Photo: Russ Hainl/Shutterstock

Crossing Canada on the Train

Canada Narrative
by Josh Heller Nov 9, 2012
This post is part of Matador’s partnership with Canada, where journalists show how to explore Canada like a local.

I SAT IN THE WAITING ROOM for two hours eating butter cookies and watching a documentary about teenage gypsies stealing people’s credit cards in Spain. The train arrived a few hours late. Eventually I was on the platform walking towards my train car. An attendant said hello and asked if I was Josh Heller. This happened to be my name, so she showed me to my room. A single compartment with a murphy bed, a table-that-doubled-as-a-sink, and my own washroom.

I was happy to be aboard the train, instead of being in “non-stop experience mode” I could take the next 44 hours to reflect on my previous days in Winnipeg, and on my life in general. I opened the window shade and watched the night go by like it was a movie.

I woke up to a timezone change somewhere in Western Ontario. I walked to the dining car and had breakfast with a high school teacher from Edmonton. She was taking a hiatus from her job because she didn’t want to be a “construction worker.” The school administration required teachers to wear orange vests on the playground, for no reason that she could comprehend. She told me about her five dogs, growing up in Halifax, and how one time she ran into a moose on a bike path in Edmonton. She decided to travel across Canada on the train to “slow her life down.”

I got off the train in nowhere, Ontario.

In the age of instantaneous everything we are all traveling too quickly. VIA Rail’s slogan is “a more human way to travel.” Train travel is the way that human beings traveled before cellphones or laptops or television or radio. It’s a reminder of the time when it took several days to get to your destination. When arriving felt more like an accomplishment. And even though you’re cramped in a tube for dozens of hours, the experience is less taxing on your body than flying. Your body does not have to adjust for altitude, your inner compass remains intact, you know that you are heading east.

But all this empty time still needs to be filled with something. I walked from end to end of the train cars just to pass the time. I spent hours wading through the swag bags I’d gotten from tourism officials. I stared out the window. I read. I wrote.

I ate lunch with an 18-year-old girl who was leaving Alberta to attend a science fiction convention in Toronto. I talked to a man from Toronto who was taking the train home from British Columbia, to strike this trip from his bucket list. Since retiring he’s already cruised the Atlantic. I ate dinner with a retired architect, whose name I can’t remember. He was a novelist and photographer. He likes listening to big band, and asked me if I was a Republican or Democrat, and if I liked football. The part of the train that I hate is constantly introducing yourself to people, and instantly forgetting their names, while they constantly repeat yours, making you feel like a real jerk.

I got off the train in nowhere, Ontario. A Confederate flag hung next to a Canadian flag over an old house. I bought a bag of chips at the town’s general store / grocery store / video store / post office. I looked at a flyer for a Chinese dinner at Katy’s Place. Next week was Pizza Night. It was clear that the train is loud, because a tweenager walking along the road covered her ears as we passed by.

I met a friendly couple from a small town in Alberta who just happened to know the wife of my good friend’s brother. They worked together at the same healthcare facility and even switched shifts so that my friend’s brother’s wife could go on vacation to visit my friend. Small towns are gateways to small worlds.

The trees are changing from green to yellow to red. The maple leaves look more like the Canadian flag on a daily basis. This, I gather, is the phenomenon that people in the east refer to as seasons. In Los Angeles you can tell the season is changing because the palms start to dry out and pine needles start to fall. It’s unclear if those trees are yellowing because it is October or because they’ve been oxidized by the smog.

Life is a diversity of experiences. Every time I enter a room, it’s a roll of the dice.

I wonder if not having seasons has made me off-balance. Maybe having seasons are a way to get back in tune with nature. Though avoiding the seasons builds a sunny disposition cultivated by never experiencing true cold. I mean I lived in Mexico City for a winter once, where the altitudes and narrow paned windows froze my life, and I’ve spent a few weeks in New York during January but these have hardly dictated my personality. I wonder if a cold place hardens people. I wonder if the angry philosophies of Schopenhauer are the result of harsh German winters. Or if Bostonians have abrasive personalities because they deal with negative temperatures regularly. Then again, it’s colder in Canada, and these are the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Outside of Moncton, we cross tiny rapids between a wide pond and a hillside. The train had been following the highway, but now nobody can hear us. This is the sporadic privacy you are warranted on the eastern leg of this journey. On the western leg, in the deep bush of Ontario, you travel hundreds of kilometers without seeing any people. East of Toronto the train passes cities and suburbs with occasional interludes back into nature. A vacation home reflects the grey clouds in the moments before sunset, that make the pine treed terrain look like they are floating into the sky.

Aboard the train, and throughout this trip, I’ve been treated to luxury. This is a new experience. I’m so used to sitting in cramped coach seats, not the nicest bed on a modern luxury line. I mean I have crippling debt and no real source of income, but right now I’m full from a veal dinner and the evening’s chocolate caramel torte. But this is something that won’t last, next week I’ll be back home in a subsidized student housing unit eating lentils and quinoa and kale. Everything seemingly applicable to one moment gets refuted in the next.

Life is a diversity of experiences. Every time I enter a room, it’s a roll of the dice. I’ll mold to the moment. See where the next door takes me. Into an anarchist house party or a catered dinner for Uruguayan diplomats. It reminds me of all those old experiments in Andalucia with Cacequismo. The philosophy in contemporary partying, which rejects making plans via drinking a bottle of Cacique rum and seeing where the night takes you. But now I’m an adult who doesn’t need teenage philosophies to rule my life. And even though I don’t drink the same volume that framework, extreme flexibility, still remains relevant to my life. And even though I don’t have a full-time job or any idea what I’m doing when I get back from this extravagant trip, I do not have anxiety, because I know that something will work out. It always has.

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