ABOARD THE CANADIAN
here are only a few hours of black ink darkness here during July, which is just as well because sleep is not coming easily. The clickety-clack, rattle-and-hum, buckin' bronc ride on the cross-Canada train makes decent shut-eye as elusive as cellphone reception along the endless southern prairie.
Neither situation is a deal breaker, though, because this is a trip that's more about the travel than the destinations. I am on a passenger train, a vintage one at that, in a sleeper compartment, on the bottom bunk, drifting in and out of consciousness. Tucked in my meager baggage is a collection of train stories by famed travel writer Paul Theroux.
"Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography into oblivion," he writes.
I reread that line at Toronto's historic Union Station before boarding the train and am struck by the weight of it and how it might foreshadow the next 83 hours, the time it will take to reach Vancouver, British Columbia. What adventure might be around the bend? What revelations might I uncover about myself as the train rumbles past forests and lakes, mountain peaks and prairies?
And now, about 24 hours later, the journey reveals something my family already knows. I am crabby when I don't get enough sleep.
We are somewhere past Sioux Lookout, still in Ontario, and I feel a weight at the end of my cozy twin. Despite the rough ride, the bed is comfortable with plush duvet and two pillows. I kick at the blob with my foot and hiss, "Is that you? What are you doing?"
My husband perches there, looking out the window. He gamely took the top bunk, accessed by a wooden ladder, but there is no window up there. His answer drips sugar in response to my stinging salt.
"Look." He points upward to the green streaks undulating across the sky. It's the northern lights. "I always wanted to see them."
We watch in silence, the lights seemingly moving one way and us another. The luminous green swath parallels the train in a sort of cosmic race that both of us know nature will win. It almost doesn't matter what else we experience in the next few days, though we know the stupendous mountains of Alberta are still ahead. We've had a moment, a "fresh wonder" as Theroux says.
And that's worth a couple of sleepless nights.
Tracks of history
There's an element of romance to train travel, and certainly no shortage of train lovers to enjoy the journey. Many young boys who play with model trains grow to be men who yearn to ride the rails. There's also a strong sense of nostalgia about train travel because it's not the way most Americans get anywhere anymore. It recalls a more genteel and leisurely way, real or imagined.
I am aware of these dynamics earlier this month as we traverse the southern part of Canada aboard VIA Rail Canada's the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver, some 2,700 miles by track, more than 4,300 if you drive. More than one person onboard and several whom I told of our plans spoke of a lifelong desire to take a train trip, many naming the cross-Canada journey as a bucket list experience.
Besides the mode of transportation, the type of cars used by VIA Rail also makes the trip a throwback. These are not new super-fast European trains that glide smoothly over high-grade tracks. The cars are refurbished 1950s stainless steel "streamliner" coaches that feel the bump of every rail gap and wooden tie, especially when hitting 90 mph, which is possible over the flats.
Our first chance to see the gleaming cars from the outside is in Hornepayne, the second of eight scheduled stops. Hornepayne, pop. 1,500, is a town that owes its existence to the tracks.
We aren't there but 20 minutes but I jump out anyway to suck in fresh air and gaze at my steel wheels. A few passengers leave for good, greeted by pickups and dogs. It's my first inkling that the Canadian does not just exist for tourists from Florida, but that it's a lifeline for rural Canada. In the days ahead, I will have other indications of how the train is used when I meet a Manitoba cattle ranching family headed to the dinosaur dig areas near Edmonton for their first vacation in years and a recent college graduate prepping for a job interview in Nunavut, a northern territory that reaches into the Arctic Circle.
One of the beauties of rail travel, besides meeting interesting people, is that the train goes where cars do not, winding through canyons and along raging rivers. From the dome observation car, we get to peek into back yards, where flags ruffle for Canada Day on July 1 and kids wearing maple leaf T-shirts wave to us like mad.
Nearly everything you'll read about the trip says that the flat midsection of Canada is boring and that you should bring plenty to read. I do, and most of it — except those short pieces by Theroux — goes uncracked. I notice other people have books, too, mostly closed on their laps. We all soon realize the same thing: A nose buried in a book prevents you from being quick enough to see a bear lumbering up a hillside or a moose dunking his antlers in a river.
Besides, the prairie is a beautiful thing.
In July, the flatlands of Manitoba and Saskatchewan explode in sheets of yellow. Someone tells us we are looking at blooming soybean fields but they are really mustard plants. A huge portion of the yellow stuff we slather on hot dogs gets its start here. The contrast of yellow and cornhusk blue sky is the stuff of artwork.
It is here that we start to dream about repeating the journey when the forests of Ontario turn crimson and gold, or when the flatland is blanketed by snow.
And we haven't even seen the mountains yet.
The daily routine
No matter what the brochures tell you, there is virtually nothing to do on the train save for looking, eating and talking, all of which I enjoy and am pretty good at. This is not like a cruise, where calypso music encourages awkward dancing around the pool and shore excursions beckon at every port. In fact, a scheduled 60-minute stop might end up being 30 or less if the train is late arriving. Engineers attempt to pull out on time no matter when the train arrives. Our longest stop is in Winnipeg, just about 90 minutes, and we stroll around the food stalls at Forks Market in the blazing heat.
We can't wait to get back onboard.
The call for meal seatings — there are three for lunch and dinner in two dining cars when first class is close to the 250 capacity — garners the same reaction as when flight attendants start down the aisles with the beverage cart. Giddy anticipation. No matter how beautiful the scenery, food is a big attraction and the chef on the Canadian doesn't disappoint. In Jasper, we watch him scurry along the platform with a container of roasted red peppers headed for a sauce for seared ahi tuna. A cream-cheese-stuffed French toast with fresh berry sauce is as good as anything I've eaten for breakfast anywhere.
Those who want to work off calories need to be creative. One passenger reports that she gets in her daily 1-mile constitutional by walking the 21 cars from the front to the back, round-trip. That's a pretty good workout because the side-to-side movement of the train tosses in a balance challenge.
Oh, there are wine and beer tastings in the dome car and rousing games of bingo in the activity car (how did that preteen beat me every time?), but the real show is the great outdoors. We are excited when the train pulls into Jasper and our car is unhitched from the one ahead to make room for the panorama car. Just a few steps from our bunk and some of Canada's most dramatic scenery will be visible over us in 180 degrees. The better to spy another bear.
Gray skies spitting rain tempers the anticipation. We hope for clearing before dark or else the clouds will mask the Canadian Rockies and dull the normally electric blue glacial lakes. Alas, our only day of lousy weather stretches into night.
Still, raging waterfalls on either side of the train and occasional peeks at snow-capped mountain cones make up for Mother Nature's mean joke. Plus, I remember the words of Theroux: "Only a fool blames his bad vacation on the rain."
A good night's sleep
On our last night, we snake the mountains and I sleep like a hibernating bear. The train has to move slower through this terrain, which keeps bucking to a minimum. Darn it, I am just in the groove and now it's time to hit stationary ground.
In the morning, there is time for a shower and breakfast -— eggs Benedict and a pot of tea — and a brief sit in the panorama car before we bid goodbye to the Canadian.
Out the window, the platforms of Vancouver's Pacific Central Station bristle with movement. Our room attendant appears. "Do you need help with your bags?" This is her gentle way of saying, "Move it."
Everyone has detrained but we have decompressed so much we don't notice. We are the last passengers onboard.
Perhaps we've made a mistake, arranging to fly home from Vancouver. The weather report predicts blue skies in Alberta, the prairie is still yellow and the Canadian will be heading back in a few days.
Could we be so lucky as to see the northern lights again?
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.