After an uneventful ride with a speck of Lake Ontario far off in the distance, camouflaged by the grassy knolls and verdant pastures of countryside, I jumped off my train in CN Vaughan Yard near Concord, Ontario. Freight spit out of the yard, roaring geographical southbound, confusing me as to which manifests continued northbound on the highline to Winnipeg versus going back to Montreal. So I hoofed it. I wandered by a string of tankers on a WYE parallel to the adjacent highway through knee-high blades of grass, squishy ground, and bits of sharp ballast poking at the toes of my one sole-less boot.
I found myself in industry near a lot of commercial buildings with tractor trailers and not much going on, with no reason for me being there, other than hopping off the train. When I walked through the parking lot hunched over from the weight of my pack with my camera strapped over my neck, bouncing off my leg with each step, I stumbled upon a trucker who nearly inhaled his cigarette at the sight of the dirt splotched across my cheeks and forehead. Plumes of smoke clouded the air. He looked at me completely exasperated, at a loss for words. I paused.
“Hey man, you know any fast food places near here?”
He looked at me flabbergasted with his lip curled outward as the cigarette dangled from his mouth.
With a thick French accent he stuttered, “UHHH…yes, there is a fast food on the corner…a burger place…they have good burgers.”
I walked away quickly before I gave him a reason to become suspicious. He continued puffing down his cigarette while he stood in the shade, not at all concerned with where I was goin’ or what I was doin’, which is how I liked it. It made travelin’ easier when no one cared, but not always.
Anyway, I wandered down the road with the sun piercing my bare skin, shooting its nails into my scalp, beneath my long, thin, sweaty hair. My mouth watered from dehydration and a thirst for hot food ruminated in my mind, any hot food for that matter, and when I stumbled upon the corner burger joint, I plopped my ass in a seat, far off in the corner of the restaurant. Splotches of train grease adorned my cheeks, had blackened my fingernails, and covered my throat like a black turtle neck of filth. I ordered the cheapest combo on the menu, a burger, fries and a coke, before heading to the restroom to wash up.
As I watched the black pool of dirt whirl down the drain of the sink, it always amazed me how filthy the foxhole of a grainer stuck to every pore of my skin, speckling me with freckles of grime over any of my bare skin that was exposed to the train. I wiped my face, forearms, throat, and hands with paper towels and wiped the sink, leaving that restroom like a newborn man, but I knew as soon as I caught that next northbound train, I’d have to repeat the same ritual in another public restroom or outdoor spigot.
That zesty, steamy, hot burger and crisp, golden French fries tasted far better than most meals, not because of its superiority, but because of my high hunger level. I appreciated food more in these moments of my wanderings. I earned it from walking all over the place the past few days and the decadent sun draining me of any energy made me yearn for the extra fuel needed to keep on goin’.
Money always helped me in these situations and over the years I’ve learned to adopt more of a bourgeoisie art of tramping for nothing more than convenience and the ability to rip coast-to-coast faster. The only romance in wandering with little to no money is that extra spark of adventure, the spark of the unknown, being driven by hunger to scour dumpsters and hit up food banks, to reach your barbaric roots as the animal you are, and I’ve traveled that way too in the past, but I did not need to in this moment. Granted free food allowed me to travel much longer, but I left that for the tramps who truly needed it. Bad karma gets you nowhere in life and I never took what I did not need unless insisted upon.
Eating in any restaurants fancier than a fast food joint always made me a spectacle by members of society. They stared. They judged. They looked in disgust at something they didn’t understand and couldn’t fathom. I learned to ignore it many years ago. It no longer bothered me like it once did.
When people asked me what I did for a living I would tell them, “I’m a traveler.” That’s the truth. I am a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I’ve worked as a landscaper, gardener, retail salesman, a pool boy, roofer, Geotechnical Engineer, accountant, assistant shop foreman, cook, busser, banquet server, dishwasher, waiter, food prep, barista, assistant manager of a restaurant, parachute packer, pizza maker, ski technician and published author of two books. I took anything along the way to keep me goin’, to keep my trips constant, so I could travel part of the year and work the rest.
Maybe it changed that person’s outlook on life. Maybe it gave them the ability to appreciate a life beyond routine work and stability. I did not know and did not care but if nothing else they respected me in those moments of brief words and that’s all I could ask for as a tramp.
I left the establishment mid-day in the blistering heat as the sun glared down on me with a menacing stare. The walk ahead of me to Doncaster Junction would take me hours of wandering through Concord, ON past new gentrified condominiums, and strip malls between homey suburbs with monstrous houses, gated yards and powerful statues watching over me as I wandered.
I fed the turtles begging in a nearby lake by the roadside as I stretched my arms out over the wooden pavilion watching their little flippers tread water and their tiny heads peep up at me with innocence. I enjoyed these moments of tranquility as I stared off at the subtle blue ripples in the calming water, stalking an egret as he swooped in on a prized fish, upset I lacked a fishing rod and a case of beer.
Moments passed me by and I kept goin’. I kept on that empty sidewalk trudging past the eyes of lion heads and owls cast in stone until I reached an Arabic temple where I topped off my water from an outdoor spigot. Just beyond the bend of road past a Pizza Hut I groundscored a full pack of smokes. As I lit a cigarette I studied the pack covered in the life story of a haggard woman dying of lung cancer, Canada’s way of tantalizing people to quit. That morbid feeling made my mouth stale as my chest dropped and I took the last puff, stomping the butt into the dirt.
I smoked four or five of em beneath that bridge at the Doncaster Junction as I perused the countless throwups on the walls and the moniker art. Ol Yeller, Drill Sergeant, Oats, Eugene Bean and others left their marks as recent as May of 2019 so now it just became the waiting game. I waited there beneath the bridge covered in empty tuna packets, Styrofoam coffee cups, dirty rigs, splintered railroad ties and other loose trash for a Canadian National northbound Intermodal train to catch a lift to Winnipeg on the Highline.
I watched rabbits and mice scurry among the ballast, hopping over the glinting steel beams, darting into the high weeds. The screeching sound of inbound and outbound freight pierced my ears like excruciating thunder, but nothing stopped. So I just waited. I twiddled my thumbs. I stared off at the colorful walls doused in aerosol. I listened to the thudding sound of traffic thump above me and as the blue sky erased to a deep purple and black I found myself wandering back up the hill, unraveling my bedroll beneath a walnut tree.