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Day 1 — Hamilton, ON to Toronto, ON
It was just after 9:00 AM as my connecting train pulled, late, into Toronto Union Station. I was a little apprehensive, but the VIA Rail staff had assured me that they were holding the trans-continental Canadian train for me and a few others that had been delayed on the early morning Windsor-to-Toronto Corridor Express. I had a ticket on the Canadian booked as far as Jasper, Alberta — a good 4,000 kilometres to the west, where I had a summer job waiting. I had no intention of being late to work.
I was planning for the summer of 2003 to be my great summer of adventure, and I couldn’t wait to get it started. I was 21 and just finished my second year of psychology studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, about an hour to the southwest of Toronto. I’d previously never been further west than Detroit, but for this summer I had somehow snagged a job over the internet, working in one of the restaurants at the posh Chateau Lake Louise hotel, located on the shore of a picturesque lake in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. The thought of spending a summer working out in the mountains, swimming, hiking, and doing all the outdoorsy things that I loved was enough for me, but the fact that the job paid reasonably well and would involve being around a bunch of other young people was icing on the cake. But first I had to get there, and the train was both cheaper and more adventurous than flying.
As my train rolled to a stop in Union Station’s dilapidated train shed, I grabbed my backpack and hurried for the exit. I sprinted down the escalator into the departure hall and was quickly guided by staff to another platform, where I surfaced moments later, next to the longest passenger train I’d ever seen; a silver behemoth with blue and gold trim, stretching well past the end of the train shed and into the early morning haze. I had no time to take it in, though, as I quickly bounded past the attendant’s chipper “hello bonjour” and up the first door I saw, into coach class.
VIA trains had no assigned seats then, so as I pulled up into a soothingly dark green coach car, my priority was finding a place to call my own for the next three days. I had been hoping to snag a double seat to myself so that I could stretch out and sleep reasonably flat at night, but the train was seemingly full, with most of the seats on both aisle and window already taken. As I moved down the car, I finally found what appeared to be the only seat left, next to a tired-looking dark-haired hippie chick, about my age, staring out the window at nothing in particular. She briefly glanced at me with mild interest as I hoisted my bag into the overhead compartment, then turned wordlessly back towards the window as I sat down beside her in the aisle seat. My giant suitcase had been checked when I boarded at Aldershot station earlier that morning, so I’d be living out of a backpack for the next three days. Suddenly, the train jolted and started, moving slowly at first as it headed east towards the Don Valley, then gradually picking up speed as it turned north along the valley floor, along the Don River, heading out of town.
I stayed in my seat only long enough to have my ticket taken by a French-accented conductor before heading out to explore the train. There were two cars of coach class, filled mostly with people about my age, but also the normal mix of budget travellers, families, and Australians (no matter where you go in the world, there will always be Australians). The coach cars were first in order after three engines and the baggage/cargo car, and they weren’t much different from what I was used to on the usual commuter trains, with four seats abreast separated by an aisle from front to back. After the two coach cars was the highlight of any trip on the Canadian — the dome car. The dome car had a small lounge area in the forward part, with a staircase leading up into the bubble dome where there was room for about 25 people, elevated above the roofline of the rest of the train, with a panoramic vista of the endless Toronto suburbs as we slowly made our way north. At the rear of the dome car was a tiny café which served only the basics — coffee, tea, chips, chocolate bars, and ramen being the highlights.
The train gradually left the Toronto suburbs behind and rolled north through the lush, flat farmland of the Holland Marsh, and within the hour, the blue waters of Lake Simcoe had appeared out the left side of the train. The dome gave me a panoramic view of the rolling countryside, and I could also look forward to the bellowing diesel engines, or behind, seeing the train go on for what appeared to be forever. It was only on corners that I could see all the way to the end of the train, about twenty cars behind me.
I had started out alone in the dome car, but within a few hours I had been joined by others. There gaziantep escort was a young Japanese couple excitedly pointing at… well, what they were pointing at I couldn’t figure out, but they were snapping endless pictures out the window. There was a middle-aged wildlife spotter from Scotland called Duncan McKenzie, with a pair of binoculars and a Canadian wildlife field guide. There was a veteran train traveler from Ottawa called Rose, who spoke with reverence about the food options on the ground at the station stops where the train would need to refuel. I hadn’t realized it was an option to get off the train at fuel stops, but I was thrilled at the idea of being saved from top ramen in the canteen below or the expensive food in the restaurant car for three days. I thanked her profusely for the advice and vowed to eat in the towns whenever possible. There were a couple of Euro-tourists speaking a language I couldn’t identify and keeping to themselves. And there were a couple of other single young men like myself, heading out to summer jobs in one of the national parks, hotels or tourist traps dotting the Rocky Mountains.
Day 1 — Toronto, ON to Capreol, ON
As the train worked its way north and Duncan checked off a few of the animals on his list, the farmland eventually disappeared and the landscape transformed into Canadian Shield country, a vast, unsettled wilderness of rocks and lakes and trees that would be our view for the next thirty hours or so. I played gin and poker with a couple of the other young guys in the dome and kept an eye out for wildlife as lunchtime approached and then disappeared. I finally caved in and bought an Aero bar from the canteen to stave off the hunger pangs.
Around 4:30 we approached the first refueling stop in the town of Capreol. The conductor announced that we would be stopped for about 25 minutes, and we were free to detrain and explore a little. Given that I was famished and had Rose’s advice churning in the back of my mind, I planned to head out randomly from the train station in search of a takeaway to get a combined lunch and dinner. As the train ground to a halt, I was one of the first off, stepping into bright sunshine and a noticeable nip in the air. Toronto’s beautiful spring sunshine had given way to a northern Ontario day that, while still bright, was only a few degrees above freezing.
I jogged off the rail platform, dodging the smokers gratefully inhaling cigarettes again after a full day without, and made my way into the small town. I quickly found the main shopping street, and soon enough, I found a small diner. I ducked inside to find it empty in the late afternoon lull, ordering a large Reuben with French fries from the girl behind the counter. Within fifteen minutes, I had a hot sandwich, fries and a can of Dr. Pepper for under $10, and, feeling rather pleased with myself, I moseyed back to the nearby station, watched the engine being refuelled for a few minutes as crowds milled and stretched, and then climbed back on board when signalled by the train’s whistle.
I slowly made my way back to my seat in the coach car for the first time since leaving Toronto, and sat down, unfolding my seat-back tray and setting my quarry down. The hippie chick looked up from her book and watched me open the Styrofoam container, a look of hungry jealousy on her face.
“Where did you find that?,” she asked, with a bit of annoyance in her voice.
“Restaurant in town,” I responded. “One of the ladies up in the dome recommended going out and foraging for food at the refuelling stops. It beats the canteen or paying for the fine dining restaurant.”
“I knoooooooooow,” the girl whined. “I can’t afford the caviar and shit in the restaurant car, and it’s not like they give us a lot of other options. I didn’t know we’d have time to go find food, and all I’ve eaten since last night is granola bars.” The envy in her eyes intensified as I took the first bite of sandwich. She stared at me eating, unabashed, not even trying to hide the pleading puppy dog look in her eyes. I finally took pity on her.
“Tell you what,” I said. “This is huge. You can have half of it.”
Her eyes lit up and she grabbed the other half of the sandwich, quickly taking a big bite, as though she was worried I’d rescind the offer. After the first hungry swallow, she suddenly looked self-conscious, and turned to face me.
“Thank you. I mean really, thank you. I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise.” She smiled at me, a white, brilliant, knockout smile, and suddenly I noticed for the first time how pretty she was. She had long, loosely curled brown hair that frizzed well past her shoulders, round brown eyes with a small upturned nose, and a fair complexion that didn’t suffer at all from the fact she clearly wasn’t wearing any makeup. She was wearing a strange olive green poncho tunic thing with a paisley embroidered pattern that I didn’t know how to describe except to say that I had never seen anything like it before. It hung shapelessly on her figure between her shoulders and midriff, before being belted and cinched at the waist and turning into a relatively short skirt. She also had on striped knee-high stockings and purple Doc Martens. I could just make out a hint of a curve on her chest under the shapeless fabric, and her nose stud and dangly homemade-looking necklaces kept glinting in the late afternoon sunlight as she ravenously devoured her half of the sandwich interspersed with fistfuls of fries. I caught myself from staring too long and forced myself to focus on the food in front of me.
As we ate, we exchanged pleasantries. Her name was Nicole MacDonell and she was from just outside Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She was a sociology major and Japanese minor, a year older than I was, and was a student at the University of Saskatchewan in her hometown, though she had just finished a third year abroad on exchange, studying in Japan. It had been her first time abroad, and she was homesick and looking forward to being back with her family. She’d arranged her flight home from Tokyo to go through Montreal so that she could visit her older brother, who was a law student at McGill University there, and had spent a week with him. Now, she was finally on her way home for the summer, taking the train home because it was cheaper and because she wanted to see some of her own country. She’d taken the red-eye train from Montreal to Toronto overnight and had spent most of the previous seven hours asleep, but now she was awake and wanted me to show her what I’d discovered of the train.
Day 1 — Capreol, ON to Hornepayne, ON
The train had been underway again for about fifteen minutes as Nicole and I finished eating and rose from our seats. I led her back through the two coach cars and then into the dome car, which had quietened down from earlier. Duncan was up there alone.
“Oh hi, Ben,” he greeted. “Had nae luck since you left us. D’ya mind staying a wee bit? Apparently, the animals consider ye a good luck charm.”
I grinned at him. “Sure, we were planning to stay awhile. This is Nicole, my seatmate. Nicole, Duncan.”
As we took our seats, suddenly Nicole shrieked as the train whooshed past a black mass sitting beside the track. I heard Duncan’s camera click several shots in succession.
“That’s our first bear of the trip!” Duncan exclaimed. “Lassie, it’s seeming to be you who’s the good luck. Ben, thanks for your service, we won’t be needing ye anymore.”
Nicole cackled. “What can I say?” she grinned. “I attract bears.”
“I heard they actually use the tracks as clear transportation through the woods,” Duncan said. “They know the trains won’t harm them, so they’ll just sit beside the track and wait patiently for it to pass. Smart animals, they are.”
As the sun sank lower in the sky and Duncan resumed scanning the bush for signs of movement, eventually all signs of civilization left us, apart from the disused telegraph poles alongside the rail line marking off the distances. Northern Ontario north of Capreol was a vast, unpopulated wilderness consisting of low rocky outcrops, endless trees, and many, many lakes. As we continued north, I was surprised to notice that we’d even stopped passing logging roads. The bush up here was completely unspoiled.
We kept a sparsely polite three-way conversation going, and in time Duncan managed to spot a porcupine and several owls. He was so taken by Nicole’s abilities as a good luck charm that he “didn’t even mind that she was a MacDonell, the sworn arch-enemies of his own Clan MacKenzie”.
The sun eventually disappeared below the horizon, and with the onset of darkness Duncan retired, leaving us alone in the dome, which was pitch dark with the minimal lighting inside and utter blackness outside in the endless wilderness. Though I could barely make out her face, Nicole and I kept up a conversation about our university careers, friends, families, music and books, past relationships, all the stuff that matters so much to you when you’re a young university student. She was a prairie girl at heart, into organic food and all things natural, but she hated the redneck farmer culture that surrounded her and had taken her rural upbringing in the hippie direction instead. Her year in Japan was taken as fulfillment of a lifelong dream stemming from a fascination with Japanese culture, but she was leaving with a more nuanced view of that insular island, and she said she had fallen out of love with Japan a little bit after living there as a foreigner for so long.
Mostly, though, she was just homesick and missing the big skies and wide-open spaces of the Canadian prairies. Her Dad owned a farm equipment store and was hoping she’d work for him there — she had done basic bookkeeping for him since high school — but after a year broadening her horizons in Japan, all she wanted to do was to see old friends and reacclimatize to life where she felt at home. That said, she also was quite envious hearing about my summer job in the mountains, and we exchanged email addresses — I promised to let her know if there was more work available.
Finally, as tiredness started to creep in and the clock approached 1 AM, the conversation started to lag a little bit.
“I don’t know how we’ve done it, Ben. I’ve never had a seven-hour conversation with literally no awkward silences in it before,” she said, smiling gently at me as her eyes sparkled in the low light. An awkward pause descended as we stared at each other. “Fuck. I just jinxed it, didn’t I?” she asked rhetorically.
I don’t know what came over me, it wasn’t the kind of thing I ordinarily ever would have done. But given that she would be out of my life forever tomorrow night regardless, I decided to throw caution to the wind and leaned over, and, as if I was having an out-of-body experience and not in control of my own actions, I gently kissed her, tentatively at first, then slightly more intensely as she relaxed and accepted the kiss. After a few seconds, I pulled back and looked at her, feeling hot and tingly all over and suddenly aware of the sudden tightness in my underwear as I saw her processing what had just happened.
“Wow,” she said dreamily, with a glazed look in her eyes. Suddenly she stood up and bolted out of the dome, down the stairs. Something told me I shouldn’t try to follow.
I gave her a minute, then returned to my seat, seeing no sign of Nicole. Instead I discovered two tiny and inadequate blankets and pillows on each seat distributed by train staff. I sighed, then quickly used the toilet and brushed my teeth, then settled in for what promised to be a terrible, fitful sleep.
Day 2 — Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, ON
I had no idea how long I’d stayed asleep or how I’d even gotten there, but I awoke suddenly to an unfamiliar weight on me. As I got my bearings, I noticed we were stopped on a siding as a passing freight train whooshed by out the window. I took note of the fact it was still nighttime, then I looked to my left to see Nicole there, her head snuggled on my shoulder, wearing a sleep mask and earplugs and out cold. Not sure what to do, I decided to at least take relief from the fact that she had clearly decided not to change seats. As I came to, I realized I had a raging nocturnal erection, and I quickly adjusted my jeans so it wouldn’t be obvious if Nicole woke up suddenly. I considered running to the bathroom to jerk off, but first decided to try to ignore it, and eventually I must have passed out again.
Day 2 — Hornepayne, ON to Sioux Lookout, ON
The entire train seemed to wake as one with the advancing dawn, as light flooded in the picture windows and treated us all to an early morning wakeup call. I checked my watch and was dismayed to see the first number was a 6. I then noticed, to my even greater dismay, that the landscape outside was white with snow and that the inevitable lake out the window was frozen over. I sat and watched the world go by for a few minutes, and eventually I felt Nicole stir beside me. She pulled up her sleep mask, noticed the snow, swore under her breath, and replaced it over her eyes with a groan.
“Do you want some coffee?” I asked.
“Coffee yes coffee,” she mumbled.
I quickly made my way to the canteen, bought two cups from the cook and returned to find her sitting reluctantly upright, mask resting on her forehead and blanket pulled up to her neck. I handed her the cup along with a couple of packets of sugar and some creamer, which she ignored as she greedily took her first sip.
“About last night…” I started tentatively.
“Ben, it’s okay,” she responded with a sleepy smile. “I’m sorry for freaking out. I just needed a little time to think. I’ll tell you more about what happened last night in a bit, just let me wake up first. But you didn’t do anything wrong. I’m glad you kissed me.” She smiled again at me, and I felt relief wash over me as she got up to use the bathroom.
She returned a few minutes later. “Did you know there’s no fucking showers in coach?”
“Yeah, I kind of did,” I said. “I can’t say I blame them. There are a lot of us, and they have to have some amenities reserved for the rich people in sleeper class, I guess?”
“I’m not having it,” she responded. “Let’s go see what we can do. Do you have a towel and shower stuff with you?”
I did, and I said so.
“Great, let’s go get some breakfast.”
We loaded towels and toiletries into Nicole’s bag and made our way back to the rear of the dome car, where a bored-looking conductor was guarding the entrance to first class.
“Do we need a reservation for breakfast in the dining car?” Nicole asked sweetly. The conductor peeked through the window at the dining car behind us.
“No, we’re not full right now,” he said, with a hint of a Quebecois accent. “Go ahead and the hostess will seat you.”
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