Life Is A Train Ride

My first train trip was fifty-seven years ago. From Winnipeg to Vancouver. I was ten years old. I don’t remember many of the details of that trip, but the journey was the highlight of our family’s adventures. I know we boarded the train late at night, my sister and I wearing our pyjamas as were most of the children boarding the train that night. My brother was closer to being a grown-up than we were, so he wore his “street clothes”, my mother called them, a strange name, clothes given the task of walking in the street. “Play clothes” had a much better time.

The train station in Winnipeg was enormous to me, and the train waiting on the track for us looked impatient to get going. Or maybe that was me. My sister and I shared a sleeping berth. We may have squabbled over who had the most space, but I do remember fitting in together, holding each other as the train hiccoughed into action. The engine started off, the cars yanked into service, one at a time, until the entire length of the train moved in unison down the tracks, all on the same page. Sherry and I whispered and giggled, our imaginations running free, with train robbers galloping next to the train, ready to abandon their steeds to jump aboard and seize the train payroll that was undoubtedly stored in one of the cars. But the clickety-clack of the train and the swaying back and forth rocked us into reluctant sleep. We had matching pyjamas – hers were pink, mine yellow, new, set aside for this once in a lifetime adventure.

I am now on my second train trip, again departing from Winnipeg, and the station doesn’t seem so large to me now nor am I wearing yellow pyjamas. This time I am heading north to Churchill where I plan to walk where my great (x4) grandmother walked as a child in the 1770s. It is a pilgrimage for me, the hope of connecting with her life in a more profound way than reading about the history of that time, her time. The first ten years of her life were spent at Fort Prince of Wales until the French attempted to destroy the Fort in 1782, when they took Samuel Hearne prisoner. The fort wouldn’t burn, built of stone, but did yield to the cannon balls fired from the French ships. The fort’s remains have been carefully restored, to mark her spot in history.

The train is north of Thompson as I write this, doing its compulsory whistle blowing at uncontrolled crossings. I wonder if the nearby inhabitants have long ago grown used to the blaring sound and pay the train little attention now. We came upon a display of fireworks the likes of which I have never seen. The train paused, long after everyone had crawled into their beds. I heard the pop-pop-pops and raised my blind to an easy view of the pyrotechnics, as if they were on display just for the train, because we were there and no other reason. I later heard the celebration was delayed from July 1st due to extreme winds.

The cabin I am occupying is smaller than most blanket forts I built as a child. It feels a bit like camping, without the mosquitoes, and I am chanting in my head to keep my claustrophobic nature quiet. The bed pulls out on rollers and locks into place once the occupant figures out the technique. It requires kneeling on the bed so it might move into the space previously used for sitting. An eighty-nine-year-old gentleman is in the same configuration across the aisle from me. I had a hard time imagining him tucking in without injury. He is bent and somewhat unsteady. He is an astrophysicist with a keen mind who gently shared his experiences. He made out just fine despite my worry.

The train moves in a stop-and-go fashion, slowing to allow freight trains travelling south to pass, all controlled from a logistics expert in Alberta or Toronto. I waved at the engineer of one such train and he waved back. I smiled, remembering the excitement of waving to trains in my childhood, the engineer waving back as if I somehow mattered in his day. I think it might be impossible not to wave at a passing train, almost a reflex. I also waved at cars sitting in the crossings and without exception the occupants of said cars all waved back, each of us happy to see the other, sending each other off on our respective journeys with a smile.