I suppose I’d come to believe the train was too expensive for long-haul travel. Transformed from the best way to get from one place to another into something for the leisurely, well-moneyed, retired set. I suppose I thought it took too much time.
Last December, travelling by Via Rail from Vancouver, I reached Toronto, having avoided being subjected to an electromagnetic wand, a cramped seat or the big-box stores that now pass for large airports. I’d also managed to read a couple of books and have a number of deeply touching exchanges with fellow travellers.
Earlier this month, Via restarted the Western end of the Canadian route after cancelling it earlier this year in the pandemic shutdown. I’m glad to hear it; COVID restrictions mean it won’t be the same experience I had – at least not yet – but it’s a good start.
Years ago, I’d cut down on my flying. I knew the science. So I simply don’t go places.
Until, that is, I enrolled in a long-distance graduate program on the other side of the country. In August, I flew from my home in Victoria to Halifax. Five months later, part two of the program was to take place in Toronto. By this time, my heart had been cracked open by hearing Greta Thunberg address the United Nations, a young woman who’d shaken off depression and anorexia to engage in public action.
You’ve stolen our future, she said.
Her words sank deep inside me. I am 68, and my behaviour has been as thoughtless as most who are privileged: I’ve flown all over the world, owned a succession of cars, lived in places heated with oil, contributed to the Earth’s garbage burial mounds and added to the plastic that swirls in our oceans.
I called Via and booked a ticket. At first, I obtained a seat in the coach section only.
“A chair for a four-day trip?” friends queried.
I rebooked, securing a lower bunk that transforms into a seating area during the day. With the bunk accommodation come three meals a day, served elegantly in a dining car where the tables are covered with white linen cloths. There are china dishes, real cutlery and cloth napkins. The meals are lovingly prepared and far tastier than any dish that has ever emerged from my kitchen. As a single traveller, I was invited to join others at every meal.
Apart from a couple of trips by train between Toronto and Kingston, I hadn’t been on the cross-country route since the 1970s. Why had I forgotten the train?
During my journey on board, I spoke with a man who admitted his guilty pleasure since he retired was to ride Canadian train routes. He was from Roanoke, Va., and journeyed a number of times from Vancouver to Halifax. While he likes the winter trip, the summer trip, he assures me, is special, too. He’s watched people disembark in isolated places, their canoes emerging from the baggage car. Every morning he would respond to my greeting with the words, “I’m blessed, Ma’am.”
I met two Australian students, intent to see Jasper and snow, after having escaped the fires that consumed their country that year. One was also in flight from the pain of a fiancé's suicide. We talked about despair and gave each other a hug before they stepped off the train.
On my return journey from Toronto, a pregnant woman boarded outside Jasper, en route to relatives in Vancouver. With no hospital in her hometown and no long-distance buses, she was taking the train to the city to await the birth of her first child in a month’s time.
I met a young paramedic on stress leave. The man took comfort in the sight of trees, lakes and rocks, visible from the train’s wide windows and dome car, in the rocking motion of the train and in the company of others. While the train staff changed in Winnipeg, we stretched our legs in town and I bought him a beer at The Forks.
I met a computer programmer from Edmonton who, like me, was on the train because of Greta. He was going to Vancouver to attend a funeral. He and I were hardly outliers. According to Deutsche Bahn, a German railway operator, a record number of people travelled long-distance by train in the first half of 2019.
The train stopped in a snow-filled, small Indigenous village to deliver provisions. The whole community turned out, and waved at the departing train before loading the items onto waiting snowmobiles.
With joy, I overheard more French spoken on the train than I’ve heard in my part of Canada in years.
I spoke with a young American from Georgia. Accompanied by his mother, who paid for his ticket, he asked if I’d heard of psychologist Ram Dass, he referred to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and mentioned the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. He thought he might look for an intentional community. It might answer his need for connection and meaning. He thanked me for talking with him.
Why had I forgotten the train?
Two years ago, I walked 799 kilometres along the Camino, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The trip was astonishing, for the rolling, verdant mountains of the Pyrenees; for the pleasure of being in the company of horses, chickens, dogs and sheep that meandered across the path; and for the chance to speak meaningfully with people from all over the globe, often while drinking café con leche in china cups with saucers in pleasant, wayside coffee shops.
One night, as the train made its way across Saskatchewan, I thought of my Spanish adventure. I looked up at a star-filled night sky and reflected on the similarity of the Camino to the train. Once again, I was surrounded by gorgeous countryside, in this case, with glimpses of bison, cattle, elk, magpies and deer. I was again pleasantly served coffee in china cups and saucers. And just as on the Camino, I had met people who greeted me warmly and occasionally allowed me to peek into their lives.
Somehow both the Camino and a long-distance train give permission to travellers to open up. This was particularly meaningful to me. Not only have I lived alone for three decades but I also haven’t known many deep connections. Growing up in an unhappy family that frequently moved, I never learned how to develop abiding, sustaining friendships. The train, like the Camino, allowed me to step momentarily across the barrier that divides me from others.
Thank you, Greta Thunberg, for reuniting me with a part of Canada – the Rockies, the Prairies, the Great Lakes region – I hadn’t realized I’d been missing. Thank you for letting me know a world I can navigate: one of tender, meaningful encounters.
Why had I forgotten the train?
Moira Walker lives in Victoria.
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