Photo Essay

The Ballad of Mountain Garage

Two busspottings a day was not difficult, even without really trying.

By Mark Fenton
Published March 14, 2009

At the time I didn't know what I'd use the entries for. I just knew that someone had to bear witness. I am not known for my staying power. It's no surprise that the entries begin on May 11, 2005 and end just as abruptly on July 25, 2005.

But I'm getting ahead of myself and already making my project sound like a vague and Quixotic obsession, rather than a record for solid political reform.

In 1998 I took a job in a building located at the Hamilton Airport. At that time there was service to and from the airport by the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR). While I didn't take the bus regularly (perhaps once a week at best) I could, nevertheless, be seen arriving at work in a vehicle, thus:

It was a hard habit to maintain. With one connection at city centre and another at the Upper James/Mountain Garage, I was up against a one to one-and-a-half hour commute, as opposed to 15 minutes by car. Still, in smog season particularly, I tried to make the effort as often as I could.

I am starting to sound self-righteous. I could have commuted by bus much more than I did and taken up a sedentary activity like knitting or yoga to fill the three hours, while I helped save the planet. I didn't. There were, however, employees at the airport Tim Hortons who disembarked at the same stop I did and took the bus everyday.

I'd like to think I'm writing this for them.

At some point I stopped taking the bus completely (perhaps when I started riding my bike to work, which I did exactly three times and don't recommend for a whole host of safety reasons I'll withhold for another essay.)

Anyway, after having not taken the bus to work for several months, I was told the service had been cancelled.

I did not believe this. For I continued to see, from my office window, buses come

and buses go.

So when my friend told me that the service to the airport had been cancelled, our conversation went something like this.

My Friend: There can't still be buses going there because the service was cancelled two months ago. You'd have seen it in the paper if you READ the paper.

Me: Yeah well how come I keep SEEING them then if they cancelled it?

My Friend: I don't know. Maybe you have a SEEING problem.

Me: And maybe you have a READING problem.

My Friend: Maybe you just saw a CHARTER.

Me: NoWUH! I see them every DAY.

My Friend: Yeah. How many times a day?

Me: I don't know. Maybe two. I'm sure it's more than that that it comes. It's not like I spend the whole day at work just staring out the window.

My Friend: SOUNDS like you do.

Turns out we were both right. The service WAS cancelled. And the buses DID continue to come. (My friend and I agreed that we'd maybe missed out on big picture thinking here. We humbly made up, started meeting for dinners again, and committed to being more adult as our relationship went forward.)

So I began to keep what I labeled an HSR journal in the form of an Excel spreadsheet that I kept on my desktop and clicked open and updated whenever I saw a bus.

I labeled the columns as follows.

which last column is the kind of stuff that I'm told can even hold up in court.

It quickly became obvious to me that these were out of service buses driven up from the Mountain Garage

(duh!) and that drivers were making the run from Mountain Garage on Upper James (which incidentally is the very place I was once able to transfer onto a bus that took me to exactly this bus stop) for the sole purpose of going to the Tim Hortons.

I won't reprint the notes but, in no particular order, a few things stand out:

I now sort of "get" the UK tradition where geeky people in anoraks collect numbers and timetable information from trains. Fine, the HSR hasn't run an actual train since 1951, despite keeping the term RAILWAY in their name, but the fact of the word RAILWAY in there half-justifies my activity as trainspotting. So I tell myself.

It IS a strangely addictive pastime, and in my case the social purpose behind it makes me proud of what I was able to collect. And while I was doing it I never ONCE felt like a guy who lives with his parents and has a collection of action figures in the original packing.

I stopped doing it though. I lack the obsessive compulsive quality. I continue to make a mental note of arrivals, can still spot two a day when I'm on, and even fire off a bunch of photos when I think something exciting is about to go down. Here's a recent little drama, the complete sequence of which I recorded in under a minute.


The bus is doing a big U-turn into the parking lot, because it's presumably too much effort to park in the now disused bus stop and walk the 40 metres to the Tim Hortons. There is a dark vehicle at the entrance to the parking lot and a man is standing outside the driver's seat door. At this point he appears to be wearing a black ski mask, but that could just be the photo quality.

I'm guessing that his vehicle has been hit by the bus (see further photos) but in any case he's examining the side of his vehicle. There is a silver vehicle exiting the parking lot, which I don't believe is part of the drama; I think it's just trying to get out fast to avoid getting squeezed between the bus and the dark vehicle as they meet a second time.

Keep in mind this is the moment at which I caught sight of the scenario, so my story begins, as the literary people would say, in media res.


The silver vehicle is being literally chased by the bus as a cat chases a mouse. They are on either side of the sign which says "NO HEAVY TRUCKS!" (which I love.) The man in the ski mask is looming behind the silver vehicle like a shadowy specter perhaps memorizing the licence should he need to track the driver as a witness. Like the author of this essay the MITSM is practiced in the art of surveillance.


Two crew exit the bus and approach the MITSM who is re-examining damage to his car. The man in the forefront is in red, and I will herinafter refer to him as the Captain. The other, hanging back, hands in pockets, is in blue, and I will herinafter refer to him as the First Officer.


The Captain has made contact with the MITSM, who has been sucked back into his vehicle as though cowed and humiliated by the crew. It puts me in mind of first European contact with new cultures, back in Colonial times, which people of European descent like myself missed and feel shame for. Or those scenes in Star Trek where they beam the crew down to new planets and people with strange foreheads approach them with trepidation or else just hide.


The MITSM (I'm thinking now that his headwear is maybe not a ski mask, that it may just be a black toque [thus he is NOW hereinafter referred to as the MITBT, NOT the MITSM {sorry for any confusion ((not to mention my multi-parenthetically puncturing the report!)) here}]) is standing between the crew of the Mountain Garage destined bus.

The stance of the two crew (the First Officer has hands in pockets as though ready with weapons should they be needed) suggests that the MITBT has been pulled bodily out and is being bullied.


I can't exactly make out the hand but the captain has his arm bent at the elbow at roughly a 100 degree angle to the upper arm. (I'm thinking Pike "If they move, shoot 'em" Bishop

in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, but you'll of course have your own personal mythology to infill with.) The area where the hand should be is indistinct against the dark shrubbery, but the arm is pointed firmly and directly at the MITBT. The absurdity of assuming this pose for any other action forces me to conclude that the captain is pointing a gun at the MITBT. I think you'll agree that there's no other reasonable conclusion.


As if to prove that no conflict is uncomplicated and alliances can change in a heartbeat, the MITBT is now slipping back into his vehicle. (His natural affinity with the vehicle, as though it were an extension of his own body keeps reminding me of the "Doc" McCoy

in Sam Peckinpah's, The Getaway. I'm just putting that out there.) He has said something to foment discord between the Captain and the First Officer. The Captain has put away his gun and is facing the First Officer aggressively. Perhaps "wired" is the best word for the Captain at this point. As though one force within him wants to attack, and another is thinking better of it.

Through all this the First Officer has remained a cool customer, calculating his options and barely moving. My guess is he's the silent type. In a game of Texas Hold 'Em you'd watch the FO fruitlessly for a poker tell.


This is the last photo I got before the crew returned to the bus and drove off. At this point the Captain and First Officer are about as far apart as the Catcher and the Umpire are in one of those disagreements as to whether or not the runner was safe on home base.

The Captain is hurling a single word epithet at the FO (who is more than equal to absorbing it. You know, the more I think of the First Officer and his sly shifting loyalties the more he reminds me of Alias

the faithless trickster in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). What long term effect this altercation has on their relationship, on the return to Mountain Garage and beyond, must be written in our collective imagination. I've given you the sum total of my documentation.

Of course my purpose in tracking buses has nothing to do with construction of narratives, real or imagined. I simply felt a need to calculate that the HSR was making roughly as many trips from Mountain Garage to the Airport, and from the Airport to Mountain Garage, as it did when passengers were allowed to use these same vehicles for rides to and from the airport, along with the HSR crew.

I have not recommenced taking the bus to work because I'm not sure I can negotiate hitching a ride during a coffee run without being late for work. For all I know there may be regulations around out-of-service buses which preclude passenger transport.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at


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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted March 16, 2009 at 10:00:41

I'm more concerned about those Tim Horton's employees - how do they get to work now?

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 16, 2009 at 19:27:55

another great piece Mark. My wife always wonders what I'm laughing about when I read these.

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By crtsvg (registered) | Posted March 17, 2009 at 06:24:35

I threw my coffee on a bus driver after he said that i couldn't bring it on the bus

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted March 17, 2009 at 08:09:42

There are only certain spots on the routes where the drivers can stop, for washroom and meal breaks, I wonder if this is oen of the them? Has anyone thought to contact HSR on this issue?

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By Former 10 yr Aiport Employee (anonymous) | Posted March 19, 2009 at 12:00:55

I worked for the airport management for 10 years. Most of the buses that came to the airport were either driver trainees or maintenance workers test driving a bus. Sure they stopped for coffee, big deal. What a waste of time you put into this shpeel.

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By whoever you want (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2009 at 10:45:31

Waist of capital letters too, if you ask me.

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By Time Wasted (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2009 at 19:26:17

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By Time Wasted without an early return (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2009 at 19:27:51

Thanks for wasting my time Mark. I hope you publish these in book form one day. I'd love to have a copy.

And I'm pleased, truly, to know that our HSR drivers are all trained in the art of peeing and reloading at Tims.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2009 at 03:23:38

Mark, I enjoyed the piece. Kind of a tough audience you have though. Alas, I fear some people have no sense of humour. . .

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By Former 10 yr Aiport Employee (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2009 at 23:50:19

Was it suppose to be funny? Actually, you have talent. An interesting subject to get peoples attention would help though. How about sustainable development for all development around the airport. There are many issues.

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