Monday, 30 January 2012

CP Rail to Banff

Chapter 4

Finally I was aboard a train and again in touch with surroundings that I could call familiar. CP Rail's stainless steel passenger cars were like old friends welcoming me back after a long absence. I selected a seat beside one of the large picture windows in the smoking section of the forward coach. The aisle seat beside me was vacant so I pulled a CP Rail schedule out of my brief case and placed the schedule on the seat beside me to refer to later. While waiting for "The Canadian" to depart I fired up my favourite pipe with a not too stinky brand of tobacco, pushed the reclining seat back as far as it would go then propped my feet up on the foot rest. I was settled in for the start of the 559-mile rail journey to Banff.

I did not see any logic in bringing along a heavy suitcase full of items that would never be needed or used so my philosophy was to travel light. Everything that I had with me was in my brief case. In addition to a few music books and note pads for writing I had managed to cram in a few English muffins and slices of cheese for breakfast, an extra shirt, a pair of socks, other essential personal items, an extra pipe with a good supply of tobacco and matches as well as a camera and a tripod.

Once again I impatiently glanced at my watch. 18:29. From the window I watched the conductor on the platform. He was looking back toward the station gate for any last minute passengers rushing to board the train. An instant later and true to railway form he bellowed, "All Aboard!"

With a last look back and a slight hesitation the conductor then turned and waved a highball to the head end. The engineer gently eased the train out of the station and I heard the vestibule doors banged shut with a finality that indicated no hope now for any late passenger running after the train. 

The bouncing and swaying motion of the passenger coach was soothing as the wheels beneath were pounding out their familiar message at each rail joint. At times I wondered if train travel had inspired Morse to create his code. Pitt Meadows, Port Hammond, Haney, Albion, Whonock and Ruskin; I wondered about the railway history behind these station names. Train 2 raced eastward through these villages east of Port Coquitlam toward that formidable natural barrier the railway builders had known all too well; the mountains. I felt a certain sense of pride to be making my first train-trip on an employee pass but I also felt some disappointment to be doing the trip alone. Wistfully I looked out the window and watched as the train passed the telephone poles. Each one seemed to flash by in a consistently measured rhythmic pattern and if it were possible to illustrate the ticking of a clock, then this scene would have. The lead diesel's horn blasted out its standard warning of two long, one short and one long retort for another road crossing. At times I overheard older passengers recall their memories of the haunting and mournful strains that a steam engine's whistle would make in the dead of night. The wails from the air-horn up front did not sound any happier to me but I was pleased to be hearing the muted crossing warnings from inside on board rather than trackside as a spectator.

Later on, as the train was pulling out of Mission City, the dining car steward came up the aisle of the coach hollering out his second call for dinner. Hungry, I headed back through a few cars to the dining car. While it appeared to me the train had a considerable crowd aboard, the dining car was nearly empty. The steward seated me at one of the vacant tables, which had been set for four. He must have been more optimistic than I was prepared to be, however, the other three seats remained unoccupied the entire time. As with all the other waiting tables, mine had been set true to the railway's high, exacting standards. The chinaware and silver plated utensils were perfectly arranged on top of a spotless thick linen cloth adorned with a matching serviette. Every item bore the CP Rail name and distinctive multi-mark logo.

Shortly after I was seated, a waiter presented me with a menu and an order form together with a freshly sharpened short pencil. Railway waiters were prohibited from taking verbal orders therefore patrons were obliged to write down on the forms any items for dinner they desired from the menu. This practice was one of those curious oddities unique to railways. Writing while the train was in motion was difficult at best and I am not certain how the waiter managed to read my list. Perhaps years of reading illegible orders made these men experts at deciphering anything. As I waited for my dinner to arrive I was treated to occasional tantalizing whiffs of broiling foods.

While enjoying the delicious and well-prepared dinner, I spent the time watching the scenery outside as the waning daylight faded into darkness. The train had entered the famed Fraser River Canyon and the pace was very subdued. In spite of the slow speed though I constantly felt a need to lean left or right to compensate for the train's lurches and tilting through a seemingly never ending series of sharp curves followed by reverse sharp curves. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my dinner in the diner and watched with fascination the erratic sloshing of the coffee in my cup. The cup was seated upon an expertly folded napkin placed there to catch the dribbles of coffee that spilled over the edge. The napkin also prevented the cup from rattling and moving around on the saucer. Watching the waiters flawlessly and unfailingly deliver trays of plates loaded with meals to the few other passengers was the evening's entertainment. Regardless of the lateral movements induced by the curves or the varying speed of the train, the waiters never fumbled or lost their balance. Their work and ability was an art.

After dinner while finishing either my third or possibly fourth cup of coffee I studied the features of the dining car and wished that one day I would be able to take someone special out to dinner...in a dining car...on the Canadian. Perhaps an unusual choice of restaurant but one certainly refined and steeped in a tradition of romance. I made the dream my own and promised myself to fulfill. Blunt reality though was that I had no one special to take out, not even to a greasy spoon joint in town, never mind a first class dining car on CP Rail's premier train.

Having paid my meal fare I left the dining car and headed forward to the skyline car hoping to find a vacant seat up in the dome. The upstairs section was almost empty. Few passengers were taking advantage of the dome's darkness to see the spectacular nighttime mountain scenery. The Fraser River looked more like a bottomless black abyss running parallel to the Onderdonk route. The headlight of the lead engine constantly lit up the rock walls on the other side of the track while the train was continuously squealing through curves. In railway jargon the squealing is called "pinging" but regardless of the name given, the noise still sounded like squealing. Late in the evening the conductor joined us up in the "glass attic" as he referred to the dome, and regaled the few of us long into the night with tales from his more than forty years as a railway man. The gold bars on the cuff of his jacket sleeve attested to his years of service.

I remained upstairs in the dome late into the night and The Canadian was well east of Ashcroft before I gave up trying to stay awake all night to watch the rails ahead of the train. Returning to my seat below in the forward coach, the lighting had been dimmed and most of my fellow travellers appeared to be asleep. In spite of having heavy eyes and wanting to drift off, sleep was elusive. The seat reclined a fair amount but my body craved for rest from a horizontal position. Fitful sleep grudgingly came.

Just after daybreak the train departed from Revelstoke and the New Zealand couple's little girl decided that she had enough sleep and enough of the confinements of train travel. She started running up and down the aisle of the coach. Thump, thump, thump down to the far end, a pause while she turned, then thump, thump, thump back. Inevitably, another child about the same age joined in and the two of them were doing it. Expectedly the train lurched a little more than usual; the little girl lost her balance, tumbled and started screaming. What an alarm clock! If anyone had still been asleep they were not any more. Later I overheard the New Zealand couple mention to someone they were going all the way through to Toronto. I was grateful to know I would be detraining at Banff.

Later on in the morning I was reclining in my seat puffing away on my pipe and watching with amazement the spectacular mountain scenery. A little boy had paused in the aisle to watch me. I recognized him as the other early morning jogger. I continued looking out the window pretending not to notice him figuring that he would go back to his seat. He stood there watching and finally out of curiosity he asked in a rather bold loud voice, "Hey Mister! What's that?"

Removing the smoldering pipe from my mouth with my right hand and pointing at it with the left hand I looked at him and asked, "You mean this?"

"Yeah." he replied in a tone that indicated he was quite pleased he had someone's attention.

"It's my pocket stove." I answered, assuming he would accept my answer and return to his seat.

"Hey Mister! What are you cooking?" he continued.

"Breakfast" I replied without hesitation.

"Oh." was all he said, and after a slight pause he disappeared down the aisle to his seat.

About a minute later the little gentleman returned and very informatively advised me, "Hey Mister! My Mommy said that’s only a stinky pipe."

I heard a few chuckles from the nearby passengers who had heard the little boy's questions. I then instructed him, "Well you go tell your Mommy that I’m not very good at cooking." The young traveller disappeared again and I made a retreat to the skyline car before he came back.

A mountain of words cannot adequately describe Banff and the surrounding mountain scenery. Absolutely awesome! William Van Horne did have the right idea. The scenery could not be exported so he brought in the tourists and he built them a place to stay. Tourists from all over the world continue to visit Banff and many are still brought in by trains over Van Horne's railway. I was just one more visitor arriving on Canada's premiere passenger train that Van Horne's railway no longer wanted. Arrival at Banff was about thirty minutes behind schedule and in spite of CP Rail's disdain for their famous train, the service on "The Canadian" had been superb.

The Banff Springs Hotel is a majestic and rather intimidating immense stone structure located on the far side of the town from the train station. The hotel is every bit deserving of its reputation for luxury and as a choice place for the rich and famous to stay and play. Outside the main entrance was a sea of confusion with guests arriving or departing. Groups of skiers with a clutter of equipment were trying to locate their transportation to the slopes. True to the stereotype, a small crowd of Japanese businessmen in dark suits, white shirts and ties had cameras dangling from their necks. 

Somewhat timidly I entered the lobby and was awed by the huge buffalo head that was mounted high up on one wall. Deep thick carpets, the castle-like masonry and dark-coloured richly grained wood-panelled walls adorned with sparkling polished brass fixtures made me feel adequately out of place. Attired in dark green uniforms with matching green plaid vests and white gloves, the elevator operators called out the floor number at each stop. The lift-drivers looked as if they could have stepped out of a scene in a 1930's movie.

In spite of the snow being several feet deep everywhere almost everyone, visitors and employees alike, was darkly tanned and sunburned as if they had just walked off a sun-soaked summer beach. It took me a while to figure out that the summer look was from skiing on the sunny slopes day after day.

After checking in I remained self-sequestered in my room. I was weary and felt as if I had been awake since yesterday morning, perhaps because I had not washed or shaved since yesterday morning. Long distance coach travel by train had that effect but I would not have made the journey by any other means. My room was located in the back overlooking the roof of a lower section of the hotel structure. This was obviously a room that was held for Canadian Pacific employees on discounts. In spite of the roof though, the mountains seemed to soar upward from immediately behind the hotel to tower far above everything else. I spent quite a while just standing and looking out the window. Darkness came very quickly after the sun dropped behind the peaks.

Not wanting to eat alone in one of the hotel restaurants, I took a look at the room-service menu. If anything was higher than the mountains I had been staring at, then the prices on the menu were. The prices were staggering. I settled for the least expensive entree that was a hamburger with an exotic sounding name and two bottles of imported German beer. The cheapest luxury was the only one I could afford.

Having heard about the supposed beneficial qualities of minerals in the glacial mountain waters of the Rockies I decided to have a long hot bath. The bathtub resembled one of those deep ancient cast iron cauldrons. All that was missing from the vat were those cat-like feet that old cast iron tubs always seemed to have. The steaming water spewing out of the tap was the same emerald-turquoise colour of the Bow River and the other lakes and streams I had seen from the train. Whether it was the minerals in the hot turquoise water or the two imported beers with dinner or a combination of both, sound sleep came within minutes after I lay down on the bed to read.

Early next morning the sky was a sunny cloudless bright blue. The temperature was near the freezing point but the unrelenting wind blowing from the north made the morning air feel colder. Undaunted I was determined to go out for a long walk to take some pictures and to enjoy the mountain scenery. Up close the mountains surrounding Banff were far more impressive than any postcards could ever depict. Banff was quite a bit smaller than I had expected. The town seemed to consist mostly of one main street dividing two rows of expensive shops, boutiques, restaurants and watering holes. The train station was at one end of town and the Banff Springs Hotel at the other end.

Anxious to avoid the main street I elected to follow the first gravel road that appeared to lead out of town. After hiking around a few twists and curves, all uphill, a high steep rocky bluff that overlooked the Bow River, on the bank opposite from the castle on the slopes where I was staying, beckoned to my curiosity. Carefully I picked my steps along the rocky ridges until I discovered a secluded place that was sheltered from the wind. My temporary sanctuary was obscured from the road by a grove of pine trees. Had the snow not been so deep I probably would have explored more and ventured farther. 

One endearing quality I loved about this country was the vast areas of stark silent solitude. Ironically, my life had evolved to become an area of stark silent solitude that I disliked intensely. My travel odyssey would have been far more enjoyable if made with someone else rather than alone. Not just anyone though but with that one special person I kept hoping to one day find. 

Train travel in the mid 1970's was not popular with young adults, especially on CP Rail. My impression was that CP Rail sold space on "The Canadian" as a means to see the scenery...if you wanted to go by train, but...if you did not want to take the train...that was okay too. CP Rail really did not want to operate the train anyway. Canadian National Railways though was still strongly marketing a passenger-friendly railway image. CNR sold the space on the "Supercontinental" as a means to have a good time while journeying across the country. In terms of scenery and train equipment, CP Rail was clearly the winner, however, image was everything because CNR was attracting the passengers. Tragic. How could anyone truly understand Canada without travelling Van Horne's railway from end to end?

In the early afternoon I checked out of the Banff Springs Hotel and slowly wandered through town along the main street. I was planning to take some photographs of the eastbound Canadian, and any freight trains that might happen to pass, while waiting for the westbound Canadian to arrive and return me to Vancouver. If they were on time, the eastbound and westbound Canadians were due within a few hours of each other. To escape the chilling wind, most of my time was spent inside the train station seated upon one of those wooden benches characteristic of railway stations. CP Rail's transcontinental trains could be relied upon to be behind their schedules but what I could never figure out is why the benches were so terribly uncomfortable. Those benches encouraged both the patient and the impatient to get up and pace around. The station was quiet and no agent was on duty. A large part of the trackside structure had been converted into a restaurant. As train time approached, I went outside and paced back and forth along the platform trying to decide upon the best spot to set up my camera.

The eastbound train arrived close to its scheduled time but the westbound Canadian showed up almost thirty minutes late. The afternoon shadows had lengthened, the wind had increased and the temperature had dropped noticeably quickly. I was glad to be aboard the train again.

I brought out my pocket watch and timed the passing of the mile boards on the telephone poles as the Canadian closed in on Castle Mountain. Between Banff and Lake Louise were several miles of mostly straight track alignment and the stainless steel streamliner was rolling along at a good pace. Train 1 was more than just a few minutes behind schedule and I assumed the head end crew was pushing to keep the consist as close as possible to the speed limits in an attempt to win back a few of those lost minutes. Quite a controversy had erupted when Castle Mountain was arbitrarily renamed Mount Eisenhower. Given the appearance of the massive landmark I thought Castle Mountain was a far more appropriate name, but then who was I to question the wisdom of politicians who had probably never seen the mountain. Several miles had been ticked off in less than 55 seconds per mile. 

Darkness had arrived by the time the Canadian had made its descent from Stephen, a siding at the top of the Great Divide, to Field, a CP Rail division point at the base of the Kicking Horse Pass. The fourteen and a half miles of track achieved a vertical drop of about 1250 feet. The famed train flawlessly traversed the historical Van Horne route through spiral tunnels and snow sheds and along the ledges that had been carved and gouged out of the sides of some of the most rugged of mountains. This daily, taken-for-granted show was the highlight of the journey across the mountain barriers of British Columbia.

The approaching second feature would be the usual double bill. First would be the corkscrew canyon cruise into Golden, through tunnels, over bridges, beside the Kicking Horse River where the river currents moved faster than the train. These events would be followed by a challenging uphill charge toward Roger’s Pass that culminated in a spectacular crossing of Stoney Creek on the famed arched bridge, and followed by a final run toward the Connaught tunnel that had been drilled beneath Roger's treacherous pass. My ambition for the evening had been to fight off sleep and stay awake long enough to witness the two events. I won, but just barely.

Like red steel dogs pulling a long silver sled across cold-rolled parallel strips borne by sleeping timbers, the chortling diesels charged onward with their string of passenger cars obediently in tow. The stainless steel consist rolled along atop its iron route spiked down beside the southern shore of Burrard Inlet and neared the finish of its odyssey from both Montreal and Toronto. Already my seat in the coach had been abandoned in order to conclude the journey by standing in the vestibule. With the top half of the door open I was leaning on the top edge of the closed lower half of the door, occasionally poking my head out to take a peek at the engines in the lead. I was enjoying the rush of warm spring air mixed with the official railway scents of diesel exhaust and creosote while observing the fascinating sights along Burrard Inlet. Surely this was modern railway travel at its best; perhaps something lost on old timers still lamenting the passing of the steam age.

In a few minutes CP Rail's "Canadian" would be home. This Canadian, however, would soon be back in the city in which he now lived but returning to Vancouver just would not feel at all like returning home. I was also feeling the despair of loneliness knowing that no one would be meeting me at the train station and no one would be waiting to greet me upon arriving back at West First Avenue.

The apartment, more correctly home, was as soundless as ever. Half the previous week's newspapers had arrived last Thursday and were piled up outside the door from the bedroom to the basement. Someone, perhaps one of the anonymous, faceless strangers who lived upstairs, had moved the newspapers down from the upstairs vestibule. I had enjoyed my weekend and train trip but returning to the stifling silent stillness was a sobering dose of returning to reality. I was somewhat distressed having to admit to myself that it was possible for me to have never returned, never have been noticed to have been missing and never have been missed. This was the cold hard truth of the obscurity and insignificance in which most people live out their lives, and I was one of these people. Truly, only God notices when little sparrows fall.

The Oddblock Station Agent

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