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Three weeks on the rails across North America


My favorite spots on the Rocky Mountaineer were the open vestibules. U.S. Amtrak shoos passengers away from them, Canada’s ViaRail closes them off, but on Mountaineer excursion trains, windows in the rumbly spaces between cars are accessible. Trains put a rider closer to surroundings than highways can, and vestibules allow an ultimate intimacy with the breeze, lonesome whistle, deep woods filtering sunlight, cars curling around bends ahead and behind — even a juicy-looking blackberry patch, out of reach though so near.

Vestibule-lingering was the nearest I got to emulating Agnes MacDonald, daredevil second wife of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John MacDonald. We learned she liked to ride strapped to a cowcatcher down the Canadian Pacific Railway’s steepest grade, “Big Hill.” And that in 1909, after 20 years’ frequent crashes, that too-steep-graded section was replaced by the Spiral Tunnels, which we traversed. Their switchbacks greatly improved safety, though perhaps 100 workers died building them. I felt appalled by the wilderness-conquering greed that engendered opening the West by rail, yet could not help admire Agnes. I imagine her, heedless of soot on her face or gnats in her Godey’s Ladies Book-style hair, shouting some British Columbian equivalent of “YEE-HA!”

Riding for two days from Banff to Vancouver, nearing Canada’s west coast in late July, the mountains ceased being snow-capped and became lower (though of course, still taller than what we call mountains in Virginia).

That Rocky Mountaineer ride last summer capped a three-week “bucket-list” trip for my husband, Robin, and myself. We traveled north to, then westward across, Canada for that tour; then back east across the U.S., almost entirely by rail.

Chicago skyline

Northbound

Our adventure began and ended on Amtrak’s Cardinal, which on its thrice-weekly Chicago-New York route schedules an afternoon stop in Staunton, near our home. The tiny station is unstaffed, but Amtrak robot “Julie” will cheerfully take your question about any train’s status. Julie had trouble recognizing “Staunton,” (pronounced “Stanton”), but eventually advised each caller to expect “a delay of 30 to 45 minutes.” “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” a fellow-passenger responded halfway through what became a 6 ½-hour wait by our assemblage, including a stranded trucker and a young, recent immigrant who became convinced no train would come. Unofficially we heard the delay (like many others) was due to a freight blocking tracks up the line. We nearly boarded the also-delayed Chicago train by mistake, but cheered as our Cardinal arrived just past dark.

Having slept not too badly, fortified by subs and (with over-chilled AC) little blankets purchased from the clubcar, we arrived in Penn Station at 5 a.m. in Manhattan’s 24/7 bustle and checked into the Leo House. Established in the 1880s as a charitable shelter, Leo, on 23rd Street, offers Spartan but clean, and, for New York, microscopically priced accommodations to anyone. Over an excellent breakfast, Sister Kathleen helpfully informed us that in New York, “’Uptown’ and ‘downtown’ aren’t places, but directions.” Caught a subway to “30 Rock” (Rockefeller Plaza); ascended 70 floors to hear fellow-tourists acclaim the view in many languages. After a nap, and dinner at Chelsea Square, we walked the new High Line trail, following tracks of the old EL (elevated railway) which my parents rode nearly a century ago: panoramas of the Hudson, experimental art, rule-breaking skateboarders.

Our Maple Leaf train left on time, 7:15 am. We saw rust-belt junkiness, alongside more mundane, contemporary junkiness, alongside charm: a row of freightcars that seemed to have derailed, overturned and gotten weirdly twisted decades ago…a pristine little village green festooned with war memorial wreaths. Entering Canada at Niagara Falls, Ontario, passengers had to carry bags into the little station and line up for a frisky black lab to sniff them (uneventfully). We never glimpsed the Falls.

Being “senior” (though not actually feeling near that proverbial “bucket”), and knowing some, but not all, trains allow checked baggage, we’d tried to pack light. Together we schlepped two roller dufflebags, two backpacks, a laptop and my large handbag. I’d take less next time. Cars have areas to stash large bags, but we rarely glimpsed a Red Cap. We found hotels surprisingly accommodating about storing luggage after checkout when we’d booked evening trains.

MapQuest had not shown that our Toronto hotel adjoined the station. The next morning, Robin made another happy discovery: a vast, bright blue-clad crowd striding toward Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game. We joined. The “nosebleed” section afforded a cheap but good view. Jays lost to Tampa in a cliff-hanger. Next, we rode up the CN Tower – Western Hemisphere’s tallest. Toddlers fearlessly peered down through the thick glass floor.

We would spend each one- or two-day stop thus briefly glimpsing each of nine cities. Having booked trains and hotels online, we left other exploration to impulse. We would find delightful surprises in each busy downtown, but also frequently pass someone wearing a stained but heavy coat, in midsummer, inhabiting a different universe than either ours or that of office staff in the gleaming towers. Someone slumped immobile under a bridge, or mumbling, “God bless,” requesting change.

Westbound

Yet I was reminded privilege is relative. Having found far more difference between prices than comfort in sleeper versus coach accommodations, we’d chosen ViaRail’s “Economy Plus” coach. Signs in the Toronto station pointed to a nice lounge for passengers embarking on The Canadian – our trip’s longest ride. However, when a clerk reviewed our tickets, she announced with a scandalized sniff, “Actually, you shouldn’t be here.” The lounge only served sleeper-car passengers.

We rode the Canadian for three nights and two days to Edmonton. Watched city lights dwindle from a dome car; woke to mists in marshy countryside. Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (set in Maine) came to mind as we passed perhaps a billion tall evergreens; some with weird shapes that reminded me of Dr. Seuss illustrations and Robin of ostriches. Purple lupine, swamps with lily pads. For long stretches the only signs of humanity were signal equipment and aging, sometimes wildly askew telegraph poles. Perhaps every hundred miles, someone fishing.

We never saw moose. The snack car vendor was distressed over a recent train striking and killing one, recalling, “The people in the front car felt the bump.”

In western Ontario and Manitoba, natural beauty clashed with bleak little outposts of makeshift, often-abandoned homes. Discarded logs appeared tossed like pickup sticks by sloppy giants.

Singer-songwriter Lindsey Duncan and accompanist Bryan gathered a small clubcar audience. The countryside became prairie, flat to the horizons, with haybale stacks, old grain elevators, and countless fields of an incredibly vivid golden crop which we and others passengers misidentified as mustard. We’d later learn, from a Sudanese cab driver in Edmonton, that it’s canola.

When the train stopped for 3 ½ hours at Winnipeg’s century-old station, we joined a tour of St. Boniface, the French quarter. The eponymous saint sits sternly above the cathedral’s stone gateway near the graves of 6000 Métis, including leader Louis Riel — French/First Nations casualties of an 1880s insurrection.

As the train filled with families after Winnipeg, cell and Internet service returned following 1,000 miles’ absence. I learned my grandson had liked his first day of preschool. Hills appeared. A glorious sunset was interrupted by a bang as an unidentified object hit, and sent spidery cracks through, a dome car window.

For me, the major amenity coach accommodations lack is a shower. Trains are air-conditioned, and warm water and privacy allow sponge-bathing, but debarking for our motel was a treat. Edmonton, we heard, has a more robust economy than Toronto or Calgary; in fact, it contains North America’s largest shopping mall. We went nowhere near it, appreciating a day’s down time. Caught a short bus to Calgary the next morning.

Our six-day Rocky Mountaineer tour (see http://www.rockymountaineer.com) officially began the following day. It would actually entail only two days on the train (a detail I might have noticed by reading the itinerary better), between days of tour buses and passes to attractions. These included the Calgary Tower, which – like Toronto’s CN and others in Vancouver and Seattle – is shaped like an elongated tripod with flying-saucerlike top. Open surroundings made it feel more vertiginous than the CN. In its restaurant, I was momentarily startled by my sweater gliding away on the ledge where I’d set it. While the skyline flowed full-circle, we enjoyed rum cocktails and a cheese plate.

We took in the Glenbow Museum’s fascinating Buddhist and Hindu art collection. Two weeks earlier, Alberta had experienced its worst flood in history, but the only effect on us was a hotel upgrade, as the first-scheduled lodging was closed. At the elegant Delta Bow Valley hotel, I decided to do laundry. Finding no coin machines, the easiest choice seemed the conceirge service. Having stuffed everything in a bag, we got it all back (after resolving a misdelivery), and found each item, including socks, folded neatly onto covered hangers — for (gulp!) $194.67.

We first glimpsed the multi-colored, snow-capped Canadian Rockies from our tour bus on the Trans-Canada Highway: wow! Ditto for wildlife overpasses. We learned about the animals growing accustomed to them. In Kananaskis County, on a helicopter over the Bow River, we saw the site where Brokeback Mountain was filmed – one among numerous Canadian locations for Hollywood Westerns. Just after Robin said another panorama, one of whitewater and mountains, reminded him of 1953’s River of No Return, our guide (apparently without having heard us) mentioned that film. Stars Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum numbered among countless celebs accommodated at the 1888 castle-like Banff Springs Hotel.

The River of No Return landscape

The guide shared a local joke that makes Banff, near the Alberta/B.C. border, an acronym, “Be Advised, Nothing is For Free.” Banff, where we spent a night in the also-palatial, turn-of-the-20th-Century Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, sits on the Continental (a.k.a. Great) Divide, the Western Hemisphere’s north-south spine from which all rivers eastward run toward the Atlantic and westward, the Pacific. Following a chaotic check-in, we enjoyed the hotel’s varied restaurants, costumed harpist and lovely 1920-ish pool. What most excited me, though, was Victoria Glacier. I had neither heard of “hanging glaciers” – having pictured them all floating in polar oceans – nor been sufficiently hopeful to put any glacier on my bucket list. But here, atop a grey rock mountain over Lake Louise, massive ice sparkled in sun like snow from a celestial blizzard. French, German and Japanese speakers strolled the lakeside path. A couple in their 90s, with our tour, were amused when Chinese travelers asked their ages and obtained their permission for photographs.

We could not walk nearly as much of the trail as I wanted before catching our bus, so I hope we return someday.

From that bus we lunched at Banff’s Squish deli, rode the Sulphur Mountain gondola, visited Kicking Horse River (named for an explorer who, kicked by his horse, was believed dead and nearly buried) and learned about rock flour – dust from glaciers grinding rocks to create Emerald Lake’s bright green and Louise’s blue.

Victoria Glacier over Lake Louise

The next morning we boarded the Mountaineer train with Ewan, our young tour guide, conductor and server. Rolling through breathtaking country, he taught us much about the region, Canada’s history, characters and wildlife.

MacDonald and other Scots settlers had begun their railroad without ever having seen the region – motivated, we learned, by concern that Canada’s (uh) near neighbor – said to have snatched a few states from Mexico — might also get designs on their new nation’s western territories. We saw the Last Spike site for the railroad at Craigellache (which signifies a Scots solidarity shout-out), and encountered Thompson and Frasier Canyons, Hell’s Gate, ospreys roosting on utility poles, pink flamingos that power companies place on poles to deter ospreys, and a solitary, still-standing 1848 Gold Rush shack. Passing our westbound “sister train,” Ewan sent its crew a recording of animal sounds.

We spent the night between Rocky Mountaineer rides in Kamloops, where – consistent with our trip’s lucky spell with weather — temps had recently dropped from 100 Fahrenheit. At Kamloops’ riverside park, we observed men bowling “on the green” and heard an excellent concert by a blues group headed by a harmonica impresario. Our hotel, c. 1928, was “considered moderate,” the tour itinerary warned, though everything seemed up-to-date except for its rather cute little elevator. The next morning, I shot tourist “paparrazi” as they in turn captured several nonchalant bovine creatures munching shrubbery alongside the main street. Canadians on the tour thought they were deer (“they’re bigger out here”). We thought elk, but later learned they were caribou.

Back on our train, passing longhorns and huge irrigation sprinklers, Ewan played Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” and — having grown up in a West Coast fishing village — gave a wonderful narration on the lives of salmon, including the unexplained big salmon run of 2010. Alongside the Fraser River bank, dotted with cabins, many boaters and swimmers waved. One, although looking somewhat long-in-the-tooth for such antics, mooned the train.

We were put up for the tour’s final two nights in Vancouver, B.C. – dubbed “Raincouver,” but it, like Seattle, had uncharacteristically gone a month with practically no rain. Visitors were excited about George Clooney having just arrived in town to make the upcoming film, “Tomorrowland,” but (sigh), we never spotted him. First Nations bus tour guide Jeff showed us a salmon fishery operated by indigenous people. Capilano Suspension Bridge, overlooking rainforest, and a gondola up Grouse Mountain would have been more fun were they not monstrously crowded, even on a Tuesday. The mountaintop accommodated a lumberjack show, complete with antics by a pole-climbing clown who portrayed a crazed crasher but was really an Olympic acrobat. The day’s high point was encountering raptors – hawks, turkey vultures, a horned owl – bonding with trainers yet often stubbornly going their own way. The owl’s face reminded us of our cats.

Horned owl on Grouse Mountain

Southbound

Next morning we boarded a bus to Seattle, entering the U.S. at Blaine, Washington, where a guard informed us the dog who sniffed our luggage had recently caught a woman, accompanied by her small children, carrying $2 million worth of Ecstasy.

We found our motel surrounded by tunnel construction with dug-up roadways – “two blocks from Seattle Center,” I’d read online, yet that does not mean downtown but the site of the Space Needle (another tripod) and EMP Museum showcasing popular culture. EMP, a Getty design, follows the shape of Seattle native Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitar – hence tough to navigate, though fun. A Duck Tour, on an amphibious vehicle with goofy noisemakers, showed us around the waterfront. A bus downtown got us to an Underground Tour of the Seattle’s oldest part, destroyed by an 1880s fire but lying beneath its charming Pioneer Square. The tour treats the town’s past with delightful irreverence.

Eastbound

Seattle Union StationA mechanical problem entailed waiting more than 6 hours in Seattle’s gracefully remodeled, historic station. Amtrak awarded compensatory dinners to passengers on The Empire Builder, our 2-day train to Chicago.

I woke, still in Washington, to a glowing, burnished remote landscape at dawn. Skirting Canada’s border, we must have neared William Least Heat-Moon’s route in Blue Highways. Glimpsed a sliver of snow on a hilltop during a minute’s stop at Glacier National Park. Passed through countless little towns in Idaho, Montana and North Dakota; and vast, flat fields interrupted by cottonwood groves around farmhouses; cloud formations like giant birds; a storm greyly brooding for miles to the north; a huge wire hoop with streamers in a remote field; a double rainbow. Some passengers complained they found little to see. I guessed they were more accustomed to the region.

I got blurred, flyspecked photos of the Mississippi through our window near St. Paul-Minneapolis. Arriving in Chicago after midnight, we checked into the lovely old Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel. At the Art Institute of Chicago, the touring exhibit, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” proved a treat, despite tourists so smitten with flashless amateur photo-mania that they grimly sharp-elbowed neighbors to capture each Master. (Van Gogh might have wept.) That night we took in a show at Second City, from a front row-center cabaret table over pizza at a scuffed little stage where performers including Alan Alda, John Belushi, Gilda Radnor, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert got their starts. The young troupe solicited words from the audience for topics in their delightful improv skits. I’m keeping our programs, expecting some will become famous.

Our final day we hiked down La Salle, explored Navy Pier and took a harbor cruise – a lovely sojourn, though unwisely timed. Robin was concerned about catching the 5:45 Cardinal, but I’d become too accustomed to trains being late. So we ended up with one of those mad dashes that is more typical at airports, sprinting with a rented cart, grabbing falling bags, and negotiating around a befuddled but belligerent staffer who tried to order us off the platform as the train was boarding! That was the only time no one helped lift our larger bags up the steps. We found seats perhaps a minute before leaving the station.

Over dinner, after dark, one of those alternate-flashing pairs of red lights winked straight at us through a clubcar window. “The eyes of E.T.,” said Robin – and I, emulating that long-distance traveler, pointed a finger toward the infinite and said “Hooooome.”

Awoke the last morning to Southern accents and fog over a green Kentucky mountain. By West Virginia, seats were full. Crossed the New River Gorge and rode through the Big Bend Tunnel, where a historical interpreter joining the route pointed out the location of John Henry’s legendary saga. I’d known the eponymous song since the ‘60s but not realized it happened in these old mountains.

Reached Staunton only about 40 minutes late, where my son met us. It was a joy to see him, and, despite August’s routine heat and humidity here, be home. . .for now.

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