Friday, 7 October 2011

Keeping track

When my father departed for Boston with another woman, my mother decided to scrub around her life, make a fresh start, and move to some place warmer. She splurged, booking two "roomettes" on the train from Edmonton, Alberta to Nanaimo, British Columbia. I was eight years old and charmed by the beds which slid out of the wall like drawers. To this day, I can't recall having a better night's sleep, rocked through the Rockies. I was woken only once, as the guard in Jasper paced the platform calling out to those who could hear him to change their watches back one hour. Early in the morning, I lay on my stomach in my drawer-bed head-to-head with my six-year-old sister, gasping as nearly bottomless canyons opened up beneath the train as it sped over trestles. By breakfast time, we watched the sunny Okanagan orchards flash by the dining car. As an introduction to a new life, it was pretty hard to beat.

Recapturing that perfect sleep was one of the goals on my mind when we decided to take Demeter and younger daughter to Halifax by train last year to see elder daughter at her university and spend the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend. Other considerations were Demeter's life long dream to travel completely across Canada by rail (this seemed a reasonable compromise), and the idea of traveling through the Maritimes in autumn.

We started the 26-hour journey with the dayliner jaunt from Ottawa to Montreal, moving in and out of the shadow of rainstorms and reaching Canada's second largest city with its mad inter-weaving of La Metro subway, VIA rail, Amtrak and commuter trains at La Gare Centrale, to say nothing of the shoppers. After nearly forgetting my suitcase on the platform (I was shepherding Demeter and younger daughter while the Resident Fan Boy charged ahead and disappeared down the train corridor), we glided slowly across the dark river surrounded by the blazing lights of the city, and made our way down the south bank of the St Lawrence before veering away south from the Seaway just past Rimouski and crossing into the province of New Brunswick at daybreak just at the innermost tip of Chaleur Bay. From there we headed steadily south, rumbling across the Miramichi River about mid-morning, entering northern Nova Scotia sometime after lunch then making a long circle around the south-west edge of Halifax, arriving in the late afternoon, steps away from the famous Pier 21 where so many new Canadians entered the country, including Demeter many years ago.

When we took Demeter to the Pier 21 Museum the next day, a brand-new Cuban-Canadian tour guide greeted her with an enormous "Welcome ba-a-a-a-ck!" and a gold alumna sticker for her coat. She remembered her fellow boat passengers, Germans en route to Wisconsin and Italians en route to Toronto, being put in holding cages, while she, a British subject, was waved through to the waiting train to Edmonton. (We also learned there had been a young man, a Haligonian, on the boat...)

And we visited with elder daughter at the University of King's College, ate two Thanksgiving dinners (one of them cooked by us in a student residence kitchen), saw the sights, including the ancient (by Canadian standards) Old Burying Ground in the centre of the city where they stopped burying people in 1844. And I wistfully watched elder daughter striding through the streets of a city that will be hers and never mine. And I watched Demeter wonder about the beautiful boy from Halifax and what might have been. And I was grateful to have seized the chance to come this way, even though the train bed, not a magic drawer, but a shallow fold-out shelf, was lumpy and jumpy and I never did much more than doze, or peer out into the darkness at ghostly white cottages, paddock fences, and flashing poles.

We flew back home. Train travel, alas, has long ceased to be the economical option.

1 comment:

SOL's view said...

It has at that. But you describe your initial journey so wonderfully, I want to get on the train and head across country.

Maybe one day I will. :)