Sunday, October 12, 2008

gone west

This is not a real story since nothing in particular really happens but then again, that's true of much of our lives. What we're left with is a series of impressions whose implications we reflect on later. When we departed Montreal for Vancouver the train seemed to be our best means of getting there for several reasons. We had tons of stuff and it was cheaper to ship it all if we were passengers on the same railroad. Since we had a small child and pets to look after we decided for comfort's sake to travel first class.

We boarded the Canadian early on a beautiful autumn morning to learn that the first class cars would be added that evening when we got to Thunder Bay north of Lake Superior; the first day was spent just watching the gentle rolling landscape of Quebec and southern Ontario between bouts of excited conversation. It had been dark for several hours when the train rolled to a hissing stop and the conductor asked us to step down and wait until our car was available. We expected a station and a cozy place to wait but instead found ourselves between the rails in an enormous switching yard while the wind blew and sodium lights glared pieces of heavy equipment into high relief while leaving everything else in Stygian darkness. Luckily none of us suffered frostbite as we watched the engines push the new cars into position and soon a door opened to warm light and we climbed the little stairs with great relief.

Our conductor very kindly brought us a late dinner and hot drinks then went off to finish making up our beds. As the train pulled away into the pitch darkness of the northern night I settled the baby into his bed and climbed into my own bunk with a fresh cup of tea. The stars and moon lit the lakes as we rode further west.

My love affair with trains began in Europe and most especially in England in the mid-60's. You've seen them in movies like 'The Lady Vanishes' - narrow corridors, private little compartments with 2 cushioned benches facing each other and the semi-open area between the cars to traverse when you want to go to the bar or the dining car. There's something magical about spending hours or days not quite being anywhere at all but simply being another anonymous passenger temporarily suspended from the routines of place.

Our train was nothing like the old English ones but it wasn't new either. When Canadian Pacific decided to replace the rolling stock they discovered new train cars would cost millions more than they were prepared to spend. Instead, they refurbished the ones they'd had for more than thirty years so we got to travel in the most old style comfort North America could provide. The dining car was wonderfully appointed with crisp white linens, fine china, silver flatware and crystal.. not to mention great food. Yet guilt and sadness weren't that far away either. At breakfast that first morning the train moved slowly through part of a native Canadian reservation. The houses I saw were ramshackle and the children watching the train looked hungry and cold. I hope things got better for them.

Probably the neatest part about the trip, other than having real beds, was that we got to spend time in the baggage car. Every so often the train would stop and, even though I have no clear reason about the why, the result was that our conductor would let us know in advance so we could go and take the dogs for a walk along the track. The baggage handlers had a very comfortable setup with overstuffed furniture for relaxing on and a real potbellied stove for heating water for tea or whatever. During the day they left the big doors open and I remember the horses running alongside as we picked up speed one day on the prairies. So long as one of us was there the dogs were allowed out of of their traveling crates making them happy too.

As we closed in on the Rockies, the observation cars were added to the train in Calgary. Seeing the mountains of the west for the first time was an experience hard to describe.. or to draw. Mountains as far as the eye could see and beyond with huge forests and rivers raging through the gorges. Our waiter told us about the train that had fallen a couple of thousand feet into Hell's Canyon years before then told us he'd been ordered not to mention that and to please not tell the other passengers. As if we would ;-).