Before the Trans Canada Trail, the Trans-Canada Highway, Air Canada and the internet, there was the Canadian Pacific Railway: The system of trunks, branches, lines and crossings constructed in the late 19th century that linked the country coast to coast. More than anything else, the railroad still represents a romantic and historical view of the great Canadian project---a vision of this massive land mass cinched up and united. Over the decades, there was passenger service and the passage of goods---raw materials and finished products---by CPR and CN (Once Canadian National Railways---now Canada's only transcontinental railway). Today, only VIA Rail service is available to travellers. Trucks, air travel and the nature of the economy have left some lines unused and, eventually, they have been shut down.
One connection to that commercial function was ridin' the rails: Historically, hopping a train was an act associated all over North America with the search for work during the Depression. From the awesome verse of Canadian poet Al Purdy to episodes of The Simpsons, the journey has been evoked. The Hobo Film Festival---a three-hour program of short and mostly documentary films made by current riders and storytellers in town on Saturday---extends the legacy. In its second year, the festival is organized by John Bennett and Shawn Lukitsch who run Agency Films, a small company in Burnsville, North Carolina. Like last year, the films make various stops along the way (ironically, in a trusty old station wagon) before winding up at the August Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa---a meeting of vagabond minds held annually since 1933.
"I've been riding trains for 14 years and have, conservatively, 120,000 miles on the rails," says Lukitsch via computer email from a public library somewhere in Maine, on his way to a screening in Portland. "They've shaped and moulded me, have been the best and worst parts of my life and have ultimately made me the person that I am today...without the travels on the trains I may have simply ended up some hopeless pop-punk kid with a Screeching Weasel logo painted on my leather jacket, walking around wondering why I never did anything with my life."
Lukitsch figures he owes something to all those miles of track and the people he's met along the way. Besides putting out a zine based on his travels, he's also made films (Agency Films has several contributions including Laundry Train and Erwin Ride). His homage has plenty to do with the fact that he says train-hopping and the railway itself may have reached their "dusk" due to the post-9/11 "security climate" and economics, such as the rising costs of steel and the precarious state and shifting locations of manufacturing.
"Mostly folks ride trains out west," Lukitsch explains of rail traffic in the US. "Also the eastern seaboard from Jacksonville to Philly: super-easy route to ride and a favourite with the punk-rock community. The mid-west, especially around Chicago, is harder to ride because of the frequency of trains and the large number of carriers that operate there. Canada is also super-easy to ride---east-west routes mostly on the CN and CP."
The Anchor Archive Regional Zine Project hosts the Hobo Film Festival, which has welcomed submissions from Canada and Europe. Sarah Evans, one of Anchor Archive's librarians, says she likes takes VIA Rail journeys several times a year and has ridden the rails in the past.
"Flying is too fast, too stressful, too gas-intensive," she says. "The train is romantic, it's slow, people have to calm down and hang out." Rail, the presence of trains "in our landscape," as Evans puts it, affirms the local, the anti-consumerist and the material.
Lukitsch has met and knows of all types of folks who like to jump trains. "Some folks are using it as a conduit for travel between social-services destinations. Some were never able to re-adjust after Vietnam. Some are alcoholics or drug addicts. Some are doing it only for bragging rights within the punk-rock community," he says.
"Others, like myself, are hopelessly obsessed with the idea of travelling across a vast expanse of the States, getting to see pure unadulterated un-homogenized America."
Hobo Film Festival, Saturday, May 24 at the CBC Radio Room, 5600 Sackville (entrance on South Park), 7pm, $5.