Monday, September 17, 2007

Jasper departure by train

We're at Jasper's heritage train station, waiting for the VIA Rail train

 from Vancouver to arrive. Michelle is poised on the iron fence, trainspotting and I've just photographed reproductions of old government "Come to Canada!" posters hanging in the station's waiting area.

The train arrives, and a woman almost completely dressed in indigo blue, with one yellow and one red Converse basketball shoes walks past me off the train. "Anne?" I call tentatively. I see her hesitate. "Anne Hanson?!" I bellow.

Of all the crazy things, it's our bike-girl pal from Victoria, heading east to Guelph to visit friends. She moved west in the spring and put her life as an Ontario artist and cycling advocate into hiatus. Like us, she was celebrating life, and living in Canada, by taking the train.

Michelle and I leave her in Jasper and make ourselves comfortable aboard VIA's "Hearne Manor" car. The train follows the green Athabasca River east and out of Jasper, and sandbars and spruce trees line the valley. The Athabasca is Canada's seventh longest river and has seen the canoe-bottom of many a fur-trading explorer from the west's history.

On the right, three bighorn sheep suddenly come into view just metres away from the train car's window. On the left, a black bear climbs the gray side of a folded mountain. Inside the car, the "lounge" car's green leatherette upholstery seems to match the frosty tint of the river beside us. The other half of the lounge is filled with passengers taking in the 360 degree views from VIA's version of the dome car. It offers a startling view of not just the scenery, but the silver snake of train leading us east.

Trains have been travelling these tracks since the beginning of Canada's colonial history; VIA Rail began its operation as a passenger train in 1978. However, little details about the car seem right out of the 1950's ~ panels, edges, knobs and switches in the sleeping cars gleam in polished steel, like the cockpit of an atomic-age jet plane. The fold-up counter tops and pull-down bed click smoothly and heavily into position like the door of a vintage Cadillac. Everything about the air of the train says "comfort and elegance" from a bygone era.

I can, for example, instantly appreciate that I can do a promenade of mine and the the adjoining cabins' hallways. Cruise ship-like cabin doors face the train's port side windows, and the hallways lead to a burgundy tableclothed dining room, then an "activities" room ~ complete with boxes of boardgames, current magazines, coffee service and fresh fruit ~ then the plush lounge area.

A tour guide leader chats with one of his charges, and our lunge attendant passes around small glasses of champagne and "small bites" of prosciutto, pate and salmon appetizers. I ease into a seat and make another train toast ~ this time to our sparkling companion river and the mink-grey range of mountains that rest on her shoulders.