Aboard the vintage Canadian, there's all the time in the world to enjoy the ride.
There are only a few hours of black ink darkness here during July, which is just as well because sleep is not coming easily. The clickety-clack, rattle-and-hum, buckin' bronc ride on the cross-Canada train makes decent shut-eye as elusive as cellphone reception along the endless southern prairie.
Neither situation is a deal breaker, though, because this is a trip that's more about the travel than the destinations. I am on a passenger train, a vintage one at that, in a sleeper compartment, on the bottom bunk, drifting in and out of consciousness. Tucked in my meager baggage is a collection of train stories by famed travel writer Paul Theroux.
"Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography into oblivion," he writes.
I reread that line at Toronto's historic Union Station before boarding the train and am struck by the weight of it and how it might foreshadow the next 83 hours, the time it will take to reach Vancouver, British Columbia. What adventure might be around the bend? What revelations might I uncover about myself as the train rumbles past forests and lakes, mountain peaks and prairies?
And now, about 24 hours later, the journey reveals something my family already knows. I am crabby when I don't get enough sleep.
We are somewhere past Sioux Lookout, still in Ontario, and I feel a weight at the end of my cozy twin. Despite the rough ride, the bed is comfortable with plush duvet and two pillows. I kick at the blob with my foot and hiss, "Is that you? What are you doing?"
My husband perches there, looking out the window. He gamely took the top bunk, accessed by a wooden ladder, but there is no window up there. His answer drips sugar in response to my stinging salt.
"Look." He points upward to the green streaks undulating across the sky. It's the northern lights. "I always wanted to see them."
We watch in silence, the lights seemingly moving one way and us another. The luminous green swath parallels the train in a sort of cosmic race that both of us know nature will win. It almost doesn't matter what else we experience in the next few days, though we know the stupendous mountains of Alberta are still ahead. We've had a moment, a "fresh wonder" as Theroux says.
And that's worth a couple of sleepless nights.
Streamliner cars date to 1950s
There's an element of romance to train travel, and certainly no shortage of train lovers to enjoy the journey. There's also a strong sense of nostalgia about train travel because it's not the way most Americans get anywhere anymore. It recalls a more genteel and leisurely way, real or imagined.
Besides the mode of transportation, the type of cars used by VIA Rail also make the trip a throwback. These are not new super-fast European trains that glide smoothly over high-grade tracks. The cars are refurbished 1950s stainless-steel "streamliner" coaches that feel the bump of every rail gap and wooden tie, especially when hitting 90 miles per hour, which is possible over the flats.
Our first chance to see the gleaming cars from the outside is in Hornepayne, the second of eight scheduled stops. Hornepayne, population 1,500, is a town that owes its existence to the tracks.
Our stop is only 20 minutes but I jump out anyway to suck in fresh air and gaze at my steel wheels.
One of the beauties of rail travel, besides meeting interesting people, is that the train goes where cars do not, winding through canyons and along raging rivers. From the dome observation car, we get to peek into back yards, where flags ruffle for Canada Day on July 1 and kids wearing maple leaf T-shirts wave to us like mad.
Glimpses of bear, moose
Nearly everything you'll read about the trip says that the flat midsection of Canada is boring and that you should bring plenty to read. I do, and most of it goes unopened. I notice other people have books, too, mostly closed on their laps. We all soon realize the same thing: A nose buried in a book prevents you from being quick enough to see a bear lumbering up a hillside or a moose dunking his antlers in a river.
Besides, the prairie is a beautiful thing.
The call for meal seatings -- there are three for lunch and dinner in two dining cars when first class is close to the 250 capacity -- garners the same reaction as when flight attendants start down the aisles with the beverage cart. Giddy anticipation. No matter how beautiful the scenery, food is a big attraction and the chef on the Canadian doesn't disappoint.
On our last night, we snake the mountains and I sleep like a hibernating bear. The train has to move slower through this terrain, which keeps bucking to a minimum. I am just in the groove and now it's time to hit stationary ground.
Perhaps we've made a mistake, arranging to fly home from Vancouver. The weather report predicts blue skies in Alberta, the prairie is still yellow and the Canadian will be heading back in a few days.
Could we be so lucky as to see the northern lights again?