IF YOUR EVER feel like "getting away from it all" and doing it in a way that is unusual, try Canada's railroads. I recently took a two-week vacation from Washington, spending 136 hours of it on a train. I traveled 5,000 miles, had two days each in Montreal and Winnipeg, and six days in a place called Flin Flon. The privation was minimal, the expense modest and the enjoyment marked.
I have an old friend whose professional skills are portable. He is now in the Canadian North, in Flin Flon, Manitoba. It is more than halfway across Canada, north of the 54th parallel, and only about 300 miles southwest of Churchill, Canada's arctic seaport on Hudson Bay. I decided to visit my faraway friend and to go by rail.
After carefully arranging my rather unusual itinerary through Amtrak, I made the long march through the incredible maze that now passes for the nation's capital's railroad stations and boarded the 5:10 p.m. Amtrak Montrealer on a Thursday evening.
Getting used to my "roomette" took an hour or so. A roomette is to a room what a farmette is to a farm. Compact is the best way to describe it. After you figure out how to use the bed and the plumbing, it's pretty comfortable.
We arrived Friday morning at Montreal's Central Station, conveniently located directly beneath the impressive Queen Elizabeth Hotel and only a block or so from the city's vital downtown commercial center. I had a most pleasant 10 hours between trains. Along with the usual galleries, museums, a symphony and a distinguished university, Montreal boasts a unique "city below." Nearly a thousand boutiques, movie theaters, bars and restaurants, two railway stations, major department stories and eight top hotels are all linked together underground by a marvelously clean and quiet Metro.
At 8:30 p.m. I boarded my train, the Canadian, bound for Winnipeg, some 1,400 miles and 37 hours distant. The heart of my "getting there" would be two nights and a day hurtling westward across Canada. My hosts for this venture were the people of VIA, Canada's passenger corporation, whose mandate is much like that of our own Amtrak: to develop attractive and efficient passenger service, and at the same time reduce costs to the taxpaying public.
In my judgment, VIA is meeting the first part of that charge well with clean, well-maintained equipment, a friendly and courteous staff, and trains that are usrprisingly punctual. Ridership is up. But on the matter of costs, the jury is still out. VIA appears to be more heavily subsidized than Amtrak. In my case, the 1,350-mile Amtrak portion of my round-trip ticket cost $140. The 1,750 miles traveled in comparable accommodations on VIA cost me about $190. (These are all the lowest possible fares, and were booked through Amtrak's Washington K Street NW office.)
One of VIA's little extra touches is the "service manager." His job is to make sure the passengers are comfortable. He'll tell you about the schedule and the meal hours, help you with any mechanical problems in your compartment and generally fill you in on the lore of the train.
There isn't a lot to do when you travel by rail. There's no phone, and you've left your professional responsibilities and personal chores behind. My aim was to go where a balanced budget means only that your checks aren't bouncing, and a safety net is part of a circus.
For almost a week my days were spent watching the forests roll by, chatting with my fellow passengers, taking cocktails and enjoying VIA's good and reasonably priced food (mushroom omelette, $4.70; fillets of pickeral saute, $6.85; prime rib, $8.65 -- all with vegetables, salad and roll and all in Canadian dollars). For those who tire of eating, drinking, reading and sightseeing, VIA proposes "a few rousing games of bingo." In the midst of all this roaring nonactivity, there is plenty of time to unleash the more respectable of one's fantasies, count one's blessings, discount one's disappointments and make totally unrealistic resolutions about how to carve out a similar niche for rest and privacy in the workaday world you usually inhabit.
By daylight I found it fascinating to watch the landscape of this immense, young, sparsely settled country. People and places are few and far between in the northern Canadian wilderness, reminiscent of a less cluttered way of life that once prevailed south of its border. North by northwest we went, across Ontario, ont of Sudbury, hugging close to the rocky northern shore of Lake Superior, past Thunder Bay, on to the Lake of the Woods and into Manitoba. Place names like Pogamasing, Woman River and Musk gave hint of harder days when only Indians, adventurers and Europeans with nowhere else to go came to these places.
On Canada's transcontinental train you have the sense of roaring backwards into the '40s and '50s, into a style and tempo available now only in memory and on a few great trains. On VIA this style is made of many things, not the least of which is the club car furniture and the almost archaic courtesy of the waiter who brings your drink.
Sunday morning we reached Winnipeg. It was a welcome sight. After 37 hours on the train, the idea of a real bed and a shower had become quite appealing. Travelers passing through Winnipeg can spend a few hours resting and washing up just a short walk from Winnipeg's train depot at the Fort Garry Hotel. This plush, comfortable old dowager offer a concessional rate of $13 for the freshen-up stop. Sunday brunch in the Grand Ballroom, in addition to providing superb refreshment on solid ground, gave me an excellent vantage point for observing Winnipeg gentry.
The last leg of my journey was northward for the overnight, 470-mile trip to Le Pas, the trapping and hunting community where I would be picked up by my friend from Flin Flon. My train, No. 93, the Hudson Bay, was half passenger cars and half freight. A slight change in roomette design left my momentarily locked in combat with a bunk bed that went down only if I backed out into the aisle to permit its passage. By then I was used to the space shuttle-type existence roomette living demands, and I quickly dozed off. Steam mixed with the dawn's gray light as we arrived at Le Pas at 7:15 Monday morning. After 67 hours on the train, I was probably as far away mentally from the dance of power in Washington as I as ever been.
A 90-mile drive brought us into country that just begins to signal the barren, treeless landscape characteristic of the arctic climate north of our destination. Flin Flon sits astride several hills and is dominated by an enormous smokestack marking the site of a smelter. Founded some 50 years ago, this hard-working and spare community of 9,000 souls takes its name and makes its living from mining. The town is home base for the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company -- one of Canada's and the world's large producers of base metal ores.
As you enter the town you are greeted by an extraordinary 24-foot statue of one Josiah Flintababetey Flonatin, the prospector hero of a popular turn-of-the-century dime novel. In 1915, when Tom Creighton and his gold mining partners came upon this area rich in minerals, they named their claim Flin Flon, using the first syllables of the last two names of the paperback hero.
About 20 years ago the folks of Flin Flon thought they needed something more, so they asked cartoonist Al Capp for help. Capp rose to the occasion and prepared a sketch from which the statue was designed. Some say the figure depicted has his thumb up and is attempting to hitch a ride out of town, so Brother Capp may have had some fun at the expense of the good people of Flin Flon.
For the visitor there are no more "must do" items in Flin Flon than there are on the train getting there. For locals there are beer halls (called beverage rooms), curling ("sweeping"), which in winter get attention from a lot of the more active adults, and hockey, which is, of course, the dominant passion of the young.
Spring and fall are said to be magnificent in these parts, and the short, hot summers attract sportsmen and campers from all over North America. Flin Flon is close by some of the world's best sport fishing, with trout the size that would be believable only in a fish story. For the winter visitor, attractions are pretty much limited to ice fishing, attending various trapper festivals and going to the dogs -- the sled races. I began to think that if ours were a society in which a one-way ticket to the "Urals" was prescribed for deposed political officials, then Flin Flon would be a likely final destination for some of us.
After a six-day visit in Flin Flon, it was time to head homeward. The train pulled out right on schedule at 5:35 p.m. and was on time for a 6:45 a.m. Monday arrival in Winnipeg. After a nap and a shower, I went out to see this bustling city. I happened upon the Winnipeg Fur Exchange. Here you can find everything from an Eskimo-made arctic parka with silver fox trim on the hood for under $300 to that polar bear skin rug you always wanted for $2,000 (be warned that U.S. law prohibits the importation from Canada of any polar bear products). As for gear, you can buy anything from a slingshot to a pair of snowshoes and everything in between. My candidate for most unusual item was a four-ounce bottle of coyote urine (a lure) for $3.97. Just the gift for the person who has everything -- or you might want to leave some around the yard and see what shows up!
At 7 p.m. I boarded The Canadian to take me on my 39-hour, 1,400-mile trip eastward to Montreal. The trip down the shore of Lake Superior was full of magnificent scenes, reminding me that the Northern Canadian wilderness is a vast untapped treasure that will some day be fought over by the developers and the protectionists. (It is already the subject of a heated debate about "acid rain," which the Canadians say is coming mostly from the United States and is threatening to ruin the waters.)
Tuesday was spent chatting with my fellow passengers and the train personnel, reading and watching Canada go by. Our 14-car train moved along at what seemed a fast clip, but a little arithmetic showed that we were averaging only 38 mph.
Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., we rolled into Montreal's Central Station. That evening at 6:55 I began the last, 16-hour leg of my "get away from it all" journey. The availability of the U.S. newspapers helped ease me into the inevitable re-entry crisis. Another thing that heightened the realization that I was homebound was an unavoidable conclusion that VIA bests Amtrak when it comes to service.
Union Station. Just six hours short of two weeks had elapsed. I'd seen a lot of rugged and beautiful terrain in an atmosphere that had been remarkably peaceful and refreshing. Most important for a returning political type, no men in trench coats and fedoras were waiting to see my papers as I stepped off the train, just a porter who offered his services.