If you want to ferret out the character of a country—examine its social complexes, its cultural eccentricities, its sense of self, things like that—there are certainly more scientific methods of research than to cross that country on a train. The images and ideas you derive from looking out the window of a moving train during days and nights of travel are basically impressionistic, if not surreal. You are struck by an endless barrage of fleeting, romantic notions. Possibly, some soft poetic insights will occur to you, and perhaps a few light philosophical observations will drift into and out of your mind. Such material, as a rule, is dubious as social research and useless for drawing scientific conclusions.
Yet traveling through Canada may be different. Everything about the country is, in one way or another, a result of its geography. Its culture, politics and economy are ruled by the sheer size and wildly diverse topography of the land. Thus the act of riding a train through that all-pervading terrain may reveal much more than just the wonder of the scenery.
At any rate, I did exactly that—rode a train across Canada in its mind-boggling entirety a couple of times last winter. During my trips I found myself adrift in odd dimensions of time, space and thought about this perplexing nation. Let me tell you about it.
For three quarters of a century, give or take a few years, the railroad was the thread that stitched together that massive land. A single track was laid in the late 19th century across some of the wildest, meanest real estate in the world. That track exacted a devastating price in money and men's lives. It spanned a distance of more than 2,800 miles, which is about one ninth of the circumference of the earth. It was by far the longest railroad anywhere, 1,000 miles longer than the first span that U.S. builders had pushed to the Pacific in 1869.
The early miles through Canada's cultivated east were relatively easy, but then, above the Great Lakes, the builders came to the massive granite Canadian Shield. This is the oldest, hardest, most implacable rock in North America. When the French explorer Jacques Cartier first glimpsed this stony wasteland in 1534, he wrote in his diary, "I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain." The railroad men had to blast through the Canadian Shield for 700 miles. Then they came to the oceanic expanse of the Canadian prairie, 650 or so miles of flat, windy, treeless terrain. Every stick of timber for railroad construction—crossties, bridge supports, telegraph poles—had to be hauled from forests many miles away. And when the great prairie at last heaped up into foothills near Calgary, beyond stood the worst obstacle yet—a 400-mile labyrinth of unmapped mountains beginning with the Rockies and ending at Vancouver on the Pacific Coast.
The idea to build a transcontinental track was used in 1871 as bait to persuade the citizenry of British Columbia to join the rest of Canada in a coast-to-coast confederation. Many saw such a railroad as madness. Alexander Mackenzie, who a few years later would become Canada's second prime minister, denounced it as "an act of insane recklessness." But the final spike was driven on Nov. 7, 1885, and today you can ride that act of insane recklessness every day of the week in either direction, covering the full distance in less than 80 hours.
The Soviet Union is bigger, but Canada is emptier, lonelier, lovelier, wilder, colder, leaner, cleaner, safer, duller, freer, saner, soberer, sweeter, neater. In the mid-19th century, when Canada was still ruled by Great Britain, a writer from London called the country "at best, the Siberia of Great Britain." Today, people might be tempted to call it "at best, the Siberia of the United States," except that the U.S. has Alaska to play that part. Even with Alaska, the U.S. is geographically smaller, 3,623.420 square miles to Canada's 3,851,790—but it is many times richer, and has nearly 10 times more people and an infinite number of times the world clout. The two countries claim the longest undefended border in the world, but they are careful neighbors who maintain a distant, and sometimes uneasy, friendship.
In his perceptive 1984 book, The Canadians, Andrew H. Malcolm, a former Toronto bureau chief for The New York Times, wrote of the strange and complex relationship between Canada and the U.S.: "Throughout its history Canada...has been many things to Americans, including a puzzlement. It has been friendly neighbor, ally, vacation playground, enemy, investment paradise, provider of raw materials, electricity and numerous inventions, refugee haven, guerrilla base camp, rumrunner, military buffer, hostage rescuer, prime trading partner, practice bombing range, and recalcitrant cousin. It has also been taken for granted. But one thing Canada has never been to Americans is understood."
Now Canada is inviting the world in for its second Olympics in 12 years. Will this make Americans care more about Canada? Understand Canada? Will this illuminate the Canadian psyche, reveal the Canadian soul? I doubt it.
Allan Fotheringham, a political columnist for Maclean's magazine, put the situation very well in a funny book called Capitol Offences: Dr. Foth Meets Uncle Sam: "One cannot expect Americans to know much about anything or anyone from the country lurking on their northern border. Americans, from birth, are conditioned to think of Canada as an outpost of the Arctic...which accounts for the number of sophisticated American sportswriters who, when the Toronto Blue Jays were in the 1985 American League playoffs, phoned Canadian radio stations asking what time the sun went down, whether they would be able to exchange their money and whether you could see Quebec from Toronto."
I suspect that when the 1988 Games are over, the same conditions Dr. Foth deplores will still prevail. Having seen only a slice of Canadian life via the one-eyed vision of TV, most Americans will go on thinking of Canada as the place that sends down cold fronts and hockey players, while the U.S. comes back with acid rain, baseball and the old, insulting veil of ignorance.
However, taking a train across the Canadian geography is something else again. There is much to be learned about Canada that way, and only a train will do. Yes, you can cross the country by car on the Trans-Canada Highway, which was completed in 1962. And, yes, you can do it by plane. But driving a car doesn't allow the dreamlike state of total immersion in the scenery that riding a train does, and, of course, flying tends to reduce geography to the size and substance of upholstery fabric.
Viewing the world from a speeding train presents unique dimensions of space and time, as well as abrupt oscillations from the sublime to the ridiculous. One minute your window is full of the rocky coast of Lake Superior and you are pondering the thousands of centuries of geological turmoil that created it, and the next minute the train is passing a ramshackle farmhouse and you are confronted by a toothless old woman emerging from an outhouse. One minute you are breathlessly watching a herd of antelope flowing across the prairie, and the next you are passing the outskirts of a village and there is a man kicking a poor dog chained to a woodpile.
This mix of cosmic grandeur and backyard trash is weird and heady stuff. There is a compelling integrity to it. If you indulge in it for a substantial portion of your waking hours during the trip from Montreal to Vancouver, you can't help but feel that you have been served up one hell of a lot of insight into the body, if not the soul, of Canada.
Last winter I took the two long journeys across Canada, one going east and one west, plus some short trips along the main line. I did my traveling exclusively on the train called the Canadian because it is one of the most famous in the world and, as it happens, the only daily transcontinental passenger service in the country. The Canadian follows the original route that was laid out more than 100 years ago.
The easternmost starting point for the Canadian is Montreal, though Canada, of course, begins more than 1,000 miles to the east. Another section of the train leaves daily from Toronto. I chose to begin my trans-Canadian odyssey in Montreal—partly because it allowed me the longer ride to Vancouver (2,887 miles compared with 2,750 from Toronto) and partly because I like the French quality of the town. Montreal is, after all, the world's second-largest French-speaking city, after Paris.
And to start my travels there accentuated a fact usually forgotten by Americans: Canada is, by any definition, a foreign country. It is a great mistake (and to the natives, a great insult) to think that because Canadians sound and look so similar to Americans, the two people are interchangeable. Canadians despise this idea. In his book, Malcolm wrote, "Canadians can agree on very few things: perhaps the vital importance of hockey in the world, the belief that Canada's Rocky Mountains are prettier than the Americans' Rockies and the efficacy of leaving Canada at least once every winter for the warm sunshine of the American South or tropical islands. Canadians, however, can always agree on who they are not—namely, Americans."
After spending a winter's night in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in downtown Montreal, I was aroused at seven by a wake-up call in French and had croissants and cafe au lait. My room looked down on the Cathedral. Snow had fallen during the night, and the lines of the old church stood out cold and white.
I descended to the regions beneath the hotel and found myself in the vast, well-lighted waiting chamber of Montreal's Gare Centrale (Central Railroad Station). The Canadian awaited at a track one flight down. I had engaged a bedroom compartment (pull-down bed, reclining chair, private sink, private toilet) for the trip to Vancouver. At 9:50 a.m., a conductor bawled those enchanting words, "Aaaallll board!"
The train jerked gently, then headed down the track at a dignified pace. Slowly, steadily, it shifted into a stately acceleration with a quickening clack of the wheels. For me, this always produces a surge of anticipation that no airliner thundering down a runway ever matches.
I sat glued to the window of my compartment as the Canadian headed west through the snowy train yards of Montreal. After a bit, I pondered a map that showed all of Canada. The space and the distances were enormous. I did some arithmetic and found that the distance from my position on the outskirts of Montreal to the far corner of the Yukon Territory in the northwest—in the wastes that explorers used to refer to as the Canadian Gobi—was about 3,500 miles. To the north, Canada extends almost to the North Pole, which is some 3,100 miles from Montreal. Nearly all of this terrain was winterbound, roadless, reachable only by plane in good weather. If Canada's 25 million citizens were spread evenly over their entire national landmass instead of being huddled along the U.S. border, they would average only seven people per square mile. By comparison, the Soviet Union has a density of 32 people per square mile; the U.S. has 66; and Saudi Arabia, one of the emptiest countries on earth, has 13.
Once out of Montreal, it was only a matter of a few miles before we reached the Quebec border. Then came the massive province of Ontario. Traveling steadily for the next 29 hours, we would cover 1,250 miles and never leave its boundaries. Eastern Ontario was snowy and gentle, a bucolic landscape much like Illinois. Soon we came to Ottawa, the very forgettable capital of Canada. Malcolm wrote of the city, "Ottawa, the plain, cold old canal town chosen as the nation's compromise capital by a queen named Victoria who never saw the country, remains a cold, old canal town.... [with] one old industry, a frustrated federal government isolated from the country by geography and its own sense of self-importance."
After leaving Ottawa, we reached a spot where we were about 175 miles from the U.S. border. That, amazingly enough, was about the farthest the Canadian would wander from the boundary. And, as the railroad runs, so runs the nation—in a lo-o-o-o-ng narrow border-hugging strip that contains 90% of the people and nearly 100% of the cities, the factories, the politicians, the financial clout. Thus, the operative force of the country is crammed into something like a longer, thinner, lying-down Chile, while a land-mass approximately six times larger than Western Europe is almost vacant.
My first day on the train drifted into late gray afternoon, and I wandered about the corridors. Eventually I wound up talking to a man from Allentown, Pa., who said he was a train buff. He was a normal-looking fellow, neat as a pin in tie and jacket, probably in his early 60's. His wife was also impeccable in dress and demeanor. The man told me that he loved riding on trains so much that the destination was really beside the point. "I would just as soon arrive in Vancouver at 11 in the morning and just sit on the train until it goes back east at 3 in the afternoon. I have no interest at all in what there is to see that is not associated with a train."
His wife spoke gently to him, but firmly. "Of course, but I have made reservations in Vancouver, and we will spend three days there, and I think you'll probably enjoy it, dear, don't you?"
He chuckled. "Maybe, but it will be against my will."
Later this fellow put down some railroad literature he was studying and said to his wife, "Do you realize that when you finish this trip, you will have crossed the Continental Divide in three countries—Panama, the U.S. and Canada—and that each time you will have traveled in a different type of passenger seat? What will your bridge club think of that?" She was reading and didn't look up. "I think that will put them all right to sleep, dear."
I asked an attendant if he ran into many railroad buffs. "Oh, hell, yes," he said. "There ain't that many good passenger trains anymore, and you get them on the Canadian all the time. Sometimes they have conventions on the train. They tape-record train whistles and wheel noise. They're real nutty. They don't hurt anything, though. They're a real harmless type."
The service attendant paused, then said, "There's a funny thing about those buffs, though. Much as they love trains, I never met one who actually worked for a railroad. Except, of course, Bill Coo."
Of course. Coo is the consummate railroad buff. A beefy, friendly man, Coo, 55, has been working on the railroad in Canada for 34 years—in research, marketing, public relations, publishing. And he is a buff, but not one of those harmless nutty ones. Coo has created one of railroading's indispensable forms of travel literature, a two-volume opus called Scenic Rail Guide to Central & Atlantic Canada and Scenic Rail Guide to Western Canada. The work is a unique combination of travelogue, pathfinder and encyclopedia of Canadian railroads.
It contains not only maps, mileages and photos but also a collection of mile-by-mile information—historical tidbits, anecdotes, gossip, nature notes, thumbnail biographies, accounts of momentous events and trivia of every conceivable variety. The books are keyed to the numbered mileage signs that are nailed to telegraph poles along the track. By looking at a map, finding the nearest town and locating the closest mileage marker, you can follow Coo's oddly personalized, and yet wonderfully informative, comments on your itinerary.
For example, in one chock-full paragraph about a relatively un-scenic section of the line near Carleton Place, Ont., Coo points out that the town "is noted as the birthplace of A.R. Brown, the WWI air ace who shot down Germany's Red Baron," and that just down the railroad is the village of Almonte, which is "the hometown of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball," and that although this land "is lush farmland with sheep grazing in nearby fields, [once] it lay beneath the Champlain Sea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that extended all the way to Arnprior," which is the next village on the line.
Coo has many styles, many tales. In writing about the otherwise not-so-noteworthy region around Chapleau, Ont., he deals in irony and tragedy. He notes that a stone marker close to the tracks is near the grave of the French novelist Louis Hèmon, an unlucky gent who "was killed by a train in the summer of 1913 while walking along the railway tracks after mailing the manuscript of his novel Maria Chapdelaine to Le Temps in Paris." After the author's untimely death, Coo reports, the book was first published in Canada in 1916 and soon became "a Canadian classic." Is this important? No. Is it more interesting than talking to your average rail buff about train whistles and track gauges over the Great Divide? You bet!
Sudbury, where the two sections of the Canadian link up, is 10 hours out of Montreal and seven hours out of Toronto. It is also out of another universe. The town is an environmental nightmare, an industrial combat zone that is so wasted and so ugly that it is widely known as "Sludgebury." For decades fumes from nickel-smelting operations poisoned the region so thoroughly that foliage for miles around the city simply died.
While the Montreal and Toronto sections of the Canadian linked up for the trip west, I wandered along the street near the Sudbury train station. It was a bleak neighborhood. There was a bar called the Nickel Bin, and on a nearby fieabag hotel, a sign on the door said Be Good or Be Gone! Anyone Fighting in Hotel Will Be Barred for Life!
I was relieved to leave the streets of Sudbury and return to my snug compartment. All was pitch-black outside when we left. The sway of the car and the steady clicking of the wheels made for a lovely, warm, protected, utterly all-encompassing sensation.
My alarm went off a little before 5 a.m., and I rose in the dark and dressed in several layers of clothes. The train pulled into White River, Ont., for a 15-minute stop, and I went out to stroll the icy platform. Coo pointed out that it can get very cold here and that it has, in fact, gotten down to—72° F. "If you're adventurous enough to get off the train here in winter," Coos cautioned his readers, "wear everything you own." I was adventurous enough, but the predawn temperature was only—28°, rather mild for a Minnesotan like myself.
I had gotten up early at White River so I could be awake and alert for the next four hours of the journey. This section had been described as some of the most beautiful—and difficult—country encountered by the railroad builders a century ago. By the time this stretch was ready for construction, in 1882, a mountain-sized genius named William Cornelius Van Horne had been put in charge of the whole operation. He had come to Canada after being president of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, and experts in the train game declared him to be "simply the ablest railroad general in the world."
Van Horne was a man of huge and diverse appetites, a rugged individualist who once cried, "I eat all I can, I drink all I can and I don't give a damn for anyone." He was a talented painter as well as a collector of Impressionist paintings and Japanese porcelain. He was also a roistering man's man who liked nothing better than playing poker all night with a bunch of railway laborers.
Van Horne needed all the savvy he could muster to face the daunting job of pushing the railroad across the region we were entering now—the ancient bedrock of the Canadian Shield. When he had seen this terrain, Van Horne declared it to be "two hundred miles of engineering impossibilities."
The sun was barely up when the train rounded a curve and Lake Superior suddenly appeared. It was a stunning panorama—a huge body of blue-black water with dramatic red rock shores littered with massive ice floes, some that looked the size of tennis courts. Superior was beautiful, but it could also be deadly, as Coo wrote: "At times calm, but at other times so violent that waves have been known to sweep right over the dome of the Canadian."
For Van Home's builders, the area was maddening no matter what the temperament of the lake. The laborers, known as navvies, were paid 15 cents an hour, a meager wage even for those days, and they worked in cruel and dangerous conditions. Pierre Berton, Canadian author of two often eloquent books about building the railroad. The National Dream and The Last Spike, wrote of the conditions along Lake Superior: "To the men on the job—throats choked with the dust of shattered rocks, ears ringing with dynamite blasts, arms aching from swinging sledges or toting rails, skin smarting and itching from a hundred insect bites, nostrils assailed by a dozen stenches from horse manure to human sweat—the scenery was only a nuisance to be moved when it got in the way. The summers were bad enough but the winters were especially hard; in the flat light of December, the whole world took on a dun colour and the chill wind blowing off the great frozen inland sea sliced through the thickest garments."
Berton's description of the workers" camps in the area made them sound like a gulag in Siberia: "The navvies lived like men on another planet in gloomy and airless bunkhouses, which were little better than log dungeons. Into these hastily constructed temporary structures...between sixty and eighty men were crammed. They slept in verminous blankets on beds of hay in double decker bunks.... The [winter] nights were fetid with steam from wet clothes that habitually hung over the central stove. In the summer, the air was rancid with smoke from burning straw and rags set afire to drive off the maddening hordes of mosquitoes.... Baths and plumbing were unknown...medical attention was minimal."
The dense old rock of the Shield yielded to railroad construction only after constant, repeated explosions. Three dynamite factories were built in the area to supply the blasting crews, but some ridges consumed three tons of dynamite a day for months on end before a track bed could be blown out of the stone. Dynamite was a relatively newfangled explosive patented only a few years earlier, and at times there wasn't enough of it. Then workers were forced to fall back on nitroglycerin, which came in a terrifyingly unstable liquid form. The stuff had to be transported in 10-gallon tins on men's backs instead of being hauled on bouncing wagons over the corrugated log roads.
Despite the deprivations and danger, there was a nobility to working in that magnificent setting. A road superintendent named John Egan was quoted with rare eloquence in a Canadian newspaper: "The scenery is sublime in its very wildness.... God's own handiwork stands out boldly every furlong you proceed. As to the character of the work, it will remain an everlasting monument to the builders."
And so it does.
The Canadian sped past the western end of Lake Superior and arrived in a land crisscrossed by necklaces of small lakes. In summer, the, water glistens blue-green and leaves are yellow-green and wildflowers are everywhere. But in winter, the landscape was chill and monochromatic, white and gray and black. Whereas the railroad builders' worst enemy had been the rock, in this section they came upon just the opposite kind of obstacle: ooze. The region was pocked with sinkholes and swamps and with lakes whose bottoms would not support bridge pilings until they had been sunk nearly 100 feet to bedrock. At first the builders spanned the mud and slime by laying the tracks on mattresses of logs. Later, it all had to be filled in with gravel and sand at enormous expense.
After almost 33 hours, the Canadian rolled out of Ontario. We were now in Manitoba, and the land flattened into farms. Next came Winnipeg, a town as dull as its name. Here the train crews were changed, with the Montreal-Toronto bunch going back, while new service attendants came aboard for the next leg of the trip.
I was standing on the Winnipeg station platform with a crewman who was getting off. He told me he had been with the railroad for 31 years. I asked, "Do you like the scenery out west better than what we've been through so far?"
He said, "I don't know. I've never been one foot west of Winnipeg."
I was stunned. "In 31 years? Why?"
He shrugged and said, "It doesn't interest me. I'm from Ontario, and that's all I need to know."
At the time, I thought this fellow was a unique example of a narrow-minded Canadian know-nothing. But as it turned out, this kind of rigid, defensive provincialism is as ingrained in the Canadian way of life as hockey is. In 1907, Henri Bourassa, a journalist, spoke of the provincial nature of the nation: "There is Ontario patriotism, Quebec patriotism or western patriotism, each based on the hope that it may swallow up the others, but there is no Canadian patriotism."
A few years ago, a well-respected and experienced Canadian diplomat named Bruce Rankin upset many of his countrymen when he said that Canadians were among the most "negative, parochial and balkanized people" in the world. Though most everyone agreed that he shouldn't have said this publicly, almost no one disagreed with the substance of his remark.
A Montreal novelist, Hugh Hood, wrote some time ago, "Imagine a Committee on un-Canadian Activities. You can't. Un-Canadianism is almost the very definition of Canadianism."
Though the railroad was intended to bind a nation together, things haven't worked out that way. Relations among the various provinces border on open hostility. The Canadian Parliament approved a new constitution in 1981, with provisions meant to open up the country. But there are still strong provincial laws that put up a network of rules and regulations that make it difficult for newcomers from other parts of Canada to move in, even temporarily.
The trainman's cavalier lack of curiosity about anywhere in Canada but his home province is more the rule than the exception, too. Coo later told me that 75% of the people who ride the Canadian are "offshore tourists," meaning they are not from Canada. Germans, Englishmen. Japanese and Americans outnumber Canadians on their own best passenger train.
After the train left Winnipeg and we were thundering across the prairie, I was having a drink in the bar car, and I told the conductor from the new crew about my conversation with the trainman. The conductor nodded knowingly. "I have a theory," he said, "that if we gave every kid in Canada a free ride coast-to-coast on this train at a given age—say 12 or 13—we would change the nature of this country. As it is, half the people in Canada don't know anything and don't want to know anything and never will know anything about this country except their own province."
What a pity.
Crossing the Canadian prairie is an experience one can't forget. There is a supernatural quality to the emptiness of this place, known as the Great Lone Land, a term first made famous in 1872 as the title of a book by William Francis Butler, an Englishman who had explored the region. He wrote, "The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie ocean of which we speak.... No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie: one feels the stillness and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. This ocean has no past—time has been nought to it; and men have come and gone, leaving behind them no track, no vestige, of their presence."
As we rolled into Saskatchewan, I learned from Coo's slightly less elegiac prose that Regina, the capital of the province, used to be known as Pile o' Bones because it was once the site of an Indian buffalo camp and these hunters believed that leaving the bones behind would cause buffalo to return. I also learned that the town of Moose Jaw might have gotten its name when a British toff, the Earl of Mulgrave, may or may not have fixed a broken cart wheel with a moose's jawbone during a 19th-century hunting trip. Also that Medicine Hat may or may not have acquired its name after a band of Blackfeet sent a band of Cree fleeing in retreat just as the wind blew off the hat of the Cree's chief medicine man. This was a very bad omen, and, ever since, the area was known as Where-the-Medicine-Man-Lost-His-Hat (mercifully shortened to Medicine Hat). Also, a typical Coo item: In 1907 Rudyard Kipling visited Medicine Hat and described it as "the city with all Hell for a basement" because of the enormous deposits of natural gas that lie beneath the town.
As the train left Medicine Hat, I glimpsed white triangles on the horizon far to the northwest, much like the sails of America's Cup yachts at sea. These were the Canadian Rockies at least 100 miles away.
The Canadian arrived at Calgary at 1:35 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. We had traveled 2,246 miles in two days and about three hours since leaving the Gare Centrale in Montreal. The prairies had risen into rolling country where cattle and sheep grazed, and oil rigs were at work making the money that will help underwrite the '88 Winter Olympics.
Two hours out of Calgary the train reached Banff, and the mountains were upon us, their snowy peaks turning blue as twilight moved in. Banff was the place where the great Van Home made his famous pronouncement: "Since we can't export the scenery, we shall have to import the tourists." And in 1885 he ordered two magnificent hotels to be built—the Banff Springs and the Chateau Lake Louise, about 35 miles away. They became hangouts for the rich, the royal and the celebrated. At one time or another in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the Banff Springs Hotel was visited by the Queen of Siam, Teddy Roosevelt, Cole Porter, Agatha Christie, Jack Benny, Helen Keller, the Maharaja of Boroda and the Prince of Wales, who later returned as King Edward VIII. After the Depression and World War II, both the world's upper crust and the hotel itself fell on hard times. Today the clientele is a much less aristocratic and less interesting blend of tourists, skiers and conventioneers.
The train left Banff at 4:45 p.m. sharp. As evening approached, the ragged mountains were a melodramatic sight and the dome-car seats were filled to capacity. People were hushed as if in church, and whatever comments they made were made softly.
A young woman murmured to her companion, "No one will ever know we were here 100 years from now."
"On this train?" he asked.
"No, on this earth," she said.
A father spoke in a teacherly whisper to his small son: "Ten million years from now, Kevin, this will all be flat."
The boy stared at his father in amazement, then said loudly, "I don't believe that for a minute, Dad."
An elderly man kept his eyes on the peaks as he said to his wife, "Now you know how long forever is, dear."
The train stopped to take on some passengers at the Lake Louise station, a heavy log structure with leaded-glass windows. Then it began the climb to the former rail stop of Stephen, at 5,332 feet, squarely on the Continental Divide. Near Stephen is a spot with picnic tables and a cairn, though the cairn is not there to mark the continental watershed. It is there in honor of a long-dead British geologist, Jarnes Hector, the first white man to discover Kicking Horse Pass, a narrow opening in the wall-to-wall Rockies that unlocked the way for the railroad to pass through. As fate would have it. Hector not only gave the pass a name, he also nearly died doing it. What happened is that his horse slipped in the tumultuous stream and delivered a powerful kick to Hector's head. The geologist dropped like a tree, and the Indians traveling with him assumed he was dead. They laid him in a grave and began to shovel dirt on his body. Hector was paralyzed except for one eye, which he winked desperately until it caught the Indians' attention. They pulled him out of the grave, and from that day on, the river and the pass were named for Hector's careless horse.
The Canadian rolled down from the Divide toward the town of Field on a once-dreaded decline known as Big Hill. Years ago it was a very treacherous descent with a grade of 4.5 degrees, the steepest in North America. Despite safety spurs and other precautions, runaway trains were common, and many passengers died in plunges off the tracks on Big Hill. In 1906 the terror was finally removed when double switchback, "spiral," tunnels were opened.
The trip west from this point was breathtaking, the train often running on precarious ledges cut high above the river gorges. It was exciting to see all this from the comfort of a train compartment, but in the years just after the track was opened, a fad among travelers much hardier than I was to sit up front on the locomotive's cowcatcher as the train thundered up the desperate heights and down the dizzying drops. The record for a cowcatcher ride was accomplished in 1886, it is said, by Lady Agnes Macdonald, wife of Canada's first prime minister. She rode a 'catcher most of the way from Lake Louise to Vancouver, some 600 miles.
The dangerous nature of the terrain is reflected in some of the names along the way: Calamity Tunnel, Suicide Rapids, Jaws of Death Gorge, Hell's Gate, the Devil's Wash Basin. As this nomenclature suggests, the builders of the railroad in these mountains took enormous risks. Berton wrote of one particularly terrifying place: "At Hell's Gate on the Fraser, a traveler could stand and watch the agony of construction taking place directly across the foaming waters. Splintered trees toppled into the muddy gorge, huge rocks catapulted into the sky, vast chunks of mountainside slid into the river. Men could be seen suspended at dizzy heights against the rock walls, let down the cliffs on ladders secured by ropes to drill blasting holes into the rock face. Engineers made their measurements and took their cross-sections suspended for hours and sometimes days 'like Mahomet's coffin between heaven and earth.' They worked in bare feet to ensure a better footing, but a break in the rope, a rock toppling from above, or a premature blast meant certain death."
Labor was cheap—and so was life. Thousands of Chinese were imported to work in these fearsome western sections. They were paid $1 a day, compared with $1.50 for white workers. Racist behavior was ferocious. A Winnipeg newspaper called them "the beardless and immoral children of China...with no sense whatever of any principle of morality." Many of them were killed in accidents that were not even recorded. Berton reported that in a single summer month—from Aug. 13 to Sept. 11, 1880—a railroad foreman's diary indicated that five Chinese had died in accidents ranging from drowning to being smothered in a cave-in. Yet a local paper proudly announced in September that there hadn't been a single railroad-connected death since June 15. Not only did the deaths of the Chinese go unrecorded, but so did their lives. Apparently no diaries of their ordeal were written. Even oral family histories were nonexistent, for the sad reason that most of the Chinese men left no descendants in North America. They had come to the continent expecting to return home after a few years and so had left their families behind in China.
The train rolled down the snowy gorges of the Fraser River and suddenly emerged from the mountains into the river's gentle delta. No longer a gnashing millrace, the water fanned out tranquilly through lush dairy farms. Even in winter, this temperate coastal land was moist and green. Skunk cabbage blossomed along the riverbank, and there were cows everywhere.
Once within the Vancouver city limits, the train traversed several miles of urban eyesores—truckyards, junkyards, backyards, the edges of parking lots, the undersides of superhighways. Sometime after 11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time (a few minutes late), the Canadian eased its way through the last one-half mile or so of crosshatched tracks and stopped at the platform at Vancouver Station. It was a nondescript structure in an old section of Vancouver.
So I had spent three days and three hours on the train, traveled 2,887 miles and never crossed the borders of Canada. Yet I had traversed a thousand centuries of subterranean turmoil and cataclysmic force that had left behind some of the earth's most beautiful mountains, most immense prairies, most monumental lakes.
From the train, I had seen shanties and shacks and trash-strewn porches, boarded-up farmhouses, gas stations, woodsheds and warehouses, wrecked cars, abandoned tractors, bars, bowling alleys, bad hotels. I had committed hundreds of invasions of Canadian privacy. I had seen a young woman's anguished face and blackened eye as she looked up from washing dishes in a trailer not 20 feet from the railbed. I had seen a fat woman wearing a brassiere in the window of a house. I had seen a man in bed watching a hockey game on television.
Is this really a way to come up with sound insights into the Canadian character? The Canadian psyche? The Canadian soul? Well, perhaps it doesn't matter. A great train ride is its own reward—a great train ride. Aaaallll aboard!