Railroading North America

11/ (to) Winnipeg

11-a-sioux-lookout-103008-0070-usemeDAY 11
Toronto toward Winnipeg
aboard VIA Rail Train #1
Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Toronto VIA Rail station is ten minutes walk from the hotel and, although it is cold, I walk. I arrive early because bags need to be checked an hour in advance. Within minutes I am in the “Silver and Blue” lounge for First Class passengers. Train #001, The Canadian, originates in Toronto three times a week and runs west the length of Canada for nearly three days to Vancouver. It is VIA Rail Canada’s flagship.

I will take the trip in at least three increments stopping in Winnipeg, Jasper and perhaps in Edmonton, Prince Rupert and/or Kamloops. The distance this train covers is not as daunting as the Trans Siberian Express across Russia, but it is a plenty long distance.

SUZANNAH
I may have thought I was early, but my fellow passengers have beaten me here, grabbed all the seats and polished off most of the free Danish and coffee, I look around. This is a geriatric ward and most of these people need assistance. I look for someone born after World War II. Most of these people look like they were born before World War I.

Sipping coffee I encounter Susannah, for the first time but hardly the last. Susannah has split coffee so I hand her a napkin and, then and there, she declares herself, effusively, my friend for life.

the-canadian-0017She is an expensively dressed, trim wiry woman with a Hispanic accent. She sports an Obama button, and is easily 80 or more. With zero prompting, Susannah begins telling me her life story non-stop. She was born in Mexico, lived in Cuba (per-Castro), then Brazil and retired to the Hudson River Valley north of New York City.

Everyone on this train talks and doesn’t take well to being interrupted. They begin with where they are going, why they are traveling, then launch into Cliff Notes on their life before ending — before you have said a word — by listing 10 or 20 countries they have visited.

Susannah is traveling with a “male friend” to Vancouver and on to Seattle to see his children. “That’s him over there — Julian! JULIAN!!” Julian is oblivious. “He doesn’t hear very well,” she says. “My second husband couldn’t hear very well either. His name was … oh dear, I’ve forgotten his name. You should never forget the names of people you have had sex with. His name will come to me…” and so on.

For some reason I find her charming.

THE CIA AGENT ON BOARD
The final car of the train is a dome observation car. You can sit in the top of this car and see landscape whiz by on all sides.

After dumping my things in my compartment, I go exploring and discover Jim, an Edmonton businessman, settled in one of the front seats in the top of the dome car. I sit across from him.

Jim is 70 years old (birthday just last week!), a ninth generation Canadian, has been a commercial pilot and is on his way back home from seeing his children. He has been in 41 countries. Jim has taken this train “many times” and he knows the track like the back of his hand, he says.

And he actually does: When the train glides to a stop minutes outside of Toronto, Jim says, “watch this — we’re going to back up” and in a moment we do. Jim says the tracks that will carry us west don’t meet here. Trains have to back up, Jim explains, and then yardmen throw the switch so then we go forward to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Jasper.

Jim seems to have done everything. He is a pilot who has taught commercial pilots how to fly. He claims to own a trucking company, but the post-911 rules have made crossing the border for his trucks impossible. I decide to escape, but when I arrive for lunch in the dining car Jim has saved a space for me at his table.

I sit with Jim and two women who are listening attentively, impressed by all Jim knows. Eventually, Jim takes notice that I say little, but one of the women defends me to Jim, saying, “He does ask penetrating questions.” It is odd to observe myself being discussed, but intriguing. I just continue to eat.

“I think he is in the CIA or something like that,” Jim says of me, out of the blue. The women grow quiet. Everyone is now looking at me as I continue to eat my gumbo. I seem oblivious. I am considering how to respond.

Truth will serve me best, I decide. “I am not CIA,” I say and interest perks down.

“Well, I’m VERY disappointed,” one of the women says. She’s British. She would be.

Then Jim rallies, “well if he was, he couldn’t admit it, could he?”

I consider this for a moment. Jim has a point so I turn and stare him straight in the eye. This nonpluses him.

Lunch is over for Jim.

(Photo, platform sign at Sioux Crossing, Ontario, telling eastbound engineers driving VIA Rail Canada Train #002, The Canadian, where to stop)

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2 Comments »

  1. Extraordinary. I have been reading a lot of travel blogs and this one is actually interesting for its writing, not just its subject. You appear to hold no punches, deliver slaps with poise and verbal skill, and, best of all, don’t over-talk or hyperbolize your descriptions (one of my weaknesses).

    As a future passenger and writer of and on the Canadian (June 2009), I only hope my blogging will compare favorably with yours!

    (tijuanagringo.com also dancharthos.com)

    Danial

    Comment by Daniel Charles Thomas — March 25, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

  2. “I think he is in the CIA or something like that,” Jim says of me, out of the blue.
    I knew it!

    Comment by Edward Betz — April 5, 2010 @ 6:13 pm


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