|CROSSING CANADA BY TRAIN - LIFE WAS NEVER SO SWEET
"Feel free to bring 4 cases for the baggage car. We advise our customers to separate essentials for the journey. If, perchance you mispack those "must have" silk pyjamas or spare set of teeth, our staff will be only too happy to assist in locating them." Good grief are we back in the age of steamer trunks?
Bliss! I have taken a short taxi ride from my Kitsilano pad to the station at Main and Terminal. Since 5 bags is a tad over the top, even for freezing Toronto (my thermals would fit easily into a canvas tote), I heave one mammoth suitcase at the uniformed attendant. The smaller version, containing such essentials as a toothbrush and my secret stash of scotch, will apparently find it's way to cabin #4.
It is a miserable February afternoon. Lucky passengers are chatting animatedly on "the patio." The Canadian, is being loaded with necessities for 3 nights on the rail.
"All aboard!" What? No security checks? No shoe removal? No humiliating searches because a forgotten gum wrapper has set off the alarm? Wow this is how travel used to be.
My compartment, meant for two, is a tad tight for one and, for a desultory moment, I imagine a couple of supersizers vying for dressing space in the morning. There is a knock at the door. A champagne reception is happening in the rear dome car.
We are crossing The Fraser River and the lights of New Westminster twinkle through the rain. The woman beside me is a no-nonsense gray-haired tour-guide from Oregon. She is leading a group of 26 ladies and two men - One of whom is relishing the odds by playing house photographer and sparing more than an artisitic glance for his subjects!
A banker from Pennsylvania is treating her mother. Why not? It's an "add-on" to a conference in Vancouver. Our trainman, an immigrant from Trinidad, suddenly bursts into song: "Come mister tallyman tally me banana." The party has started!
The dinner menu is impressive. Beef Tenderloin; Crab Cakes; Halibut; Lamb Shanks. A soup or salad starter followed by a killer chocolate torte for dessert (my choice anyway!). More impressive, is the no-nonsense seating arrangement designed to get passengers acquainted with one another. No need for a single to prop a lonely book against a 1/2 litre of Chardonnay!
The sisters, from Prince George and Victoria respectively, are making the annual pilgrimage to mother in Edmonton. Their husbands, poor darlings, have been left instructions on how to use a microwave!
Meals are cunningly divided into a choice of first and second sittings. Later, I discover why. My bed has been unhooked and made up while I sip a glass of port in the dining car. Chairs have been stashed and fresh chocolates are in the basket of toiletries. A chap could get used to this!
The first call to breakfast has me leaping up for a morning sluice. A strike by CN workers has delayed things and we are running 7 hours late, missing prime views of The Rockies. Oh well, trains are for the "go with the flow" type and definitely not for my breakfast companion. A salesman of body parts - knees, hips etc, he suffered a collapsed lung while skiing with a bunch of orthopedic surgeons at Whistler. Since flying home was not an option he chose the train over the bus, and bristled with frustration when the screen on his "Blackberry" remained blank.
Jasper station is covered in snow. The attendants, decked out in fur hats, have swept the connecting passageways and are poised to help passengers disembark. I go for a walk along deserted streets - until my hands and ears freeze.
Amish families in the waiting room seem under-dressed for the cold, in black wide-brimmed hats, bonnets, and thin jackets.
After Edmonton, the number of passengers thins out. I have managed a call home from my cell. It's the day before Valentines but tomorrow we'll be in the prairies. Will there be a connection?
Next morning, the sky is a deep blue. Grain elevators dot the horizon. Mule deer leave tracks across frozen lakes. Wisps of smoke and corralled horses are the only sign of life at smallholdings beside the track.
We stop in Saskatoon and Melville where I spot the "Little Mosque on the prairie." It's minus C23 outside and my taps have frozen with the extra wind chill. Good old-fashioned salt thaws the sink drain which was returning my neighbors shaving soap at an alarming rate!
There will be a crew change in Winnipeg. Our quiet French Canadian waiter is suddenly animated about the "beautiful French girls from St Boniface" I take note! Reg, the service manager comes around with certificates and a survey for each passenger to complete. I add a tip.
Winnipeg station is a grand affair. Ancient photographs. Antique benches. A magnificent rotunda. Ice carvings glitter outside the main entrance.
Our new crew pours champagne in the bar car by way of introduction. A nice touch.
Next morning we are in Ontario. First stop Hornepayne, which has one of those signs you stick your head through for that Kodak moment - If your ears don't freeze first! It's minus C28 in beautiful sunshine.
Want to buy some railway memorabilia for Aunt Nellie. T-shirts, driver's caps etc are available in the aft saloon where DVD's usually play to those missing a screen.
We trundle through frozen lakes, summer cabins, ice-fishing huts and stubby pine trees. We pass through places called Gogama and Capreol, small communities with brick houses, competing church steeples and parked snowmobiles. Names and a way of life quite foreign to a Westerner.
Sadly, we are nearing our destination. Our pampered daily rhythm is about to end. Suburbia becomes unbroken and finally we pull into Toronto station. The Fairmont Royal York Hotel is a mere pitchers toss across the street. Since when was your last travel experience so sweet?
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Copyright © 2008 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.