". . . If I had known what it was like, I wouldn't have been content with a mere visit. I'd have been born here."
SOMEWHERE EAST OF NAKINA, WEST OF ARMSTRONG, ONT. - Out there, dark, still and cold, is the Canadian night. In here, pulled from sleep by a fast freight, I dig deeper in my berth cave and watch the great starry bear, so near I could reach out and tug his tail. Later, dozing, I feel the gentle rock. The freight's gone. We're back on the main track, chasing the moonscape to the eastern sun and a lumberjack breakfast.
It's late October, a crazy forbidden time to crisscross the "peaceful kingdom," but in three weeks I've collected memories of three-quarters of a continent - solemn prairie, majestic mountain splendor, autumn golds and winter snows - all in comfort and style, by rail.
I'd always wanted to ride the famous transcontinental Canadian trains. I'm no rail buff. I just wanted to see the country, get a feel for its cities and a sense of its people. Both continental service trains I used, the privately owned Canadian Pacific's "Canadian" and the government-owned Canadian National's "Super-Continental," gave me what I wanted - and more - as a total vacation experience.
But anyone interested in duplicating my trip should plan quickly. Despite emotional arguments by historians and rail buffs, and practical arguments by isolated villages dependent on the trains both railways have petitioned the government to abandon their transcontinental passenger service. And the government, burdened by 80-percent subsidies of both companies' losses on the service, will probably consolidate the two trains sometime late this year.
Meanwhile, although the two trains are comparable in terms of year-round prices, scheduling and basic accommodation, the round-tip traveler should take advantage of them both, as each offers a different route and a distinctly different approach to long-distance travel.
Dipping into Canadian rail history only briefly, I chose the "Canadian," grand dame of the wilderness, for my outbound journey. A little more than 100 years ago, the building of the Canadian Pacific was used, amid much scandal, to bind Eastern Canada to the riches of the West. Major frontier towns grew along her southern route, a route carved at great human cost out of the Great Lakes pre-Cambrian shield and through tortous Rocky Mountain passes. As Canada grew, the need to also bind the north country provided impetus for the construction of the Canadian National.
Late fall proved to be a fine time to take advantage of reduced tourist crowds and off-season rates generally available throughout Canada after mid-September. My total transportation, hotel accommodation, food and other traveling expenses in four major cities and two national parks came to approximatley $1,000. The weather, for the most part, held to sweater and light coat Indian summer . . . like the day I hopped aboard the "Canadian" at its eastern terminal. Montreal's Windsor Station.
A veteran of Amtrak's Washington-New York shuttle, I was ill-prepared for CP's old-fashioned attitude about keeping time schedules, even for a 10-car train completely outfitted for a four-day, three-night journey. Celebrations of "lete sauvage" in drink and song the night before in an old Montreal student hang-out had left me groggy and by the time an alert conductor had thankfully bundled me aboard at the last minute, I desperately needed a quiet place and a hot coffee.
I was led to the dining car where, although it was nearly 11 a.m., the dining steward gently sat me down at a damask-clothed table and offered full breakfast service.
The fresh bran muffins. I lingered over that morning hadn't been baked on the train, as in the old days. But other touches of quality helped me believe little else had changed since the "Canadian's" sleek custom-built red and silver cars first came on line in 1955. Each car, from first-class sleeper to coach-class sitter, was immaculately clean and well-attended by the crew, even though most passengers on the half-empty train were Canadians taking advantage of special passes to make short day trips.
The crew encourage me to use the train as a kind of mobile grand hotel. It wasn't hard, beginning with long so-journs in the dining car's spacious pastel and cut-glass setting, where I gorged myself, breakfast, lunch, teatime and dinner, on various provincial specialties. For dinner, these specialties included fresh grilled British Columbia salmon, Newfoundland had dock in hollandaise and Alberta beef steak with mushroom caps, served, as all meats, with CP insignia china, silver and palatable sense of pride.
The coach-class dome car/cafe served me well as a morning drawing room for writing and daydreaming the first-class dome car/bar, covered in leather murals of the Canadian Rockies, was a place to retire after dinner for drinks and conversation. By last call for dinner, usually at 8, my classic but very comfortable upper berth in the mixed bedroom/berth "Chateau" car had been made up with ironed sheets and heavy cream-colored blankets smelling of cedar.
Overnights off the train in Ottawa. Winnipeg and Banff gave me enough time to tour and stetch my legs with out disrupting the rail travel rhythm. By the time I reached Vancouver, the train had become a small, elite community.
Despite my varying schedule, I inevitably caught up with other transcontinental travelers, American and Canadian acquaintances easily met over long dining car dinners and bottles of Canadian wine and we'd compare notes - yes, Ottawa plays a cool, dignified Washington to Montreal's New York-style hustle and bustle. No, 1 don't agree Winnipeg is like Chicago, but I, do can see the ghosts of voyageurs hoisting their canoes for a long prairie walk, even in the high-rise shadows on Portage la Prairie Street.