Monday, July 07, 2008

Train Trip 2008, Days 3-5

Monday, 14 April 2008
I woke up feeling pretty good after my first night on a train. I wouldn’t say I slept well, exactly: between the rocking motion of the train, the cramped quarters that kept making me shift positions, the intermittent snoring of someone nearby, the loud conversation of the elderly gentlemen in front of me (who must also have required a midnight snack or two, as even through my earplugs I kept hearing the brisk crackling of a bag of chips), I don’t think I slept more than an hour or two between interruptions. Still, I did doze off more than I’d feared. I was glad of my extra blanket, too, as the car seemed quite chilly when I woke up during the night. It was good to have a blanket long enough I could tuck my feet beneath it.

I awoke unaided at 6:30 a.m. and watched the snowy pre-dawn outside. We were winding our way among ever-grander snowcapped peaks, along swift rivers with ice still solid along their banks. Spring hadn’t travelled this far north nor this high up yet; between the evergreens, the other branches were bare.

The coach car on the Canadian had two restrooms, one at either end. I pulled clean clothes out of my suitcase and took a few minutes to tiptoe quietly to the larger restroom and freshen up. I was sick of them by the end of three weeks, but moist towelettes were handy and useful in the absence of any shower facilities in coach class.

Back at my seat, I jotted down a few notes and ate some bread and dried peaches for breakfast. As the rest of the car began to stir, I walked to the Dome car, one car back from mine. A popular way to take in the scenery, the Dome car’s seating is up a short flight of stairs to put passengers above the level of the train. The top of the car is enclosed in a long dome of glass; you look out over the tops of the other cars at the passing sights. On the lower level of the same car are several train attendants’ sleeping quarters, the “snack car” (it turned out to be just a tiny cubicle with an attendant inside to dispense candy bars and microwaved food), and, further back, an entertainment area with more tables. At night they showed movies and played Bingo games in that area.

I filled my travel mug with coffee from the snack booth and spent some time in the Dome car watching our progress through the mountains. Late in the morning we wound our way past Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, and through Yellowhead Pass toward Jasper, Alberta--our first scheduled daytime stop since departing Vancouver over 18 hours before. That was an aspect of Canadian train travel that was totally different from Amtrak travel in the U.S.: the infrequency of scheduled stops. The train schedule marked several dozen smaller towns at which it could stop, but noted that the train would only actually stop there if someone had prearranged to be picked up or dropped off there. Otherwise, there were only about 7 or 8 stops (some of them in the middle of the night) between Vancouver and Toronto. The smokers were undoubtedly miserable.

Our late-morning Jasper stop lasted almost an hour. I think just about veryone piled out of the train to stroll down the main street through town, buying mementos or food. I did a little of both, tossing off a quick postcard to my grandma and visiting a tiny supermarket to supplement my limited food stores with some crackers and sesame snacks. I even had time to walk over to the post office and mail my postcards before our departure.

When we pulled out of Jasper, just past noon, the conductor made an announcement (in English and again in French, of course; I overheard a couple of my new Canadian acquaintances in coach gently poking fun at his French) that we should keep an eye out for wildlife in this area. Sure enough, just a few minutes later he came back on the intercom for a hasty announcement: “Look for the bighorn sheep on the left side of the train!” I stood up and craned my neck in time to glimpse two of them; not five minutes later came another announcement. “Moose on the left!” That one I didn’t see, unfortunately, so I’ve still never seen a moose in the wild. I did spot a beaver on my own later in the trip, though. Plus plenty of Canada geese, which amused me greatly. Something about seeing Canada geese in Canada, after seeing them in Oregon and Washington all my life, struck me as unaccountably funny.

After Jasper the landscape quickly began to change. We traded snowy cliffs and imposing mountains for more boggy marshes and grassy hummocks. Instead of evergreens, we saw mostly barren deciduous trees and red-tinged underbrush. The few evergreens that remained were smaller and scrubbier, too. The terrain kept flattening until we were on the tabletop plains heading toward Edmonton, the horizon level all around. After the evergreens and icy blues of the mountains, the flat plains seemed drab and brown; however, I overheard an Edmontonian passenger remarking to her daughter, "It's certainly gotten a lot more green here while we were gone!"

Edmonton was another smoke stop, and we lingered there half an hour or so while the train took on more water. The station itself is outside of Edmonton proper, alone on the plain away from town. One of the train attendants said the train used to stop right in downtown Edmonton, but that a local university purchased the original station some years ago and the passenger stop had to relocate. It was a fairly drab stop, with not so much as a vending machine or a postcard rack inside the station--a wide opportunity for some local entrepreneur, I'd think. (Train passengers do get tired of the same packaged snack fare after a day or so.)

I splurged on dinner in the dining car that night: halibut baked with wasabi crumb crust, butternut squash soup, vegetables, and a chocolate torte for dessert. It would prove to be the most delicious train meal of the entire trip. The dining car was all snazzy and ornate, too; it really felt a bit like we'd stepped back into the golden era of train travel.

Picture from wikipedia:

Tuesday, 15 April 2008
My second night in coach, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it. I awoke quite chipper and had another cheerful morning, enlivened by our hour-long stop in Winnipeg that allowed for a stroll over to the Forks Market where I had half a sandwich and a smoothie for lunch. The train conductor announced that Winnipeg is known as the "Chicago of the North;" now, granted, I hadn't yet been to Chicago, but even so, I thought that comparison might be a bit of a stretch.

Once we were on our way again, I decided that afternoons are the hardest part of a 3-day train trip: the scenery gets monotonous, my snacks unappetizing, all my distractions boring. I had anticipated that this leg of the journey would be the least exciting; although it wasn't as bad as I'd feared, the sitting was still starting to wear a bit thin, exacerbated when I started to get an itchy rash on my chest where my underwire rubbed me wrong.

On the other hand, it was nice to have made the acquaintance of a few fellow passengers to chat with during the long afternoons. The gentleman behind me was on his way from Vancouver to Montreal for a job interview that he was deliberately vague about. He talked about the history of Canada to me sometimes as we passed through towns. The woman across from him had done reflexology for a long time and was on her way to see her daughter near Toronto. Of course the two men in the row in front of me kept up their railfan patter, pointing out to each other incomprehensible-to-me data about the train markings and other cars and our own progress. The man across from me never said a word that I could hear, just read and napped.

Tuesday was the day I kept being surprised by the ice and snow in Ontario--especially the ice, floating on rivers and locking up lakes. We passed from flat fields of dark stubbled earth in the morning, to endless icy lakes throughout the afternoon and evening. The pale white branches of the birches (?) clustered among the evergreens really did look ghostly in the flat, cloudy light--more so, somehow, when they were the only thing visible, without hills or anything else visible in the distance to put them into perspective.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008
I awoke at dawn on the final day of my cross-Canada trip (easier to do when you start to nod off at 9 p.m. the night before). later that morning I knew I'd successfully made the transition to a more relaxed, vacationy perception of time when I thought happily to myself, "Wow, only 12 hours to Toronto!"

I treated myself to a second & final dining car meal for breakfast, where I sat with a delightful elderly couple from Virginia who were also in the middle of a North American Rail Pass trip--and bless their hearts, they too were traveling in coach, quite cheerfully. They confessed to being originally from Seattle, and then we discovered that Beverly and I were fellow SPU grads, although she had graduated back when it was still Seattle Pacific College. They were a treat, very interested to hear about my itinerary and happy to share stories from their own journey.

We arrived in Toronto Wednesday night right on time--actually a bit early, just before 8:00 p.m. I marched off confidently on foot to my hostel, the Canadiana Backpackers Inn, and managed to only get slightly lost in the process. The first thing I did after checking in and happily throwing my bags down on a single bed in the 7-woman dorm room I'd selected (for the bargain price of $25) was to rush down the hallway and enjoy a blessed hot shower. I'd suspected that I was starting to smell a bit unpleasant despite my judicious use of wet wipes every day...and it was nice to have clean hair again.

The hostel was shabby but clean and well-run, in the way of the best and most convivial hostels, and 2 of my 3 roommates were already sleeping when I came back in (the 3rd would very quietly and politely slip in around 11). After using up my complimentary 20-minute internet credit to send a quick email out to family and friends, I lay in bed reading for awhile before falling asleep. I still felt the illusion of rocking gently as I lay there, and my second-to-last thought before sleeping was to wonder how long it would take that sensation to wear off after I finished the entire trip.

(My very last thought before sleeping was, "It's so nice to have clean hair again.")