Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Train 2: the afternoon slump

We do indeed leave Jasper on time. There is now only one scheduled stop for us before we reach Edmonton this evening, and that's to offload three coach passengers in Hinton, Alberta. They're picking up a truck and helping a friend move back to Vancouver over the next couple of days. They've been playing cards with a brother and sister from Ontario in the Skyline car this morning, and it's been fun to have the spirit of the car lifted by a group of wise cracking and chatty younger passengers. Otherwise it would just be silent Japanese tourists, retired couples and solo travellers like me.

By two thirty in the afternoon, however, everything goes quiet. For many people this has been the first night on board a train in a while, and everyone who didn't get a full quota of sleep last night is now hitting the afternoon wall. With only caffeine from the take out counter, mountainous scenery and enthralled conversation about how we all slept to get us through the morning, pretty much everyone in the coach has started dozing. After my vast soup and sandwich lunch, I too am beginning to feel drowsy. I'm not a good nap person. If I'm sleeping, I'm going all out and sleeping properly. Afternoon napping just leaves me groggy and confused as hell.

The scenery has also quitened down. Whereas this morning was spent enjoying a 360 degree symphony of Canada's finest landscapes, the mountains are gently receding into hills, and the forests are begining to thin out. Soon we will be in the flat agricultural prairies of Alberta, and the long slog to Toronto will begin. On the one hand, it's true to say that only the Vancouver to Edmonton portion of the journey has any scenery worth seeing. But if you're going to do this trip properly, you need to appreciate the sheer scale of this country and the sparseness of the population. The 'Canadian' takes more than two days to travel from Edmonton to Toronto... so just remember to bring some books.

I read, fill in my Sudoku puzzles and drink tea front the take out counter. I chat with the attendant, who used to live in Montréal, about the city and what it means to live there. While we both love the city, we agree that it can get boring quickly. Having now seen a massive sweep of North America, my mind is more prepared to start thinking about the changes in my situation that are likely to follow this trip. Like many tourists, I find that I no longer travel to see things, but to find the things I miss the most from back home.

The Skyline dome is now virtually empty. The card games were abruptly terminated when we reached Hinton and two of the players realised that this was their stop. The attendant stalled the locomotive driver by saying that the disembarking passengers had lots of lugagge to get together, not mentioning that they had nearly missed their stop.

I'm very content, curled up in my seat in the subdued carraige. Although I'm leaving the train soon, I'm returning to a landscape that I remember well. When I first came to Canada four years ago, it was to this region that I headed first. I came not as a tourist, but as a wedding guest, and found here in the backwoods of rural Alberta some of the warmest hospitality and friendliest people I'd ever met. Rural Alberta is not a top notch tourist destination, but it is a place that has a very special place in my heart. Although I've now spent much longer living in the French speaking part of Montréal, far away in Québec, I feel a much stronger affinity with the prairies. My first visit here was an important moment of cleansing for me. A naïve 18 year old Englishman (i.e. from a very small island), I was initially knocked sideways by the vastness of this province. But in the empty roads that stretch out for miles without a curve, and the fields divided into neat quarter sections for hundreds of square kilometres in every direction, I found a deep emotional connection. This landscape is so alien to me, and to what I gew up with in England, I can't help be enchanted.

Industrial sprawl begins to creep up alongside the tracks. We are approaching my first Canadian layover: Edmonton.

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