14 March, 2010

My obsession with trains gets fed...

As I've said in the past, I have a thing for trains. Our family's cabin (my grandparents' intended retirement home - prior to my grandpa dying of cancer in his 60's) was on a moderate-sized, shallow prairie lake on the CN Rail mainline. Trains passed by the lake like clockwork. Trains passed a crossing right next to the tracks, and had to sound their horns every time they passed our piddly little lake. The gap in the trees as the trains rumbled past on the tracks allowed for the plaintive call of the horn to echo across our anonymous lake. It added a sort of structure to my idyllic childhood days spent poking under fallen logs, jumping over the creek and chasing wood frogs. It also added spice to our nights when I was particularly young as my cousin, in his fledgling years of learning to speak and walk prior to being able to chase around like us "older" kids (two and a half years makes a difference!), feared the train, miserably. He was a second beacon, often going off in fearful screams during the wee hours of the night to the distant, barely audible train horn while we were all cozily nestled in the cabin, fast asleep.

The media has been doing a good job of feeding my love of trains. Okay, scratch that. THE MEDIA doesn't really give a shit about trains. CBC Radio loves trains. My Sunday radio programmes love trains. Michael Enright (a nerdy-elite sounding, slightly short and paunchy Colonel Sanders look-alike) has a Sunday radio show, aptly called The Sunday Edition, and today's episode is conveniently taken from his cross-Canada (Halifax, NS to Prince Rupert, BC) ride on the various VIA Rail passenger trains that dissect our nation. You can probably find the episode or highlights thereof on the CBC podcast page, ooo, or here on his blog from the train trip. Even while he talks about things only peripherally related to the rail (Nova Scotia's resistance to Canadian Confederation for one), the background noises are clearly those of a rumbling train. Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe (available for podcast here) has also broadcast episode(s) from the train. His is a radio variety show, with musicians who perform, including the lovely-voiced Reid Jamieson, who played this fantastic and slightly haunting song: Rail. The Vinyl Cafe, too, had the rumbling, and squeaking sound of the train in the background, throughout. So, radio delves into discussions about the train. I love how one seemingly obsolete medium is talking about another seemingly obsolete medium.

Obviously I'm not the only one who's drawn into the lure of train lore. There are yet others like Olivier Barrot and Alain Bouldouyre, Frenchmen apparently lured by the mystique of Canadian winter and the Gilles Vigneault line "Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver!" (My country is not a country, it's winter!) Most tourists I know of (save a brave Brazillian who learned English in Grande Prairie and some Aussies seeking to experience a "White Christmas") don't aim to travel to Canada during winter. Those two Frenchmen set out for a train ride in December and came out of it with this book: TransCanadian Sketchbook. It is a book steeped in idyllic watercolours of the streamlined stainless steel 1960's VIA Rail passenger cars and the Canadian landscape. They rode from Toronto to Vancouver on THE CANADIAN, the great dotted line connecting the Great Lakes with the Canadian Shield, the Prairies with the Rockies and, ultimately everything to the Pacific Ocean.

I finally made good on my love of Canadian trains. I've ridden the EuRail trains, slept on the EuroStar hyper-expensive but luxurious over-nighters (between Zurich and Berlin, there was lots of shunting trains around random rail stations), but had only a very vague memory of riding the VIA passenger train from Edmonton to Jasper as a four-year-old (I ran up and down the aisles and chased another little, rambunctious kid). That taste was not enough, how many four-year-old (but still remembered) experiences are? So, I bought myself a ticket on a momentously fortunate instance of post-employee strike nation-wide ticket sales. How could I say "no" to a 60% discount on a train ticket? In the end, it was cheaper than flying from Edmonton to Vancouver, AND I got to see the mountains from a very different angle than driving down the highway. I perched in the dome car for hours on end, knitting, staring out the windows, watching the snow, and the fog envelop mountain vistas. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the train car. I met some incredibly strange people, some fantastic people, and was even (really poorly) set-up with an RCMP officer. Oh, it made me laugh! And I took photos. The goal wasn't to get to Vancouver, it was to experience the train ride, and I certainly feel like I did. Hopefully these photos can attest to that.

Leaving the Edmonton area in November sunrise
Nov2009 AB field

Approaching the Eastern Slopes via Hinton
Nov2009 Rockies from train

The retro-luxury of the 1960's designed dome car seating
Nov2009 Dome Car seat

Wind storm in the distance (Roche Miette is on the right)
Nov2009 Rockies and windstorm

Paused in Jasper for an hour, with fresh snow!
Nov2009 Train at Jasper

Hugging a mountain slope, leaving Jasper (Jasper tramway perched in the clouds on the right)
Nov2009 Train leaving Jasper

Vancouver's Station: Pacific Central
Dec2009 Vancouver train station

And... coming home, with a brief stop in Jasper for more photos
Dec2009 Train in Jasper

One of the beauties of a trip like this is that it changes your perspective, about people, about Canada, and about what you see as you travel down the rail line. It also reinforces some very strongly-held beliefs about our nation, much like the fantastic Arrogant Worms song, Rocks and Trees:

My country's bigger than most,
And if asked I boast.
Cause i'm really proud,
So I shout it loud.
Though our numbers are few,
We will welcome you.
Although we don't have history,
Gold medal winning teams,
Heroes or prisoners, world famous volcanoes,
Still what we've got's glorious.

Cause we've got rocks and trees, and trees and rocks,
and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks,
and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks,
and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks,
and water.

Just watch it, it's so much better live!

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