Trying to reprise a cross-country railroad journey I took as a 13-year-old kid — 65 years later — requires, I discovered, a lot more forbearance, patience and tolerance than I would’ve expected.
The first trip was in 1953 with my parents and grandmother aboard the Santa Fe Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles.
The second was this fall with my friend Lucinda Lamont — aboard The Canadian, a transcontinental passenger train operated by VIA Rail Canada — 2,800 miles from Toronto to Vancouver.
Our trip took all of four days and nights. Cindy and I shared a compartment the size of a small bathroom, about 35 square feet.
I climbed up a six-step ladder to get to the top bunk at night and gingerly, slowly, carefully crept down in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. One of us could brush our teeth, wash and dress while the other sat on a bunk. And every hour, it seemed, we were stopped on a siding to let a priority freight train rumble by. When we got back on the main track and picked up speed, the clickety-clack soon gave way to a rock ’n’ roll.
None of this, however, derailed the trip. We were sustained by delicious meals in the dining car (complete with heavy silverware and white table cloths), a gracious staff, interesting passengers and a varied landscape.
Fine scenery, food, service
The first morning we awoke to the lakes, rivers and boreal forest of northern Ontario, so close the branches brushed against the sides of the cars. We passed through small lumbering and rail towns of 2,000 to 3,000 people, and I could wonder what life might be like in the middle of January or February. Next came the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, more interesting than I imagined because of the rolling valleys of the Red, Assiniboine and Seine rivers.
Wherever we rolled, the dining car was special. The entrees were delicately prepared, colorfully presented and carefully served. Rack of lamb one night, Alaskan halibut the next and thick French toast and Canadian maple syrup for breakfast. Servers balanced the plates on two arms in a lurching car — and never came close to a drop. I, meanwhile, had trouble standing on two feet.
On the evening of the last supper, diners gave the chef an ovation as she came strolling through the car.
It was in the dining car where we met the strangers who would sit at our table and stick in our minds. An Australian husband and wife from Sydney talked lovingly about their children, their government-run health care and the law requiring all Australian citizens to vote in federal elections.
A Canadian couple described their volunteer work in their church. I was particularly impressed with the husband’s 40-year successful battle with diabetes. (I’m a Type 2.) Neither of us had dessert.
Then there was the Scotsman, now living in Newfoundland, who’d just finished Bob Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House. Cindy and I were part of a global society on that train; the thought of isolating ourselves, and our country, seemed so out of touch.
Obviously, this wasn’t the train trip of my youth. I spent that one trying to sleep in a coach chair, eating pickup meals.
This time I had a bunk, a table, a personal toilet and a companion to share an intimate space. This time I neither fussed nor fidgeted. I simply looked and listened.
Maybe the lesson is that the harder it gets to do what you used to do, the easier it becomes just to follow advice from The Beatles: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom: Let it be.”
Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.