In a wonderful article about travelling by train by poet Angela Long, she writes that at the beginning of her train journey, she felt like dancing. This is exactly the way I feel when boarding “the Canadian” in Melville, Saskatchewan with my husband, Shane.
There was no champagne and hors d’ouevres waiting for us at the tiny Melville train station (as in Angela’s story) but once on board we were warmly invited to the “activities car” for a musical concert. We went, and SURPRISE – there was a young woman we had known as a girl, Leora Joy with her new husband, Scott Perrie (musically known as Winsome Kind) with great music and stories shared with a standing room only audience. As luck would have it, we had almost driven to Regina the previous week to see Winsome Kind perform at the Artful Dodger, but pre-trip dithers stopped us from doing so. And here they were! That people would choose to stand on a moving train tells you how marvellous this talented duo is. My dancing feeling turned to a warm golden glow – our trip from Saskatchewan to Prince Rupert, B.C. (with overnight stops in Jasper and Prince George) would be unforgettable, I was quite sure.
It was. I have been a fan of travelling by train for many years now. For Shane, who had not travelled on the train for more than 3 decades, “our holiday began the moment we stepped on the train.”
Here are some things I love about the train:
I am a passenger. I am not driving. I am reclining, I am sitting back and somebody else is in control. We know that the train is notoriously late, but we are on holidays, and in no rush. I let go of time because we arrive when we arrive and I can’t do anything about it. And like Angela Long, I love “staring out the window knowing there’s nowhere to go but here.”
I am in transit. I am neither here nor there. I am somewhere in between. I have not arrived. Anything is possible. I dream ridiculous and wonderful dreams.
The list goes on: I can look out the window. I can watch the world go by. I can watch many worlds go by. I can imagine what it might be like to live there…or there…or to be a bald eagle sitting in that tree by that river at that particular moment.
I can fall asleep watching the land whizz by and I can wake up to different land whizzing by. Or crawling by. Or not moving at all, as is sometimes the case. My dreams are filled with landscape, with land in motion. The train is like a moving dream. The dream moves into me.
I have no “to do” list.
When the train is moving, I feel like I am in the belly of a great beast, a beast full of rhythmic sounds, screeches, groans, whistles and bells. When the train is moving, it lulls me to sleep. I can feel the vibrations of the train all through my body. Sway, bump, rock and roll. I am not the only one who loves the sound of a train in motion – audio recordings of train sounds are commonly used to help people sleep. How can something so incredibly noisy be so comforting? When on a train, I feel safe and I feel held, even when I know that these are illusions.
I like the train because we can get off in Jasper, stay two nights, stretch our legs on marvellous hikes, and get back on a couple of days later.
The train from Jasper to Prince Rupert is only three cars long – an engine, a coach and an observation deck with a tiny cafeteria tucked below the dome car. It stops over night in Prince George – I like to think that’s because those who designed the route thought we should see every beautiful bit of it during daylight hours. For a portion of this trip, we are the only ones on the train, besides Gilbert, our affable, gracious conductor and the unseen engineer who is pulling the levers. We think this is amazing. “Which seat would you like in the observation deck, Mr. Schtueck?” I say with a fake accent. It is our 25th wedding anniversary and I decide that this train ride à deux was concocted especially for this reason.
We are eventually joined by other passengers, many of who Gilbert knows as “regulars”. One of these is Steve, a trapper who boards the train at McBride and gets off an hour and a half later somewhere in the bush. There he will drive his all terrain vehicle 6 kilometres and arrive at his cabin and the beginning of his trap line. Steve talks most of his time on the train and he has a lot to say – how B.C. is a boom and bust economy. He has been a gold miner, a mushroom grower(the gourmet variety), a beekeeper, and a trapper. He keeps a sailboat on the coast. He lives off the grid, and he tells us to get rid of our goretex jackets and shift to fur. He has noticed big changes in the lives of the creatures he traps since our climate began to change. CN Rail is doing a horrible job maintaining the tracks – Steve is never surprised when he hears about a derailment….. meanwhile Gilbert, our conductor, is visibly blanching and is relieved when Steve disembarks. (So much for my illusions of safety!!) Gilbert is some years past retirement but he loves this route. He positively shines with his love of the train. He shows us pictures of Mount Robson in all seasons, and tells us just where to look along the Skeena River for bald eagles and trumpeter swans. He shows us a book of train cars in the 1950’s decorated to represent our national parks and painted with murals by artists of national repute.
The train creates community without even meaning to. When Canadian musicians perform in the “entertainment car”, we become a small community. When we go to the dining car and sit with someone who is a stranger, a small community forms. In the dome car, someone sees a bear, points it out to all the others, and we are a community, if only for a few moments. Those of us who listened to Steve, the trapper, formed a bond. We can choose to chat with each other or we can burrow deeply into the nest we create in our seats and hear the comforting sound of people all around and hold our quiet around us like a blanket. We meet people from all over the world, from every walk of life, from every age group.
Taking several days to reach our destination slowed us right down. For the rest of the trip, we almost never hurried. We did not try to “pack things in” or “see it all”. We moved at “train pace”. It made all the difference. The magic of the beautiful harmonies by Winsome Kind at the beginning of our journey permeated our whole trip like a blessing. While Shane had to fly home to get back by a certain time, I opted to finish our trip by train even though the price could not compete with sales by the airlines. I needed a slow journey from there to here, I needed the zen of the train, I wanted to reflect on all our new experiences, I needed a few more days “staring out the window knowing there’s nowhere to go but here.”