I don’t know when it stopped being grey outside. Lost in the passing landscape I looked up to see blazing blue skies peeking out from a blanket of grey and white cloud. Cows stood sociably together in a field to chew the cud and flick their tails against the flies. The storm had been exhilarating to watch from my train compartment: the rain thrummed against the windows, the sky bruised black and the clouds raced us on our journey.
I’d got on at Winnipeg and asked the steward for my bed to be put down. This wasn’t my first time on board ‘The Canadian’ train which chugs its way between Toronto and Vancouver. The last time I’d travelled had been in 2010 and I’d fallen in love with the Canada beyond my windows. The shining lakes of Ontario giving way to the endless flat land and shimmering corn fields of the prairies before the great tah-dah! moment of jaw-dropping beauty as the train rolls through the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. No, I wanted to see it all again, curled up against pillows and snuggled in a blanket.
To travel on VIA Rail is to step into a bubble away from the rest of the world, often – thankfully – there is no wifi, those work emails can’t be checked even if you wanted to. Instead there is time to sit and think and watch the world go by. There’s a kind of Holiday Camp cheeriness onboard: live performances in the lounge car from musicians who get a free ride in exchange for their songs, guided tastings of Canadian wine and even a movie night. You find yourself, for the first time in decades, musing over where a jigsaw piece goes in the huge puzzle that’s left out for passengers to complete. Over meals in the dining car you exchange snippets of your life story with strangers from around the world. Train Life, in short, becomes a little more contemplative, a little more self-indulgent and a little more gracious. No wonder people love it.
For me, also, it’s feeling that sense of great distance and being amazed afresh at the thought of those first Europeans who tried to make their way across this vast land. Of course, the more I learn of First Nations history, the more that feeling is wrapped up in regret and remorse. We Brits – and the French – have more to say sorry for than I could ever begin to write. But when I see this great land it’s impossible for the heart not to leap and thoughts of adventure and exploration not to immediately percolate through your brain. I love to see how truly huge Canada is: to look at its soaring mountains, its innumerable lakes, the relentless tangle of forest and oh! that endless flat prairie land. To choose to take hours, days to make a journey nowadays is a kind of wonderful indulgence but it’s one that I’d say gives a destination a special sort of meaning.
I travelled as a guest of Via Rail but, as ever, my words are 100% my own.
. VIARail [Official Site]