“The trains had white linen on the tables. Crystal glasses. White Glove service and fantastic food. NOW the service on American trains would disgrace a McDonald’s! I saw a MOUSE in the dining car on my last trip!”
Animator Shamus Culhane was not a man who did things by halves, and he always called things as he saw them. I was fascinated by his stories of the Super Chief and Twentieth Century Limited trains. Trains, alas, that had stopped running long before I was born.
The conversation took place in 1991 but I had a vague notion that somewhere one could ride on a luxury train in the manner in which people had once been accustomed and that someday I would do this myself.
Then I heard about THE CANADIAN, a luxury service from Toronto to Vancouver run by the Canadian Government’s Via Rail service. Rochester is conveniently close to Toronto. It would be fun to take nothing but mass transportation for the trip; the Rochester ferry was back up and sailing after its first ignominious launch last year. I had a book to write and therefore knew that this would have to be my last vacation for a long time. The train looked lovely and sounded something like the fabulous trains that Shamus told me about. It was a trip that would travel back in time while venturing forward in space.
It was going to be a long trip, so I packed enough clothing to have a checked bag. The clothes needed for the three days it took THE CANADIAN to get across country would have to fit in a backpack along with my ancient Contarex camera--too too solid steel and glass, newly retrieved from two years in storage and in untested condition.
The camera weighed as much as everything else in the pack but I figured that it would be suitable for the subject matter on this trip and also useful in self-defense. If someone tried to grab it, I could hit them with it and break their jaw.
The wisdom of the decision to take the old SLR is reflected in the quality of the ensuing photographs, which are some of the best that I have ever taken. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The ferry to Toronto proceeded uneventfully and I met with friends there, staying in an inexpensive hotel before heading to the station the following morning. I didn’t need luxury anywhere but on the train.
I’d booked a ticket in First class after speaking with people who had gone on the trip or knew someone who had. “Comfort Class’, which had you in seats for three days with no shower and indifferent food, didn’t sound any too comfortable. And you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. Why not go across the country in style? I booked a lower berth, a Pullman, in the Blue and Silver class. This is a great deal less expensive than the ‘roomettes’ and ‘rooms’ which are in the same cars.
The CANADIAN was a vision of silver at the station. Its cars were built in 1955 out of stainless steel. When Via Rail took over the system in 1995 they refurbished the entire train, adding showers and modernizing toilets. There was also a streamlined ‘bullet car’ for the first class people at the end of the train, featuring a Plexiglas roof that would not have looked out of place on a P-51 Mustang.
Several other ‘observation domes’ were on the train, with one for every four cars.
A trainman directed me to a car, and then went off to do something else. My ticket said “2” on it, so I manhandled the backpack up the stairs and opened Door Number 2.
I was in a tiny space, looking down at an even tinier toilet.
“You have seated me in the commode,” I complained to the trainman, who had returned. An explanation made it clear that I was in fact in the Pullman berth number 2 at the other end of the car, which was a set of seats in the daytime. At night it would fold down to make a comfortable bed with curtains, which was actually larger than the bed in the ‘roomette’ I had first investigated. That ‘roomette’ had a berth that folded down from the wall, rendering the toilet unusable during the night. People paid more for a private toilet but still had to use the public model down the hall.
So if you take the CANADIAN, book a Pullman. It’s cheaper, and more comfortable.
I also found out that the best photos were taken from the windows of the car, and not from the Strathcona Bullet Car’s observation windows. These had a polarizing sheen that occasionally gave my pictures an unnatural rainbow effect, and there were a lot of dead bugs on the window on the Westbound trip. Everyone wanted to go up there so it was crowded. I spent most of my time downstairs, which was more interesting.
So, when you look at my pictures, keep in mind that you are seeing the Canadian landscape without the mosquitoes, no-see-ums, blackfly, and poison ivy. I was looking at magnificent wild vistas from a train window in my berth, which was near a flush toilet and a shower, or from an air conditioned dining car serving four course meals. This was my idea of “roughing it”.
Not all of Canada was as picturesque as the lovely British Columbia vista that you see here. We had to stop frequently to take on diesel and water for the train, and some of the stops were in places like Sudbury, which is infamous for its pollution and lack of scenics other than slag heaps and a tall smokestack. It’s the largest town in Central Ontario and so has some social importance, although you’d not believe it if you listened to some Canadian comics, who treat it the way New Yorkers once treated New Jersey. I’d have to agree with the Canadian comedians. Sudbury was not picturesque.
We got into the ‘cottage country’ of Ontario shortly thereafter, and the scenery improved dramatically.
Canada appears, from this train, to have a population of 25 people. Huge vistas pan outside the train window in one take like a Warhol movie, with relatively few intrusions by human houses or people during the day. Most stops for water and fuel came at night. The train runs well away from most major population centers, and in some cases is built on the only solid ground in areas prone to ‘muskeg’ swampland. “Muskeg” was so unstable that when the track was being laid, they had ties sink out of sight in the muck before they could lay the rails. Thousands of men and horses and sled dogs worked and probably died to complete this route; like the Americans they used Irish and Chinese immigrants working inland, starting from opposite sides of the coast. They finished, somehow, having bested black fly, mosquitoes, disease, horrible heat, and the Canadian winter, in 1905.
There was a very obvious natural demarcation line between the provinces. Canada has far fewer divisions than the USA and Ontario takes up roughly half of the journey, since it is wide enough to reach past Iowa. It took us 32 hours to cross the mass of birch forest, lovely little lakes, and occasional farmstead.
Curiously, the appearance and character of the landscape changed so abruptly when passing from one province to another that I ventured the opinion that when they divided the country, they didn’t do it so much by province as by Scene.
The food on the train was outstanding. The Dining Car was a charming pink and grey vision with real napery and silverware. Shamus would have been pleased. The car also had huge picture windows that afforded a view of the scenery, and sometimes I had to get a shot of something pretty during dinner, though the pictures often carried the reflection of the lights in the car.
The train was an awesome sight at night. My berth was in the last sleeper car, giving me a view of the rest of the train when it went around a curve. The headlights illuminated the track for nearly a quarter mile, and red and green lights from passing signals reflected off the stainless steel skin of the fire breathing dragon as we rushed through the night. No wonder we saw so few animals en route; we announced our presence in terrifying fashion miles in advance, and only a few curious deer were in evidence even in this remote place though there was a rumour of moose and bear.
Our progress was more of a sedate trot than a rush. Freight engines had priority and there were many times when the train had to pull onto a siding to let the freight car by on the single track, which had us running pretty late on the return trip. We got into Toronto seven hours late and the line put a few of us who had lost hotel confirmations, up at the Sheraton for the night.
The advertising for the CANADIAN states that ‘you will be rocked to sleep’ in the berths. They neglected to say that the rocks would be provided! Sometimes the ride was rather rough and bouncy and there were creaks and wheezes incident to the train’s age. I must confess that a sleeping berth on a train is one of the few places on Earth that I CAN’T sleep in, but this insomniac tendency gave me an opportunity to see some breathtaking sights through the windows at night. The most amazing came on the return trip, where I was wakened by a strong light coming through my window. (So I DID manage to sleep a bit, sometimes.) Thinking that we were near a town, I looked out the window, to find myself staring at a huge mountain, with snow on top, and a crown of white fire dancing on its head; occasionally the entire sky was lit up by the white lights, which danced and shimmered on diagonal patterns for nearly an hour. Falling stars punctuated this ballet. Imagine the most spectacular special effects show, entirely in black and white, and you get the idea.
(I am still not entirely convinced that the owners of the CANADIAN weren’t running movies on the outside of the train—it was all very cinematic!)
Our car attendant provided a nightly ballet when she made up the berths. The uppers had to be folded down from the ceiling, and the mattress for the lower berth taken down; the lower seats folded inward to form a box spring. Curtains hung from the top extended to the lower berth as well. The attendant had to stand on the arms of the lower berth to manage all this, since the ladder for the upper berth could not be used when setting up. Imagine having people called to dinner passing you on a madly swaying train while trying to execute these maneuvers. Still, our attendant managed it very well; swinging legs right or left, as the case might be, to facilitate the other person’s passage. Sometimes, though, ‘the young men run through’.
Not all the sights were salubrious. We passed the remnants of a freight train wreck on a lake; the driver had taken a curve too fast the week before, and 43 cars had derailed, miraculously without any fatalities.
But, like the hurricane that missed New Orleans, the real tragedy was in the aftermath. One of the cars leaked a large oil spill onto the lake, which is visible in my photos. A few days after we passed it was discovered that there had been toxic waste in another car; this had leaked into the lake, and poisoned it.
And the owners of the freight train had not notified the people on the lake about the toxic cargo until someone actually noticed a spreading pool of green goop two weeks after the wreck, so that there had been cleanup underway without protective clothing for some time before the news broke.
The owners of the freight line were American. They also owned the track. This did not lead to good relations with the Canadian government or the people who lived near that lake, though the Canadians traveling on the train (a goodly number) were too polite to mention this or the scandal about the softwood duties that America was charging Canada in violation of the NAFTA treaty.
It’s hard traveling when you are embarrassed by your government’s behaviour, but at no time did I attempt to conceal my nationality or pretend I was something other than what I was.
There were honeymooning couples on the train, and some who were just taking the train part way to or from Jasper; one set of elderly ladies got on the train in Toronto, went to Vancouver, looked around, then got right back on the train and went back the same day! (They were doing it ‘because our husbands are too sick to go.’ This made a certain amount of sense at the time.)
Many Australians and Britons were on the train, and there was even a South African lady who was in the upper berth in my section for part of the trip. It is a famous train and there are folks from many nations on a typical trip, with Canadians predominating on the Jasper/Vancouver leg of the run.
The CANADIAN arrived in Vancouver precisely on time on August 9. My friends the LeDucs had invited me to stay with them at their new home in Burnaby. But there were complications.
“You are buying and renovating a new home while simultaneously moving your furniture from L.A. across the Canadian border in a U Haul Trailer with a hired driver from Los Angeles. What could possibly have gone wrong?” I said, when my friend phoned me to describe the delays.
Their driver was deported, the U.S. Customs impounded both their automobiles at the border, the carpet man arrived JUST after they had unloaded 200 boxes from the U Haul that the husband had driven to Vancouver by himself and the workman installed the carpet anyway; the plumbing was not working, and after they had settled most of that they still had to deal with the curious refusal of any U Haul lot in Vancouver to accept the van after the rental was theoretically over. Just the usual.
So I stayed at the University of British Columbia for three days until they were ready to take on the additional distraction.
UBC has a famous museum of First Nations art on the campus, with a marvelous collection of totem poles. Some of the poles had once been coffins for chiefs, though there were placards emphatically stating that the bodies had been removed from the boxes and the disposition in the museum was permitted by their descendants. I hoped that this was true.
The two Haida men carving wood in back of the museum near some long houses were also a little surprised to see coffins on display.
“These anthropologists put skeletons on display…thousands of them,” one man said as he hacked at a piece of alder with an adze. He acted out a small scene as he worked.
‘“Why are you taking our bones?”’
‘“To see what you eat.”’
“Why not just ASK us first?”
The man pretended to cogitate for a minute. “Uh, let’s see. “Fiiiiiiiish….and the occasional deeeeer….”
I asked if they came regularly to carve in the back of the museum. It seemed that this was a special occasion.
“The wood is free and I didn’t want to see it going to waste”, one man said, indicating a neat pile of alder logs. “I couldn’t sleep nights, you know?”
He was carving a feast dish for a potlatch. As he worked with the adze, which was locally made, he skillfully scooped out the centre and drew decreasing circles with a pencil which he worked to, changing the log into a canoe shaped bowl.
A solemn child watched and asked what it was for. “Dinner tonight, and I’d better finish!” the man said. “We’re having stew!”
He then explained to the child that this was a joke.
No finish is ever put on Haida wood carving. The oils from the fish dishes preserve the bowls. The average totem pole only lasts a hundred years due to the weather.
I ask about potlatches and why they were banned.
“It was our government, you know? Nothing was central. You gave one when your daughter became a woman, or to show how cool you were, lots of reasons.”
The ‘hamatsa’ ceremony which got the Potlatch banned from 1926 to 1964 in Canada was their equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah.
“White Was Right, and we all had to assimilate.”
I ask about the wood.
”This is Alder. There’s some Red Cedar in the parking lot; you can take some.”
So I went and liberated a small wedge of cedar. The men showed me how to work my Swiss Army knife under the bark and wrench it off, dislodging several annoyed ecosystems as I did so.
“The red cedar, the bugs like. The YELLOW cedar, they don’t eat.”
They continued to work and talk among themselves.
“I met Hal in the street, you know? He has a line; he sees a pretty girl, and here’s how it goes—(he leaned forward with a hopeful expression which he held for a long time.)
“I ask him, ‘Does it work?’”
“It can’t be YOUR place, I told him, since your PLACE is under a viaduct at the railway embankment.”
The bowl was roughed out in about two hours’ time, while the other man’s Wild Woman mask had not yet taken shape. Finer carving could be done later.
I was never able to find out the name of one of the men, whose picture actually appears in the Frommer’s guide to Vancouver Island. He apparently was artist in residence at the Museum of British Columbia when the book was written, but neither the book nor other Indians could give his name.
Maybe I should have just asked him first.
After three days in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver, which resembled a greener Greenwich Village and which I adored, I relocated to Burnaby. This town is served by a “Sky Train” which runs to many suburbs and into downtown Vancouver. Vancouver itself has admirable public transit. Even the remote UBC campus had ten bus lines and two trolley lines running directly to it. I was jealous.
I met up with my Disney colleague Bill Matthews at Van Arts. Bill was a guest lecturer every summer, and I had moved up my trip by a week so that I would be there at the same time he was.
I attended the Van Arts graduation ceremony and their reception. It was held in the life drawing room, so I suggested that the skeleton in the corner be moved forward and posed as a bartender. The others enthusiastically set the scene.
Word of this was rapidly noised about the school, particularly after I put a rose in the skeleton’s teeth.
“I said I would behave. I lied.”
Granville Island is a former industrial centre in Vancouver that was reincarnated as a tourist and artists’ mecca. There are whale watching tours, kayak tours, galleries, and street performers. It also hosts the Emily Carr art school, a cement factory, and a famous farmers’ market.
I photographed some Mutant peaches in the marketplace; the ‘noses’ are actually ‘siamese twin’ peaches that normally drop off.
Right near the market was the Pacific Culinary Institute, a school where you eat your own homework.
The Institute offers lunch, brunches, and dinners that the general public can book; the cuisine is Affordable Four Star since the pupils are still in training. Serving dinner is part of the lesson and you review the meal after you have finished. It is one of the best bargains in Vancouver. I had lunch there and invited my friends for a dinner. Their five year old daughter brought along a Rolly Bear, which she operated on the table. Fortunately the Pacific Culinary Institute is cool about having Rolly Bears on the table. The server wanted to try one but forebore since she was being graded.
A Rolly Bear is a bit of folk art carving; the bear, when pushed from behind, performs one or more tumbles. It is a charming toy and predictably I bought too many of them to give as presents and a Three Bear Family of different sizes for myself. Of course this is Animation Research!
The fish in Vancouver deserves a whole letter’s description; let’s just say that if you like fish, it’s your kind of city. The salmon is particularly fine although the fish were few this year. Despite my guilt feelings I still got ‘em while I could.
Vancouver is home to some odd fashion timewarps. Perhaps their teenagers never liked the Twenty First Century and have decided to rewind to the Twentieth. I saw Seventies Punks complete with Krazy Glued hair, the occasional Goth, and a few white kids trying to dress hip hop style with varying degrees of success. There are relatively few Blacks in Vancouver compared to an American city.
The strangest sight was the Chinese Valley Girls, who were able to prattle idiotically in two languages simultaneously. The burbling dialect inspired one of the more memorable films in the Van Arts senior reel this year.
Canada is a civilized country literally built in a howling wilderness. My friends' little dog, a Pomeranian-terrier mix that I dubbed the ‘pom de terre’ could not be left out in the yard at night. Their property backed up on a nature preserve and nature was making its presence known.
Coyotes were already starting to dig a hole under the fence, which had a loose gate with a low top.
The gate was repaired immediately, the top was extended as well; heavy weights were dumped into the hole, and most importantly the dog stayed in the house. One mutual friend had lost two cats to the coyotes, much farther into central Vancouver, right on English beach.
Halfway through the trip I got word that my old college classmate Joe Ranft was dead in an awful car accident. I didn’t do much else that day. Joe was one in a million, and will be sorely missed.
Internet access was in the new Public Library, which looks like an unraveling Coliseum. They provide free terminals for half hour sessions. Other than this, and terminals at UBC, I had no access to news or mail for the trip.
I rented a bicycle with a too small frame and a seat like an anvil which still managed to carry me around Stanley Park, which was absolutely charming. There is a fine Aquarium in it, some nice trails, and a lot of rocks and landmarks that appear in local First Nations lore. A Canadian writer named Pauline Johnson, “The Mohawk Princess” wrote them up in her LEGENDS OF VANCOUVER, which I read before taking the trip.
We went to Vancouver Island by ferryboat. The scenery was nice but after that which I saw on the train trip, it looked almost sedate.
The Empress Hotel is “more English than England” and serves high Tea, which was deemed too expensive to attend. While my friends went with their daughter to Miniature World, I booked a hotel so that I could stay a night or two on the Island. The Hotel Victoria was ugly yet functional, like its namesake; and I was delighted to see that it was directly across the street from the Royal Museum of British Columbia, which had two longhouses out front that were actually open and displaying regalia.
Drumbeats outside the longhouse announced a silent auction of art that was taking place that night. I went in and noted that the Kwak’Wak’L people appeared to be buying the art from one another, which seemed to work against the fundraising idea. After some spirited bidding I got a necklace and a wonderful seal sculpture, purchased directly from the people who made them.
The next day was the high point of the trip. After an unsuccessful trip on the ‘Eagle Wing’ in which we had to sail to Washington State to see a whale, I decided to take a tour around Victoria on the Grey Line. There was an ancient English double-decker bus loading up, and an elderly lady in a walker getting in with some difficulty.
When we came to a ‘break stop’ and everyone else got off the bus, I asked the lady if I could get her something to drink.
”That would be most kind,” she said in a very refined accent. “Orange juice, please. And I fancy a dry martini in the Bengal Bar of the Empress Hotel afterward.”
“Sure, I’ll go. I wouldn’t go there by myself.”
“You’ll have to find me a wheelchair,” she said decisively. “Ask at a particular door. Tell them that I am a guest at the hotel”.
When we got back, the wheelchair was obtained from the concierge, who pushed the lady to a flight of four steps, then carried the wheelchair up it as she struggled on a cane. Damndest thing I’d ever seen but the lady refused help.
We headed toward the Bar, which had a tiger skin spread-eagled over the fireplace.
“Let’s sit by the fireplace. There is always a nice fire there,” the lady said. Since it was August, there wasn’t.
A young couple already in front of the nonexistent fire immediately got up and left as she sat decisively on a nearby sofa. The wheelchair was removed and, I nervously figured, we would be, too, in a few moments.
A manager came over hurriedly. “The other couple….”
“I must have nuts!” the lady announced in stentorian tones. Then, in an aside to me—“I’m being imperious, like Queen Victoria!”
She turned back to the manager. “Bring me a bowl of nuts, and a dry martini with vermouth!”
The manager went away.
“Ask the server to bring some nuts!”
I went off and asked the server for some nuts. Eventually we had two martinis, and three bowls, on the table before us.
I found out a little about my companion, among other things that she was eighty years old (her face was that of a much younger woman) and that she had taught English Literature at Iowa State in the Forties or Fifties. Despite her accent, she was American. (“I had elocution lessons years ago.”) I tried to remember which American writer was sponsored by Iowa State--Flannery O’Connor, wasn’t it? I didn’t have much time to pontificate and none to ask questions.
The Professor also had lived in L.A and ‘known the English writers’.
“Did you know Aldous Huxley?”
“I had tea with him.”
She became a bit brusque as the nuts and martinis were disposed of.
“I will have to have the wheelchair and a taxi for precisely six thirty. My older sister will be furious if I am late for dinner.”
The wheelchair arrived propelled by a different staffer, a smiling blond girl.
Then followed a merry chase through the Empress Tea Room and other rooms of varying degrees of magnificence; the wheelchair was in the lead and I brought up the rear with the walker. We reached the taxi and as the lady was getting in I realized I had made the same mistake I made with the Haida carver.
“Who are you?” I asked her.
She turned with a wry sort of half smile and gruffly said, “Professor Audrey!”
Then the taxi door closed.
I proceeded to the Longhouse by the Museum for the Kwak’Wak’L Potlatch.
This was a marvelous show. I’d waited years to see the wonderful animating masks of this tribe in action; the Dance of the Animals featured dancers of all ages performing in replicas of famous masks, museum pieces all carved by one man, Mungo Martin (whose real name translated as Ten Times Chief.)
One of the masks, a deer, opened to ‘transform’ into a human face. In a smoke filled long house, by firelight, the illusion would be devastating.
My favorite dancer was the five year old boy who came out in the Sea Otter mask. He carried a small wooden sea urchin. The dance had him taking a few steps, and then lying on his back with the urchin on his chest for a few minutes before getting up again.
One character at a Potlatch is the Intruder, also known as the Wild Woman.
The Intruder appears ‘when It likes’ and does ‘what It likes’.
Despite the Wild Woman Mask, Its sex is uncertain. “We try to get all the important business done before ‘It’ appears,”a Chief said helpfully.
The Intruder was posing as a tourist, with a shopping bag and a map that It appeared to have trouble reading. It took a better map from a tourist. Then, walking with a distinctive rolling motion rather like that of an animated character, It sat near a small girl to read it better. There was a loud squeak from the girl and a frantic scrunching along the bench in the opposite direction.
The Intruder flirted outrageously with men in the audience, waved a feather boa, vogued, did Disco dance poses, and in short was very funny.
When the dance was over, I saw two Crees in full Grass Dance regalia heading into the Queen Victoria hotel. “This is not an Aboriginal Traffic Jam,” one of them told me. “Some rich people flew us here from Alberta to perform as a corporate incentive.”
“I’ve heard of those but never met one before,” I said.
My last view of Victoria that night was of its Parliament building, ablaze with white light bulbs, exactly like the old Luna Park in Coney Island, or a Disney parade float.
The train ride back a few days later wasn’t as smooth as the first, though it did feature the outstanding celestial light show described earlier in this letter. I was able to meet with friends in Vancouver and had a wonderful time during the three weeks, and if I ever doubt that it all ever happened—there are Rolly Bears and seal sculptures and the photos to prove that it really did.
And if you ever can travel on the CANADIAN, either part of the way or all across Canada, I suggest that you do. It’s a far more civilized way to travel than a plane!