Friday, May 6, 2011

All a-b-o-a-r-d!

In the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (played by the actor James Stewart) says: "You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? ... Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles."
As someone who has chosen travel writing as a vocation, I'm obviously in full agreement with all of those. But these days, you rarely hear the anchor of a ship going up (at least on most modern cruises), and plane motors are really the whine of jet engines - not quite as romantic.

However, you can still hear train whistles; whether traveling on a train or just sitting at home at night, hearing the lonely sound off in the distance, there is still something about that sound that seems to awaken the wanderlust in me, beckoning me to yet another destination, another adventure.

All aboard! (Photo courtesy of Via Rail)

In my daily perusing of the twitter-scape, I just learned today that there is actually a National Train Day in the U.S., to celebrate train travel.

Wow! What a cool idea! There are events in various cities across the U.S. to mark the occasion.

This brings back reminiscences of my most memorable train trip.

It took place back in 2007, and actually completed, in a loose sort of way, a dream I'd held for many years of traversing Canada by train, coast-to-coast.

I say "loosely" because the two legs of my journey were separated by about 30 years.

While attending the University of New Brunswick in my student days, on more than one occasion, I ended up taking the train from Toronto to Fredericton and back. I even went as far as Moncton once, due to a communication foul-up during a bus strike in the Maritimes back in 1975.

At the time I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to go right across Canada by train, like people might have done back in the late 19th century?" when it was the only way to safely and quickly get from the east to the west.

Flash forward to 2007: The Travel Media Association of Canada's annual conference took place in London, Ontario.

One of the TMAC industry members, VIA Rail, offered writers attending the conference an "offer we couldn't refuse," and many of us took it. For me, that meant traveling by rail from Vancouver to Toronto, thus completing the circuit I began three decades earlier.

Moncton was as far east as I ever went by train, so I guess, technically, I haven't gone "coast-to-coast," but you know what? That's okay by me.

The two legs were quite different.

During my train trips between Toronto and Fredericton (the latter, by the way, is the host city for the 2012 TMAC conference), I often traveled "economy" class. That meant I spent an overnight trip sleeping in my chair. Not the greatest way to go, but certainly the cheapest.

On one or two occasions, I actually had a berth, meaning I could sleep lying down in a proper bed. Better than economy, but still not much privacy or flexibility.

However, on the 2007 trip, it was a stateroom, all the way! My own room, bed, bathroom and sink, as well as a closet for my luggage and a porter to look after me. Now that's the way to travel!

You know it's going to be a good trip when you're welcomed on board with a serving of complimentary champagne in the Dome Car.

Royal York Hotel
(Photo courtesy of Fairmont)
 The meals served on board in the dining car were exquisite; we were given a choice of wines with the meal and we could purchase other alcoholic beverages if we so desired.

Much of our free time was spent in the Dome Car, watching the mountain, then prairie, then Canadian shield scenery roll by. When not there, we could often be found socializing in the lounge car, where tea and nibblies were served every afternoon. We could also choose to stay in our rooms and read, nap, journal or just watch the countryside roll by - the ability to do the latter being one of the great assets of a train journey.

As with any journey worth making, there were some interesting and humorous situations that arose during our trip. Like when some of the water pipes froze, causing the water from my sink (and whiskers from shaving) to back up and rise into the sink of my neighbor's stateroom! Luckily, it turned out to be Andrew Renton , a long-time colleague and pal of mine, and we both had a laugh about it.

Trying to shower in a moving train always proved to be an interesting experience as well.

There were also some wistful remembrances for me as we passed through northern Ontario. It was in the dark of early morning, but I said a silent "Hello, old friend," as we passed the community of Gogama. I'd spent an entire summer based near there in 1973 when I worked in the province's junior forest ranger program. It was still arguably one of the best summers of my entire life. It later influenced me in a way I never could have guessed: a forest ranger there recommended I try UNB for forestry. I ended up going there, and it actually resulted in my career in the media, a result of being bit by the student radio/newspaper bug. But that's another story...

We rolled into Toronto's Union Station at about 3 o'clock in the morning, across the street from the beautiful Fairmont Royal York Hotel - alas, too late for our "Valentine's Night Drink" in the hotel lounge, but not too late to appreciate the splendour and majesty of my home for the night.

And while I may have been too tired to realize it then, later that morning, while enjoying a much needed hot bath, it did dawn on me that I had completed that cross-country journey wished for so many years ago. I'd linked the two chains together, finally, fulfilling that dream of my youth.

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