“Journeys end in lovers meeting”. The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson
Happy Valentine’s Day. We started this recurring post a couple of years back, where I talk about a thing or things I love. It was never supposed to be ongoing, but you know how it goes. “Do it once, it’s an accident. Do it twice, it’s a tradition,” as my old mentor and nemesis, the Reverend Doctor Peter Denton would remind me.
So what’s it going to be this year, you may be asking yourself?
I’m pretty sure if you were to canvas a grade 3 class about what they wanted to be when they grew up, you’d get your “astronauts”, you’d get your “cowboys”, sure. You’d probably even get “teacher” by some of the brown-nosers, and you’d certainly get a couple of “train engineers” in there. Now, you may think where this blog post is going. That I’ve always wanted to be a train engineer and are still harbouring secret regret I never pursued it……WRONG!…..a train engineer? That sounds like a terrible job. You’re up in that tiny, smelly cab. It’s probably freezing in the winter. Sure you get to blow the whistle, but what kind of a life is that? In fact, I was reminded recently that when I was a kid and was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I usually answered “Happy”. I never knew why people thought that was adorable. It was the truth. If I was happy, then that meant I found something that I like doing, I’ve found people I love to be around, and I’m reasonably healthy. The rest is just details. Years later, when I watched “Young Sherlock Holmes” and there’s that scene where the boys are all sitting around talking about what they want to be when they grow up, I could relate to Holmes’ response. It was simply, “I never want to be alone.” I nodded my 12-year-old head in the darkened movie theatre. Sherlock got it.
But to say that I never really wanted to be a train engineer does not at all suggest that I don’t love trains. I suppose if I had to have a job on the train, I’d maybe want to be a porter. I’d be helping make people comfortable, and I’d get to be the guy who releases the lever to lower the stairs when we come into a station, so that’s fun. I’d find working in the dining car WAY too stressful. Maybe I could work the baggage car? It would be physical work, but I bet you’d have a lot of down time.
Travelling by train across Canada these days is pretty cost prohibitive. Or at least travelling in style across Canada. By in style I mean at least having an upper or lower berth, which gives you access to the last half of the train, and includes your meals. You also get a place to sleep at night and you get to hang out in the dome cars. I last time I was on a proper train trip like that was in the spring of 2002 when my then girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the train home from Toronto after my brother’s wedding. In fact, I had hatched a plan to propose to my girlfriend AT SOME POINT during the train ride, because, I don’t know, trains are cool and kinda romantic? Well, Canadian trains are not known for their promptness and ours was about 4 hours delayed. I wasn’t the least bit concerned. It gave me extra time to hang out in the train station, which was great. And it just made the anticipation of a train ride all the more sharp. Before that trip, I hadn’t been on an overnight train in almost a decade. That was the Halifax to Montreal trip in 1993. It was just long enough to count as an overnight trip, but not really long enough to get the full experience of it. Arriving at our destination on a rainy August morning, I thought to myself, “Montreal, already?” And before that? Well, before that there were so many train trips I can’t really even begin to recount them all.
But let’s try.
First of all, my Dad loved trains, and I think in the 1970’s and early 1980’s it was still fairly cost-effective to travel that way for families. My parents certainly weren’t rich, but every couple of years we were able to take an overnight train trip somewhere. There’s a photo somewhere of me, 2 years old, wearing this little red coat, standing on a platform, next to our sleeping car. It was so long ago you could tell that the sleeping car was painted in Canadian Pacific colours. This was before 1977 (when Via Rail was incorporated) and all the old silver and red cars were repainted in the now familiar blue and yellow. It looks like I am blowing a kiss to the camera, but I’m told by my Mom I am actually making the “Wooo woooo” sound of the train whistle.
I remember taking the train through the Rockies to Vancouver. This was when VIA would take the more scenic “Southern Route” owned by CP. Heck, this was back when VIA had enough money to run two trains on two different routes out west. You had the Super Continental that would go west from Winnipeg and stop in Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, and then split in Jasper and one branch would carry on west through Prince George and Prince Rupert (right to the coast!) and the other route would wind it’s way south west down through the interior to Vancouver. You’d also have The Canadian that originally ran from Winnipeg through Brandon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Banff, Kamloops and Vancouver.
My family and I have been on both routes, and it’s generally accepted that the southern route is more scenic. I remember going through the spiral tunnels and not really understanding what they are. (I’m still not really 100 percent sure I could explain them but I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been running from our car to try to see a train go through them, only to have just missed it, waiting around for a half hour for another train, slowly making our way back to our car only to hear a train whistle and then running back to the lookout and so on) I remember sitting in the lounge on a particularly bumpy section of the Crow’s Nest Pass, transfixed by watching my glass of Coke dance its way across the table and being stopped by the raised edge, and then moving by glass back to the other side of the table and watching the glass dance again. Who needed video games when you could watch your Coke dance?
One time, coming home from Vancouver, rumours spread throughout the train that there had been a washout (Near Golden!) and that the entire train was going to have to be bussed around to the other side. While other vacationers might have been put out by the inconvenience, my family and I looked upon this as a grand adventure. When we finally arrived in Banff on the other side of the washout, it was chaos. My Dad made sure that my Mom, brother and me got on the correct sleeping car and found our room, and he went back onto the platform to try to find the whereabouts of our luggage. Not long later, the train started moving slowly away from the station. My Mom slipped into the corridor (those narrow corridors that I love so much) and flagged down a porter.
“My husband’s out there still. He’s going to be left behind!”
“Oh, not to worry. We are just shunting. We aren’t actually leaving for Calgary yet. We don’t even have the dining car crew yet.”
Well, that porter was right about one thing. We didn’t have our dining car crew yet, but he was woefully misinformed about the train’s schedule. This became increasingly clear as the train picked up speed and it was obvious that our next stop was going to be Calgary. My Mom was beside herself with worry, and our whole sleeping car knew the story.
Well, to everyone’s surprise, the sleeping car door opened and there was my Dad! The entire sleeping car erupted in applause! Apparently what happened was that my Dad was standing on the platform, and he located our luggage. He was handing them up to the baggage car when the train started to move. The baggage carman shouted, “Hey! It’s going! You better get on!” and in my mind to this day I imagine my Dad running alongside the train and reaching out and being hauled into the baggage car by the train crew and picking himself up and dusting himself off, and shaking hands with everyone and making his slow walk back through 30 cars to get to his family.
And yeah, the train had to stop near Canmore for a school bus to pull up alongside. It was a school bus full of the dining car crew.
Or what about that time between grade 3 and 4 where we took the train from Thompson, Manitoba to Churchill to see the polar bears and beluga whales? I remember a communication mishap between me and my Dad resulted in me getting grounded to my room. In Thompson, before the train left, I asked my Dad if we could go out on the platform and see the “Engines”. It was a kind of tradition that he and I would walk the length of the train, up to the front, and wave to the engineer. It was always kind of scary because you never knew when the locomotive would spit steam or loudly hiss with the sudden release of an airbrake, but this time my Dad’s face clouded over and said, “You can stay in your room if you’re going to talk like THAT.” I was stunned. I didn’t know what was happening. My Mom and brother were somewhere else and honestly didn’t know what was happening. Eventually when my Mom got back to our car it was all figured out. My Dad thought I said, “Let’s go out and look at all the Injuns.” Being a northern community, there was a large aboriginal community, obviously, and my Dad thought I was making some kind of a racial slur and he was punishing me for it. I hadn’t even heard of that term at the time, and I would never had said something like that. We eventually got it sorted out, and I think my Dad must have apologized to me, but I don’t remember that part. I just remember the feeling of confusion and injustice I felt as I was banished to my room in the middle of summer vacation.
The route itself was one of the most unusual experiences I’ve ever had. The tracks had to be rebuilt every couple of years, because the ground was so soft due to the muskeg. Even the telephone poles had to be held up with tripods to avoid slumping. I remember how the train in northern Manitoba was used like a local taxi service, where the train would stop and start countless times after we left Thompson and headed north. People would appear out of the forest alongside the train and wave it down and climb aboard. My Mom remembers a young woman getting off the train with a small doll sticking out of the top of her pack, a toy bought for someone special in the Bay in Thompson. When that young woman got off the train, there was no one to meet her. There was just a path that went a few feet into the forest and then turned. The train pulled slowly away and the young woman was soon hidden from view. How far was it to her community? A half day’s walk? An overnight? Did she need to take a boat? All we knew was that some little kid was getting a special present and the world seemed incredibly large and mysterious to me.
We didn’t always need to go on long train trips to get our “train fix”, either. I remember one time my grandma was taking the train to Vancouver and at that time we were all allowed to not only go on the platform, but actually go up into the train and get my grandma settled. For the briefest of moments I was able to catch the smell of the train, and it would have to be enough. Being the goofy family that we are, after we said our goodbyes, we jumped back into our car and drove to the edge of the city to find a good spot to park and wave one last time to my grandma as she whizzed by into the night. I swear she was waving back.
Another time, we were coming home from a road trip out west, and we noticed that train was in the station in Brandon, Manitoba. The doors were shut and the “All Aboard” was just announced. My parents looked at each other and without talking, I knew they loved each other because a plan was instantly formed. My Mom did most of the driving on roadtrips because she loved it, and as we spun out of the station parking lot, my dad was consulting the schedule he had just picked up. “I think we can make it, Marilyn. If we don’t hit traffic.”
My parents were going to try to race the train to Portage La Prairie.
Portage is just over an hour east of Brandon, and the last stop before Winnipeg. I can still remember the excitement of navigating the city streets of Brandon, trying to figure out the quickest way out onto the TransCanada. Once out on the highway, my brother and I had our eyes pressed to the glass, looking out to see if we could get a glimpse of the yellow and blue cars as we both made our way East. There is was! We were gaining on it!
We arrived at Portage about 5 minutes before the train did, so we had that wonderful experience of watching the train roll into the station. Then my parents announced the second half of the plan. My Dad was going to buy three coach tickets from Portage to Winnipeg, and he, my brother and I were going to GET TO RIDE THE TRAIN HOME while my Mom would drive the car and meet us at the station! Keep in mind that we lived on the western edge of the city, and this was already after a long day of driving, but my Mom was going to drive right past our street to go downtown so that her three boys could have this experience. Did she love my Dad or what?
Of course we would hit train museums whenever we could. Some were better than others, obviously. Favourites included Cranbrook, BC, Duluth, MN, and the Museum of Western Development in Moose Jaw, SK. (Not a train museum! But it had trains.) In fact, the museum in Moose Jaw has a little picnic table outside that you can see from the TransCanada, and we would often stop and have a little picnic lunch either before or after our visit to the museum. To this day if we are driving West (and if we are not stopping in Moose Jaw), I will always crane my neck when I see the familiar metallic blue of the museum roof and look for that picnic table and remember. It probably comes to no surprise to you that on our honeymoon we did a little road trip and one of our stops was the Duluth Train Museum. I think my wife liked it. Who wouldn’t?
We did get engaged on a train, after all. In the dome car. Just as the train was about to leave Toronto. I couldn’t stand keeping it a secret. (I’m terrible at secrets you guys.) But I realized afterwards if she had said “No” it would have made for a pretty awkward couple of days together. “Yes, hello. This is my girlfriend. Or, um. Was my girlfriend? I’m not exactly sure what it all means. Can you excuse me, I think I’ll go have a little cry.”
Growing up, there was this restaurant called “Country Kitchen” across from Union Station and down a little bit. The food was okay: your typical clubhouse sandwiches, burgers, etc. But it’s one redeeming feature was, as previously mentioned, it’s location across the street from the train station. There were about 3 or 4 booths on the south side of the restaurant that were PRIME train watching seats, and we would routinely go there as a family and my dad would ask to be sat in one of the four “trainspotting booths”. The restaurant would oblige him whenever they could, but on the rare occasion when all the good booths were taken and we were seated on the other side of the restaurant, the four of us would sit glumly and think to ourselves, “what’s the point?” Quite often these suppers would be followed by a semi-illegal drive under the train bridge into the CN rail yards behind the station (the spot where Winnipeg’s Forks Market and Canadian Museum for Human Rights now stand) for the sole purpose of looking at train cars up close. Even as a kid, I felt like we were probably doing something not quite right. I mean, I couldn’t see any signs that said we were on private property, but there certainly weren’t any signs that made you think we would be welcome. We sort of justified these nocturnal missions by parking in the station lot and going into the station for a looksee, as if we were going to be going on a trip or meeting someone. We were subconsciously trying to give ourselves, confirmed interlopers, an alibi for being there. This train loving business can be a real problem.
One last train story. A month or so after my Dad died, my Mom booked my brother and me on a train trip to the Rockies to just get out of town for a bit. By this point, the train didn’t run the southern route at all (cutbacks!) so we took the train to Jasper and then rented a car and a cabin and just had a few days to ourselves to exhale and say, “what the hell just happened?” That trip was all a bit of a blur, but taking a train to the mountains incorporates two of my favourite things and was probably the best thing my Mom could do for my brother and me that summer. (Spoiler: maybe next year’s thing(s) that I love will be mountains, especially mountains that are beyond other mountains). We made the best of it, as we always do. Hashtags hadn’t been invented back in 1991, but if they were, you could have stuck a nice #onward onto the three of us as we tried to find out new way in this scary and uncertain reality. Taking the train so soon after my Dad died somehow heightened the grief (if that was even possible) but also provided some level of familiar comfort. But it wasn’t all rosy. I remember an overly friendly dining car steward asking my Mom if she was married. (The nerve!) and her responding that her husband had recently died. “Cancer?” the creep offered unhelpfully. My Mom had one quiet word for him. “Depression”. And the steward left us alone for the rest of the trip.
These days, my Mom is the only one who still regularly travels by train. She usually takes The Canadian out west once a year to visit my brother and his family in Vancouver. In fact, the second blog post I ever wrote was about going to the station and picking her up. I hope that one day I can take my daughter on an overnight train trip and she can experience, at least once, some of the wonders of riding the rails.
I haven’t even touched on the pop culture references to trains that have become touchstones for me. Just take a look at the number of songs written about trains. There’s an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to the weird subgenre, Train Song. A favourite of mine being “Something About Trains” by Jane Siberry.
“But you wake up in the middle of the night
And a train whistle blows and a dog barks
And something’s not quite right
And the cry is sent up from this earth
Into the silent sky”
And what about movies? Books?
So many movies and books, especially thrillers, seem to find themselves set on trains. I guess the idea of sticking a bunch of strangers together in a semi-confined space can lead to countless plot developments. Throw in a dash of romance, a hint of murder and bingo bango baby you’ve got a story going on.
Here are just a few of my faves:
Silver Streak. This comedy thriller is the BEST. I didn’t realize how many other movies it was referencing when I first saw it, but it holds a special place in my heart. (Okay the whole “Gene Wilder in blackface” bit is troubling, I’ll freely concede), but the climatic ending was filmed in Toronto’s Union Station when my parents were living there in 1972 and they spent the better part of a day watching the filming (naturally).
North by Northwest. Some readers of this blog have not seen this film, and some have lovingly (if not mistakenly) called it a “snoozefest”, but there’s a [SPOILER]: great scene that takes place on a train. A scene that was referenced/parodied in Silver Streak, actually. I think this is probably my favourite Hitchcock film, and firmly planted me on #teamcarygrant. As you know, you can either be on #teamcarygrant or #teamjimmystewart BUT NOT BOTH
Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock really liked trains, huh? The title says it all, doesn’t it. Two strangers (on a train, you guys!) swap murder plans giving each other supposedly perfect alibis. This was sort of referenced/remade with Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito in Throw Mama From the Train.
The Darjeeling Limited. Three brothers travel to India to sort stuff out. It’s Wes Anderson at his very best, and the “behind the scenes” documentaries on my Critereon Collection DVD are super informative.
From Russia with Love. The close quarters fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in an Orient Express compartment is unexpectedly brutal and claustrophobic.
Murder on the Orient Express. Speaking of the Orient Express, Agatha Christine’s most famous mystery takes place on the famous train while everyone is stuck in a snowdrift or something. She loved trains too, using trains in “4:50 from Paddington” and “The Mystery of the Blue Train”, for example. Not the greatest film in the world, but it has Sean Connery.
Trains, Planes and Automobiles. This movie still holds up, but the train section is much too short, in my opinion. Stupid planes and automobiles.
Snowpiercer. I HAVE NOT YET SEEN THIS MOVIE, but I plan to VERY SOON. The whole darn thing takes place on a futuristic train in the near dystopian future. And Chris “Captain America” Evans is in it. And it’s Korean so you know it’ll be effed.
I’ve already mentioned Agatha Christine, but I’ll mention just one more book. My elementary school library had a copy of Eric Wilson’s Murder on the Canadian. (An obvious nod/homage to Agatha Christie). Boy detective Tom Austen takes The Canadian from Winnipeg to Vancouver and solves a murder mystery on the way. Doesn’t this sound like it was tailor-made for me? It quickly became one of my favourite reads (along with John Bellairs, of course) and I was so happy to see that when I became a librarian eight years ago I inherited a copy in our children’s collection. I’ve always made sure that it’s available and I’ve recommended it a number of times to kids who don’t know what to read next. I took a picture of the book cover just this morning to show you that even now it’s available to borrow. Note that the cover is so old it features the Canadian Pacific colours. More recent paperback editions have updated their covers to show VIA’s blue and yellows, but there’s something nostalgic about this cover that makes me want to keep it as long as possible.
This cover has everything. A Train! RCMP! Even Mountains Beyond Mountains!
Thanks for indulging this shameless geekfest over trains. It has brought back so many great memories.
SO many memories.
The sounds of a train. The mournful cry of the horn across a seemingly deserted prairie landscape, with nothing but the three red blinking lights of a transmission tower in the distance to light the way. The smells of the train. The smells of the creosote and diesel. The wonderful smell of stale cigars in the fabric of ancient armchairs in the dome car. The heavy doors and the crazy funhouse style shifting floors between cars. Constellations and even sometimes, if you’re lucky, northern lights through the dome car windows at night. Climbing into your cozy bed draped with a yellow and black striped VIA monogrammed HBC style wool blanket and being rocked gently to sleep by the train’s motion. The romance of it all, not romance in the sense of Valentines and chocolates, but rather in the sense of an idealized perfection of an impossible experience. The way the landscape glides silently by your bedroom window, and the gradual but seamless transition from wilderness to town to city to wilderness. The way people still come out to see a train arrive in small towns, and wave as they pass. I never miss an opportunity to wave, like I was still 12 years old. The quick friendships that you make over shared meals and shared visits which never last past the final destination. Shirley Jackson (and Shakespeare, originally) may have said that “journeys end in lovers meeting” but in the case of trains I think the journey is the love and the destination is just a second-rate afterthought.
Growing up, my Dad would love to sing around the house. Whenever we were on holidays, particularly in the States, he would wake us all up with a spirited “Good Morning America, I love you!” and then hum wordlessly as we grumbled and stumbled out of bed. This was almost clock-work on American holidays, as common as a “rise and shine” might have been back home. It wasn’t until years later, after he was gone, that I learned that he wasn’t just making some dumb song up. It was an actual song, although he wasn’t getting the words right (another classic trait of the men in my family, whether on purpose or by accident). It was a folk song called “The City of New Orleans” and yeah, you guessed it: It’s about a train.