I can feel the train speeding up as I lay in the lower berth in my cabin, after midnight there is not as much traffic on the railway, and our train doesn’t need to stop as much to give freight trains room to pass. Sleep comes slowly as I get use to the movements of the train, and in the morning it takes me a few minutes to get my train legs, as I nearly topple over while getting dressed. I love travelling across Canada by train.
My first trip across Canada with VIA Rail was different. I was travelling from St. John’s to Vancouver, making several stops along the way. After a week of driving around Newfoundland I took the ferry to Nova Scotia, dropped the car off in Halifax, and then boarded VIA’s Ocean line, for an overnight journey to Québec City. A few days later I travelled the Corridor, stopping in Montréal, before arriving in Toronto to board the Canadian line. I then stopped in Winnipeg, travelled up to Churchill (and back), and took the Canadian line to Jasper for a few days, before finally arriving in Vancouver.
It was a long trip, about three weeks in total, and I loved every minute of it.
This time around I don’t have stopovers, I’m riding the rails for three and a half days from Toronto to Vancouver, and time feels as though it is standing still.
My cabin is the same as last time, although the car number is different. Cabin F, more spacious than the other two-person cabins in Sleeper Plus class, has more floor space, making it easy to move around, or have an impromptu dance party (for like 2, maybe 3, people). I almost feel guilty about it, and try to keep my door closed.
My cabin has a toilet, in a closet. Okay, it’s not a closet, but it feels like one. The sink and mirrors are in my room, facing my bed, and the shower is down the hall and used by everyone in my train car. It’s not nearly as frightening as the showers I’ve seen on trains in China, I’d rather stink to high heaven than use one of those. The shower rooms on the Canadian line are good. There’s a little spot for sitting, a shower you can actually move around in, and a spot for dispensing your used towels (which are provided in shower kits in the cabins). Of course it’s easier to shower when the train is still (which is rare), as one can feel like a big wet ping pong ball at times. That was an interesting experience.
My first night onboard is always rougher than the others, my body isn’t use to sleeping on a train. There are instances of gentle swaying, intermingled with jolts, jerks and pops, and I spend most of the night awake. I’m not alone, at lunch I discover that most of the passengers had a sleepless night. This is what will bond us, or at least give us something to talk about.
The first full day on the Canadian line passes with the train travelling through Northern Ontario. Outside the window forests of pines and birch roll by, glassy-calm lakes, and small brown ponds. We pass little villages, and sometimes a cabin out in the middle of nowhere. The landscape is filled with rugged beauty, and soon we are plunged into forced solitude as everyone’s cell service disappears. During the first couple hours of disconnect my fingers twitch and I find myself mindlessly clicking on apps that will never work (facebook, twitter, instagram), eventually I relax and do what we all did before technology took over our lives, I begin talking to my fellow passengers.
I lunch with a couple from Ontario who are travelling with an elderly aunt, they make the round trip journey from Toronto to Vancouver with VIA Rail every year, and carry a handheld GPS so they know where they are. There’s the young couple from China, and a delightful couple from New Zealand. I kind of chatted with a couple from just outside Montréal. My French is still not what what it should be after all those years of French classes in school. I most resort to the basic French greetings with I see them on the train.
On my last trip the sleeper portion of the train was filled with senior citizens, and I felt like I didn’t have anything in common with them, opting to spend way too much time in my cabin. This time around is different, this time I’m roaming the train, chatting, and getting to know them. Maybe it’s because of the time spent caring for my Dad during the last months of his life, I don’t know. In a way, spending time with them almost feels like he’s still here and I find myself looking for opportunities to interact with them.
My days on the train are filled with wandering between the dome car (activity car) and the Prince Albert Park car – the last car on the train, it’s named after a Canadian National Park – sometimes sitting in the activity car to write, or participate in a tasting.
The second night passes much better, my body is use to the movements of the train, although there were some strong jerks and pops that woke me up a couple times. It’s the second full day on the train, and we arrive in Winnipeg an hour early (a rare treat), giving us three hours to wander round the city, before having to return to the train. I grab my bag and make a dash for the Forks Market, desperate to use the wifi, and get some work done. While I’m there I bump into other passengers, stopping to say hello and have a little chat.
On my way back to the train is come across a delightful older couple from the train and stop to see how they are doing. They are a bit slower in movement, and look a little lost. I point them in the direction of where we need to go, and walk back to the train station. As we walk, the husband tells me of his grand find at the market, a hemp cream that’s smooth and perfect for his skin cancer, and his joy makes my heart sing.
As we travel through Manitoba, I sit in the activity car and write on my laptop, chatting with fellow passengers. I’ve been more chatty than usual, and while my productivity has suffered, I have loved getting to know everyone. The more time we spend on the train together, the more friendly we all become.
Our arrival in Edmonton is two hours late, due to a freight train derailment just outside of Winnipeg, and after eating an early brunch – Lobster Ravioli – I hoof it back to the park car. The Rockies will be coming up in a few hours and I want to sit in the dome so I can see them in all their glory.
It’s like magic, my skin begins to feel warm, despite the air conditioning, my heart beats faster, and my eyes begin to tear up. I’m struck with a sense of longing, and love. These mountains are home, my home, the place of my birth. I travel the world over, falling in love with destinations and cultures, but the Canadian Rockies have always, and will always, be my home.
I almost wish we had more time in Jasper, our stop was suppose to be 90 mins, but due to the freight train derailment, we have very little time in town, and I quickly dash into town in search of snacks. Once I’m back onboard I head back to the park car and find a seat in the dome. I want to see as much of the mountains as I can while the sun is still shining.
For the next few hours I chat and laugh with the others in the car, my new nickname becomes ‘George’, and when we finally get close to Pyramid Falls, I relinquish my seat to an excited little girl and head downstairs – the sun is low, there is too much reflection on the windows, I wouldn’t have captured a decent photo – this is what I say to myself as I watch the waterfalls slip by, then make my way back to my car to drop my things off in my cabin, before heading to late dinner. It’s 9pm, I’m exhausted and hungry. I snarf down my lamb, which is absolutely delicious and not gamey, and head back to my cabin to pack my bag and go to bed.
This train ride across Canada has been filled with unexpected wonders. I had planned to put my head down and work, write, and read, but instead I left my head up and connected with the people around me. As we got of the train in Vancouver I saw some of the passengers I had been hanging out with, we chatted and walked, then wished each other well on our respective journeys ahead.
Conversations and connections with locals and travellers, I’ve missed this aspect of travel, especially as a solo traveller. I try to interact with people when I travel, but on transit days I tend to be heads down, yet on the few occasions when I have held my head up and conversed with the people around me, I’ve had a great time.