Cross country train
In March I took a short trip to Canada. March is still winter time and it is quite unusual for me to travel at that time. However this year I knew I was traveling alone; March is a very slow month for me (there is little work); and it is so much cheaper than traveling in the summer time, my usual season. In addition, I had a meeting with a magazine editor in Vancouver so there was a need to visit that city. I figured that while I was at it I might as well take the cross-country VIA Rail Canadian 002 eastbound from Vancouver-to-Toronto, which I have done several times already.
Explaining my reasons for traveling in March this year did little to dissuade people from repeatedly asking me or expressing surprise about my decision to travel at this time. How many times do I have to say it and give the same explanation? I’ve traveled to Canada in March before.
The cross-country train is a great service and although it is expensive I recommend it to everyone. Built in Pennsylvania the 1950s the cars are well known for their distinctive art deco style. They are entirely stainless steel which is rust resistant, which explains why they are still running after sixty years. Apparently the VIA Rail maintenance department believes it can keep the same cars running for another twenty-five years. But after that … After that I suppose VIA Rail will continue the cross-country service with new vehicles. I wonder why the company cannot simply commission new cars to be built in the exact same style with the exact same materials, but it seems that would be prohibitively expensive. As it is there is already practically no profit in running passenger trains, so additional extra expenses is a no-go proposition. Money talk.
Vancouver was cold and rainy. There were a couple of shops I wanted to visit that I found on the Internet: a leather goods place on Robson Street and a used bookstore on Pender Street. The Pacific Central Railway Station on Station Street is a grand building, but inside it is a dump. That’s partly due to the neighbourhood it’s in, a sad, run-down neighbourhood with luxury condominiums on its edge. A lot of homeless occupy the adjacent park. One disturbing thing about Vancouver is the close juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. The city is an ant hill of condominium towers, but equally crawling with homeless people. Downtown most buildings feature an alley behind, a place for garbage dumpsters, where garbage trucks drive to collect the trash. But these alleys are also gathering places for homeless, drug users and sex trade workers, right out in the broad daylight. These alleys look remarkably dangerous. I don’t want to go down them at night. I think the condominium towers are incredibly ugly and I have long said that the people responsible for designing them, approving them and building them ought to be arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned for criminal ugliness. However, Vancouverites are convinced by their own mythology of the beautiful, liveable city and they can’t be dissuaded.
Between checking in around noon and the departure time at eight in the evening I returned to downtown Vancouver on the Skytrain and took a two hour bus tour of the city. That was fun and informative. And it was warm, too, which was important under the circumstances. Vancouver’s Skytrain is a filthy dump of an urban transit system, poorly labeled and poorly maintained. It’s embarrassing compared to Tokyo trains and subways.
After Vancouver the weather was snowy all the way to Ontario. So through the Rocky Mountains and across the Prairies blowing snow from the train rooftop made us look like we were on fire and trailing a stream of smoke as we moved. All across the flat Saskatchewan landscape I kept thinking of Dr. Zhivago. I said so to some British woman in a nearby observation car seat but she was too young to know what Dr. Zhivago is. If contemplation of flat emptiness gives you a spiritual thrill, an existential thrill or a sexual thrill then Saskatchewan is the place for you.
If contemplation of flat emptiness gives you a spiritual thrill, an existential thrill or a sexual thrill then Saskatchewan is the place for you.
The train was on time until we reached Saskatoon, with a quarter of a million people the largest city in Saskatchewan Province. Then we were delayed by a broken rail. The severe cold plus the weight of the winter time freight trains (short, but double stacked and heavier than normal, than longer single-stacked summer time trains) causes damage to the rails. Fortunately the trouble was within the Saskatoon Yard itself so it could be quickly repaired, and our passenger train could easily be re-routed. If the broken rail was in the countryside far from a town then it could have taken hours and hours to be repaired. However we never recovered the lost time and were late from then until our final arrival in Toronto. We reached Toronto five hours late, around 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 8th. I’m not put out by it. You take the train in the knowledge that you will be late. It’s slow travel, baby! Time is not an issue.
The VIA Rail passenger train service runs on the Canadian National (CN) tracks. Freight has priority. Freight is where the money is. That means that when facing opposing traffic it is the passenger train that has to pull over onto a siding until the way is clear, which adds up to delays. Interestingly, the heaviest freight traffic was in western Canada, west of the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Once we crossed into northern Ontario Province the frequency of freight traffic declined. Oh, yes, there was still freight traffic, but not nearly as much. That speaks to the place, importance and function of Winnipeg as a transportation center. Winnipeg is also funneling American freight traffic from Minneapolis-St. Paul’s westward. Winnipeg is the geographical center of North America and it is said that if the Panama Canal had not been built to direct freight traffic from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa then the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba would have handled much of that traffic and would have grown into a city the size of Toronto today. That didn’t happen. Winnipeg is still a large city, with 700,000 souls and growing. But it doesn’t compare with Toronto’s six million.
Ontario Province is almost half the trip. That’s how large it is. It’s a big province. Northern Ontario is Canadian Shield topography, all forest and rock outcroppings, rivers and lakes. Small lumber towns dot the landscape, where the train makes frequent, brief stops. The train does more winding left and right around lakes than it does even through the Rocky Mountains. If you like looking at trees then it’s the place to be.
In Vancouver’s Stanley Park I saw a bald eagle. Then in Jasper, Alberta I saw a small herd of elk grazing along the tracks in the rail yard just as we were leaving the town. I didn’t get a good view, but I did see them. Then in Saskatchewan I saw a herd of deer grazing in a frozen field. Finally, north of Parry Sound, Ontario I saw a lone moose standing on a frozen pond. The moose was really exciting. One is unlikely to see bear in the winter because that is when they habitually hibernate. And in the summer most bears - at least in the Rocky Mountains - are living up at higher elevations.
Weather conditions in my hometown were dreadful. March is an iffy month. It can be full on winter, or it can be very mild and spring-like. The saying goes, “If March comes in like a lion it goes out like a lamb. If March comes in like a lamb it goes out like a lion.” The early weather was fierce and lionish, so the later weather was milder. I got caught in the middle of it.
For most of the time the temperatures were quite mild. Double-digit temperatures. The melt caused 30 cm thick, heavy slabs of ice to fall off my mother’s house roof. Very dangerous if you happen to be standing under it when it fell. I spent some time hacking slabs of ice into smaller pieces with an axe in order to shovel them away. At 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday 12th everyone in the house was woken up by the crashing sound of ice falling from the roof. The whole house shook. One of my younger brothers and I immediately went outside in our pyjamas and boots for an inspection and found a section of gutter, or eaves trough ripped off the side of the house by the fall. Mom will have some serious repair work to do in the spring and summer.
I haven’t shovelled snow in decades. It’s back-breaking labour. On my final full day, Wednesday 12th, there was another heavy winter snowstorm with a plunge in temperatures. A late winter storm. I went out early to shovel Mom’s driveway. I knew it would snow a lot more, but I figured if I shovelled some early it would be easier when I had to re-do it later. Shovelling is hard work. Bend, life, toss. Bend, lift, toss. Bend, lift, toss. My muscles will ache excruciatingly later. My clothes were stinky and wet with sweat. There was so much snow that the piles of it next to the driveway were taller than me. Every shovel full ha to be thrown higher and higher just to push it aside and out of the way. Early forecasts for the summer predict a long, hot, dry spell. Severe weather, wild swings of weather, and greater unpredictability are all symptoms of ambient climate warming. Fortunately it was cleared up in time for my Thursday 13th departure.
Then I got a new tattoo and pierce.
The forecast for Thursday 13th was sunny and cold, and so it was. But my goal in shoveling my mother’s driveway early and keeping it as clear as possible all day Wednesday 12th was that when Thursday 13th dawned, even though it was below freezing, the sunlight would melt the surface ice and snow leaving mom’s driveway pristine and bare right down to the asphalt. I don’t know if it turned out that way, but that was the plan, anyway. You see, there is a certain strategy and technique to snow removal.
Even though Thursday 13th was bright and sunny with no precipitation the 401 highway to Toronto was a hundred kilometer long parking lot. My airport limousine driver went to the airport entirely by back roads and got me there in plenty of time. At the airport I learned that Wednesday 12th operations were not too bad despite the bad weather. The biggest problem for travelers was simply reaching the airport by road.
On the flight home a couple of Chinese women sat beside me. I had the aisle seat, the seat I prefer, and they had the middle and the window. They chattered away in Chinese constantly almost the whole trip. And they got up several times just to walk around and stretch their legs. Plus they spent most of the trip fooling around with their Smart Phones and laptop computer. They even kept surfing the Internet with their phones after three announcements were made to turn off all digital devices. I rang for the flight attendant to report them and pointed out that what they were doing was illegal and possibly terrorism. I was ready to punch them in the face.
As soon as I got home I discovered a kitchen full of dirty dishes, pots and pans that needed washing. Not just a sink full, but the entire kitchen. It a couple of hours and four loads in the dishwasher to clean them up. In addition, the laundry hamper was over-flowing. I did two large loads in the washing machine right away, but there wasn’t enough space on the two balconies we have to hang it all up, so some had to stay in the machine, wet, until Saturday morning when I did another load and hung them up on the balcony in place of the previous evening’s loads that were dry by that time. There were also dozens of empty plastic bottles all over the apartment waiting to be thrown out. Saturday mornings are usually the day we can dispose of empty bottles, although I usually dispose of them bit-by-bit every day by taking them to the convenience store garbage bins.
expected all that. That’s what my wife and the apartment are like when I’m not here. I do almost all the dishes and laundry. She cooks and shops, pays bills and takes out most of the trash. I give her my money, I clean, and I take out some of the trash.