The Hobo at Willingdon Junction
Last month I traveled to the West Kootenays to write about a hobo named Ron Murdock. In 1979, Ron Murdock abandoned the obligations and expectations of regular society for a life on the highway. In the last three decades he has hitchhiked all over Western Canada. He has slept in men’s hostels, emergency shelters, and dive hotels; eaten at soup kitchens and free food lines; and worked a variety of odd jobs – everything from night custodian at a church to a janitor at McDonald’s. Murdock records the distance of every trip he makes – and converts the kilometres to miles with an old calculator. Since 1979 he has traveled more than halfway to the moon on the highways of Western Canada.
My story about Murdock will appear in the inaugural issue of Eighteen Bridges, a magazine due out in October. In the story, I write about Murdock’s hobo existence as a traveler’s fantasy and wonder what it means to live a truly untethered life. I investigate, too, what sort of wisdom a life on the road bestows on a man. I traveled to the Kootenays to meet with Ron – and to travel with him – in an attempt to find out what Murdock knows that I don’t know.
Here is an excerpt from an earlier draft of the story that discusses Murdock’s typically love of trains and what a man like Murdock might consider home. This section was cut from the final story, so I thought I would include it here.
Murdock whispered the lyrics to “The City of New Orleans” as if it were a prayer:
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of rusted automobiles
Good mornin’ America
How are you?
We sat in Murdock’s motel room drinking Keystone Lager because the liquor store on Kalso’s Front Street does not carry Kokanee Gold. Murdock loves Kokanee Gold, and he loves ‘The City of New Orleans.’ “Listening to that song,” Murdock said, “I can see myself sitting on the train as he’s singing, and watching it all go by.”
Murdock saw his first train when he was five years-old from the backseat of his grandmother’s sedan. The car turned a corner and stopped at a level railway crossing not far from Willingdon Junction in Burnaby. Murdock recalls the red lights bouncing back and forth, the clanging bells, and the roar of the rail cars as they flew past. That his grandmother’s car had to yield to this remarkable vehicle astounded Murdock.
That train, a Canadian National passenger train, made a lifetime railway enthusiast of Murdock. Murdock reads all the train books and magazines he can find in the public library. He identifies by sight the work of boxcar graffiti artists like The Rambler and Waterbed Lou. He watched trains from his window at the Centre of Hope in Calgary – the shelter stood across from the CN mainline – and from Diefenbaker Park in Saskatoon. In 1993, he lived close enough to the rail yards in Cranbrook that the sound of idling engines lulled him to sleep each night.
In fact, Murdock first decided to visit Nelson after seeing a photo of the rail yards in a book called “Signatures of Steel.” He can see the Nelson railway from the lobby of the New Grand Hotel where he is the night desk clerk. His coworkers know better than to talk to him when a train rolls by. Murdock notices nothing else. He silently counts the cars. He loses himself in their forward motion.
Murdock’s favourite place to watch trains remains Willingdon Junction in Burnaby. Long ago a traffic overpass replaced the level crossing whose flashing lights once captivated Murdock, and Transport Canada demolished his grandmother’s house to build a tunnel for a branch line to the North Shore. But the place still beguiles him. “You can watch Amtrak and Via Rail three days a week,” he said. “You can watch Canadian Pacific and Burlington Northern. And you can watch Canadian National haul Canadian Pacific goods.” When Murdock worked in Vancouver in the late 1980s – he manned a service station – he spent his time off at Willingdon Junction. He sat beside the overpass for hours at a time, reading books and waiting for trains.
For Murdock, Willingdon Junction is holy ground. Just after Christmas in 1995, Murdock left a caretaker’s job in Dawson Creek and traveled south to Vancouver. He asked Social Services for help securing a place to live, but since Murdock voluntarily quit his job in Dawson he was not eligible for assistance. He found work selling street newspapers, but the pay didn’t cover his rent. Murdock lived on the edge of homelessness since 1979, but now, for the first time in his life, Murdock had nowhere to sleep.
Murdock slung his pack over his shoulders and went to Willingdon Junction. “I figured if I have to sleep outdoors I might as well be in a place I am familiar with.” He laid his bed roll beneath the overpass a few metres above the tracks. Passing freight trains woke him every half hour but it hardly mattered. The junction, with its grey concrete bridge and drifting trash from the nearby McDonalds, was the closest thing to a home Murdock had. Even with nowhere to go, Murdock could always go here. “It was something like touching base,” he said. “The place is sacred to me.” Even perpetual wanderers like Murdock have their Jerusalem.