Holiday day 11 (March 12th) First full day aboard
Here are a couple of quotes for you.
The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it. (Gilbert K. Chesterton)
Many times the wrong train took me to the right place. (Paulo Coelho)
And, an old Ukrainian saying, ‘The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.’
Today’s piece has nothing to do with missing trains, wrong stations or barking dogs, I just happened to like those quotes. Maybe that was the kind of thing rolling through my mind as I watched the scenery go past at the start of our first full day on the train. Someone once told me that the first three days of this journey were boring, because the land is flat, and there’s not much to see. I disagree. Every passing snow-covered tree, every ice-covered river or stream, each new set of tracks in the snowfall and even each of the many telegraph poles were all entirely new for me. I may have seen others just like them ten seconds earlier, but I’d never seen that one, or that one, or that one, or… And so the scenery trundles, whizzes and shunts past. How can any train journey through a landscape you’ve never experienced be boring?
We’d taken books to read, Neil had even taken his Greek homework to do (rather ambitious I thought, but might impress fellow travellers), but after reading one page, you soon realise that you’ve missed something beyond the window. Okay, so the joke quickly became, ‘Oh look, a tree.’ Or, ‘Look, Snow.’ On boisterous occasions it was ‘Look, snow and trees,’ but that’s all part of the fun.
What does one do on a train for 24 hours, let alone five days? Well, there was the wet T-shirt competition, the traditional dancing, live music and the foam party happening in car number seven, ‘Frederick’, but we declined them, mainly because they didn’t exist. Instead, we had breakfast, brunch, dinner and non-stop rolling snacks. Entertainment was provided by fellow passengers, snow and trees, and without the internet, there was no or little talk of the news or the outside world. Exercise was easy to take, swaying from sleeping car to lounge, and although you were mainly inside for the whole day, you had a taste of life beyond the metalwork when passing between cars, where snow piled up on the inside of the doors, and the temperature plunged. Then there was breakfast.
Then there was brunch.
Then there was some time to sit and read.
And then there were views to see, snow and trees.
At some point during this day, we made a few stops. I know this because we took photos. The temperature was down as low as -20°, but when standing outside, it didn’t fee that cold. Maybe that was because there wasn’t a breeze, I can imagine the wind chill would add (or subtract) a fair few degrees from what we experienced. I was trying to remember the coldest I’d experienced before alighting at Sioux Lookout, and my mind drifted back to 1985.
It was the time between Christmas and New Year, and a colleague of mine, a PE teacher and mountain leadership training instructor, suggested some time in the Cairngorms, so I could get in some experience for my mountain leadership training. I didn’t realise I was in the programme, but it sounded like fun, and four of us set off to Scotland. The first night was spent at a youth hostel in Aviemore, and we headed to the hills the next day. That night, we used a mountain refuge hut, a bothy made of concrete and little bigger than two bus shelters thrown together. At one point, there were something like 16 of us in one ‘room’, sitting in the dark (at 5 pm), our helmet lamps cutting beams through the condensation, listening to the rough jokes as told by a group/squad/scrum of army guys who’d piled in. Luckily, they decided to push on through the blizzard to the next bothy, and we never saw them again.
‘Sleep’ was had on rigid boards lining the walls, and in the morning, after climbing back into socks frozen solid, it was my turn to find water or melt snow for tea. I think, filling canteens from a stream after breaking the ice at 1,200 meters up Ben Macdui (a mountain not a person), in December, was probably the coldest I’d been before alighting at Sioux Lookout, yet there, I didn’t feel cold. Can you believe it? Not only are the people warm in Canada, so is their cold. Odd.
Back aboard, you suddenly realise how cold you were, your glasses steam up and you fumble your way through the carriages towards the coffee machine in time for the train, now refuelled, to set off so you can see more snow and trees. Then, there were the stops they made especially for certain guests…
We also spent time in our cabin, where the boys liked to watch the snow and trees go past, and where, in this early morning photo, the steward hadn’t yet been in to work his magic.
It was hard to get a photo of the cabin due to its size, particularly when the bunks were down, though I did try a trick shot in the paddlington pool mirrors.
And so, the journey continued: Snow and trees, frozen lakes and rivers, the occasional deer tracks but little wildlife. We spent time in the observation car, in the saloon, took a half-hour stroll to the caboose and the posh bit where some chap was complaining that the TV in hist first-class cabin wasn’t working. (TV? Why? There are magical snow and trees to watch), and where the staff popped up now and then to tell you interesting facts about where you were. The staff, I have to say, were delightful, always pleased to see you and happy to be working. They greeted you each time as if you were prodigal family they’d not seen forever, and where had you been? We missed you, which added another layer of pleasant to what was already an enjoyable experience.
Sometimes, you have to make your own entertainment and talking about other passengers is one way of doing so. One of the things that’s always put me off taking a cruise is the thought that I might end up crammed into an inescapable moving object with people I wouldn’t normally socialise with. Well, a train is the same thing, and yet I had no qualms about taking this trip. The train is long and can carry hundreds of people, although our travelling companions seemed to be made up of only three groups. There were 20 of us Great Rail Journeys adventurers, a mixed bag of couples and a couple of train buffs who only spoke ‘train’ when invited to. There were a few solo passengers, like the guy who sat at the back of the salon and watched but hardly joined in, and who I was convinced was a spy. Then there was a large group of American trainspotters. I forget how many were in that group, felt like 200, but I think, was around 80, though you rarely saw them en masse.
Reassurance or a detainment?
I looked up the collective noun for trainspotters, and an internet search returned a couple of options. Someone on Twitter suggests it’s a ‘reassurance’, and an Australian railways website suggested ‘gunzel’ [Noun. gunzel (plural gunzels) (Australia) A railway or tram enthusiast; particularly (formerly derogatory) one who is overly enthusiastic or foolish.] The Merriam-Webster dictionary is far more prosaic with ‘Railfan’, but I think we can do better than that.
I suggest the collective noun for trainspotters should be ‘an enthusiasm’, or better, a ‘detainment’, and I have a reason for suggesting that—two, in fact.
In railways parlance, the ‘detainer’ is a person who dispatches the train. This is according to a handy list of railway terms found on a toy train company’s website, and as they’re based in Atlanta, USA, I guess it’s an American term. Totally appropriate as the detainment of transporters on our journey were from the USA.
My second reason for putting forward ‘Detainment’ as a viable collective noun, is because it’s what some of the party would do. They’d pass your table, or, on some occasions, invite themselves to sit at it uninvited, and detain you with an opening gambit of ‘Did you see that rolling stock? Rats are my thing, and it was awesome to see the yard goose taking that kettle as a junk file to the hotbox dick. Am I right?’
‘Possibly. What language are you speaking?’
Anyway, we were travelling with a party of grown men who got off on talk of covered hoppers, hydra-cushions and rotary dumps, and weren’t afraid to share their enthusiasm with anyone willing (or unwilling) to listen. During one of our strolls to the posh end and back, we came across a detainment attending a lecture in one of the salons, complete with slideshows and tissues for the over-excited. They were listening to a talk on A1A-A1A diesel locomotive wheel arrangements of the two 3-axel truck variety and the role of APCUs in push-pull operations – or some such. Adults gasped with orgasmic delight when their lecturer presented a slide of the Alco’s trouble-prone 244 model (built between 1953 and 1969). When the subject moved on to how, in “the engine’s 251 designation: the “2” describes the 9-inch cylinder diameter and 10-inch stroke”, it became far too pornographic for a Thursday afternoon, and we slipped through to make our escape.
I suppose, when taking a rail journey holiday, one must expect this kind of behaviour, and, actually, the party was good fun as they oohed and cooed at the windows, sporting their proudly worn, group identity tags. One of their number, Harvey, became something of a celeb in our group, mainly thanks to his un-derailable enthusiasm. No end-line buffer could stop his reciprocating engine of knowledge, nor any drum-break regulate his Buchli drive.
And back to the snow and trees.
Railways enthusiasts shunted to a siding, there was other entertainment to be had. There were stops along the way for fresh air and leg-stretching, the non-stop supply of refreshments and meals, chat with our group, and the observation car to sit in with a G&T at dusk and watch the snow and trees go past.
It’s always a worry, when in a confined space, when someone pulls out a guitar. That evening, there was an impromptu concert in the saloon car provided by a man I’d not seen before or since. I don’t know if he was part of the detainers’ group, but he produced a guitar from somewhere and gave us a few choice numbers before we decided it was time to berth for the night, gave him limp applause and a withering look, and left him and his audience of two to the rest of the concert.
More tomorrow as we trundle onwards towards Winnipeg where the three-hour stop didn’t happen, and beyond towards Saskatoon where Neil invented ear gloves, the boys met Barnsie, and we saw more snow and trees.
Below are a few more photos that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Meanwhile, if you are interested in the history of Canadian railways, then check out this page on VIA Rail’s website. If you want a translation of the railways speak (above), then I used a glossary at the Legacy Station blog. And, if you want more about that Cairngorm trip and other confessions from a dodgy past, then there’s Symi, Stuff & Nonsense. “An excellent present for Christmas”, as I once overheard someone say about something else.