"Champagne and hors d'oeuvres will be served shortly after departure." The Via Rail ticket agent directs me toward the "exclusive" pre-boarding lounge. I wander outside to the terrace where a bald-headed musician sings Chattanooga Choo Choo while playing an electric keyboard. The Canadian lay in wait - slick and silver on the tracks. I grip the handle of my luggage, looking from the train, to the musician, to the other passengers with whom I'll share this 3½-day journey from Vancouver to Toronto. Something I haven't felt in a while wells up inside me, so rare these days I've forgotten what to call it: All I know is I feel like dancing. The other passengers, mostly senior citizens, seem calm in the face of our imminent adventure. They sip complimentary cups of tea and chew Peek Freans biscuits.
I scan the list of scheduled stops - noting intriguing-sounding names like Viking, Unity and Nakina. I note we'll enter Ontario at 1:17 a.m. on day three but won't arrive in Toronto until nearly 30 hours later. We'll cross three time zones. We'll traverse mountain, prairie, Canadian Shield.
Just when King of the Road winds up, the conductor yells, "All aboard!" And a whistle even blows.
As I sip champagne in the skyline car - a panoramic dome with 360-degree views - I wonder why I've never done this before. The answer? Probably the same as most of my late-30s age group: time. Time equals money, as the saying goes. And who but retirees and self-employed writers can afford to take time off work and see Canada by train?
I read Via Rail's latest brochure. Like everything these days, it's laced with "greentalk." It promises a small ecological footprint and low greenhouse gas emissions. But it occurs to me while perusing the schedule, with 66 stops, that having time on your hands is what green really means. It seems anything touted as green - from sorting recycling, to growing organic veggies, to biking to work - takes time. Is having time on your hands the new green? What happens when everyone is scurrying from A to B, texting and Tweeting, desperate for a spare moment to breathe? And I begin to wonder: Why save the planet if no one has time to live there?
It's on The Canadian I learn that time is alive and well. It meanders through the industrial wastelands of Vancouver and across the Fraser River. It makes a sound: clickety-clack, clickety-clack. On The Canadian, I learn we have plenty of time. No television screen (and spotty cellphone or Internet service) distracts me from a landscape shifting slowly from farmer's field, to valley, to mountain, from dusk to night. These things, I realize, don't just happen the moment I notice them. They take time.
With time, human beings make similar shifts, from solitude to companionship. It happens in the bright light of a B.C. morning between Clearwater at 8:46 and Blue River at 10:50: Strangers begin to talk to one another. I meet a woman from Vancouver travelling with her mother, Gail, who has survived three strokes and breast cancer and moves between the moving cars with a cane. Together we look for mountain goats and glaciers. We ooh and we ahh. We bring each other packets of digestives and cups of English breakfast tea. There are long moments of silence. It's as though we know we have a whole country ahead of us to let stories unfurl.
When we enter Jasper just after 4 p.m. and are told we have 1½ hours to explore, I disembark to find the horizon filled with enormous blue-grey rocky peaks. Quickly, I walk in their direction until I notice the middle-aged man wheeling his portable oxygen tank. He sits down on a bench beneath a Lodgepole Pine and takes deep breaths of mountain air. I remember to slow down. I remember I have time.
That evening when the flatness of northern Alberta rolls into view, I wonder if too much time could simply become boring. But it doesn't. How could it with towns like Hinton, Edson and Evansburg rolling past? How could it when the sunset turns the fields gold and 92-year-old "Uncle Justin" from Arab, Ala., treats me to a glass of chardonnay in the activities car? He tells me about how he helped build the Alaskan Pipeline. He tells me he still has all his real teeth. He tells me that every day he wakes up alive is a good day.
Every day on The Canadian becomes a good day. From Elma, Man., to McKee's Camp, Ont. - a country I never knew I loved so much presents endless swaths of land eons in the making. When for an entire day it seems the world is nothing but boreal forest and lake water, I talk to the woman from Kentucky who has survived flood, fire, tornado and drought. "I didn't want to die without seeing your country," she says, and I know she's not the only passenger fulfilling a final wish.
That evening in the activities car, I realize those who have the least amount of time know exactly what to do with it. Maybe the green revolution should be led by senior citizens. Maybe saving the planet requires spending hours playing cards in the activities car, listening to Uncle Justin recite Robert Service, staring out the window knowing there's nowhere to go but here.
When day three arrives and we pull into Union Station in Toronto with all the clanging you'd expect, I'm hesitant to leave. There is Gail's husband, hand outstretched, to help her off the train. There is Uncle Justin asking how to get to the airport. Addresses have been exchanged, but I worry I suddenly won't have time to write.
I disembark and walk toward St. Lawrence Market. Already, the bustle of the street attracts me. My pace quickens to keep up. I turn on my cellphone. I jaywalk when the light takes too long to turn green.
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