Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Train Trip 2008, Day 2: Sunday, 13 April 2008

Seven years ago, my then-roommate E. and I, being fairly broke after 4 years of college followed by a year of Americorps service, occasionally entertained ourselves by watching free videos she’d check out from the library. I have a vivid memory of the two of us sitting on the floor in her bedroom (the other roommates didn’t want the TV in the living room), watching on her 13-inch TV a documentary program about the cross-Canada rail journey, both of us dreaming of trips we couldn't begin to afford.

When I started planning this train trip in earnest early this year, I wanted to take that cross-Canada journey myself at last--partly out of nostalgia for that post-college year, and partly because it just sounded so epic. I went back and forth about actually doing it, with my limited number of available vacation days: the Canadian train from Vancouver to Toronto only departs three days each week, so getting off the train for sightseeing would require at least a two-night commitment to the place. Still, the North America Rail Pass requires passengers to take at least one trip in Canada and the U.S., so I chose to head eastward on a nonstop trip through Canada. In some ways it felt like my train journey would truly start when that train departed Vancouver at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, beginning my travels into areas of the continent I’d never seen.

I woke up on my own Sunday morning in Vancouver just before 7:00 a.m., thanking my lucky stars for the earplugs that allowed me to sleep soundly despite the pedestrian and vehicle noise outside. (After one night I was already pretty sure those were going to be one of the smartest investments of the trip. Foreshadowing!) I dawdled around and took a leisurely shower before carrying out my plan to breakfast at Granville Island Public Market. It had rained during the night, but the clouds were rolling away as I meandered down the hill.

Browsing through the marketplace was so much fun. I bought this beautiful blueberry scone and a bowl of fresh fruit, and took them outside onto the docklike patio to eat in the sun while savoring the views of the mountains and the water. Every time I visit Vancouver I’m struck anew by how close the mountains seem to the city, how they loom up imposingly just behind the skyscrapers. This scone put those dry bricks from Starbucks to shame. It was crispy on the outside, light and moist on the inside, loaded with plump blueberries that burst sweetly with every nibble. While I sat there lingering over my delicious breakfast, I had the funniest sort of reverse-deja-vu moment. I thought, I am going to look back on this morning--on these very minutes--for the rest of my life. It's going to be one of those experiences I carry joyfully in my heart forever: this perfect scone, these juicy strawberries, the magnificent sensation of freedom and power as I begin a trip I’ve been dreaming of for nearly my entire adult life.

It was good.

Breakfast gone, moment over, I headed back into the market to stock up for the three-day cross-Canada trip ahead of me. Two big apples, a demi-loaf of multi-grain bread still warm from the oven, a small package of creamy Havarti cheese, dried peaches, and small crunchy dried apple bits. I thought it would be nice to have such wholesome treats to munch on for the next few days; I didn’t plan (and couldn't afford) to eat every meal in the dining car, and the “snack car,” at least on the Amtrak trains I was familiar with, were mostly overpriced convenience-store kinds of foods. Believe me, I love me some convenience-store foods, but I didn't want to have nothing else for three days. What can I say: stocking up on bread, cheese, and fruit? Yes, I’m a peasant at heart.

Reluctantly I tore myself away from the market and walked back up to the apartment so I could keep the cheese refrigerated as long as possible before my evening departure. While I walked, I dithered about what to do with the rest of the day. I considered taking a bus out to the Capilano suspension bridge, which I’ve never done; however, I didn’t quite trust my skills and the Vancouver bus system to get me there and back successfully, on a Sunday, in the allotted time. Instead I took the 98 express bus back downtown, figuring I could walk around in Stanley Park at least. Increasingly nervous about the looming fact that I was about to spend three days and nights mostly sitting down during the train trip across the continent, I wanted to try to exhaust myself beforehand as much as possible.

I walked across downtown all the way to Stanley Park before it occurred to me that I could rent a bike and ride the whole loop around the park. Luckily, my handy tourist map led me straight to the Spokes bike rental shop, and for $10 I was soon riding back to the park on a big old hybrid/city bike. It was way heavier and more upright than my bike at home, but its large, springy seat was certainly comfy! I made no effort to hurry, enjoying the views, the stiff ocean breeze, and the warm sun. I also enjoyed the intelligent design of the pathways, with the section for bikes & rollerblades almost always divided by an actual curb or elevation change from the lane for folks on foot. It seemed to flow more smoothly and with less aggravating cross-lane drifting than a place like Greenlake.

Even at my leisurely pace, with a couple of stops for pictures, I was still around the loop in an hour. That was the most enjoyable $10 I spent in Vancouver, for sure. I walked all the way back up to Burrard Street and took the express bus back to my friends' apartment one last time. I showered again, gratefully, well aware that I wouldn’t get another chance until Toronto on Wednesday night at the earliest. I cleaned up, packed up, and trundled myself back out on a different express bus line (bless them!) to connect with the SkyTrain to the train station. As usual, I’d been far more cautious about my timing than necessary, and was an hour and a half early. I wrote some postcards to friends and nieces, used my cheap phone card to check in with Rob, and had a snack.

Still anxious about how unpleasant three nights in coach might be, I asked a ticket agent (a young man whose close-cropped curly hair and toothy smile reminded me of my brother) about the cost to upgrade to a sleeping compartment. With no available discounts (he did try to find me one: “Are you under 25? Are you a student? No? Well, um...are you over 60?”), it would cost $431 to upgrade--significantly lower than the price I’d originally been quoted by phone three months ago, but still too high for my budget. He said it would cost $275 to upgrade for just the final night, which was mightily tempting--all meals are included for the sleeping car passenger. I decided not to do it, though, as he assured me I could always opt to do it later on, if I was having an unbearable time in coach.

By about 4:30 other coach passengers were beginning to line up, so I joined them. I was only about the third person in line; the man in front of me was on his way to Montreal for a job interview, and clued me in that VIA Rail didn’t hand out seat assignments the way Amtrak had-- “It’s just a free-for-all to the train once they start boarding,” he said. This made me twitchy to contemplate, but when they loosed us at 5:00, it ended up being much tamer than his description. They pointed us to different cars, depending on our final destinations, and there were so few of us going all the way to Toronto that the car attendant sorted us out to each have a two-seat row to spread out in. Peter, the man from the line, was sitting behind me; two elderly gentleman had both sides of the row in front of me. They were clearly rail fans who had traveled this route many times; I quickly learned to brazenly eavesdrop on their conversations for tidbits of information about the towns we were passing through.

We began inching our way out of Vancouver at 5:30 p.m., right on time. The train crossed over the Frasier River several times as we headed east, clacking through some lovely little hamlets in flat valleys ringed by mountains. For half an hour or so we took turns passing and being passed by a freight train running on a parallel track, which the two railfans in front of me enjoyed immensely. “Now it’s our turn!” they would crow when our train pulled ahead. "We're winning!"

As the sun set and the light dimmed, I peered out into the gloaming as long as I could at the lovely landscape--small towns tucked at the base of rugged, snowy mountains. Mr. Thel would like this, I kept thinking.

Bedtime wasn’t much of a problem. Our car attendant, Jeanine, came through the car in the evening and distributed not only small airline-style pillows, but also generously-sized blankets, earplugs, and eyeshades. I’d come prepared with all those things, but I still accepted the free supplemental pillow and blanket. The main lights in the car were turned off around 9:00. After visiting the restroom at the end of the car to change into pajamas and brush my teeth, I put my two seats back all the way, pulled up the footrests to make a sort of platform, pulled on my eyeshade and put in the earplugs, and curled up with my blankets in my little nest. Next stop: Jasper, Alberta, tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. Mountain Time.