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The Sign Read Silver


Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Day 1:

All Aboard the Canadian. The sign read Silver & Blue Class (Bleu D'Argent ) Only. All aboard...

Through the polished wooden double doors of Vancouver's historic train station I got my first look at the Canadian-a long expanse of stainless steel gleaming silver in the late fall sun, a train still resting quietly on its private tracks. Three rounded-dome cars of steel and tinted glass, silver and blue, reflected the clouds and sky. This was the Canadian, the classic train out of the '50s that would take us over 4,500 kilometers on wood and steel tracks over three days and nights from Vancouver, British Columbia. It would take us from the West and the Pacific Ocean, to Toronto and Lake Ontario across Canada, the old-fashioned way.

We would travel through the Coast Mountains in B.C., then over the Rockies in Alberta and onward, across the undulating fields of Saskatchewan, and Manitoba-lastly crossing Ontario, Land of the Lakes and finally we would disembark in Toronto.

My mind began to sing the sound of wheels on tracks, kerpokita, kerpokita, kerpokita as I awaited our 7 p.m. departure with the excitement of a child waiting for a ride on a carousel. I looked around at the station, this venerable stone institution with its vaulted ceilings. Built in 1919, Vancouver's Pacific Central Station was a showpiece for the transcontinental railway that would connect East and West with a ribbon of railroad ties.

At 6 p.m. we heard the call "all aboard" and began a hurried trek of almost a full kilometer along the row of stainless steel cars looking for our sleeper. Each car, streaked with a long line of blue, is named after an English Manor, and emblazoned with the bright yellow VIA Rail symbol. Near the end of the string of coaches, we boarded the bedroom car marked Thomson Manor.

kerpokita, kerpokita...the sound on the tracks. Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.Guy, my husband and travel partner, and I were in Room 222. The 'bedroom' was... small. Well, very small-but nifty in a way (the two bunks disappeared into the wall by day, and the sink was partially foldable). With the excitement, the scenery, and the mesmerizing kerpokita, kerpokita of the wheels on the tracks, I hardly noticed the size of our compartment until Guy complained, "I'm claustrophobic already," and promptly tripped over the suitcase. I refused to let him break the bubble of my heightened emotions, but his comment did make me wish I were a leprechaun-then thinking further, I decided I should be careful what I wish. Anything can happen on a train journey across that huge expanse of country called Canada.

The Park Car Party

We unpacked (only what we needed from our bigger-than-train-size suitcases), hid our clothing in a cranny euphemistically called a closet, and went off to what is called the Park Car. Bull-nosed and wrapped with glass, the Park Car trails the train like the simple caboose once did. In July 1998, the caboose was made obsolete, along with the conductor. Now the train's conductor is made of computer chips and the friendly man in bib overalls who once waved from the caboose as the train streaked by has been replaced by something equally high-tech.

Guy and I walked single file through the car's narrow passageway towards the Park Car and the bon voyage party. Passengers who were not in Silver & Blue Class were playing cards at their reclining seats, chatting, or just following the scenery.

The disembarkation cocktail party for the Bleu D'Argent passengers is a casual affair of new friends, Canadian champagne, and mincemeat tartlets. Similar to the celebratory beginning of a cruise, the passengers toasted each other as the train pulled out of Vancouver station.

Keep an eye out for wildlife. Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.We introduced ourselves around and found that few of our fellow passengers were Canadians-but all were trainphiles and inveterate travelers. There was Lee, an American born in South America, and fluent in at least a couple of languages. Lee had traveled on steam ships and trains to the most fascinating places. His family had owned a steamship company in Brazil. The Amazon and Orinoco Rivers had been Lee's backyard. In fact Lee was to take a connecting train to Churchill Manitoba to get up close with the polar bears -- and he had packed Perry Ellis PJ's to use as long underwear. Lee, always dapper and elegant was a non-stop partier and regaled us with wild stories of wild escapades during our transcontinental journey.

The Peruvian Consul to Canada and his wife were also passengers, a young couple on the brink of making the decision to have children. The consul was a man thrilled with North American wildlife and told us that people in his position are educated specifically to know a little something about every country in the entire world. (This, I knew, would come in handy for breaking the ice at consulate cocktail parties.) But the consul's hobby and passion was Errol Flynn and American movies from the '40s. On a train journey, you talk with everyone and everyone talks with you.

At 7:15 p.m. the Canadian began its journey East

We had been on our way a mere half-hour when the train came to an abrupt halt. Out the window, the last light of day flickered like candles through a stand of birch. As darkness descended, we waited patiently for our journey to resume. We were not on the train to get somewhere quickly-we were on it for the ride. When the train began its journey again, with no excuse at all for its mule-like behavior, we were chugging through British Columbia's Coast Mountains. Night had fallen around us, deep and dark and secretive.

Kerpokita, kerpokita, the train whispered as it groaned and chugged up the steep mountain towards Hope, Boston Bar and then Lytton-where the Fraser and the Thompson rivers meet. Then onward to Kamloops, in 1862 the scene of the Caribou Gold Rush and now home to some of the biggest cattle ranches in the world. In Kamloops we would leave the mighty Fraser River for the companionship of the smaller Thompson River. The mighty Fraser River has the distinction of being the longest river in B.C. and tenth longest in Canada.

The Darkest Place on Earth

Back in our 'bedroom' Guy and I cuddle on the bottom bunk like two excited school children. We switch off the room lights, and press our faces against the window. It is so completely dark-we feel locked in.

"Did someone pull the blinds?" I ask. But I know full well that the blinds are wide open. I experience a quick flash of paranoia-it is like being hurtled through space-like being on another planet on a futuristic train whose windows are blackened so passengers can't see the horrible bleakness of the landscape outside. Then I realize we are being sandwiched between mountains that seem to be made of black granite that blocks the light from the night sky. I pull out my mind's eye map of British Columbia. My mental map tells me it is likely we are passing through Hell's Gate, 210 dark kilometers from Fraser Mountain. I crane my neck, look out and up and finally see the sky-a milkshake of stars. I have never seen so many stars except in the jungles of Belize and in the outback of Western Australia. I whisper to Guy, "This is what the train is all about -- I don't care how cramped the bedroom is, how narrow the halls -- it is all worth it for this magnificent ride."

Hell's Gate by daylight. Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.The Shimmying Vestibule

You feel at home quickly on the train. You remember the long, narrow halls that take you from car to car, and the metal platforms in between that rumble and shake and tickle the soles of your feet right through your shoes. The memory of the small vestibules that connect the cars is especially vivid, if as a child, you discovered as I did that they could be one of the most frightening and exciting places on earth.

I stand in the vestibule looking out into the dark void of night. The train passes through such wilderness that there is nothing to see unless I take a flashlight and shine it out the window to pick up the gleam of steel reflecting off the other coaches as the train snakes and twists around a curve. I have the illusion that like the leader in a conga line, the little beam of light is leading the train on a merry dance through the convoluted landscape. Later, I saw an elderly man standing alone in that same small space between the coaches with a look of childish remembrance and wonder on his face. It reminded me once again that nothing much changes in the human soul -- it is as timeless as a train moving through the night.

Day 2

Morning brings the Rockies to our moving window. The train is fretful: stop... start... stop... start. A bull moose has refused to get off the tracks. We chug up and down past woodlands and streams. We pass Blue River, marble colored rivers and lakes, birch trees and evergreens and a low rise of mountains that trails waves of fall yellows and gold behind. The many lakes and rivers are colored like a child's milky blue agate shot with minerals scraped from the surface of the glacier on its own journey downward.

Shades of Blue. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Kerpokita, kerpokita, past Valemount, a lumber town on the Rocky Mountain trench-a brief interruption between the Rockies and three mountain ranges to the west; the Caribou, Monashee and Selkirk. We glimpse the Albreda Glacier at the top of the mountains, dark rock banded with ice. Next Mount Robson, an imposing, regal presence-2,676 meters high, sheer rock crowned year round with a tiara of snow and on special occasions, a halo of cloud.

And then we cross the provincial border -- marked by only a small sign -- to Alberta and Jasper. At Jasper Station we detrain for less than an hour. We are behind schedule, and I envy the hikers, skiers and nature lovers who flock to Jasper National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1984. Here wildlife is so abundant that elk and mule deer actually take daily constitutionals through the town site.

Day 3

The sunshine glitters off the prairies. Bales of hay, round as hula-hoops, dot the vast fields of yellow and green. The landscape reminds me of my youth as we roll through Saskatchewan, a prairie province-usually a province denigrated by Canadians for its flat landscapes and extremely cold winters. I, like most other Canadians, have driven the long, flat, straight road through Saskatchewan and Alberta-and yes, too much of the same landscape viewed from the confines of an automobile is deadly dull. But from the comfort of a train the perspective is different, maybe because there is no rush.

Landscape from my childhood. Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.The prairie landscape rolled on by, gently undulating in its sunlit colors of gold and yellow. Cows and tractors, their metal brilliant in red and orange were blotches of color and movement as we raced towards Winnipeg to make up time. The train was late. A bull moose on the tracks in forested British Columbia; a medical emergency (a woman in her 90s who had saved for years to take the same journey she had made in her youth); numerous freight trains, their commercial cargo taking precedence on the tracks we shared: all these had held up our train. But the passengers cared not a fig; it was the scenery, the solitude, the camaraderie of the other travelers, and the getting there that counted. In fact we were so late, we hoped to spend an extra night in our mini-bedroom, our bunks jostling and swaying with the cradling motion of the kerpokita lullaby.

Waiting... Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.Our last day

Routine has set in as we relax and drift along with the scenery past places with names like Sioux, LookOut, Lake Nipegon and Longlac -- places once on the canoe route of the fur traders. We glide past Horne Payne, a logging community that began its life as a railroad town; past Cogama, a frontier village that exists only for loggers, hunters and fishermen; past Ontario's lakes, mirror-imaged with evergreens. Ontario has 25 percent of the earth's fresh water. This fact is obvious to me as I sit on the train and watch so much water go by. And then the train seems to dive-straight down into the Shield. The 1,000-mile gap of the Canadian Shield's exposed bedrock is 500 million to five billion years old.

Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.Then it is back to civilization and the end of our timeless journey across Canada. By now, the kerpokita, kerpokita is linked to the sound of my own breathing, and the rocking and shimmying are synchronized to the rhythmic rise and fall of my lungs. Life has taken on a gentler, more thoughtful pace. We are seven hours late. Wildlife, a medical emergency, a broken down freight train and a parade of commercial freight trains are to blame. But no matter, on a train the journey itself is the memory-and the memory of this journey is of a magnificent ride.

Information: Call your travel agent for information about VIA Rail's famous rail journey across Canada.



For more BC information go to travel.bc.ca
Day 2

Morning brings the Rockies to our moving window. The train is fretful: stop... start... stop... start. A bull moose has refused to get off the tracks. We chug up and down past woodlands and streams. We pass Blue River, marble colored rivers and lakes, birch trees and evergreens and a low rise of mountains that trails waves of fall yellows and gold behind. The many lakes and rivers are colored like a child's milky blue agate shot with minerals scraped from the surface of the glacier on its own journey downward.

Shades of Blue. Copyright: Victoria Brooks, 1999.Kerpokita, kerpokita, past Valemount, a lumber town on the Rocky Mountain trench-a brief interruption between the Rockies and three mountain ranges to the west; the Caribou, Monashee and Selkirk. We glimpse the Albreda Glacier at the top of the mountains, dark rock banded with ice. Next Mount Robson, an imposing, regal presence-2,676 meters high, sheer rock crowned year round with a tiara of snow and on special occasions, a halo of cloud.

And then we cross the provincial border -- marked by only a small sign -- to Alberta and Jasper. At Jasper Station we detrain for less than an hour. We are behind schedule, and I envy the hikers, skiers and nature lovers who flock to Jasper National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1984. Here wildlife is so abundant that elk and mule deer actually take daily constitutionals through the town site.

Day 3

The sunshine glitters off the prairies. Bales of hay, round as hula-hoops, dot the vast fields of yellow and green. The landscape reminds me of my youth as we roll through Saskatchewan, a prairie province-usually a province denigrated by Canadians for its flat landscapes and extremely cold winters. I, like most other Canadians, have driven the long, flat, straight road through Saskatchewan and Alberta-and yes, too much of the same landscape viewed from the confines of an automobile is deadly dull. But from the comfort of a train the perspective is different, maybe because there is no rush.

Landscape from my childhood. Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.The prairie landscape rolled on by, gently undulating in its sunlit colors of gold and yellow. Cows and tractors, their metal brilliant in red and orange were blotches of color and movement as we raced towards Winnipeg to make up time. The train was late. A bull moose on the tracks in forested British Columbia; a medical emergency (a woman in her 90s who had saved for years to take the same journey she had made in her youth); numerous freight trains, their commercial cargo taking precedence on the tracks we shared: all these had held up our train. But the passengers cared not a fig; it was the scenery, the solitude, the camaraderie of the other travelers, and the getting there that counted. In fact we were so late, we hoped to spend an extra night in our mini-bedroom, our bunks jostling and swaying with the cradling motion of the kerpokita lullaby.

Waiting... Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.Our last day

Routine has set in as we relax and drift along with the scenery past places with names like Sioux, LookOut, Lake Nipegon and Longlac -- places once on the canoe route of the fur traders. We glide past Horne Payne, a logging community that began its life as a railroad town; past Cogama, a frontier village that exists only for loggers, hunters and fishermen; past Ontario's lakes, mirror-imaged with evergreens. Ontario has 25 percent of the earth's fresh water. This fact is obvious to me as I sit on the train and watch so much water go by. And then the train seems to dive-straight down into the Shield. The 1,000-mile gap of the Canadian Shield's exposed bedrock is 500 million to five billion years old.

Used with permissions, VIA Rail, 1999.Then it is back to civilization and the end of our timeless journey across Canada. By now, the kerpokita, kerpokita is linked to the sound of my own breathing, and the rocking and shimmying are synchronized to the rhythmic rise and fall of my lungs. Life has taken on a gentler, more thoughtful pace. We are seven hours late. Wildlife, a medical emergency, a broken down freight train and a parade of commercial freight trains are to blame. But no matter, on a train the journey itself is the memory-and the memory of this journey is of a magnificent ride.

Information: Call your travel agent for information about VIA Rail's famous rail journey across Canada.



For more BC information go to travel.bc.ca