Updated: Mar 4
Welcome back to this multi-part tale of a trans-Canada adventure. Before picking up where I left off, I want to wish everyone a very Happy New Year and all the best for 2021!
. . . Eastbound from Winnipeg -- June 25, 1990
The departing train from Winnipeg was delayed one hour. While waiting inside the station, I struck up a conversation with a lovely couple from Toronto who were returning home -- Ron and Gaye. We talked about differences between the United States and Canada, sports, Seattle, the train itself. Eventually, Gaye extended an invitation for me to stay at their place in Toronto for a few days. It was both gratifying and jarring to receive unconditional kindness from an almost complete stranger who was opening the doors of their home to me. It was also a testament to how naturally hospitable and kind Canadians are with fellow travelers.
After the train departed from Winnipeg, Ron and Gaye invited me to join them in the bar car where we played cards, drank Labatt beer, and passed the time pleasantly.
The trip ahead would take a day and a half to complete and would pass through the Canadian Shield, a vast stretch of pre-Cambrian rock barely covered by soil and vegetation. The countryside passing by outside changed little over the 2,000-kilometer journey, offering little more than a flat horizon of stunted trees, lakes and exposed, smooth, polished rock. The scenery was extremely monotonous, punctuated only occasionally by human settlements.
Sometime around midnight, we crossed into Ontario. Despite the monotony of the landscape outside, there was an undeniable pristine beauty in it. In the morning, mist rose from the bodies of water we passed and dew-covered trees filled the gaps in between. The train is somewhat of a lifeline for those people who live in this remote part of Ontario. It delivers supplies to them at tiny outposts along the way. At some point that morning, we were delayed 10 minutes while a mother bear and her cubs crossed the tracks.
When the train arrived in Hornepayne, Ontario, I hurried into town to do some light exploration and pick up a few items. We had about 30 minutes to kill before the train moved on. It was a fairly small community with a tiny mall, gas station, taverns and restaurants, and a grocery store. I bought a few snacks for the remainder of the train trip to Toronto, including a small package of powdered doughnuts. As I was walking back to the train, to my horror, I saw that it was already leaving -- or so it seemed. Had I lost track of time and stayed in town too long? I started running after it, along with a few others who were similarly caught off guard, trying to get the conductor to stop for us. My heart was pounding and I began running recovery scenarios in my brain. It turned out to be a false alarm -- the conductor was just moving a little further up the line, by a few hundred feet. Once back on the train, I had another unlucky surprise. The packaged doughnuts were covered in a white, lacy mold that was camouflaged against the powdered sugar. Fortunately, I had other food to snack on.
Toronto -- June 27, 1990
I was so happy to arrive in Toronto that morning. The huge metropolis on the north shore of Lake Ontario was a welcome sight after 36 hours of bumping through the endless Canadian Shield, trying to find the least uncomfortable positions in my coach seat to sleep in. I got so excited when I saw the CN Tower for the first time. From the train station, I went straight to the Selby Hotel on Sherbourne Street where I had a room reserved. (The Selby has since been converted to an apartment building.) I was in desperate need of a shower; I needed to wash away the last two days of sleeping on a swaying and clackety train car. Even though Ron and Gaye offered me a place to stay while in Toronto, I didn't take them up on their offer until I was on my return leg back through town.
Over the next few days, I explored Toronto as thoroughly as possible. I had come prepared with a mental list of certain must-see venues after having learned about them from Canadian television shows, like Street Legal, and documentaries like Canada: True North.
Toronto has been referred to as the New York City of Canada, possibly to the chagrin of most Canadians. It is the country's largest city with nearly 3 million residents, and like New York, it is tightly packed with high-rises turning downtown streets into concrete canyons, and everything is very expensive. What struck me about Toronto was how clean it was, especially for its size. The streets, the sidewalks, the buildings themselves, all appeared to be spotless and well-cared for. I loved the mixture of modern and classic architecture, the ubiquitous streetcars, the quaint neighborhoods with their own distinct style and ethnic stamp, and the myriad restaurants serving food from every corner of the globe. It was a thrill just to wander through the downtown streets and connected thoroughfares.
What trip to Toronto would be complete without a visit to the CN Tower? I paid the $10 admission to ascend to the top of the then tallest free-standing structure in the world, and then paid an additional $2 to go another 200 feet higher. (Today, it will cost you $32 to get to the top.) As I stood on the observation deck, looking out on the sprawling city fanning out to the horizon -- at what would be the equivalent of 114 stories in the air -- I was overcome with a sense of vertigo. There were super thick panes of glass jutting out over the edge of the observation area where small children were gleefully crawling around, seemingly unperturbed by the optical illusion of imminent free-fall. I have never been good with heights, but I was willing to risk the discomfort for this unique experience. I fell in love with Toronto in a single day.
Niagara Falls -- June 28, 1990
The next day, I acquired a rental car and decided to drive south to Niagara Falls. The drive took just an hour and a half. When I got to Niagara Falls, Ontario, it was full of not just tourists, but touristy businesses, places like Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and Circus World.
I parked the car near the falls and walked the remaining way to the edge of the escarpment where I could see, for the first time, the Niagara River roaring over the two enormous cataracts straddling the U.S.-Canada border. The Canadian side has the familiar horseshoe-shaped falls while the American side has the sewing-pin straight version. You cannot help but just stand there in awe of the sheer power and force of the water and its beauty as it rushes over the edge and plunges down into the mist-shrouded pools below. The thunderous sound it makes is yet another stimulation of the senses that must be experienced first-hand.
A great vantage point right along the edge of the falls!
Since I was so close, I decided to walk across the Rainbow Bridge to the New York side and claim it as a new state. Total number of states visited as of that day, including New York: eight.
I stayed in New York just long enough to have lunch at a Pizza Hut and then returned to the Ontario side, and eventually made my way back to Toronto.
Toronto -- June 29, 1990
I met up with Ron and Gaye at an English pub somewhere on Dundas Street where we had beers with bangers and mash. They brought a gregarious and jocular Irish friend of theirs named Jon O'Callaghan to join us. It was great re-connecting with them and sharing the highlights of my explorations around their beautiful city. Among the places I visited in Toronto were the Ontario Provincial Building, the University of Toronto campus, City Hall, Centre Island, Ontario Place, Eaton Centre, Yorkville, and strolls along what was once called the longest street in the world -- Yonge Street.
That was my last full day in Toronto for the outbound portion of my cross-Canada journey. In the next installment, I'll share what it was like to visit Ottawa on Canada Day, see the Queen of England (yes, I actually saw her) and experience Montreal for the first time. Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!