Updated: May 23, 2022
Amelia Earhart, famed aviation pioneer and author, once said, “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” Few things in life can be more stimulating or more satisfying to the human spirit than a great adventure. In 1990, I embarked on what was for me one of the greatest adventures of my young adult life -- a slow-moving transcontinental journey that took me the length and breadth of Canada: from Vancouver, British Columbia to St. John's, Newfoundland, and back. It was a 45-day tour by rail, air and rental car of every province and major city in Canada, and the expedition filled me with a thousand sweet memories that I carry with me today. It was an experience that revealed the innate kindness and hospitality of Canadians, which in turn cloaked me in a feeling of comfort as I traveled alone through a foreign country across thousands of miles. It was the first time I would see the Atlantic Ocean and the first time I would travel more than a time zone away from my home. Indeed, my travel horizons expanded as a result of this experience as the last vestiges of apprehension about being alone on the road left me. As is so often the case in our interactions with great experiences, the priorities of my life also quite dramatically changed.
I can't remember exactly when I resolved to make this journey, but a great deal of planning occurred in the spring of 1990 for an anticipated departure in late June. In my research, I learned that I could travel cheaply through Canada if I purchased a CanrailPass on Via Rail. They were only available to non-Canadians and, as a 24-year-old university student, I was eligible for a greater discount. There were several different packages available for purchase with varying benefits, but I settled on a bare-bones 45-day, unlimited stops, no sleeper version of the pass. I used a travel agent to purchase it which was under $450 US at the time. That was a tremendous bargain. It would allow me to travel anywhere Via Rail went, with a few minor exceptions (Churchill, Manitoba, for example -- a place famous for polar bear sightings -- would require a surcharge). The rail pass would get me to nearly every major city in Canada and take me through eight of the ten provinces, all the way out to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian rail system, however, does not connect the two island provinces of Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. Those provinces would instead have to be reached by air or ferry. That meant I would need to come up with supplemental transportation if I wanted to visit all ten provinces in Canada that summer. I ended up expanding my budget to purchase airline tickets on Air Canada to connect these last two provinces to my travel route.
The travel expenses, though modest by today's standards, represented a king's ransom for me as a struggling college student. I always took the summer semester off from school to indulge my appetite for travel, so my continuing education was no barrier. I did, however, have a good-paying job working as a freelance word processor in a downtown Seattle law firm. It's how I paid my way through college in the final years of my education. But it wasn't enough to both cover my rent and ordinary expenses and help me save for the trip. I ended up taking a second job for a few months to gin up enough in savings that I could comfortably leave my life behind in Seattle for 45 days and bankroll my journey across Canada. It felt like the longest two months of my life. I was working 14-hour days and taking as many extra hours as my employers would give me. I actually started a countdown once I decided on June 21, 1990 as my departure date. It was all I could think about. The second job I would just quit altogether before departure, but my first job I needed to hold onto. I was extremely fortunate in that my employer was willing to give me a six-week leave of absence to make this trip.
Vancouver, British Columbia -- June 21, 1990
In the summer of 1990, I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment in north Seattle with a high school friend. I enlisted him to drive me up to Vancouver where I would catch the train and start my transcontinental trek. The train was scheduled to leave the station in the late afternoon, so we had plenty of time the morning of June 21st to make the trip across the border. All that day, I was shamelessly giddy with anticipation. Everything was still in front of me — an entire country of enormous proportions — waiting to be explored and experienced. The night before, I had packed all that I would need for the next 45 days in a blue Jansport duffel with loads of pockets and compartments for storage, and a small black Pierre Cardin shoulder bag. Since I would be sleeping on the train most of the time, or in youth hostels, I did not bring a tent.
My roommate dropped me off at the elegant Via railway station on Main Street in Vancouver that afternoon.
When I boarded the train, I was surprised at how empty it was. I nearly had the run of the coach class car I was seated in. I selected a vacant foursome arrangement of seats on the right side of the car, set up camp so to speak, and settled in for the ride. I could see that sleeping would be a challenge, since the seats did not recline. Mercifully the arm rest between the seats did raise and create more horizontal space for me. It was only a blessing to me insofar as I did not have to share a row with another passenger. This was an inconvenience I was willing to endure for the sake of saving money and making the journey possible. That first night was the most difficult for me. I struggled to find a comfortable position to sleep in and managed only to sleep in one-hour intervals. Fortunately, I was still young enough to willingly adapt to awkward scenarios. As the nights went by on the train, I found it easier and easier to fall asleep in my coach seat and feel somewhat rested.
As the train pulled out of the station that afternoon eastbound for Jasper, Alberta, I felt a keen sense of irrevocable commitment that was both thrilling and terrifying. There would be no easy way to turn back; I was in it for the long haul. Nothing short of disaster could halt the forward movement of this great journey. And though I felt some trepidation at the thought of traveling so far, for so long, completely alone, miles from the comfort of my home, I was filled with the burning anticipation of the places I would see and people I would meet and the new experiences that awaited me down the line.
The British Columbia Interior
The train bumped and clanked all through that first night, stopping frequently at tiny outposts east of Vancouver. I kept a journal during those six weeks, starting with the immediate impressions of being on the train that first day. Soon after we left Port Coquitlam, an hour into the journey, the lights in the coach car dimmed. I decided to go to the bar car where the lighting was better so that I could continue writing. It's where I did most of my writing after nightfall. When I returned to my seat in coach, it was very dark both inside the car and outside where British Columbia was silently slipping by. Through the window, I could make out a body of water lined in headlights on its far shore. The play of light across the water’s surface formed a lovely interlude to the long stretches of empty blackness on that bumpy ride through the night.
The next morning at around 4:30, as the first light of day was breaking over the distant Canadian Rockies, I awoke to spectacular scenery for Canada: rolling, dry hills of grass, sandstone slot canyons, and a lot of sagebrush. It's about as close to a desert as you’ll find in Canada. We were somewhere near Kamloops, BC. The train had a dome car with an elevated seating section so that you could see not only above you, but what was directly ahead of you down the tracks. I spent a fair amount of time there watching the country go by, reading, journaling and chatting with other passengers. Before long, we were following the Thompson River through a wide valley northward out of Kamloops. A few hours later, the train stopped in Blue River, British Columbia where the Canadian Rockies were beginning to dominate the eastern horizon. I met an elderly woman on the train that day who was traveling back home to North Battleford, Saskatchewan. She had been out west visiting her children who had long since moved away from the prairies. She engaged me in conversation about a variety of things, including politics (she didn't care for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney), the Goods and Services Tax (another thing she derided), and even the wildflowers of Saskatchewan. It was nice to make a human connection after feeling so alone in the first few hours of this trip.
Before long, we were passing Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. I took this picture from the dome car:
Jasper, Alberta - June 22, 1990
After leaving Valemount, BC, the train began ascending higher into the Rockies. We were passing through tunnels and crossing bridges, grazing the shorelines of lakes and skirting marshes on our way up to Yellowhead Pass. The valleys were deep and dramatic. The land was wild and unexploited. It was difficult to tell when we actually passed into Alberta. I kept looking for signs along the way -- Alberta provincial highway markers, streams and rivers flowing eastward, maybe even a summit marker. At some point, I saw a black and white sign along the tracks that simply read YELLOWHEAD, which I took to represent the pass itself -- the Continental Divide. Twenty minutes later, we rolled into Jasper, Alberta:
We stopped long enough for me to jump off the train and make a quick dash outside the station to see as much of Jasper on foot as possible. It's a very pretty town nestled high in the Rockies and very popular with tourists. It wasn't long before we all had to get back on the train and continue east toward Edmonton.
Edmonton, Alberta - June 22, 1990
Waiting for me in Edmonton was a friend who offered me a place to sleep for the next two nights. It was a good thing -- I had only been on the train for 24 hours, but I felt sticky and unkempt. I craved a shower. I couldn't wait to check in at my friend's condo near downtown where I could freshen up.
Being in Edmonton was not new to me. I had been there twice before. It is a surprisingly large, cosmopolitan city situated at the northern edge of the Alberta prairieland. It is the northernmost metropolis in North America with more than a million inhabitants. It is also absolutely spectacular in the summertime. This is how it looked in 1990:
My friend and guide took me to watch a polo match just outside of the city the next day. I had never actually seen one before. One of his friends from Uruguay was playing in the match. The field was off the main highway, down a road that was nothing more than two parallel strips of earth with grass growing in between. It was set in an idyllic location surrounded by trees and rolling hills of yellowish-green. The weather was perfect; an occasional cloud scudded against a brilliant blue sky. The match itself was not the formal kind featuring players in jodhpurs -- it was just a group of friends with a common interest in the sport. No one was keeping score. The spectators observed from lawn chairs in the long cool grass drinking beer.
Included in the tour was a visit to the renowned Muttart Conservatory across from downtown on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. We wandered through the three glass pyramids, and four different botanical climates. We started in the exhibition of arid plants with the cacti and palms, then strolled through the temperate plants -- the maples, oaks, magnolias, junipers, hollies, ivies, cedars and laurels. The next pyramid featured show plants. They were rotated each year, and were presently featuring fuchsias and begonias. The last pyramid showcased a collection of tropical plants: palms, ficus benjaminas, mauna loas, yew and bougainvillea.
Winnipeg, Manitoba - June 25, 1990
Just after midnight on June 25th, I got back on the eastbound train in Edmonton. My next official stop would be Winnipeg. The train seemed to be picking up speed as we crossed the prairies. We were now cannonballing into the darkness and into Saskatchewan. I soon drifted off to sleep and awoke to the Saskatchewan prairie flashing past outside my window. I got off the train once in Melville, SK just to poke around town quickly and get a few photos. I slept most of the way across the province. Before long, we were rolling into Portage La Prairie, Manitoba - last stop before Winnipeg. The weather was shifting, turning darker, more moody. Severe thunderstorms and intense lightning was predicted by a radio announcer. By the time we got to Winnipeg, all of that had passed.
The layover in Winnipeg would be just four hours, but it was long enough for me to get out of the station and onto the city streets. I managed to cover a lot of ground in that short period of time. I made my way to the Manitoba Legislative Building on Broadway. Within the main entrance, on the way to the rotunda, is the Grand Staircase. Flanking the steps are impressive life size, bronze replicas of North American bison.
After a tour of the legislative building, I headed toward downtown to see the commercial center and beating heart of the city.
The time went quickly. Before long, I was back on the train, now headed for Toronto. I had at this point completed about a third of the journey across the continent. The next segment of this adventure, through eastern Manitoba and northern Ontario, would be less visually engaging and certainly far less populated. It would be a nearly two-day journey of excruciating monotony over the rocky Laurentian Plateau (also known as the Canadian Shield) where there are few human settlements. It is a veritable no-man’s land stretching out over roughly 2,000 kilometers with spare, stunted trees, and dotted with thousands upon thousands of lakes.
At this point, for the sake of brevity, I’ll put the story aside and pick it back up in the next post ...
. . . More to Come
I’ll be back to blogging again in January, after the holidays have concluded. Until then, I wish you all a wonderful Christmas/Hanukkah and New Year's celebration!