Monday, September 28, 2009

Flat as all get out!!!

Pulled into Saskatoon yesterday morning, my final stop on this great cross-country journey. The sun went down just as the train was leaving the foothills of the Rockies. When I woke up, we were in the prairies and the sky looked like it could crush the earth. Another major difference? It's cold here. I seem to have made the transition from summer to fall in a day's train ride. Vancouver was balmy. I sweated wearing pants! Saskatoon has a fierce wind, even worse than Portage and Main in the Peg, that makes cycling very hard on the hands. I bought a pair of fingerless gloves, something I wouldn't wear in Toronto cause it looks so wanna-be anarchist, but I've decided they're terribly chic and useful while travelling.
Saskatoon is a ghost town on a Sunday and by that I mean stores are actually closed here! So this secular heathen skulked around town looking for something to do. I ate breakfast at a greasy spoon, moved on to the Mendel Art Gallery and then the Ukrainian Museum (the oddest little musuem that has garden furniture in and amongst its displays! No pictures allowed unfortunately...)

Today, my last day of the trip, I woke up late for the first time in a month. I biked to the outskirts of town where I had heard, via a Googled Facebook messageboard thread, that Mel's Cafe served a mind-blowing breakfast. I had my doubts at first. The surrounding area had all the signs of sketchtown (autobody shops, barking German Shepherds, chainlink fences) and Mel's itself looked, well, pedestrian. But inside, oh my god, heaven. The whole place was filled with construction workers, truckers and men wearing five gallon hats. The waitress was surly. Someone coughed every five seconds throughout my entire breakfast. My plate was this heaping mess of fried bread, hash browns, hunks of ham and cheese with eggs. I'm probably gonna need open heart surgery tomorrow, but oh so worth it!

After that, with this brick of fried goodness in my stomach, I biked to the edge of town and then 7 kms down rural highway to a berry barn. The barn has an orchard of Saskatoon berries and a cafe, on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, that serves Saskatoon berry pie. The bike ride was hard going. The wind was against me, I took a wrong turn and ended up at the city dump and, frustratingly, couldn't tell how far I'd biked cause everything's so darn flat. I got there in the end. On the way home, the cloudy sky was starting to clear up. On the stretch of highway ahead of me these little chinks of sunlight would appear and then dissapear just as quickly. I tried to catch them with my camera, biking one handed and snapping frantically, but I guess you'll just have to come here and see it for yourself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Go east

After three weeks of westerly travel, I'm changing directions tonight and heading home. I'll start the 4,500 kms back and the thought of all that ground ahead of me makes me feel incredibly tired. But, in less than a week, I will cover it. (MacBook, mama's coming home!) Last night I was riding the SkyTrain through Vancouver and looking at the city lights. I started to get excited; it was so similar to taking off into the air, watching the city transform into a swarm of lights and dissapearing behind a cloud. But wait, that's not how my Vancouver exit would happen. By train, you wave a very long goodbye to a city, seeing all its suburb and exurb warts before you hit farmland and then wilderness. I'm so accustomed to the airport ritual that marks almost every arrival or departure that I'm craving that jetsetting finality. I was ready for the train journey, but mentally I had reverted back to the typical airplane departure. Sure, the leisurely pace of train travel is nice. Everyone knows there are full days and nights before you reach your destination that no one's bothered about a few hours delay or whether someone wants to go ahead of them. Next time I take a plane, I think I'll be so zen about the whole process. Who cares that we're waiting on the tarmac, at least we'll be there in the next 24 hours! It only took a week of sleeping on a train to reach this state of calm.

On the rocks of Galiano

One serious regret: not spending more time on the Gulf Islands of BC. The only island that ferry and train schedules allowed was Galiano. I left Victoria yesterday morning at 10 am and arrived at the mini terminal at noon. There's not much to the port of Galiano, just a convenience store, diner and, strangely, a vintage shop, just in case you wanted to pick up some bespoke barrettes while you were stopping over. I asked a guy at the post office whether I could bike to Montague Harbour, which looked not too far away, had a nice beach and a few shops nearby. Really, I should stop asking people's advice on the biking front. Everyone thinks it's impossible to bike anywhere. Seriously.

I headed down a few winding forest roads, looking for a cove on the east side of the Island. It's all private cottages here and difficult to find public access to the water. But then I saw it - a sign for a trail to the shore. I dragged my bike through the brush, hearing pounding waves in the distance. The forest smelled as sweet as honey, of warmed bark, pine needles and soft soil. And then the forest cleared and there it was - the ocean! The cove was this ocean carved perch of stone. I sat for awhile, looking at the mountain topped peaks on the other side and smelling the stink of seaweed and salt. Wave after massive wave crashed onto the rocks, spreading out and almost touching my toes each time. I decided I was happy - that this had to be the climax of something.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Some of my favourite things

In every city and town I've visited, I feel guilty about immediately scouting out the gentrified or gentrifying parts of town. Shouldn't I be tired of exposed brick and minimalist lighting sandwiched between down-and-out storefronts? It's been done, okay. I found that area in Victoria today along Johnson and Yates. At first I was all excited, you know, cause that coffee shop looks exactly like a coffee shop I would go to in Toronto. But I've done that a thousand times, shouldn't I be looking for something that's distinct to the place, rather than me? And it's not even about me anyway - there's an army of people around the world who like good coffee in sleek settings.

When I started planning this trip, my dad nay-sayed seeing big cities. They're all alike now anyway, he argued, while the smaller locales might still have some Canadian identity. As he put it, before World War 2, Canada used to have a distinct identity and I might be able to find it still in the smaller cities. He's probably right, but discovering my country's identity will have to wait until I get a car. There's no way in hell I'm waiting in Oba, Ontario or Viking, Alberta til the next train passes through three days later.

Anyway, so back to my whole proclivity toward gentrified 'hoods. I'd like to chalk it up to homesickness. That, no matter how far I travel, I'm still seeking out my old habits in a new setting. It reminds of the buildings in Vancouver's Chinatown, where whole blocks of Chinese architecture has been plopped down into a North American city. There must have been a lot of homesick people there. After I did my a 60 km bike ride along the Galloping Goose Trail to Sooke, I came back and rested in a cafe that felt just like I was sitting in Toronto. And it felt good. There was one slight difference in this Victoria cafe, which I think all Toronto cafes should adopt. There was a wall of magazines for sale, with one copy of every mag available for reading while you were in the cafe. Is that awesome or what?! I found this mind-blowing magazine from Manitoba called Geez that's alternative reading for Christians. The level of writing is truly thoughtful and a little intimidating. I know there's a lot of religion haters out there, but I knew there had to be a way to make religion cool again. They don't have me converted from my secular ways yet, but I'm willing to listen.

Stay tuned... I may be ending my trip a few days early as I've come down with a cold and sleeping in a hostel last night was horrible. Like trying to hold your coughs in during a lecture, but instead of an hour, it was eight hours! I'm a wimp, I know.

PS. the picture on this post has nothing to do with anything, it's only a dude I met in a grubby pub called Big Bad John's in Victoria.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Victoria...and beyond!!

So, there were some doubters. Hell, I even doubted myself. Could I really bring my bike all the way to Victoria, alternating between cycling and lugging it onto public transit? Some said it would be impossible and others said it was no problem. I didn't know what to believe and after four days of staying quite comfortably with friends in Vancouver, I was dreading the nasty surprises that naturally arise when you travel. Thank God I was given a break this time.

I'm happy to report that the route on Vancouver's bus and light rail system to the Tsawwassen ferry about 40 minutes outside the city was easy. The 35 km bike ride from the Swartz Bay terminal on Vancouver Island to Victoria was a dream! The Lochside regional route, as it's called, alternated between a side path along the main highway, then went through farmlands and forests and then winds right into downtown Victoria. I saw a few pumpkin patches and wineries along the way. Everyone I passed, smiled and nodded and I got to pretend that that's what I always do. The only tricky part was finding downtown Victoria when I neared the city. But it was only mildly perplexing in the where's-this-road-going, oh-that-works-out kind of way. I'm so encouraged by this ride I'm ready to tackle the 55 km ride to Sooke tomorrow, a town outside Victoria. There's not much to see in Vic anyway after my nighttime walk tonight. The wax museum of British monarchs looks kitschy, but I don't know how much fun it's going to be to chuckle all by myself. Maybe this is all training for my eventual bike ride across Canada (NOT!).

Friday, September 18, 2009


It's difficult not to be jealous of Vancouver. And, by the way, I'm not one of those Toronto haters, who bitch and moan about the TTC and compare our poor metropolis to far larger cities, like NYC and London. If you know me, you'll know that I defend my hometown at its most guilty. So, this make it hard to admit that Vancouver has us beat on a lot of fronts.

First, there's all the natural endowments that are physically impossible to compete with: the mountain backdrop, the Pacific ocean, the mild weather. But then there's the city itself, which manages to make condos, overpasses and dockyards pretty. The other night I was walking over the Georgia Viaduct, an intercity overpass that easily could have been the Gardiner Expressway, and it was...pleasant. I don't think any Torontonian would dream of walking on the Gardiner (ahem, excluding the Tamil incident of a few months past). Then there's the bike paths that snake all over the city, some of which are clearly labelled for pedestrian or cyclist use. (That means no ugly showdowns like on the Beaches boardwalk.) There's real fruit and veg here! You know, stuff that saw the sun not too long ago. The only downsides I've seen so far (not including the obvious blights like the Downtown Eastside) are the high cost of living and the timid concert crowds. I think I heard one "woop" at the Vanderslice show. Don't worry, I'm not about to become a Toronto transplant here who spends the rest of her years slagging Hogtown. I just wish Toronto could have one of Van's perks. Give us Stanley Park and we'll call it even.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It was meant to be, Mr. Vanderslice

I spent the day yesterday walking through some very wet Vancouver neighbourhoods. Feeling a little melancholic with winter coming and the trip being half over, the weather did not help. I was waiting in line for some express internet use at the public library, when I happened to see a tiny ad in The Straight. John Vanderslice playing tonight at the Media Club! It's fate!

Okay, back story here. Before leaving on this pilgrimage, I was listening to his album Romanian Names on repeat. I began to humilate myself, mouthing the words shamelessly as I sulked around Toronto. One song in particular, "Too Much Time" became this angsty call to arms for me. I HAD to leave Toronto. There's no excuse for this kind of teenage behaviour, but sometimes a song sums up exactly how you're feeling and this was one of those times. Right before I left, I began to think my obsession a little unhealthy. What if I left Toronto and the song lost all its meaning? I asked my pal Eric to wipe my iPod for me and put on his music. He made some good picks. I've tied Rural Alberta Advantage to the towns and cities in the songs forever and Boards of Canada is now bound to Highway 93 between Banff and Jasper. But across four provinces, I was still humming my song. There was a pit in my stomach that only the sweeping bars of "Too Much Time" could fill.

So, back at the public library, I abandoned the free internet, hopped on my bike and rode to Red Cat Records to grab a ticket. The whole time I was imaging the scene I would kick up if there were none left. ("Whadda MEAN there's none left? I've come all this way! You have no idea how important this is!!") Suddenly, after a week and a half of aimless drifting, I had a purpose and it was to see John that night. It was around 4 o'clock at that point, only hours before he would get on the stage. I raced through the streets, getting lost, asking directions, flinging my bike against a post and tromping into the tiny shop. A lady was already at the counter, buying around $130 worth of tickets. Was she buying all the Vanderslice tickets? Shouldn't they watch out for scalpers? Start to feel intense anger toward the skinny indie male behind the counter. She leaves with a stack of tickets in hand and I approach the desk. "Sure thing," he says, handing one over immediately. I feel sheepish, pay for the ticket and leave.

I get to the show far too early and stand around by myself, sipping a Kokanee because I think that's what people do here. Show start times vary between cities (I once missed most of an Animal Collective show in Montreal cause I was on Halifax time, where shows get underway three hours late.) Finally, a few awkward Kokannees later, Vanderslice appears. I prepare myself for the worst: he's got tons of albums, he may not play that song, and it'll be okay if he doesn't. It'll be okay, Laura. It'll be okay. Without even a hello to the audience, he launches into the song. MY song. I'm in ecstasy, stupid grin stretched across my face, my whole body starts to relax. After so many miles, sweet sweet relief. I know it was meant to be. The forces came together to make me see that ad and get me to the store on time and place me front and centre for this song. The only problem? John has this smile creeping around the corner of his mouth, like he's on the verge of laughing. Got dammit! This is fate - the least he could do is keep a straight face. But no, he's smiling. And I'm pretty sure he's smiling right at me. Don't take yourself so seriously, Laura, he's saying. Everything's gonna be alright.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the constant traveller

So, I arrived in Vancouver this morning, some 4,500 kms from Toronto. And I've covered more ground if you include the bus and car trips through the Rockies and Manitoba. Upon leaving the train station, it promptly started to rain. Since I'll be in and around Vancouver and the islands for the next week, I'd like to take the time now to digress from my regular round up of activities.

A few days ago, I arrived in Banff and, as much as I like that spot, whenever I head into a tourist town I get this deadening feeling, like the fun's over. There's no more trying to blend, because everyone's a tourist anyway. Also, it's guaranteed that you're going to encounter the constant traveller: people who travel not as a treat or a break from daily life, but have turned travel into a lifestyle. I'm curious about these types. How do they feel when they're home? Are they running from something? Do they really enjoy the transience of rooms, friends, bars, lovers as much as they seem to? I have a lot of trouble relating to these types, because I always wanna know what their real life is like, what their plans are, what they wanna do when they stop travelling, where they want to live. And, for many of them, they can't answer these questions because, for them, "real life" is travel. This all came to my attention as I was working on this project for Unlimited Magazine, interviewing working professionals across the country. Almost immediately I realized I couldn't speak with any of the people on the train, the bus, in hostels or in tourist towns. I had to meet the locals.

Something else is nagging me here. What's the point of being a constant traveller if travel is no longer a struggle? The biggest challenges are where to blow your cash or what to fill your day with. As the railway worker who drove me to Banff put it: for the vast majority of people "travel" means a Lonely Planet guide and a credit card. (I cringed as he said this as I have a Lonely Planet guide in my pack.) For me, this trip was about discovering Canada and finding out if I could buck it alone. Even so, travelling across this country is stupid easy. There are some limitations without a car, but following a train or bus line makes it even more brainless. This is not to say I'm not enjoying myself, but in fact I'm enjoying myself too much. I want to struggle. A lot of the inspiration for my trip came from a piece in the New Yorker by Ian Frazier about his travels through Siberia. Now that's struggle! I'm almost embarrassed by how easy this trip is in comparison. I'm not surprised by how I'm feeling. Every trip I go on I find out what I want my next trip to be. Next time , I need a car (sorry, environment) so I can veer off into the smaller towns and explore for days or weeks if I want. I guess I'm always one trip behind the one I want and that's okay, because I'm sort of scared of what situation I'll put myself in next.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Don't try this at home, kids.

If someone were to ask me whether I would take a Craigslist rideshare alone with a male stranger, I would say "no, not under any circumstances." And that, as it turns out, would be a lie. Due to a serious case of Edmonton malaise, I took a ride yesterday afternoon to Banff, almost 500 kms away, with a railway worker doing a job out there. At first, when he said the ride was free, alarm bells went off. But he had his reasons, which I won't relate here as he asked me not to. I wondered briefly what my mom would think, asked to see his ID, took a look at his truck, and then climbed in. It turned out to be the right decision. I'm not dead, for one, but it also yielded five hours of talk with the interesting gent through Albertan prairie, foothills and mountains. He was even so nice as to drive me right up to the hot springs in Banff, where I soaked my knee that's still aching from my wipeout in Edmonton. Afterward, as my body stunk of eggy sulphur from the water, I poked around "downtown" Banff with its Louis Vuitton, Gap and Foot Locker stores. This morning I went on a bike ride to Sundance Canyon (only about 10 mins from downtown), where all my bear fears were realized. I rounded a corner and about 10 metres away a teenage black bear was strolling along the paved bike path. It took one look at me and ran, while I scrambled for my camera. Nothing doing, so no pictures as proof. I was pretty wary of continuing alone, so I joined up with an American and Dutch couple who were fascinated by my bear tale. So there railway worker who laughed when I attached a bear bell to my knapsack in the Banff Springs parking lot! Tonight, I'm taking a bus to Jasper where I'll grab a train to Vancouver tomorrow afternoon. Slight change in plans, but I hear that's what this travelling business is all about.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The pants that died in Edmonton (and other mishaps)

I knew their days were numbered, but I'd wished they'd had the courage to reach the Pacific. Alas, they died this morning at the corner of Whyte Avenue and 111th Street when a fatal rip across the right cheek finished them off. I bought a new pair, recorded their last moments, bid adieu and trudged on.
It's been a week since I started. One short week that has managed to feel incredibly long. Perhaps it's all this falling asleep and waking up in new cities. Today, for the first time, I started to feel a little run down. Around 200 pictures were deleted from my camera the last time I tried to upload them to an internet cafe computer. These included pics of people I met along the way, a gorgeous sunrise over Saskatchewan, a kitschy diner at the Brandon bus station and Louis Riel's grave. All gone. Some of the people I'd hoped to see are sick or, I've managed to screw up our plans through my own idiocy. The weather's good in Edmonton, but I'm at a bit of loss as to what to do. Today I biked to the Muttart Conservatory. The bike path there was amazing, although the conservatory was a bit of a let down, especially the "jazzed-up garden" which featured paintings of jazz greats amid the begonias. On the way back, just as I was starting to enjoy the ride, I wiped out and scraped a huge chunk of flesh off that soft part of the arm right beneath the elbow. I also managed to fuck up my knee and shoulder and, like any self-respecting person, am a little annoyed that I made such a huge deal out of it in front of the crowd that gathered to help me up. I wanted to go to Fort McMurray, but the oil field tours are finished for the season. Plus, you can't find a room for under $150 a night there. (They boast on their website that they have a 1,000 rooms of accommodation in the city. Whoa!). Oh, one last annoyance, I bought a pack of cigarettes, which I hoped would ease the frustration if paired with beer, then found out you can't smoke in any bars, cafes or patios in Edmonton. Groan.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Skipping over Saskatchewan

On the rails from Toronto to Winnipeg, I plotted my trip. The downside of the Via Rail Pass is there's just not enough time to see many cities. The pass is valid for 30 days and within that there's 12 days of travel. Twelve sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Well, it isn't, cause that's only 12 calendar days. Very tricky. This means that if you leave at 11.59 pm that counts as one whole day off your pass. It took me 3 calendar days to reach Winnipeg, but in actuality the trip was only 34 hours. In order to make it all the way to Vancouver, I studied the train schedule for hours and eventually places like Kamloops and Prince Rupert were hacked from the itinerary. So far, it goes like this:

Leave Toronto Sept 5, Arrive Winnipeg Sept 7 (3 travel days)
Leave Winnipeg Sept 10, Arrive Edmonton Sept 11 (2 travel days)
Leave Edmonton Sept 15, Arrive Vancouver Sept 16 (2 travel days)

Take bus to Jasper Sept 23 or 24. (I know, I know, I'm not a purist in my train travelling. Apologies, environment.)

Leave Jasper Sept 26, Arrive Saskatoon Sept 27 (2 travel days)
Leave Saskatoon Thur Sept 31, Arrive Toronto Oct 2 (3 travel days)

I'd love to be less rigid in when I have to be certain places, but unfortunately the pass just don't allow it. Also, I've had to skip over certain provinces, such as Saskatchewan as I want to save Saskatoon for the end (I think it will be something special). Riding through Saskatchewan last night was the first time I've visited the province in over 10 years. I started to remember certain parts, like the homogeneous colour of the landscape - a muted mix of brown, green and yellow, and the peculiar way a dark dirt road stretches off and then disappears behind a slight ripple of land. The trees out here are toothpick thin and huddle together, as if for protection. There are new details now too, like the huge Potash factories that dot the horizon. These factories are recognizable by the tubular structure next to a tangle of pipes. They're also accompanied by a gray puff of cloud. Every so often a trail of leaves and fluff and grass go swirling down both sides of the train and, with the dappled light moving in and out of the cabin, it's something beautiful indeed. Like driving through a rainfall of the prairies itself. The saddest part is that I don't get to stop, not yet. Although I was allowed to climb out in small towns like Melville along the way, it's not the same. I have to keep going to Edmonton, even though my appetite for Saskatchewan is now whetted. This morning, after a stretch of factories, highways and clunky suburbs, I saw Edmonton off in the distance, a cluster of downtown popping up out of the prairies.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Busing in Manitoba - a thing of the past

This morning I woke up early, intent on catching the bus to Brandon. Weirdly, the bus station relocated from downtown to the airport about a month ago. A little taken back at having to go to the airport to catch a bus (shouldn't not going thousands of miles into the air grant you a little clost-to-home convenience), it turned out that the airport is an easy 20 minute bike ride up Wellington Crescent. A mere 10 minutes of cycling got me to Liquidation World and the Le Chateau outlet store.

There's another more interesting story behind why the bus depot is now at the airport. It's pretty much a last-ditch attempt to increase ridership, something Greyhound in Manitoba has always struggled with (hey, there's only a million and a half people here!). At the depot I learned, via this conversation, that in fact this attempt to increase ridership has failed.

Me, handing over a long-expired student card for the discount fee.

Agent, looks at the card, smirks, and then gives me the discounted price. "Whadda I care? I may as well be nice for my last few weeks at Greyhound?"

Me, all innocence, "Oh, you've got a new job?"

Agent, handing over ticket, "Nope, Greyhound is finished in Manitoba at the end of the month. I've been giving out discounts like crazy." He then offers to waive the $15 fee if I feel like changing my travel time.

Many of the Manitobans I've talked to don't seem concerned about this, saying some other rival upstart company will pick up most of the slack. Call me an alarmist but the Highway of Tears in B.C. has that name precisely because there's no bus service along the route from Jasper to Prince Rupert. Mostly aborginal women have paid the price, dissapearing regularly for decades now. Winnipeg is already knee deep in missing persons cases (The Winnipeg Sun had a spreadsheet of young women who've gone missing on the front page two days ago.) Looking around the bus depot, it's crammed with aborginal people and the elderly.The station is littered with petitions from Greyhound urging people to harass the government and keep the bus going in Manitoba. But I don't think Greyhound deserves it. The whole station is a gong show. There's no bus numbers, signs or PA system to let you know which bus is going where. Passengers swarm every bus drive that hops out of a bus, trying to find out where the bus is heading. I ask about 8 people in the station before I find a luggage loader who knows where my bus is. The girl getting on ahead of me is told that her bus to Saskatoon left 20 minutes ago, probably cause she couldn't find it. Both to and from Brandon, the bus is over an hour late. Even the staff know it's crap, apologizing repeatedly to passengers once we're all on the bus. Clearly, it's not working. But people have to get around, right? This is probably the only time I'll say this, but maybe Canada is too big.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When it rains in the Peg

My usual reaction to rain is to write the whole day off. This proved to be a big problem in Glasgow (I tried my utmost not to leave the house), but it's generally a pain when travelling. Now that it's pouring in the Peg, what do I do all day? I expected two things of the city: friendly people and lotsa wind. Winnipeg, you delivered on both. The wind actually came in handy this morning as I was walking to breakfast and soaked my only pair of jeans. On the way back to the hostel to dry off, the rain stopped and the wind blew my pants dry. (Winnipeg - you da best!)While packing, I had the briefest of hesitation over whether I really needed the extra weight of a rain jacket. It seemed a little extravagant. Lucky for my future self, I reasoned that over a month it would likely rain at least once. It proved to be a typical Halifax day here in Winnipeg: torrential downpour in the morning, misty showers all day, brief spot of sun in the afternoon and now it's thunder storming. Sweet, sweet nostalgia.

The downtown is a curious mix of elegant brick buildings from the early 20th century and skyscrapers. I've never seen so many ghost signs in a city before. Last night, trying to avoid sitting in my hostel room alone, I braved a bar alone that had a remarkably similar feel to Ronnie's. (I would never, under any circumstances, go into Ronnie's alone.) I got a beer, spread my maps out on a table and pretended to look incredibly absorbed. Within minutes, someone ambled over and asked what was with all the maps and pretty soon I was drinking with Zeke and Ron (the Ron who's now following this blog). I'm pretty sure this has never happened or will ever happen in Toronto, so the Peg has impressed.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Departure

On leaving Toronto, I'm put into a car where the destination of Winnipeg is no feat. All the luggage tags over head read Edmonton, Jasper, Vancouver. In short, I'm in the long haul cabin. The staff actually recognize many of the passengers returning home, however, I'm sure anyone would get friendly after five days together. The train is everything it should be and by that I mean it's old-fashioned and quaint. It sways back and forth, the platforms between cars creak and shudder, the train tilts to the side on tight circles, there are red cross lights at intersections...I'm half-hoping for highwaymen to invade the train, tie us up with paisley handkerchiefs and make off into the night with my canrail pass.

I see an entirely different exit of Toronto than ever before. There's abandoned junkyards, staff taking bags of popcorn to dumpsters behind theatres, brand new highway overpasses (is that the 401 or what?) and the behinds of many, many strip malls. After about, oh, ten minutes, I start to feel pretty ridiculous on the whole laptop front. Even vacationing grandmas are toting macbooks here, which they hardly bother to conceal before trotting off to the cantine for a few hours. I would have looked a wee bit hysterical with a steel cage wrapped around my pack. Maybe I've taken too many dodgy trains and buses, but this ride is a dream in comparison. By about 11 pm, the train is dead silent (not like it was rowdy beforehand anyway) and there's this lazy-boy style contraption that kicks up from under the seat, making a big enough space for me to sleep lying down, albeit in fetal position. In fact it's so cosy, I'm starting to dread the hostel. I only wake up once, when we drive through Sudbury to pick up one passenger, a lady whose luggage consists of four giant pink pillows. She knows what this train is about. Sleep!

The next morning I wake up to discover we're deep into Northern Ontario. Our first stop, Gogama, has a factory that produces talcum. Supposedly, the Gogama factory is the biggest supplier of talcum to Johnson & Johnson baby powder. There are many, many more tidbits like this that I learn along the way. Gogama is 583 kms from Toronto, meaning that I'm a quarter of the way to Winnipeg and all I've done is sleep! Outside the sun is coming up over the lakes and I realize I've forgotten just how beautiful Northern Ontario is. I mean, I knew I forgot, but I didn't really know how much I forgot. Marshes, ponds, thick forest, rusty outcropping, everything speeds by at the at the break-neck speed of...100 kms per hour. It certainly gives you a chance to enjoy it. I spend the majority of my day, passing in and out of catnaps in front of the sunny window. The economy section (my part) has two passengers cars, one dome car with a mini cantine and a dining room. The dome car is this little skylight room above the train and this is where all the socializing and beer-swilling go down. Two Dutch men take up residency here for the majority of the trip. I'm told I'm not allowed to explore past the dining room, because rich people are down thatta way, but I manage to take a peek anyway when I climb on at the opposite end of the train at a rest stop. Pfft. I'm not missing much, except weird claustrophobic rooms and super skinny sleeping berths you probably can't even roll over in. Oh and did I mention there's fake flowers in the caboose dining room - we don't have that shit in economy. Whatever. I like economy, in fact I take comfort in seeing total strangers, sprawled out like babies in the seat next to me, a string of dried saliva stretched across their cheek. Later on, I meet one Dave Savage from Cobourg, Ontario, who's written and self-published two books on Canadian trains and has plenty more in the works. As we roll over the Ontario-Manitoba border and the land levels out into fields of sunflowers and prairie grass, he begins to name off the type of train station we pass: "Now that's a typical CP Train Station type 3..." or something like that. But really, I like this guy a lot. He says this is his tenth time taking the Toronto-Vancouver train and really, I can see why.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Preparation

A few snafus along the way: a head cold, a missing health card and a weighty dilemma over whether to bring my laptop. It is sooooo 21st century to say you’re blogging your trip. Despite that, I’m terrified of having my laptop stolen out from under me while I sleep. Once, on an overnight train from Florence to Venice, I stuffed all my valuables down my pants and tried in vain to get some shuteye. It didn’t help that before boarding, my ex told me about a bus from Berlin to Barcelona that had sleeping gassed all the passengers and stripped them bare of money, passports and valuables. Supposedly one person woke up without a kidney. This thought caught me awake all night, one hand on stomach, the other clutching my earthly possessions.

Urban legends aside, I think my laptop dilemma is still valid. One option is this product called a PacSafe. It's a heavy steel mesh contraption that wraps around your pack and comes with a lock so you can bolt it to the seat. My dad tells me they're all the rage in Europe. However, after much deliberation and petitioning of friends, family and random strangers, I decided to go with the more back-to-the-basics approach: to not take the laptop. I know, I don't like it either. In fact, I hate writing by hand and editing on paper is even worse. But, sigh, I suppose everyone else who didn’t live in the last two decades had to write this way, so I’ll resign myself to it. My pack, even with the absolute minimum of clothing and essentials, is heavy. I’d probably be cursing that laptop by Saskatoon any way. What does this mean for the blog? Well, posting may be more sporadic. Let it be known though that I’ll try my best to post regularly along the trail. I'll be boarding my train at Union Station tonight and arrive Monday morning in Winnipeg. (I KNOW! 34 HOURS ON A TRAIN!) This first ride is covering over 2,000 kms in one go, which means I'll almost be half-way to Vancouver by the time I get off in Winnipeg. I like the sound of that.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

It’s happening. No, no, it’s really happening.

Over the last week and a half, I’ve heard myself say it dozens of times: I’m probably going to travel across Canada, I’m planning to travel across Canada, (and then finally) I AM traveling across Canada. I’ve said it to friends and family and, strangely, everyone’s believed me. (“Good for you!” “That’s exciting!” “Totally do it!”) Everyone believed me, except me of course. I was silently coping out. (“Are you really doing this? Are you sure you want to take a month-long train trip from Toronto to Vancouver? Wouldn’t it be nicer to loaf around Montreal instead?”). I then discovered that the best way to convince myself was to go to Union Station, charge $872.55 to my Visa and book one of the earliest possible trains to Winnipeg. At noon on Monday, I did just that. I purchased my Canrailpass and started to believe I can do this.

Disclaimer: I know this trip is not that huge a deal. I’m not riding a coach across Siberia or motorcycling around the world. But covering over 4,500 kilometres in a month is still a feat, in my mind at least. I’ve approached nearly every milestone in my life with a sense of total disbelief that it will happen. It’s kinda like losing your virginity: you’re positive it’s never going to happen to you and then it does and it’s fine. Despite the Canrailpass and my packed bags, I will continue to doubt the trip will ever happen. And then it will. And it will be fine. No, it will be amazing.

NEXT UP: Laura packs her bags...with hilarious results!