Kamloops, two nomads from opposite ends of the country come together in the city’s streets, bonding over their shared love of marijuana and life on the road. A few weeks later I meet them on the sidewalk of Victoria Street as they are about to make their way to Quebec for the fall and winter.
Michael is a 19-year-old from Montreal who arrived here this summer after stowing away on trains from Quebec to British Columbia.
“I came here for traveling and for work, but I have not found a lot,” he tells me in a French Canadian accent. His brief time spent in the province has included odd jobs such as fruit picking and a stint at a winery. Now he is sitting downtown by the curb, sporting a short black Mohawk and dressed in a sleeveless shirt and jeans with a Sex Pistols patch sewn onto one leg. He plays an acoustic guitar for passers-by, hoping to gather enough change in his open guitar case for a meal and some cigarettes.
His possessions fill a shopping cart behind him along with bundles of sage that he is selling for additional income. He hands me one of these bundles, wrapped in fluorescent orange rubber bands, and instructs me on what he describes as an ancient ritual.
“You burn it and you inhale it, and it eliminates the negative energy and it relaxes your body,” he informs me.
Standing alongside Michael is Ashley, an 18-year-old girl from Kamloops with a penchant for train hopping herself. She is wearing a camouflage hat and black thick-rimmed glasses, with various piercings dotting her face. She leans on a bright yellow hikers backpack with an army helmet strapped to it.
This same backpack has caused her difficulty in the past by weighing her down as she has tried jumping onto boxcars, but she tells me that she would rather keep it on her back than throw it on the train ahead of her.
“Some people toss their bags on and then the train keeps going and they miss it,” she explains, “and then they’re S.O.L.” As for making it on the train safely, she has a system for assessing whether or not it is moving slowly enough.
“If you can see the bolts moving and you can count them you’re good to jump on. If not, don’t bother.”
In addition to safety concerns, train hopping also carries a legal risk.
“The railroad people give you about a $500 fine if they catch you,” Ashley tells me. “They get you for an illegal form of transportation and trespassing.” She has not been caught so far, but Michael was once unlucky in this respect. He avoided actually having to pay the penalty by giving a fake name.
Other times, train hopping has its upsides.
“Sometimes you can get into the big railroad cars and there will be nobody in there and they’ve got a cooler full of food and water,” Ashley says. “So you raid the fridge and go down a few more cars and you’re set.”
Combined, the two wanderers have traveled all over Canada along the path of the railway, either alone or with others. They ride trains for fun and excitement, and to explore the entire country in a way that people with homes and regular jobs never could. They are happiest living their lives this way. Now that they have found each other, they are uniting as a drifting duo to venture all the way from Ashley’s hometown to Michael’s, and from there to wherever else the railroad happens to take them.
This time they have managed to save up enough money to take a Greyhound instead of jumping on a train, but after purchasing bus tickets they were left with no money to buy anything to eat. They have been hungry for so long that they have been counting each hour that passes without food.
“We have not eaten in two days and 20 hours,” Michael laments. “It is fucking hard.”
Despite their hunger, both of them remain upbeat and cordial. They keep smiling the entire time that I am speaking with them. As we continue to talk and the time of their departure for Quebec nears, a variety of other vagrants keep stopping by to say their goodbyes and to offer farewell hugs to the pair. When the two of them finally leave for the bus station I wish them well.
The bus schedule limits the duration of my time spent with them, and I am left with so many more questions about them and their lives of mobility. I want to know how they learned to survive without a permanent home, what first inspired them to ride the rails, and how they are able to maintain such an untypical existence in a world that encourages conformity.
Theirs is a restless lifestyle of exploration and rare experience, and although I have only spoken to them briefly I can feel some of that restlessness rubbing off on me. I almost want to discard all identification and abandon my own life of endless school and work, discovering for myself what it is like to live free from the constraints and responsibilities of organized society. No matter how much I might desire to do so, however, I know that I could never follow all the way through with it. It must take a certain kind of personality to be able to do this — one of unrestrained spirit, courage, and an unstoppable thirst for adventure — the same kinds of traits that Ashley and Michael possess.
I get in my car and drive back to my house and routinized life, stopping along the way to wait for a train to cross the road in front of me. As it passes by I wonder whose makeshift vehicle and temporary home it might be.
– Cory Magnus Stumpf