USA and Canada by Rail
This trip came about entirely because I was afraid to fly across the country to go to a scientific conference, so I figured that I'd go by rail. As it turns out, you can get a cheap $424US ticket for two countries for 30 days. For a round trip from Albany/Rensselaer to Los Angeles it would have been $310/$320, so there is very little difference price-wise, and it's an excellent way to travel. But I would have never done this except for the fear of flying after the disaster of September 11th.
(The travelogue of native Australian, Nick Platts)
December 2001-January 2002
Albany, NY - Churchill, Manitoba - Seattle - Los Angeles - Chicago - Albany
Monday, 17 December 2001
The first thing in the morning, I got up at about 5 a.m., madly panicking to pack up all my last minute stuff. Then I walked from the corner of 15th and Congress Street down to the center of Troy where I picked up the #22 bus to Albany. It was raining on that day, as I remember, and I was carrying my big backpack. I got into Albany and then had to get bus #14 from Albany to the Rensselaer Amtrak station. I got there with about 10 minutes to spare before the train was actually due to leave. (8:50 a.m.) I jumped on the train and from Albany we went all the way across the state of New York west to Buffalo via Schenectady and these other places on the line, and then we arrived at Niagara Falls, New York. Next we got to the Canadian border. First the American security people came on the train and walked through with their sniffing dogs. It made you a bit nervous. There were only a few people in the car that I was in. The train sat there for absolutely ages, about 40 minutes while they went through the whole train searching for people or whatever. After that the Canadian people came on and we presented our passports. No problem there. They were really friendly, we were allowed to go through, and we pulled into Toronto, Ontario at 6 p.m. in the evening.
I got off that train and went to the Youth Hostel, which is located very close to the train station so it was just a short walk, and that was $16CAN for that one night, which was very good. I stayed in Toronto that night, but I didn't get to see very much of it since the VIA train #1 was leaving at about 9 a.m. on Tuesday, December 18. The queue for this train was enormous at the Toronto station, with loads of people. That train was much longer than I thought it would be and it was much more beautiful. It was sort of a 1950's sort of silver-looking thing and it was really pretty. So I got onto the coach class car, and I sat next to a kid who turned out to be a high schooler and he was doing his mathematics problems on his desk, on his lap in front of him. He turned out to be one of the kids who had been asked to write an a special essay for the general governor of Canada and when he went to the government house or somewhere, he couldn't get in because there had been some mix-up with the permission slip. So I sat next to this kid and he was telling me all about his experiences with the government of Canada and contacts there. That was great, but the sad thing was that since the train was so packed with people, you didn't have any chance to get any double seats to yourself since this was just before Christmas (and after the September 11 disaster). So everyone was pretty much crammed in, in the coach car anyway. That train was absolutely packed to the gunnels. It took us from Toronto, northwest on its way, trundling towards Winnipeg. Northwest of Toronto there is an interesting place called Sudbury, and Sudbury is the location of enormous nickel deposit which is believed to be the leftovers of a iron-nickel meteorite which smashed into the earth a long, long time ago and the nickel has been left behind and the iron has either been presumably eroded or corroded away. The nickel minerals have stayed roughly in stout there. So as we were trundling thorough Sudbury, I was trying to look to see if I could see any remnant of any enormous impact structure, but I didn't see anything, but I was thinking what it must have been like to have been there when it impacted - what an enormous noise and whatnot it must have made!
The route went northwest to Sioux Lookout, which is still in Ontario. Sioux Lookout is the first place where the train actually stops for a good half an hour to 45 minutes and you can get off and go for a bit of a walk. It was freezing cold in the snow and I had to race across to try and find the public telephone to ring the guy in Winnipeg in whose home I was going to stay. And I remember asking the conductor (I have forgotten his name), a tremendous fellow, but very kind, where there was a public telephone I could use, and he told me to nip across the street but to be careful not to let the train go. I was a bit frightened about missing the train. But I ran across the street and went into what was a boarding house, as I later discovered, for Crete Indians who lived there. I tried to use the public phone there, but the Indians were a bit inebriated and this was on the morning of Wednesday the 19th, it was the middle of the week, 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning, and these Indians were absolutely stone drunk. So it was a bit awkward to get access to a telephone without being pushed out of the way.
I raced back to jump on the train, and it then trundled through to Winnipeg and we arrived there at about 4:00 in the afternoon. Winnipeg has a beautiful station - with an enormous dome and very pretty. It was bitterly cold, about -20 Centigrade. I got a taxi because I couldn't find an internet site at the train station and no one in the train station knew where there was an internet café in the whole city of Winnipeg. Luckily another passenger told me that there was one somewhere down in Osborne Village in Winnipeg, so I got the taxi driver to take me down there and just drop me off. I was able to find an internet café very quickly. There was only one in the whole town of Winnipeg, and as it turns out, I told the guy that no one at the train station knew where it was, so he went to the train station to leave his advertising material there. So if anyone goes to Winnipeg and gets off the train and is there overnight, the only internet café is at Osborne Village. The guy who runs the café comes from Guatemala, a tremendous fellow, and I told him that the people at the train station were interested in setting up an internet café in the train station at Winnipeg, so I told him to go and talk to them to see if he could make some sort of business arrangement. So if any of you go to Winnipeg and there is actually an internet café in the train station, that's only because I stuck my big oar in and got this fellow to go talk to the station master at Winnipeg.
I stayed overnight in Winnipeg, staying in a flat that belongs to Nick Able. Otherwise I would have had to stay at the youth hostel. He said that the youth hostel was located in a dodgy (risky or uncertain) bit of town and so it was better to stay in his own flat which was out on Grant and some other street, which I did.
Winnipeg to Churchill
The next day I went back to Winnipeg station to catch the Hudson Bay train which left Winnipeg at 4 p.m. on Thursday the 20th of December. That trundled me toward The Pas (not pronounced "pas"). The train goes northwest and actually crosses into Saskatchewan, as you can see if you look on the map. Then it comes back around the corner. There's not much to see because it's forest and it's freezing cold outside with loads of snow. It gets to The Pas and it stops there for a little while, very early the next morning. It's a long, slow train journey. The train doesn't go very fast because it's pushing all the snow off the tracks as it goes. The train engineer deserves great credit because he pulls the train to a stop very gently so you don't get shaken if you're asleep. They also start off very gently, so they are very considerate of their passengers.
Friday, the 21st was spent largely traveling slowly up north. The route goes into Thompson, then it backs out of Thompson, back onto the main track. That confused me because I couldn't understand why were traveling backwards until I realized that we had to back up to get back to the main track. Then we went on slowly, very slowly into Churchill, arriving on Saturday morning at about 8:30 AM. It was a wonderful arrival. The sun was shining and it was bitterly cold. I got off the train and as the train station was currently being renovated, I had nowhere to go. I got off the train, and I had my bags in your hand, and I was standing on tundra, not quite sure where to go or what to do. I asked this guy where the Churchill motel was and he said what street it was on, and I said I didn't remember. He said, "That's OK--everything is more or less on one street." So I just walked ahead and couldn't see it and I just walked along the road. It was freezing cold. My hands were frozen. Then luckily I saw it and ducked inside. It was almost a bit like an Antarctic base. I sort of sneaked in the snowy bit at the front and into a door. The people inside were Greg and Bridget Doll, and they are the people who are currently running that hotel, and they were extremely kind to me. This was now Saturday December 22. They were very welcoming. I paid for the room in cash. It would have been $75CAN per night, but I paid cash up front so she dropped it to $65CAN per night, which was very generous of her. Then they said, "Are you staying over Christmas?" I said, "Yes, I am." And they said that I could come to their home and have a meal and so forth. They were very friendly. I was about the only normal guest in that Churchill motel. The other people who stay there are generally the train engineers and the conductors. They stay in that Churchill motel over the course of that afternoon, sleep, shower, and then they depart that evening since the train pulls out on Saturday evening. They have the room just for the day in that little Churchill motel. So the train left.
The whole purpose of the trip to Churchill was to see the Aurora Borealis, and I actually saw it for the first time, out of the train window, on Friday night, 21 December. I looked out and saw this thing in the sky. A smudge of color, and I knew that it's all it could be, and I saw that for the first time out of the train's window. It was kind of hard to see, but definitely something was there in the sky. So that was a big moment for me at about 8:30 that night.
I was in the hotel and I went out for a walk, trying to get a look at the grain loading facility. It was so cold (I still hadn't realized how cold it was) that I had to turn around and go back in to put more clothes on and then come out again. I went up for a walk and looked at Hudson Bay. I thought it would be flat, but it wasn't. It actually has ice that is all scrunched and pushed up. It's rather difficult to actually walk on it. It wasn't until later that someone told me not to walk out onto the bay itself - not because you might fall through, but because the polar bears are out there. It is better to stay near the Churchill River and stay on the west side of the town. It's very awkward to run on that ice because it is so rough.
Saturday night I ate in my room because I was so tired and needed to sleep. Sunday the 23rd I was out for a walk in the town, looking around. I went to the Arctic Trading Company, which is across the street from the Churchill Motel. It's run by Penny, Betty, John, and Brian (Ladoon). There was a sign that said, "Coffee." I went in, but then found out that that is only in the summer when it is tourist season that they have their restaurant bit, but they very kindly made me a cup of coffee while I looked at their beautiful wood carvings and bone carvings from the Inuit people. Penny noticed that I was from Australia, and she said I should meet her friend Brian Ladoon, who I understood from her was a bit of polar bear expert and a character of the town. I met him later that day when I was walking around the town coming back from the Eskimo museum. He came up in his big 4-wheel drive and introduced himself.
In such a small town everyone knows everybody, so very quickly he could pick out who I was. He invited me to go and see his Canadian Eskimo dogs which were chained up out on what was the old rocket range which is southeast of the town. It was part of the Strategic Air Command base and the radar facilities are obviously falling apart. It looked a bit like a scene from a science fiction film to see these things collapsing out on the tundra. Obviously it was very modern radar equipment that was left out in the elements.
We went out to see his dogs. Two Crete Indian boys, Donny and another boy, joined the crew to help feed the dogs. Before we left Churchill, we had to back up to this big tractor trailer truck which was totally packed with nothing but frozen chicken and frozen chicken parts. He took about four enormous slabs of this stuff out and chucked it in the back of the truck, and then we drove out to the dogs.
Before we could actually feed these dogs, we had to drive around the whole area where the dogs were, looking for any stray polar bears that sort of hang around there to get the leftover meat the dogs don't eat. We drove around slowly having a look but couldn't see any large polar bears. We saw a baby one that Brian had been looking after for some time. Apparently the big one had left maybe two days before we got there to go out onto the ice. He said that what often happens is that the bears will wait in and around Churchill for the bay to freeze over. Occasionally they get breaks in the ice which expose the sea water. Then when the smell of the sea water comes up, and the bear gets it in his nose and smells the sea, it reminds him that he needs to go out there and go fishing. So that's when they often leave - when they get breaks in the ice. Very interesting.
The Canadian Eskimo dog is one of dogs that was featured on the 25 cent Canadian commemorative coins honoring the four native breeds of dog in North America. One of these is the Canadian Eskimo dog. Brian is currently drafting a letter to Her Majesty the Queen in England to ask her if she would like to agree to be the patron of the society that he is going to set up to preserve this one breed of dog, which otherwise would cease to exist. So he is actually doing something to preserve a native dog, which I think is a very good thing to do. He breeds them and trains them in teams. He gives away the puppies and sells some as well (only to people who are going to be good owners, not to "southerners" who would want one for a status symbol.) He wants all the dogs to stay up in the north where they belong.
The dogs are very friendly. They are all chained up and some are chained in pairs. I couldn't understand why that was done. But most of them were singly chained, all to a enormously long steel cable. They don't have much shelter as they just wrap themselves up in their own fur out on the ice. Each dog gets a chunk, a double handful, of frozen chicken. We used axes to chop up the chicken. It's amazing that they can actually eat the raw chicken in sub-zero temperatures and not get bones and such sticking through their own lips and things like that. It amazed me that they could actually deal with eating the frozen, raw chicken. Then we took some chunks of chicken and poured on some Amoxicillin/Penicillin and then we just tossed it, far from the dogs, out on to the ice. This is so the baby polar bear that he has been looking after could actually eat some of the chicken without disturbing or upsetting the dogs who have their own share of chicken. He put the antibiotic on there to protect the baby bear against infections. The baby bear was orphaned some weeks before, and Brian inherited it from the National Parks people who had headed back south again after the tourist season had closed up. He was the only person prepared to look after the thing. The locals in Churchill don't like him feeding these bears because they think it encourages them to hang around the town, and they are frightened that the bears will get bolder and come into the town itself. He's doing a good thing ecologically to look after the bear and to keep it alive, since otherwise it would die if it didn't get fed or get looked after. He thinks that the older bear probably went out to the bay on its own account and did not stay around to get free chicken as he would obviously rather go hunting and fishing than to eat frozen chicken. So he thinks they will actually get out on their own. They do prefer natural food and they do prefer their freedom. So they are not being tamed. All he is doing is keeping them alive.
Brian says that the freeze-over of Hudson Bay is getting later every year and that is melting earlier in the Spring. This is apparent to the people who live up there. What it means is that there will be serious pressure ecologically put on the polar bears. They were actually meant to leave three weeks earlier to go out onto the ice, but now they are leaving later. The polar bears gather in the area south of Churchill, waiting for the bay to freeze over - usually in November. This year the polar bears didn't leave until quite late, simply because the bay had not frozen over. Out on the bay, they go fishing and catch seals. This means that this reduces the amount of time that they can catch prey and fatten up. Over our lifetime it is going to be a seriously difficult hardship for the people of Churchill to cope with having the bears around. You do see the bear patrols and the notices posted about what to do if you do see a polar bear in the town of Churchill itself. (You ring the police and stay inside.) One of the Crete Indian boys who helped to feed the dogs told me that he has never been as frightened in his life as when, a few years ago, he came out of his house, just going for a walk, and he happened to see a bear's head sticking out from a wood pile. He said that when a large bear looks at you, it is clearly thinking to eat you, which is an odd feeling to have - that something is actually thinking of eating you. In Churchill, all the small children are taught at school what do if they see a polar bear. The danger season is when they gather there waiting to go out on the ice. One of the ecologically bad things up there which I saw was that they have to incinerate (or do the best they can to incinerate) all their garbage, otherwise it attracts the polar bears to hang around the garbage dump. So one of the sad things is a continually burning and smoldering pile of black plastic garbage bags, which is a bit of eye-sore, on an otherwise beautiful white tundra - this thick, black smoke.
We went back into Churchill, and on the 24th I went out with Brian to help feed the dogs. He has to feed them every day, and the worst case is when he has to feed them on his own. If it is in a white-out it is the most dangerous time to feed the dogs because a polar bear can come up and you just don't see it. You have to work with your back to the wind, so if a polar bear is clever, it will sneak up behind you and you can't see it. The little one had actually come up to him a week before I got there, and he had to turn around and beat it with a stick to teach it a lesson, because it thinks it's playing, but it's not actually playing. The bear doesn't know it's own strength and it's getting bolder and bolder.
The community center in Churchill is an oddly shaped building which contains the library. (It was shut for internet access over the Christmas break.) I went there on Christmas Eve to listen the local children from the little local school sing Christmas carols in the community hall. Everybody who was anybody was there at this little place. I saw one Eskimo woman (you shouldn't say the word Eskimo, you should say Inuit) with a baby in what is the papoose thing on her back. What amazed me is that her whole back was exposed and the little baby can touch its mother. Even though it is minus 20 Centigrade, the little kid can actually touch its mother's back, so the mother is fully in contact with the baby, so I guess she can feel if it gets cold and the baby can absorb heat directly from its mother's back, which was actually a rather clever way to carry a baby around. The worst thing is when you are carrying all these clothes around and when you come into the community center, you have to strip off a little bit and take stuff off and then you have put it all back on again when you want to go out, so I remember that as being a hassle.
I wanted to go the little Anglican church that evening for the service, but there was no notice on the door telling me when to go. Brian said that he was going to the Catholic service, so that is where I went as well, at 8:30 in the evening. It was a very beautiful, simple service. There are only three churches in Churchill. There is the Alliance church, the Anglican one, and the Catholic one. The Anglican one, I think, is mainly attended by Inuit people, who must have known what time the service was because there was no advertisement for it. The Catholic church had the times posted on the door. I went up there and saw Brian and Penny. After the service, while walking back, we looked up, and saw the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora Borealis is, as I will always remember it, is an enormous crescent moon shape, and you could get the feeling that is was circling the north magnetic pole. It was just a perfect crescent shape. Its center would have been due north of us, obviously very close. This was the first time, other than the hours of sunlight and such, that I had a feeling of where the top the planet is (in a magnetic sense). It is a wonderful feeling to have. I'll never forget that. It was well worth going to Churchill, solely for that experience. A lovely green color in the sky - it was always a green color - and gently moving. It's about 65 miles up, as they tell me. We were very lucky to have a clear sky to look up at it.
Brian and Penny had myself and Betty and few others, including the Roman Catholic priest, to come back to their home on Christmas Eve where we had some drinks. They were very kind to have me, a total stranger, back to their home. I left there very late on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Day, Greg and Bridget Doll had left food in the refrigerator, and I was invited to Brian and Penny's home for Christmas dinner, which was lovely. We didn't have turkey but we had two ducks and two geese which he actually shot himself out on the ice of Hudson Bay. He goes out hunting with his dog sled. I had a wonderful time. I found out that you can mix Grand Marnier and black coffee - it was delicious.
Brian Ladoon is an artist and he is building a fort in the town of Churchill, which is being build by Crete people and Inuit people. He is teaching them how to do stone masonry. They can only build in the summer. The fort is going to overlook Hudson Bay and it's intended to incorporate little tourist shops, run by the local people. It's going to be written into the contract that they cannot sell it to foreign or international people. It will have to always be passed down from local people to local people. It will have a restaurant complex and it will cash in on the local tourist industry in Churchill. But he is building this to benefit the local people. He a tremendous character. He does that in the summer and in the winter he is raising his dogs and helping to run the Arctic Trading company with Penny.
In Churchill there are three supermarkets, two of which were closed when I was there for the Christmas bit. The big one on the main street was the Northern. They have everything in there. There's clothing and footwear, fruit and vegetables - all the usual things. They are a bit more expensive of course. There is also a public telephone in there. There's the Arctic Trading Company (add web site address here-I think it's arctictradingcompany.com). Gypsy's Bakery, which is a nice, is a warm oasis of coffee and congeniality. Everybody seems to stop in there at some point during the day. You can tell exactly who's in there because of their skidoos and cars parked outside. The bakery has lovely coffee and food, and people take their magazines and leave them there for others to read, so it's a real sort of community feeling, which is the best thing about a tourist destination if it is a small place where people are rather dependent on each other and they have to live as a community to get on with other. It's just showing consideration for each other, and I thought it was a wonderful thing.
Wednesday everything was shut because it was Boxing Day, so I just looked around the town, then helped to feed the dogs again. I ate in my room since I had leftover food from Bridget in the refrigerator.
Thursday the 27th was the last day that I fed the dogs with Brian. This would be the day that I would leave Churchill. I happened to meet Penny over in the shop as I went around to say goodbye to people. I'd only been there for five days, but it seemed like I had been there for absolutely ages, because it is such a small community and everyone knows everyone else. In five days I had come to know the socially leading people in the little town of Churchill - the Roman Catholic priest, the lady who ran the Arctic Trading Company, her staff, and Brain Ladoon. That sort of amazed me. I've found that five days is the best length of time to spend in one remote spot. You get to know people very quickly out of tourist season. From now on, I will always travel on the train out of tourist season to remote destinations and stay for about four or five days.
Thursday I packed up all my stuff, said goodbye to Greg and Bridget, and went down to the VIA rail station. The train was there. I loaded my stuff on, came off, and Brian Ladoon and Penny and Betty and John were there to say goodbye. In five days, I had made so many friends that they went to the trouble of coming to the train station to see me off. They didn't have to do that, but it was extremely kind of them to do that. You have gone into a little community for just a few days and suddenly you belong. You get a sense of belonging to a little community - having been accepted, which is a valuable thing to have. It is not something you get on a normal sort of holiday. I enjoyed that.
So I said goodbye to them. I got a big kiss from Betty as I left, and some books to read on the train, and some food was given to me to take as well. That was very kind of them. It was a bit sad, actually, to leave Churchill. I wished I could have stayed there for a few more days, but five days was enough. This train leaves at about 8:30 in the evening. I had a cup of coffee and slept very well because it was in coach class, and I could lift the footrest on two adjacent seats, so it was a pretty good square area to stretch out on. The cabin was fine and it was warm enough. It was lovely.
Churchill to Vancouver
Friday morning we pulled into Thompson and it is still a beautiful white outside. We head down to The Pas, and then it is Saturday morning that we arrive back in Winnipeg. Back in Winnipeg I stayed at the little flat with the same guy as before. I think I was pleased as an Australian because the last Australian who stayed with them was Russell Crow, who won the best actor award in the Oscars or whatever. Back when he was a young Australian actor, years ago while working in Vancouver, this family apparently invited him home. He was just an Australian like me - far from home. They had a meal and he apparently got drunk and unpleasant and coarse. I think in my staying for two nights in Winnipeg I hope I have changed their opinion of Australians and that they don't think us as drunken larrikins (that's an Australian term for a hoodlum or rowdy, especially a young one).
On Sunday, December 30 the VIA train #1 was due into Winnipeg at about 4:00 that afternoon. I went down to the station but there's no place there for your luggage. You come in and you are not too sure what to do with your luggage because you can't use the lockers there and you have several hours to kill. I asked the security guy and he said you could leave it with the lady at the desk. You can't use the lockers on any of the stations on this trip after the September 11th terrorist attacks. All you can do is leave it with someone at the station, hopefully. That's a pain. If I were arabic, I would never hope in hell that I'd be able to leave my stuff with the lady behind the desk. They were very helpful at the Winnipeg station. They don't get dogs to sniff your bags, you just ask very nicely to leave your bags. I was very gentle and honest and she very kindly let me leave my bags behind the counter. I don't think that technically they are meant to do that, but they do it, because I guess you can tell if someone is honest and decent just by looking at them (although I don't look honest and decent!) That's important. There will always be somewhere to leave your bags safely. (In Chicago, there was a special room where you could check it in with a guy and leave it, but you couldn't use the lockers.) I would always go to the security guy and ask what to do with the bags.
I got on the VIA #1 train in Winnipeg. This time I got the sleeper accommodation because they were totally sold out of coach tickets. I had a sleeper from Winnipeg to Vancouver. That was two nights. The sleeper accommodations come in three kinds. I got the cheapest one which is this open-type room with sort of bench seats. At first you get a bit irritated that there isn't enough room to store your things in the little cabin that you got. The people I was with were a bit annoyed that it was a bit congested, but I guess that's a bit of a shock initially. The absolute silver lining is later that night when you actually get to see how it all transforms so you get a wonderful, comfortable, and very welcome bed, with plenty of room and heating and a wonderful doona (duvet) to sleep underneath. You don't quite see how the whole thing will transform into bedrooms, but it is done magically by the car attendant. The guy on this train was Doy, who I think was a Vietnamese guy, and he was just incredibly helpful and very kind. I always found the thing to do was to just go to the observation car at about the time when he sets up all the beds. It's best when the people aren't there, because then he doesn't feel that he is disturbing anyone by asking them to get up and move and shift. (I don't think I was at my seat at all, I just went to the lounge car to drink coffee, read the newspaper, and watch the scenery). I would always make a point not to be anywhere near the sleeper car when Doy was making up the beds, just so I wouldn't be in his way.
I took the cheapest type of accommodation, and I'm so glad I did. When I peeked into the other kinds of accommodations - the little private rooms - they reminded me so much of claustrophobic prison cells, and I would never take that as an option, even though it is more expensive that way. Locked away from everybody, they were so tiny and congested. I was more than happy to have the cheapest sleeper accommodations, and I had no complaints at all by choosing that. I was very comfortable.
All the meals are included in the ticket. You do have to pay for any wine at the table, and you do have to leave a little tip after the meal, of course. You meet the most interesting people at the table. It is totally at random, which can be kind of a hazard of whom you meet. The people who I sat with were very nice. I didn't drink the wine there since it was a bit too expensive for me, but the food is of excellent quality.
The 31st of course was New Year's Eve. You feel kind of sorry for the waiters and the conductor and whatnot, because they've been working. They've come from Vancouver, they go to Toronto, and then they go back. These guys have been on the rails for six days already, and now they've got to do New Year's Eve, and they have to be enthusiastic for the paying passengers. I felt sorry for them. They did a sterling job and they kept going. On New Years Eve, they had to have something going at midnight, so they prepared a wonderful tray of canapés and hors d'oeuvres and they had sparking white wine and so forth in the lounge car. They did a great job; I'd certainly take my hat off to them.
Just comparing the standards of service, looking after the consumer, and consideration, I've found the staff on the VIA trains were absolutely very considerate, and in the American Amtrak trains (as much as I hate to admit it) they were not as considerate and thoughtful and as human. As an Australian, I thought that was a wonderful thing, because it was like stepping out of America, back into the world where I'm from, the sort of commonwealth world where there is a British standard of gentlemanly service and consideration for people. Sensitivity -- that's what's lacking in the American Amtrak service. So there's a big difference when you travel VIA rail for long distance, as I did across North America, and Amtrak the other way across North America to come back. You really notice that the standards of decency and service on VIA Rail are much better. In fact, the VIA Rail trains were more comfortable than the Amtrak trains as well -- not as fast, perhaps because we had to push the snow out of the way. But I didn't enjoy the Amtrak experience as much as I did the VIA Rail experience. I'm so glad I took that train.
The lounge car is sort of a 1950's style. First thing in the morning you get up, you walk into the lounge car, and there is a full spread of orange juice, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, croissants, little muffins and little cakes, and fruit. You can get breakfast and walk upstairs to the observation deck, sit down, and with the whole of the Canadian Rockies around you, you can sit have breakfast, very privately, very civilized. You can then nip downstairs get a fresh cup of coffee and then come back upstairs and just enjoy the view. Having that lounge car with coffee and tea at the bottom, always food and nuts and fruit on offer, and being able to go upstairs and sit and observe the view was just a wonderful way to travel. The lounge car had chairs in the back and went all the way around. It is kind of odd-shaped, kind of rounded at the back, so you get the sense that you really are in the back of the train. And you can sit in these armchairs in the lounge car itself and read the newspapers, and the train, every time it stops in a little town, always picks up the local newspaper - the freshest local newspaper there is. So they're always brought back and left on the table so you can read those and you can keep up to date that way. There are no televisions in the lounge car. To watch television programs or videos you have to go forward into the coach section because the TV is up there in their lounge. So it's a lot more civilized in the sleeper lounge in the back of the train.
The guy who ran the lounge was just incredibly thoughtful. They're mainly Anglo Indians, I think, who run this. They obviously come from India and they remember what standards of service were like in a sort of first class environment. And these gentlemen were incredibly professional, and always concerned that their passengers were treated like guests and actually enjoying the whole experience. For dinner the train had three seatings, called sunset, twilight, and moonlight - just delightful names for these things. You have to choose which one you want to go to. In the hour before any of these seatings would begin, the Anglo Indian guy (the maitre'd of the lounge car) would come upstairs and offer you sparkling white wine. So you can be sitting there minding your own business, watching the scenery, and this guy appears with a tray of sparkling white wine or orange juice (you can take your pick) and some nuts and things. It's such a delightful touch (which I didn't get in America I have to say, but in Canada I did) and it was a really wonderful experience. I'll always remember sitting there, going though the Canadian Rockies up towards Jasper, and drinking coffee. It's a lot nicer in the sleeper section because of my experience in the coach section and its observation car. It's always kind of a fight to a) get a seat to sit in (you are really lucky to get one there) and b) for it to be quiet up there because people are always talking or children are always running around and whatnot. But in the first class it was really quite delightful. The view from that car was fantastic as you go through the Rockies and look up at Mount Robson, which is just west of Jasper, and which is a beautiful strata of rock on display. We were hoping that the train would struggle up and get a good view of Mount Robson as the sun was going down and setting with lovely golden sunrays on the mountain, but our train was a bit slow. It got stopped on the tracks because of some snow on the tracks, but the view of Mount Robson and the glacier on top was fantastic. That was December 31.
Vancouver to Seattle
Tuesday morning we had pulled into Vancouver early. We had meant to get there at 7:50, but we were actually there at 20 past 7, I think. We all had just gotten up and had breakfast. Getting off the train was a bit of a shock, really, since you'd spent two days just relaxing in this first class environment, then all of a sudden, you had to pack all your stuff back in your bags, get off the train and start lumbering it back down the trackside. The train always reverses into the station, so happily the first class section (which is at the tail end of the train) ends up being closest to the station. That's a nice touch, really. All the coach passengers have to walk like half a mile to get to the station. It's a bloody long train consisting of two engines. Both engines are fully running, all the time, at the exact same RPM. Both are providing drive power. The engineer is in the lead one, and the second is remote controlled. The Amtrak always had four engines. The rest of the train was made up of the baggage car, five coaches, the coach lounge, dining car, sleepers, and the first class lounge car.
In Vancouver there is a big "Welcome to Vancouver" sign, but then you suddenly realize that you have no idea where in the city of Vancouver you are. You would have assumed that in a big city like that you would be dropped off smack in the middle of downtown as you are in New York. This not the case at all. You walk out the front of the building and there's no map to say, "you are here," and it's not exactly obvious (even for a native English speaker, - I'm not a total foreigner) how to get to where you want to go, how to get on public transport or anything. You are almost dropped in Vancouver, but you're not quite sure where in the city you are or how to get on public transport. I asked someone at the front and they said to cross the road and go up some stairs and that puts you on what is called the Light Rail System. So that's what I did. Vancouver really needs to have large map of the city for people to see. I wasn't the only one who was confused about where I was in the city of Vancouver. I wanted to get out to the youth hostel on the beach, which wasn't at all straightforward as I stood there with my AAA map, struggling to work out exactly where this thing is. The Vancouver station is called the Pacific Station, but on the AAA map, it was called the VIA Rail station. So the map itself didn't even have the name of the station correct where I'd just been dropped off. It's impossible to know where you are. I got the light rail system into downtown Vancouver and then a bus from there to out close to the youth hostel. I don't think I would go to that youth hostel again. There are two youth hostels in Vancouver. One is on the beach and the other is in the downtown area. I went to the one out on the beach, but it's probably not worth all that extra effort to go out to the beach. It would be better to stay in the city. I'll have to remember to stay in downtown youth hostels and not ones that are sort of way out. The ones that are way out are usually awkward to get to by public transport and the public transport is not all that frequent to get you into the city. That was a bit of a mistake on my part. However, this youth hotel wasn't that crowded, but I would have guessed that the one in the city center would have been more crowded.
I stayed there overnight. The next day I took a bus from Vancouver to Seattle. This was a Thruway bus that had to stop at the Canada/US border. It crossed at place called Blaine, Washington. The bus driver pulled up to the inspection point and said, "Now the fun begins." Everything came off the bus and was smelled by sniffer dogs. Of course whose bags should get picked out by the sniffer dogs but my own. They were picked out because I had had oranges on the train. The orange oil was smelled by the dog. What surprises me is that they are so concerned about fruit and food and so forth. You would have thought that after September 11 they would have been more concerned with passports and where people are from, and history, and "where have you been", and they weren't at all. My passport clearly states that I had been born in [Acreterian(?)] Cyprus, which is not one of the world's most politically stable of places. The guy who was looking at my passport just waved me through. He saw it was an Australian passport, and through I went. I was surprised by that, because I was actually pulled out of a queue waiting to get on a plane out of Heathrow London to come to America, many years ago (1995?) and that wasn't a time of terrorist crisis or anything. I was removed from the queue because my passport said "Cyprus." I was taken to a small room and interviewed by some plain-clothes American police to ask if I had any political connections with this, that, or the other, which of course I don't. I'm just a normal person. It amazed me that I could pass into America with a passport that clearly was not normal. (Even so, everything is stamped and it's all in date and valid.) But there was clearly a warning sign that someone had been born in a foreign country and I would have expected them to pick that up. I was more surprised that they were so much more concerned about bringing fruit into the country rather than terrorist weapons. I had actually eaten the oranges on the bus since I knew that you couldn't take them across the border, so I was covered in orange oil and juice - my hands and everything that I touched was orangey. I told the girl that I had eaten the oranges and left the peel on the bus in the garbage bin, and she actually went on the bus with the dog and found the orange peel in the garbage bin and took it off the bus. I said to the woman in front of me, "This is all very well, and all very competently done except that oranges are not in the habit of exploding" and she laughed as well.
Seattle to San Francisco
We were now in the United States of America. The train carried us to downtown Seattle at about 3:00 p.m. I rather stupidly chose to walk to the youth hostel from the train station, since they said you can walk, but what they don't tell you is that it is quite a long way and it is all uphill. So if you are carrying all your stuff it is a pain. I wished I had gotten a taxi from the train station up to the youth hostel. Seattle is a town where I only stayed one night, but it's the one place where I wish that I had stayed longer. Fascinating place. Great shopping. There were very interesting shops - bookstores, and antique shops and antique books and coffee shops, and scientific instruments. Fascinating city. If I could have changed all my bookings and if I hadn't been in a hurry to get to my conference in California, I would have chosen to stay in Seattle for two more days.
From the train station, I walked up to First Avenue and Pike Street - that's where the youth hostel is. It was a delightful place to stay. Pike Street Market was right nearby there with fresh fish and fruit. Great place. Enormous shopping centers. Mainly I liked it because of all the coffee houses they had and the interesting shopping there. I remember one shop in particular which solely specialized in hand-made paper, which was just amazing to see an entire shop devoted to producing one, very high-quality material. Seattle is a city that I could spend at least two days if not three. It was such an interesting place. I really wanted to go to the Boeing factory to see the aircraft, but I didn't have time, being there just overnight. I didn't go to the Space Needle because it looked like a prime terrorist target to me, (although it was a very pretty and beautiful thing). I found the people in Seattle to be rather friendly.
The next day I had to walk back down to the train station where I got on the Coast Starlight which was to take me down to Emeryville, closest stop to San Francisco, The Coast Starlight is very large and Amtrak is very proud of that train. I wasn't desperately comfortable on there. The Coast Starlight was loaded in Seattle with great pomp and ceremony to get onto the wrenched thing. I didn't realized how long the trip was because you get on the train at about 9:00 in the morning and you spend the entire day trundling through Washington and Oregon. We had very fine weather, although there wasn't much to see in Portland. (We stopped there for about a half an hour or so.) We went into California at about midnight. You wake up in the morning and all you see is desert, desert, desert. I will always think of most of northern California as nothing but red desert with tumbling weeds and such. I went to the little lounge car. This was the first time that I was told by the lounge car attendant that I shouldn't buy single cups of coffee, but I should by a Coast Starlight mug with an emblem on the side, and having bought that mug, I could have unlimited coffee, tea, or hot chocolate on any train in the United States for the rest of my life, forever. That cup cost about $6.50 but it was worth it since I used to come back every hour for a fresh cup of coffee. I must have saved at least $30 on tea and coffee. The second thing that guy told me is that food tends to be quite expensive on that train, and I as a foreigner and a student as well think terribly much about the cost of things. I found the easiest thing to do was to buy a pot of yogurt ($1.50) for lunch and then spend a bit more for the evening meal. So that's what I did, food-wise. They should have little tidbits like that on the Amtrak web site for budget-conscious travelers on how to save money on the train.
We arrived in Emeryville. It's a bit odd to be dropped off by a major famous train in this little town of Emeryville and then have to take a bus to get to the big city of San Francisco. Again I was amazed that it doesn't drop you off in downtown San Francisco, but obviously not. The bus carries you over the Bay Bridge into the city of San Francisco. I stayed there one night. My experience in San Francisco is that it is the gay capital of the world. I don't think I've ever had as many people look at me oddly as on the streets of that city. And then I suddenly realized that it is actually a very gay place to be. You walk down the street, and if you are a lone male traveler like I was, you get people coming up to you and they say hello, how are you, and they want to talk to you. It's obvious what their agenda is. So you just say, "No thank you, I'm fine" and just keep walking. So that threw me a little bit.
I should have stayed longer, though. I went to Fisherman's Wharf and it was fantastic. We stood close to the pier, close to the ferry building to get on the Thruway bus back to the Emeryville train station. The bus pulled up, I just chucked my enormous duffel bag under the bus, got on, and a few minutes later we were crossing the Bay Bridge. There was no security at all. It would have been terribly easy for a terrorist to put some weapon or some bomb underneath the Thruway bus and to detonate it half way across the bridge. The only security was some US Marines in a hummer by the one side of the bridge. I think it was a terrible laxity. If you put a bomb underneath the bus in the carriage it is terrible close to the roadway, so a suicide bomber could have blown it up and taken out the bridge. They should at least have dogs to sniff the stuff before they get on the bus.
San Francisco to Ventura, CA
I got on the San Joaquin train to Bakersfield, CA. I left San Francisco in the afternoon and then got to Bakersfield in the evening. Then I had to get a Thruway bus from Bakersfield to Ventura. The scary thing here was the bus (which only had three people in it), and it was about two and a half hours for the trip. The bus drove us on the highway to Ventura. It then proceeded to get off the highway and then strangely, it turned down a dark alleyway, and then down along side the train tracks. I've never seen a bus do this. It was completely unlit, in the boondocks of a town. It stopped in a not very well lit place and deposited two passengers - myself and another lady. We found ourselves on the sidewalk. It was 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. It was a long way from anywhere where it was safely well-lit and it was not a place that I would consider as a safe place to deposit people. I think Amtrak should resituate the drop-off at night for Ventura. I spoke to the driver about this and he agreed and said that he will hold the bus when he is dropping off single women to make sure they get their taxi or whatever since he was concerned for their safety. The other lady was rather shocked at where we were dumped. I walked into the town of Ventura myself to find a hotel (which was a complete rat-hole; I regret doing that.) There was no one in sight, and I think it quite dangerous. In the evenings I think that Amtrak should at least ask the passengers where they want to be dropped off, whether it be the Greyhound station or somewhere else, like outside the police station. The driver said that that had happened in the past - dropping people off at different locations, but then they had lost their jobs because they had shown the initiative for the people's safety. This is a terrible thing to do to these people since they were looking out for the passenger's safety and I think that should be a major concern of Amtrak, especially with passengers that are laden with baggage and obviously will be carrying cash and travelers checks. I was surprised that Amtrak would drop them off and leave them as sort of lambs to the slaughter. I would be easy pickings for any mugger. Everything to that point had been fine. All the stations were fine and safe, but this was the first time that I felt vulnerable, especially since I had a large rucksack. The bus driver did hold the bus and wait for the woman to get her taxi.
Los Angeles to Chicago
I went to my conference in Ventura until the morning of Friday the 15th of January. The teacher in my class drove me to Riverside and to the San Bernardino station where I caught the best train in America, the Southwest Chief. That left Los Angeles at 6:45 p.m. and I picked it up at 8:45 p.m. at San Bernardino. I thought that I would be in trouble if everyone would get their double seats in Los Angeles, but I figured that I'd end up sitting next to someone. Very cleverly, the conductor asked everyone as they got on what their final destination was. He then sorted the coach cars by final destination. Those passengers going all the way to Chicago and long distance travelers had a coach car just for them. I had plenty of room in this car, so I had my double seat all the way to Chicago. I could lift up the footrests and fall asleep. It was very comfortable. The Coast Starlight was not as comfortable as the Southwest Chief. I went to bed almost immediately on that train while the train trundled through California and Arizona and when I woke up, we were still in Arizona and having beautiful views of the desert and the mountains - fantastic scenery. I woke up in Flagstaff to get some coffee. What could be better than bottomless coffee and fabulous scenery! We got to Gallup in New Mexico where we stopped. Some Comanche Indians got on and I listened to these people tell their stories and talk about the geology of the area in between the towns of Gallup and Albuquerque, New Mexico. This fellow actually played his flute through the PA system on the entire train, so we were listening to native American flute music as we traveled between Gallup and Albuquerque. It was just delightful, so I think Amtrak certainly deserves thumbs up for that - inviting Indians aboard - because it was entertaining and they were lovely people and eager to answer questions. Amtrak has them come on and narrate about the trip. I was very impressed as they didn't talk enormously about the difficulties that they had since the white man came. They mentioned it, but in a matter-of-fact way. They just said that there had been forced resettlement of the Indian tribes which didn't work out. There were migrations back to their original lands. I was impressed, because in Australia right now we have lot of white man - indigenous politics going on and people saying they are sorry for all the ills that were done in the past 250 years. But I was impressed that these Indians would get on the train, virtually a captive audience, and would not force the white man to feel guilty. They didn't avoid the truth. There was clearly no bitterness in what they were describing. Although they had a very good cause to be bitter, at least they kept it straightforward. They didn't become emotional or caught up with it. It was very good and I enjoyed them, and Amtrak should get thumbs up for encouraging these Indians to come on board (and paying them of course), because it made the trip very enjoyable to have the Indians get on board and narrate and play their flute, and it made the trip very memorable. I bought the cassette of the guy's music at the train station at Albuquerque since the guy was playing his flute in the station.
The train stops for about 40 minutes in Albuquerque. There are other Indians who meet the train in Albuquerque, selling blankets and silverware, and cassettes, so the travelers can get out and get artifacts from the Indians right beside the train. It was like a little market there. We got back on the train, and it trundles on, and then evening comes, and then suddenly you are in the flat lands. It is so flat, with rolling countryside with farms - the real sort of breadbasket of the country. Beautiful cultivated land. It feels like you are going though farmers' backyards because they have everything on display; they were washing their laundry. It was almost like you could just step off into their home, which is a bit strange.
I slept very well that night because of the flat running through the state of Kansas. The train comes into Kansas City the next morning. Kansas City was not very impressive. We were there very early in the morning (8 a.m.) and it was cold. I went for a little walk, then I came back and spoke to the conductor, and I asked him about the four engines. He told me that all four were connected and that all are at the same RPM. It's quite noisy at the front of the train. There's something about the smell of diesel that is pleasant.
On this trip, I was surprised when I saw those huge containers of carbon dioxide and liquid petroleum gas being shipped around on rail cars. I was very impressed by the amount of freight by rail in the US. In Australia, we would like to, but we don't use more rail for freight. In the USA and in Canada, I was impressed by how much was shipped by rail, and how it saves on the wear of the roads.
That afternoon we arrived in Chicago a bit early at 4:00. I had two hours to kill before picking up the Lake Shore Limited. Again, not being able to use the lockers, I found that Amtrak had someone who will look after your bags in a roped-off area in a section converted from a carousel. Again, if you are not going to let them use the lockers, what is the point of having people leave their bags in this area? I couldn't quite understand. They were very helpful and very kind. You could leave your bags there until 6:30.
I went out of the station at 4:30. I looked up to the Sears Tower and wondered what those people must have been feeling on September 11 and how panicked they were and how quickly they must have exited the building. A black American guy started to talk to me around the corner. I think that if I had been an ordinary American, he would have asked me for money, and I would have said no. He heard that my accent was different, so he wanted to know where I was from. He took me to the Chicago River so I could have a look. Eventually he asked me for money, and that's fine, since he was acting like a little tour guide. I talked to him about what it was like to live in the city of Chicago, and he told me in a very black American language that Chicago was "The Town" and Michael Jordan is "The Man". I enjoyed all that American patois. He kept talking about the Chicago Bulls, which I now know is a basketball team. (I didn't know. I thought it was ice hockey.)
Chicago to Albany
I picked up the Lake Shore Limited at 7:00 in the evening. The run from Chicago to Albany was at night for the first bit, so I don't remember much of that. The last little bit was a bit painful. New York State is really big, obviously. The trains seemed to go slowly through New York state, so it takes a little while to get through familiar places. But then when you get to familiar names like Syracuse, Utica, and Schenectady, suddenly you feel you're home. And then you pull into Albany-Rensselaer, and you get off the train and it's over. Your foot steps down at Albany and you think, "Wow, I've just been all the way around North America" (10,000 miles), essentially, and I have not flown at all. When I got on the train, four weeks before, I thought, "Wow, I'm going to go all over the place. It's going to be an enormous trip," which in fact is was, but getting off the train, you suddenly have a sense for the first time of actually how big North America is. If you fly, you are just dumped in another city; you don't get a sense for how big it is. But having covered every one of those miles on the ground, you realize the size of this enormous continent of North America. And even then I didn't go to the absolute extremities of the thing, but I really did cross it twice. At least I got a sense of just how big the country is and for the first time to realize that all the population is mostly concentrated in the cities of New York and Los Angeles, but there is an enormous arable, livable interior where people live. There's so much space out there which I don't think you'd get the sense of just by flying. Driving you would because you'd have to stop and get the sense of how tired you were as a driver.
Sitting on that train on the lounge car just looking out, time just seems to go much faster even though you think you are going to have hours and hours of nothing to do and nothing to think about, in fact it's easy to sit there in the train and watch the countryside going past you because you think as you go past a farmhouse about the people inside there, the life they lead, what they must think, how they must dream about being on the train as you are and going to some fantastic destination, and what they must be thinking about while listening to this enormous train trundling past their kitchen window. You realize the country is enormous, absolutely enormous, and there is so much out there. That's the sense I had when I got off in Albany. And then I was home.
I got the #14 bus back to Albany and then I walked around the corner and got the #22 bus back to Troy and then walked up the hill, carrying my bag. I would have never done this train journey had it not been for September 11. I would have just flown to California and been away from Troy for maybe 10 days. I'm really grateful to Eric (Fiveland) for collecting my mail, posting my rent check, and for actually suggesting the trip in the first place because I had no idea that I could have a sort of rail holiday and fit it in with going to this conference.
Travelogue written and edited by Eric Fiveland