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.