We continue with our transcontinental voyage for our twenty-fifth anniversary sitting at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver.
We did arrive a about an hour before our scheduled departure, checking our luggage and doing the last minute emails and text messages. We had been warned that WiFi service on The Canadian was at best, spotty. The only reliable access to WiFi would be in stations during stops. WiFi was not really important to us, The Canadian is one of the more historic rail journeys in the world. Others include the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian Railway but these are foreign affairs, not of our country and not of our land, like The Canadian. The true adventure would be looking out the window, not swapping memes and lolcats with coworkers and others of our social network.
As we noted in the previous post, the sleeper cars were last overhauled in the 1970’s for purely mechanical reasons. There are no seat-back entertainment systems with 300 channels of music, video and games. The seats do not recline in seventeen discreet axes with shiatsu massage and an onboard spa. There is no moist towellette before dining. There is no sommelier on board. There are three iconic dome cars, the bullet shaped Park car at the end of the train, three white tablecloth dining cars and, it being Canadian, three well-equipped bars in addition to 14 other sleepers, two coach cars, two baggage cars and in our case, a pair of F40PH-2 engines with a third F40PH-2 deadheading back to Toronto, then Montreal to the shops. No we didn’t take note of all the car numbers as we’re not railfans. Sorry.
There is, of course, a crew driving the train and the service staff. Each car has an attendant who manipulates your beds and seats in your room, as well as providing what comforts they can to passengers. With one exception, they were all nice, pleasant and helpful people, based out of Winnipeg, Vancouver or Toronto, their duty day running from ghastly early to very late o’clock, each with their own single-bed sleeper on the train. (Note to self, never take a single sleeper: They’re no bigger than a washroom cubicle and look about as comfortable)
Surveying the waiting room with a demographic eye, we noticed something. The media age of the passengers. Many of the fellow travellers didn’t so much celebrate birthdays, as had an annual appointment to be carbon-14 dated, the median age being approximately 146 years old. We were by a significant margin, younger than anyone else on the train, except the service staff. There were, as we had predicted, a grumpy German couple who kept to themselves, a few dozen Aussies, several Kiwis, many ex-pat Brits, a bunch of Yanks and just enough Asians to make sure we had a demographic Yatzee, or the beginnings of very bad, inappropriate jokes that you would never retell, but will memorize later.
As our fellow passengers sat waiting for the call, we could see the Vancouver crew loading the groceries, liquor and other consumables on the train. The Canadian provides full meal service with your ticket, but alas, not wine or other drinks, save the welcome event with “sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres” Your booze consumption is on your own dime, but with a room, you can bring your own for consumption in your room, which we did.
Eventually the other passengers were hoisted aboard and the train was closed up. There was no hearty “All Aboard” just a gentle bump as the train moved off through the Rocky Mountain dusk of Vancouver’s suburbs, trundling slowly.
After surveying the Lilliputian dimensions of our room and exploring all that it had to offer, which took all of 45 seconds, we adjourned to the dome and bar car two cars ahead of Draper, which was to be our home for the next four nights. I had travelled on The Canadian, millennia ago when it came through Pembroke, Ontario, to Ottawa and on to Montreal. I knew what the dome and bar cars were like, but Marylou had never set foot on one. They are fascinating, as the dome is in the middle of the car, with seats for about 30 people, a half-storey up by stairs. Underneath the dome is a galley with a full kitchen and bar service area and then two bar areas on either end of the car. In the glory days that was where you smoked, played cards and drank with strangers from across the land, while the cooks sweated in a galley below you not much bigger than your bathroom.
Walking forward on the train one car got us to the bar. Now when one walks on a sidewalk or in an apartment building, there is plenty of room between you and the walls. On a train, not so much. The hallways in a sleeper are almost precisely the width of your shoulders, assuming you’re a 6 foot tall male. This means that in order for two people to pass in the hall, you are either belly to belly or butt to butt intimate. This is usually unacceptable to most North Americans. The acceptable tactic to to wait at a corner where there is a few more inches room to preclude the inadvertent frottage that the halls dictate. Since the train is also rocking and rolling in several axes at once, you tend to walk like you’re very much not in control of your legs, or you’ve shit your pants. Those who have sailed or been on smaller ships know the gait, legs too wide apart, shuffling and using your shoulders and hands as support as the walls lurch into your path and you carom about like an uncoordinated crokinole.
In the bar we met up with a couple of ex-pat Brits-now Aussies doing a three-month, three-quarters of the planet tour. The Canadian was on their bucket list and we enjoyed the first of many, many drinks with them. We also had to explain a drink to our server, one which then became very popular. The Black Russian. Equal parts Kahlua and Vodka, over ice, in a glass. Serve. The only issue was that the bar cars are not stocked with standard 26 oz. bottles. In the interests of economy and stock control, all you can get is the airline, pre-measured miniatures, that the server opens and combines for your beveraging pleasure. Around midnight we’d had enough and lurched back to our car.
Did we mention our room was small? With the seats folded and the beds lowered by our car attendant, we entered a space that appeared even smaller than before, but now with beds and a black cargo net to ostensibly keep the occupant of the top bunk from rolling out. Or, it was just a little kinky touch to put one in the mood for some playful restraint-based sauciness? We surmised it was more for passenger safety on the top bunk. After our contortionist act of getting undressed and space on the top bunk to stash our daytime clothing, we bedded down. Having been married for this long, like most couples, we can adapt to almost any sleeping position with our partner. I pulled the short straw and was wedged between the wall of compartment and her, spooned together. I can assure you that there is no nicer way to fall asleep than curled around your beloved, being rocked gently by a train.
At 6:00 am the next morning, we stopped in Kamloops. One of Marylou’s colleagues lives in Kamloops and he said he would try to meet us. As the stop was only a half hour for fuel and a crew change, Kevin did roll out of the rack to meet us as the sun was just barely illuminating the sky on a very chilly morning. It was a nice reunion for Marylou and Kevin who had not actually met up for more than a year, but talk daily on the phone. Eventually we had to leave, Kevin to return home and get his children ready for school and us to the dining car for breakfast.
Via Rail does feed you well in the sleeper class and breakfast on The Canadian is excellent. With a fully stocked kitchen in each dining car, you eat well. Eggs how you want them, bacon, sausages, hash browns that started as a bag of potatoes and finished on the flat top, toast, coffee, juice and the rest. Or oatmeal, or a continental breakfast, or everything all at once. The only drawback of dining on Via is that they fill each of the four-tops as people come to breakfast. Not that we had any issues, being seated with strangers is part of the adventure of train travel. Conversations usually start with the usual litany of where are you from, where are you going and what have you seen along with names, some social pleasantries and the usual awkwardness of strangers sharing a table at 6:30 in the morning before the coffee has arrived and you’ve finally floated to the surface of vague consciousness, remembering your manners.
After breakfast we lurched back to our room and decided that one of us had to try the shower. This time Marylou drew the short straw. Each sleeper car has a shared shower, walled off and lockable, of course, but still shared between everyone on each car. The anteroom was just big enough to let you put your arms out, so that only your elbows were touching opposite walls. Inside the shower compartment itself, one had an instant flashback to a 1971 home renovation to add a shower to the basement rec room by a parent with absolutely no skills and no measuring tape, but several tubes of caulk. Everything worked but there is a certain gymnastic skill that must be learned to perform ablutions on a moving train, without falling on ones ass, or opening your scalp on the shower head. Plus, you must keep the water valve plunged in, to keep the water running long enough to actually shampoo, rinse and repeat.
Despite the feeling of being in an over-moistened food processor, Marylou did escape with her life. Then it was my turn. I too did not have the gymnastic skills to bathe without wedging myself into one corner like an Escherian first-draft doodle to keep from going head first into the hall, or out a window, with soap on my cullions and a dazed expression from banging my head.
With the sun now up we reclined in our room, lounging on the bed while Marylou dried her hair. Note to self: Bring a hair dryer, there are none provided. We could see the Rockies unfurling out the window as the train promenaded along. This particular stretch of track is not high-speed rail. It’s more of a graceful canter, rolling and twisting around some of the grandest mountains in the world. The rails essentially follow the North Thompson River, working their way up, around and across some of the most remarkable scenery on the planet. The cameras came out and there was much photography until her hair finished drying. We unfurled from our room and walked forward two cars to the dome. The dome cars are achingly stereotypical of The Canadian. About 30 seats, encased in glass, sticking up out of the roof of the car, giving you a 360 degree panorama of the Rockies. Every few seconds the camera shutters went off, as another vista revealed itself, but we were going slow enough that you could say “Look at that” instead of “That was beautiful and now a half-mile behind us, sorry you missed it”
Invariably we needed to stretch our legs. The Vancouver to Edmonton leg of the trip has three dome cars and a fourth ‘observation’ car with huge wrap-around-and-over-the-ceiling windows that we claim actually give you a better view than the dome cars. We sat, being rocked by the train, watching the river below us, crossing under us, then around us again. We could see the far end of the train following loyally behind, as the tracks curved around rapids, or over bridges. Every few minutes a village or town would sprout up, the sawmill near the rail line, then “Filthy Bob’s General Store and Bait”, some modest houses, a small farm and the occasional glimpse of someone hanging laundry out on the line, over top of the rusting hulk of a 1968 Chrysler that was put out in the back yard in 1982 as a coop, shelter for the field cats and general plaything for the dogs and children, all accompanied by a very hypnotic rumble of the wheels on steel. The occasional screech yowl as the train was redirected over a crossing or a switch.
Then, without warning, there is the thundering growl of a freight going the other way, bullying the air out of the way, dragging well-car containers, loads of lumber, auto racks, oil cans, propane, LNG, and box cars of things, hustling along with 12,000 horsepower straining up the grades, air horn blazing as the engines pass and the horn swoons down in the Doppler effect. Everyone jumps just a little as the freights rocket by. These are commercial rails and passengers get the seconds to fast freight on tight deadlines. Occasionally we stop on a siding to get out of the way. Not all the tracks are doubled, some still on the same path when these routes were carved out of the sides of mountains in the 1880’s. The story was there was a dead Chinese worker for every mile of rail that was punched through the mountains, killed on the job from falls, blasting or just bad luck.
We roll by Mount Robson, the tallest peak in Canada, the distant top wreathed in clouds, snow permanently clinging to the shoulders then past Pyramid Falls, tumbling down from the mountains above, melt water in September from so high up that summer never really comes. Which also explains the heli-skiing year round. Lunch is taken in the dining car.
Finally we stroll into Jasper, Alberta. It’s cool bordering on cold and one of us has not brought a jacket quite warm enough. Jasper is so pretty it makes your eyes hurt. The train station is right along the main street, a restored classic, with The Canadian stretched out behind, looking like a Kodachrome slide from 1961 in a magazine advertisement to Visit Beautiful Jasper!
We’re stopped for ninety minutes to let passengers get off, refuel, rewater and for us to do just enough shopping. The main street has a few stores selling souvenirs and embarrassing tourist clothing. Someone finds a jacket with enough warmth for the rest of the trip, that isn’t emblazoned with the word Jasper in foot-high letters. We stretch our legs a bit and take in the sites. Jasper is ringed by mountains and in ski season is packed to the rafters. In early fall, it is more manageable. We return to the train, wiggle into the room and decide that a drink is in order to ward off the chill of the Rockies.
For dinner or lunch you choose your seating. There is the first seating, the second seating and a third seating. We’ve chosen the third seating for dinner, so we have time for warmth-restoring drinks with a couple from Australia, exchanging stories, observations and jokes. Another round? Why yes, yes we would. It seems that the right quantity of alcohol helps with walking on the train, counterbalancing the motion of the cars.
Edmonton to Winnipeg in our next instalment. Yes, we will post some photos later.