Forgive me, Canada, for I have just crossed your bountiful girth and reveled in your landscape, your skyscrapers and the warmth and friendliness of your people. But what pops out of my mouth first is this: The train had showers on board.
"That had quite an impact on you," a friend said when I got home. "You wrote that in your postcard."
Well, put yourself in my place. Four straight nights of riding the rails from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Toronto could have gotten, er, sticky on this, my first trip to Canada. Imagine riding 2,800 miles from Baltimore to Portland, Ore., without a bath. You get the idea.
When I checked in at Vancouver's Union Station, however, the VIA Rail agent flashed a diagram showing my sleeping berth and said, "You're across from the shower." The shower!
But it was just one comforting feature on the newly refurbished train that runs between Vancouver and Toronto -- a trip that even many Canadians assume died early last year with the much-publicized demise of the famed Canadian. The Canadian run, which started in Montreal and followed the original, century-old Canadian-Pacific line, was cut in January 1990 as part of a 50 percent slash in service by VIA Rail, Canada's equivalent of our Amtrak.
Service between Vancouver and Toronto remained, however. It's just that now, to go farther east (I was heading on to New Brunswick), you have to hop another train, and service becomes much the same as that experienced on Amtrak between Boston and Washington.
Besides the cross-country service and the hot showers, there's another incentive for seeing Canada by train: the Canrailpass. It's like the Eurailpass and gives you unlimited passage on VIA Rail, at a rate bordering on cheap. During the peak season, June through September, an adult Canrailpass costs $329 and it's good for 30 days. The rest of the time -- now through next May -- it's $219.
No doubt that sounds dirt cheap, but I hasten to add the figures do not include sleeping accommodations, which range between $131 for a lower berth and $213 for a roomette on a transcontinental trip.
When I boarded in Vancouver one autumn evening, the porter showed me to my lower berth, already made up and enshrouded by a gray, canvaslike curtain. I stashed my bag and wandered forward past the kitchen and a dining room to a lounge area with stairs leading up to -- a dome car. It became my favorite place for taking in the scenery and meeting Canadians.
Decor from the 1950s
The dome car's balustrade was 1950s Lucite, and the lights along the top midrib illuminated two dozen blue-gray seats that look out over the rest of the train -- three cars ahead, three behind, including a second dome/lounge car at the end.
VIA Rail has since overhauled three more of the long-distance, 1950s-era trains, complete with lounge murals, carpeting, daily newspapers and new heating and electrical systems. By January, all the Vancouver-Toronto passenger trains will have the new look.
I crawled into my berth about midnight, and with the aisle curtain drawn, it was like being in your own little world with a view -- the window open to the night. The ride was smooth, rocking occasionally.
We arrived in Kamloops 90 minutes behind schedule, shortly after I'd ordered fresh pancakes in the dining room. They were excellent, served with sausage on real dishes, and with silverware, not plastic eating utensils. The three or four men waiting tables were like grandfathers, so many Wilford Brimleys bumbling around with their mustaches and manners, troubled that they had more customers than seating, but too courteous to boot out people lingering over coffee.
By midmorning the dome car held 10 passengers whose chatter carried the length of the car. People talked about their sons-in-law, their night's sleep, the name of that river outside -- the North Thompson River. It was a soggy day, and the rain hit the front dome windows in bullets, exploding and running down the glass. White birches now lined the tracks, standing on the edge of brown, soggy marshes softened still more by the rain. The mountains began to rise on either side, and a few snow peaks appeared, with the clouds low and dense and dark just above the tops.
A wave from trackside
Pines and spruce trees darkened the sides of the mountains. On a sand beach along the river, a single picnic table sat barren, waiting for warmer times. The flood plain to the north was dotted with crackerbox houses, and from the doorway of one, a man raised his hand to the train in greeting. Elk antlers hung from above the adjacent garage doors.
The train stopped at a switching spot called Messiter East and for nearly half an hour we waited for a freight to pass in the opposite direction. The old hands on board recalled a time when passenger trains had the right of way, but today the profitable freight shipments have priority.