Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's the Journey, not the Destination

[NOTE if you’re reading this on Facebook: it’s an imported snippet from my blog, which you can find here Or click the link at the bottom of the Facebook note.]

Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, it’s both: the journey and the destination are both an important part of the experience. I had that recently, when I hopped aboard “The Canadian”, the Toronto-Vancouver train that covers four time zones and about three thousand miles.

This is the luxury of my year off: how long it takes me to get anywhere doesn’t have to be a consideration. (At least not until November or December, when I start to realize that my time is almost up!) So when I went out west at the end of December to visit my sister in Vancouver, I could indulge myself and travel the way I most love to go: the train.

Getting back on the train in Hornepayne, Ontario
There is no better way to travel, really. How else will you get to see the trees and lakes and rocks of northern Ontario wilderness slide into the vast horizon and stark clear light of the Prairies, which in turn give way to the gentle swell of foothills in western Alberta and then the jagged peaks of the Rockies, doused in snow and ice? How else do you get to meet an odd assembly of Canucks from all corners of the country and all walks of life, as well as a scattering of foreigners? How else are you going to eat and drink and be merry for four days straight, while uniformed employees scurry around to fulfill your every whim?

It beats the heck out of flying. Who wants to be squashed uncomfortably into a metal canister that hurtles through the sky, when you can glide over the countryside with a gentle rocking motion that lulls you into a state of utter relaxation? And train food (the Via Rail variety at least) delivers decadence in spades, when you travel Sleeper class out west – I think I ingested approximately 5,000,000 calories between Toronto and Vancouver, and enjoyed every single one. A plastic-wrapped sandwich in economy class on a plane, on the other hand, doesn’t even pretend to be real food.

The first (and only other) time I took the train across Canada, it wasn’t quite the same. Oh, I still enjoyed it, but travelling economy (the euphemistically-named “Comfort” class) doesn’t deliver the same sense of indulgence, or the nostalgia of feeling like you’re stepping back in time to the Golden Age of rail travel. Economy class means a seat, not a cozy little cabin, and food either purchased on the fly at random train stations along the way or from the limited selection in the little café on board. And it means getting very up close and personal with all your fellow travelers for the entire time (no doors to shut for solitude), and those fellow travelers may or may not have bothered to line up for the shower each day.

Travelling sleeper class, on the other hand, is a delight from start to finish. I stepped on the train on a Tuesday night after Christmas, with a very deferential porter taking my bags to my cabin and another attendant meeting me in the lounge car with a complementary glass of champagne. And it only got better from there.

I have already mentioned the food, but it's worth noting again – the four-course dinner on New Year’s Eve (which I spent on the train) was particularly pleasing. The exclusively Canadian wines served on board were equally delightful. The round-the-clock coffee, cookies and snacks laid out in the lounge car were entirely too tempting every time I walked by.

My cabin was a single, just for me; you can also opt for double or triple (presuming you’re travelling with other people), or a berth which is a seat by day and folds down into a bed by night, with a curtain for privacy. Showers are plentiful, so the company of Sleeper class patrons is still bearable up close by day 4 in a way that Economy class passengers aren’t.

The single cabin (picture to the left) was a marvel – everything you could require in a living space, in very compact form. It was just about the size of the bunk when it was pulled down at night (which I found in surprise by pulling on a lever and wondering, “Well, now, what does this do?”), and a comfortable couch to lounge on during the day. I brought along James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I bought in the Irish Writers’ Museum in Dublin in 1994) with the intention of finally finishing it, but found myself more often just gazing out the window and daydreaming.

My little cabin on the train
It’s hard to beat train life. You wake up in the morning, whenever you please, and meander down to the dining car for breakfast at any time in the generous period allotted to it. By the time you get back to your cabin, the bed has magically disappeared and your toiletries and towels have been refreshed by an unseen hand. You can while away the hours staring out the window at an ever-changing landscape, or wander down to the lounge car to chat to your fellow passengers, join in an enthusiastic game of cards or a cut-throat game of Monopoly. And you can always have a glass of wine, whenever you like.

You arrange with a pleasant attendant in the dining car which seating you’d like for lunch and dinner, and share each meal with a variety of companions. It could be the kind you’d expect on the train (affluent retired couples with the money and time to travel in style), or it might be a filmmaker from Winnipeg (who does construction on the side) on his way back from a screening of his documentary in Halifax. It might be a Montreal couple about your age, who’ve never been west of Toronto before, or a young Irish woman on a year-long adventure in North America. Whoever it is, you’ll all be fed well and as much as you like – it’s all included in your ticket, so why not?

By the time you’ve had dinner (real china and flatware, hearty portions of food exquisitely presented, and always, always a decadent dessert) and made your way back to your cabin for the night, more unseen hands have turned down your bed and made it afresh with crisp new sheets. You may choose to go back to the lounge car for a while, and imagine that you’re in an old Hollywood film with a Sinatra soundtrack, as you sip your martini. Or you may go to your cabin and read desultorily for a while, or watch the stars or the Northern Lights, but eventually your eyelids droop and you let the train lull you to sleep as it clickety-clacks onward through the night.

And when you wake up again (maybe even in time to see the sun rise), you realize anew the great benefit of sleeping on a train: you get to wake up to a new view every morning. The first morning, I woke up in the frozen north of Ontario, and was knee-deep in snow when I stepped off the train at our first break. The second morning, I woke to a larger-than-life Prairie sunrise and the clear cold of a Winnipeg morning. (And I do mean cold … -42C with the wind chill. Needless to say, my Toronto winter gloves were not up to the task. Nor had I thought to put on longjohns before stepping off the train.)

Morning three brought the portals of doom: Refinery Row in Edmonton in the half-light just before sunrise is a chilling and sinister place. Morning four, of course , brought Vancouver – ahead of schedule! Vancouver was the destination, and I love every chance I get to visit my sister and brother-in-law. But the journey that got me there was one I’d make again, and again.

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