Dispatches

Sleeping Class

David Look

Scenic views, fresh muffins and drunk passengers—three days and four nights aboard the Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto.

Pacific Central Station,Vancouver, BC

The Canadian—the Vancouver to Toronto train operated by VIA Rail—pulls out of the station at 8:3 pm, on schedule.

Prince Albert Park Car

The sound of a cork popping from a bottle can be heard throughout the Prince Albert Park Car as the passengers gather in the Panoramic Lounge for a bon voyage toast.

Eric, who rides the train often between Vancouver and Saskatoon, says to a German couple, “Murals of parks used to hang here, but they had to be removed in the ’8s because the grease from passengers’ heads rubbing against them was ruining them.”

A hint of diesel exhaust can be detected, and every so often the faint whistle of the engine at the front of the train can be heard.

Just past Boston Bar, the spotlight from an approaching freighter lights up the trees and thunders past at high speed.

Natalie, a VIA service attendant, puts out muffins baked on the train; a family of mallards bathe in a small pond by the side of the tracks.

Imperial Diner Car

An elderly passenger named Paul, with white hair and pink skin covered in eczema, says he’s been travelling by train for two months from New England to New Orleans, up to Washington, back down to Los Angeles and back again. “This is pretty good,” he says, staring at his plate of seared scallops and prawns with asparagus, “on Amtrak, they can’t even make toast.”

Prince Albert Park Car

Natalie the attendant climbs into the viewing dome in the Park Car to announce that the Canadian is running about an hour late but that there will still be a one-hour stopover in Jasper. “Which is just about all the time you need for Jasper,” she says.

Natalie the attendant returns to the viewing dome to point out Mount Robson. “It’s the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies,” she says, “unless you go south. The American end of the Rockies are way bigger. Actually, everything’s bigger down there, even the belt buckles.”

The car speaker crackles to life. “This is your third and final call for lunch. Once again, this is your third and final call for lunch. Last call!”

Jasper Railway Station, Jasper, AB

A VIA Rail crew member lifts himself in a cherry picker over the glass dome of the Prince Albert Park Car and begins to wash the windows.

Athabasca Hotel, Jasper, AB

The lobby of the Athabasca is decorated with mounted heads of bison, elk and deer. In the bar, a lone patron sits in front of a coffee with a cane beside her, watching curling on TV and putting stamps on a stack of about fifty letters.

Imperial Diner Car

A herd of grazing mountain goats on a hill look in the direction of the Canadian. The passengers eat roast duck and lamb and drink wine.

Prince Albert Park Car

After her set, Dorika, one of two hired musicians aboard the Canadian, lingers with the audience in the Panoramic Lounge. The other musician, a squat man with pudgy fingers who goes by “Miami Beach,” says, “I once played a nightclub until 4 a.m., went and slept on the sand two hours, then played a breakfast show.”

Laird Manor Car

In the night, glasses rattle and toothbrushes fall from their resting spots as the Canadian jostles along a straightaway of flat prairie at top speed.

Dawson Manor Car

The Canadian crosses a road somewhere in Saskatchewan.

Prince Albert Park Car

A man in red pajamas and toque with Hudson’s Bay stripes on it asks the service attendant, Daphne, if his attire is appropriate for breakfast in the dining car. “You’re good,” Daphne responds, as she swaddles a muffin in cling wrap.

Grain elevators, displaying the names of the towns in which they stand, appear beyond the windows.

A man with reading glasses folded into the pocket of his plaid Oxford shirt approaches Daphne, who stands behind the bar of the Mural Lounge. “Well,” he says, “I put out an APB.”

“Oh, who are you looking for?” Daphne asks.

“A cribbage player,” the man says.

Imperial Diner Car

A herd of bison grazes by the tracks.

“Where are you from?” Dorika the musician asks a small woman with short grey hair sitting across from her. “Cornwall,” says the woman. “I don’t live in Cornwall, I exist there.”

Melville Railway Station,Melville, SK

In front of the station dogs squat to pee in the snow, then they are returned to their kennels in the baggage car.

Prince Albert Park Car

At the beginning of her first set of the evening, Dorika the musician says, “You’re always going somewhere on a train, and leaving something behind.”

Imperial Diner Car

A British family—two grandparents, husband, wife and twin daughters—take up the front booths of the dining car. A woman about the same age as the grandparents joins them. Upon hearing that the woman is from Yorkshire, the granddad leans over the table and says, “Are you still a proud lady?”

Fort Garry Hotel, Winnipeg, MB

The lounge pianist plays Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It” on a grand piano.

Sioux Lookout Railway Station, ON

Dee, one of the passengers, prances and kicks at the snow. “Isn’t this just the greatest!?” she cries out.

Prince Albert Park Car

A large blond man in a Black Sabbath shirt introduces himself as Greg to Paul, the pink-skinned man with the eczema. “I’ve never seen the country like this,” Greg says, looking out the window. “My kids all grew up and moved away. Divorced the wife. Dad died a few years ago, so we sold the house. Mom made a fortune in the real estate business in the ’8s and retired at fifty. ‘Go. Live your life,’ I told her. Now I got a house in Ile-des-Chênes, just south of Winnipeg.”

Imperial Diner Car

A woman in her seventies with a diamond on the front of her tooth and wearing big black sunglasses eats a bison burger; a farmer from Sudbury sits across from her, silent.

Bayfield Manor Car

In a clearing by the tracks, a man in a red flannel shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses stops chopping wood and looks up as the Canadian goes by.

Prince Albert Park Car

Greg, who hasn’t left the Mural Lounge since noon, with a glass of neat rye in one hand, gives Dorika thirty dollars. She gives him a disc of her music. “I’ll listen to it at home,” Greg says. “I saw you play yesterday, but had to leave. I was getting sad.”

A guy named Antonio who boarded the train in Winnipeg, wearing high-tops and a Caterpillar Equipment sweatshirt, says, “The only way I’m going to be able to sleep in that berth is to get blackout drunk.”

Hornepayne Railway Station, ON

Paul and Greg smoke on a stretch of gravel beside the Canadian. Greg is wearing a Banff, Alberta, hoodie.

Imperial Diner Car

Greg yells out, “yaaaaaauuullllllpp!” He’s sitting with an Australian couple and their young son, who wears a conductor’s hat. Greg gets up and stumbles toward the front of the car, leaving his dessert untouched on the table.

A bald eagle standing on a frozen pond looks in the direction of the train as it rolls by.

Gary, the head service attendant, stands up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll notice that the Canadian ten-dollar bill features your train. Eventually, these will be collector items and I just so happen to have some for sale. Two for twenty-five bucks!”

A professor from the University of Wisconsin says, “We are sounding like old farts here, but nobody knows how to do anything anymore. Most of my students can’t even have a conversation with someone they just met.”

“The kids that do best in my class are the ones involved with sports,” says a schoolteacher from Fort McMurray. “It’s the only thing left in the world where failure isn’t rewarded.”

Prince Albert Park Car

Antonio launches into a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” with Dorika’s guitar. Greg slouches across two chairs in the dark observation dome.

“You asleep?” Paul says to Greg.

“Nah, I ain’t asleep,” Greg says. “Just restin’.”

“It’s Greg right?”

“Ya.”

“I’m Paul.”

“Raul?” Greg slurs.

“No, Paul.”

“Paul? Raul? Who cares? Fuck it. What do I care,” Greg slurs. “I’ll never see any of you people again anyway.”

“Come on, let’s go get a drink,” Paul says.

A beer bottle rolls back and forth beneath the seat Greg’s hulking body rests upon as he snores in the observation dome.

Laird Manor Car

A woman wearing a grey, hooded, all-weather jacket stands at the side of the road with a German shepherd in the morning winter fog as the Canadian passes in front of her.

“I got on in Hornepayne,” a woman from Ajax says. “It’s out in the boonies and there’s no airport. So here I am!”

Union Station, Toronto, ON

After traveling 4,466 kilometres over four days, the Canadian lumbers into Union Station seven minutes ahead of schedule.

Tags
No items found.

David Look

David Look’s writing has appeared in Thought Catalogue, Vancouver Is Awesome and many other publications. This piece was produced with assistance from VIA Rail (viarail.ca). David Look lives in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @davidlook.


SUGGESTIONS FOR YOU

Columns
Stephen Henighan

Collateral Damage

When building a nation, cultural riches can be lost.

Reviews
Anson Ching

Archipelago

Review of "A Dream in Polar Fog" by Yuri Rytkheu, and "A Mind at Peace" by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar.

Reviews
Anson Ching

Further Years of Solitude

Review of "Black Sugar" by Miguel Bonnefoy.