By Jude Major
[This article logs the final leg of Jude Major’s trip from New York to Vancouver and back to Halifax, by boat, train, and bus, but no planes. A shorter version of this piece appeared in the December, 2018 print edition of the Cooperator.]
It’s cold and sharp and dark in Edmonton of a March night. I wait for my train east – the final leg on this three month journey. A journey of enough legsto be octopus-like, twisting here and there; so many legs have been followed: to New York, Florida, Jamaica, Panama, Guatemala, San Francisco, Vancouver, and finally, Calgary. A small crowd of us wait in an ugly cement-block station on the edge of town. The train is many hours late. This is one of the aspects of train travel that I like. Something else will happen – there will be an unexpected conversation, a connection; little do I know how true that will be.
By 4:30 am the train arrives. The steward in the sleeper car is tired and a little grumpy. He has had to be up all night too. After a few hours of sleep, I’m in the dining car for breakfast. When a Sleeper Car ticket is purchased, it includes all meals. As with Amtrak in the USA, on Via Rail, diners are all seated together, at tables of four. With some small variation these will be my dining and travel friends for the next days. In March the train is not full, and especially the sleeper cars. Even after the scant three or four hours of sleep we’ve had, one friendly man is well into reading the Iliad.
This first day is spent dozing, reading and thinking out the train window. The prairie sky is high and blue, of a dazzlingly unexpected brilliance. The prairies may be cold and sharp, but the sun is always strong. A thin drift of snow barely covers the stubble of the fields.
Mid afternoon I walk to the last car on the train – the observation car, the dome car. VIA Rail has begun an artist-in-residence program. The steward announces a violinist who will play “popular music”, and some of his own compositions. I don’t expect much – if it is all show tunes I’ll stay until it’s annoying. Well, a surprise - Dave Shewchuk is an accomplished classical musician. It is wonderfully sweet to listen and watch the bright coldness of the prairie passing outside the window.
Our progress across the prairies gets slower and later. We spend hours parked on a siding near grain elevators, labelled “Oban”. The last time I was anywhere near an “Oban” was half a world away, in western Scotland, waiting for a ferry. The landscape couldn’t be more different, sunny, cold and silent. I think of the Scots who must have settled here, so far from their misty gentle place. A huge train of grain cars is also parked beside the elevators. We are all waiting for a freight train to pass. Our trip east gets much later, as freight trains always have priority. I don’t mind. I talk with other passengers. I don’t want this trip to end. I am not ready to be “home”. I am at home, now, in my body, in motion, in transit.
I rest easy in my lower berth. I like the lower berth, it has a large, long window. The upper berth above me is cheaper, but has no window. It’s a particular pleasure to lie in bed and watch the landscape roll by. On the train, beds are made up so that you are always riding feet first. Is this better, safer, healthier than riding head first?
There is a curious intimacy-among-strangers with the berth accommodations. The only closure is the heavy woolen curtains that snap together. No fixed doors. Across the aisle is a man named David behind his own woolen curtains. Above us in the uppers are two more gentlemen. Mornings and evenings we all get used to seeing each others’ little “messy bedrooms” that are the berths. We talk of life, books, what we each do in the world. I give him hand crème for his dry skin. He is a retired Anglican Priest, a person who I didn’t think I would have much in common with. He is a thoughtful, articulate man.
Mealtimes, in the dining car, I meet another David, the man who had been reading the Iliad. This David is Irish, witty, irreverently funny – and another retired Anglican Priest. I introduce the two Davids. They have much in common. This is one thing that I love about travel. The Davids and I decide to keep in touch.
By the time we reach Toronto, the train is nineteen hours late. I have missed my connection to Ottawa. It’s okay, I don’t mind. VIA puts me up for the night at The Fairmont Royal York, a hotel I would never afford on my own. VIA reschedules my Ottawa trip. I am not ready to be home at all. I feel more at home out in the world.
A short visit in Ottawa – a trip to the National Gallery with relatives. I see work in the original that I have only seen in books. Unexpectedly, I stand in a small gallery there and weep.
In my first article for The Co-operatortitled Hungry for Life(Dec.2017), I wrote of years spent in the constraints of PTSD and its accompanying side affects. Of not being able to go anywhere in the world. Of the uncertainty and fear. Of not being able to be present in my body. I wrote of the fear of loss of a self in strange, far-away places, among strange people. But also of a determination to take in life.
The surprise now, is how at home in the world I am. I have no fear, no uncertainty, no-one is “a stranger”. I talk with anyone, about anything. I discover that I can be funny, entertaining. I learn to live inside this skin, to fill it, to be present. The world is friendly back.