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Essay

One Epic Journey: Tom Thomson from a Train Window

To me, the best way to appreciate the greatness and scope of Canada is to see the country from a train window.  If you fly, you miss the details. If you drive, you can’t really focus on the scenery because you must keep your eye on the road ahead.  I’m so glad that I took this trip in 2010. 

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we’ll again be able to enjoy long-distance train rides in this country. Meanwhile, until we can take those long train rides again, the next best thing is to read about them.

Afraid of missing the long-awaited transcontinental train to Toronto, I race to the Vancouver station after arriving on the afternoon ferry from Nanaimo and enjoying a delicious pasta dinner at Il Campagnolo.  It turns out I needn’t have hurried.  There’s ample time to check my suitcases and get comfortable in my roomette before the train slinks slowly out on a cool September evening.

          In the evening darkness, there isn’t much to see of western B.C.  But by the next morning, still in B.C., we’re nearing the mountains.  As I finish breakfast in the dining car, I see snow-capped peaks looming off to the right.  These peaks will become more and prominent throughout the day, until, around 2 p.m., we arrive in Jasper, Alberta for a three-hour rest stop.  For the next two and a half hours of the beautiful early-fall afternoon, I alternate between short walks up and down the streets near the train station, pauses to contemplate the majestic mountains and beautiful trees in full foliage, and visits to the souvenir shops.  The shops are as pricey as the scenery is gorgeous, but never mind.  I learned long ago how not to be tempted by such places.  And two Scotches past Jasper comes the first of our marvellous train dinners, a splendid piece of grilled halibut with all the right trimmings. 

The Prairies are, frankly, a bit of a letdown.  After hours of mind-numbing views of Saskatchewan’s flat fields, I leave the train in Saskatoon and walk into the small, virtually abandoned station.  There’s no ticket window or washroom (even tiny Gananoque, ON has these)—just a broken pay phone, a half-empty Coke bottle, and three coffee-stained Styrofoam cups atop a rickety table covered in dust.  Depressing beyond words. The one consolation is that I’ve set foot on Saskatchewan soil, which means I’ve now set foot on the soil of every Canadian province. 

          Another disappointment is Winnipeg, where we arrive just after dark.  There’s really nothing to see in the immediate vicinity of the station.  At the same time, I don’t fancy getting lost in a strange city at night by going farther afield.  After half an hour’s desultory strolling around, I return to my roomette and am soon asleep.

          But if the landscape outside the train sometimes disappoints—it would be unrealistic to expect constant visual excitement travelling across a country as big as Canada—the company inside the train never does. Personal relationships here are nothing if not spontaneous.  I suspect that this is because of the transitory nature of those relationships—because people know they will probably never again see or hear from the person to whom they are spilling out their guts this evening.  If someone interests me, I invite him or her into my roomette for a chat.  If the hour happens to be at least 12:00 noon, the chat is accompanied by a dram of Glenlivet from the bottle in my carry-on bag.  As it happens, most of the chats are accompanied by a wee dram, since I’ve reserved mornings for writing and other private activities.  But this liquid commerce is far from one-sided, as several people invite me into their roomettes for a dram. 

Why are such conversations so frequent aboard long-distance trains? The main reason, I suspect, is that those who take these long-distance trips tend to be far more interesting than the average person—and thus more worth engaging in conversation.  We long-distance train riders have voluntarily chosen to pay more than we would have paid to fly from Vancouver to Toronto to have this experience.  For many of us, this is a trip of a lifetime, and bears with it all the excitement one would expect from such a trip.  I particularly enjoy the company of several Europeans, who make excellent travel companions as they are quite used to trains and know how to make the most of their many delights.

          Northern Ontario, which we hit about 2 on Friday afternoon, exceeds all expectations.  Tiring of my roomette, I wander up to the lounge car bearing a book and a notebook, and order a beer.  It’s just starting to rain as the beer is served me, and it continues to rain throughout the afternoon. The book and notebook remain unopened; the view from the window is too spectacular to miss.  Here, unrolling itself before my eyes, is the equivalent of the greatest Tom Thomson exhibit ever mounted, except that you needn’t go to the National Gallery to see it.  For the next four hours, I’m greeted with an unbroken succession of stunted pines, the occasional, equally stunted birch, fallen leaves, self-effacing rocks, and bodies of water that rank somewhere between a large puddle and a very small pond.  The gentle but persistent rain makes me feel all the more poignantly the landscape’s stark, almost child-like simplicity, and the almost total absence of people along 250 kilometres of track.  Some excellent prime rib in the dining car provides a fitting end to the glorious afternoon.    

In Toronto, I stop for a two-day break.  My stiff legs tell me I’ve been sitting long enough and need to be up and moving around.  I take in a Jays game, visit second-hand book and record stores, lunch with an old friend, and take long walks through a Jewish cemetery close by my B&B. From Toronto, also by train, it’s on to old, familiar Ottawa, where I visit with my kids and several old friends.  One day I rent a car and take my son on a drive through Gatineau National Park.  There, just before sunset, we’re greeted by a truly bizarre sight—a group of deer acting like small dogs.  Instead of fleeing at the sight of us humans, they step slowly and symmetrically up the park slope, showing no fear at all.  Have years of close contact with humans beings really turned these deer into tame animals?  With this sobering reflection, we head back toward Ottawa and a pub dinner.

          I’m driven to the train station in Ottawa, where I will catch a train to Montreal, by a very dear literary friend with whom I’ve shared many manuscript critiques over the years.  He’s 80, and I’m not sure how many more chances I will get to see him.  It’s good to ride to the station and have lunch with him once again.

          The final leg of this epic journey is the 22-hour ride from Montreal which will land me back in Halifax.  This ride offers the same freedom from everyday distractions, interesting and intellectually curious travel companions, and excellent food that I experienced on the longer Vancouver-Toronto run.  But there are important differences.  Very little of the landscape is new to me, as I’ve taken this trip at least 20 times over the years.  And most of the landscape is at least somewhat populated.  What the ride does offer is a fine transition and nice easing back toward the chain e-mails and irritable, over-committed people I’ll face on my return to my job with the union.

          Returning to my Halifax apartment, I know I’d like to take this trip again. But I also know that even if I don’t, I’ve picked up enough memories and images of Canada to last a lifetime.

2 replies on “One Epic Journey: Tom Thomson from a Train Window”

Thanks so much for this! It brought back memories for me, and makes me want to do it again (but the price always puts me off) . In 1986 we moved from Vancouver to Toronto with two kids – 6 and 2 yrs old. We actually travelled by train and shipped our car. We had a room called “a bedroom” which slept three (but the kids were so little they shared a bunk.) It had its own washroom (and these days a shower, likely, but then there were none. ) We met amazing people – a math prof named Joe who spoke to our oldest son who was 6 about maths and proofs (son went on to get a math degree, was always good at math concepts from the time he was very young) Joe was very impressed with him.

We were in the last car on the train – contained the “bar car” and the viewing lounge. The kids could not open the doors between the cars – so they were trapped. One day I noticed that the 2.5 yr old had not been seen for a few minutes and went looking for him. He was sitting upstairs in the viewing car on the lap of a Mennonite woman (dress and head cover making her identifiable) who was very happy to have him on her lap. I said “oh sorry he’s bothering you” and I would take him back to our room and she said no if I did not mind she would love to keep him (he was charming and she had had cookies.) She said she had a dozen grand children at home that she looked after and missed them.

I know that the scenery was amazing but as you say so were the people – We could sit in the bar space (right next to our room where the kids could be sleeping) and have a drink and not worry. At the time there were no cell phones. I remember feeling the freedom that no one could reach us for a couple of days and the freedom that felt. . . no work that just needed to be done – we were incommunicado!!! and Loved it. We had music on a small boom box and story books for the kids. We played cards. We played guessing games and we tracked our journey across the country.

We ate breakfast and lunch in our bedroom (it had tables and chairs during the day – lovely big arm chairs with arms and a bench) with food we had brought along, but ate supper in the dining car. We had (in advance) rented a room for two hours from the Fort Gary Hotel, (I think – X from the train station anyway – old CN Hotel) in Winnipeg so we could have showers. It was lovely to get showers and clean clothes and the kids got to watch an hour of cartoons, which satisfied them.

I remember less about northern Ontario than you. It seemed to go on forever.

I think that is all I will say but — loved reading your piece and sharing my memories too.

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Thanks so much, Margaret. Really appreciate this appreciation. Sounds as if you’ve almost got enough here for your own piece.

I didn’t mention that the roomettes had showers–a relatively new innovation–so no need to rent a hotel room, etc.

If you had kids, you were probably working hard to keep them amused through Northern Ontario!

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