Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Banff departure by train

What is it about trains that makes me go misty-eyed? 

This time it's not the way the sun shines on mountains, or the songs of a retiring attendant, but the story of a grandmother.

Over scrambled eggs and wild smoked salmon, Mache tells me why she and her husband are on this train from Calgary to Vancouver. She is the mother of Sophie, one of the onboard attendants on duty on this trip, smiling and bending over our table to serve pink grapefruit juice and warm croissants.

Sophie arranged to have her parents on the trip as a special thank you gift. Her son needed a new kidney and his grandmother, Mache, had a healthy enough kidney and was a good enough match that she could ~ and in November would ~ donate a kidney to her 17-year-old grandson.

When the folks at Rocky Mountaineer's head office heard why Sophie was booking this trip for her parents, they told her to not worry about it, it was their gift to her and her family.

Mache looks calm and elegant when she tells me of the upcoming procedure, but I can tell that it's been a long struggle for the family and this is a much-needed two days of togetherness for Sophie, her mum and her dad.

"I'm the first choice," Mache says of her kidney, "because I'm almost as good a match as Sophie but," she pauses and gazes over at her daughter laying down a plate of hot cereal, "Sophie's kidney will come after mine, if it's needed in a few years."

The train has been heading northwest along the Bow River, retracing the route Michelle and I had cycled just a day or two earlier. Here in the Kicking Horse Pass, we are closer to the river and will continue to follow rivers as the trains climbs to the Continental Divide past Lake Louise, through the double spiral tunnels burrowing into Cathedral Mountain and Mount Ogden, and then descends again to accompany the Columbia River to the base of its source, Kinbasket lake. We'll cross the Rocky, Purcell and Selkirk mountains in a day, coast through a five-mile long tunnel and slow down to pay homage to the Last Spike that completed the railway and connected the east and west coastlines.

Past Revelstoke and into the Shuswap Lake area, we'd sight wagon-wheel sized osprey nests built on dummy railway poles, and hear about how Kokanee salmon ~ disoriented by their distance from the sea ~ would reside in the area's huge H-shaped lakes as if they were the ocean.

The train would stop and wait on a side track for one of many freight trains whose schedules took priority over the passenger trains. The pause would give us a moment to contemplate the vastness of the lakes' surfaces; or the nerve of a black bear that shuffles past orange-vested switch workers; or the goldness of an aspen leaf; or the thickness of clouds slipping down from the Monashee mountains like a thick blanket bringing night.

As the train runs into darkness, I can see that Sophie's parents have forgone socializing with other passengers in the dome car in order to sit in the front row closest to their daughter's service station.

Occasionally she'll speak to them in Greek ~ possibly catching up on family news or just to share an extra snippet about a point of interest. They had awoke at 4am to sit on their daughter's train and wouldn't get to bed for another nineteen hours.

"How are you doing?" I ask Mache as we disembark to head to our respective lodgings in Kamloops. She looks worn-out.

"Pooped!" she says with a wry smile, "but happy to be here." View photos.