From a transcontinental train window Eva-Lis read the story of a strong young nation in the forests, wheatfields and mountains of this wide land
THE train moved out of the dusky shelter of the shed into the light-flecked night. Home lights of Toronto gleamed out of well-known windows, throwing defiant, earth-bound reflections at the stars.
At last I was going to the west coast. The East had been my beat up until now, but this trip across 2,703.6 CPR miles to the shores of the Pacific would complete a Canadian odyssey for me. It would fulfill an ambition to know my own land better.
It’s like getting on board ship, I’ve often thought, in Canada, to lx>ard a train. A mighty undertaking. Here are not the easy, offhand distances from city to city, lunch here and dinner in another country, as in Europe. Here the miles multiply behind you phenomenally.
The bigness of our land, fact as it is, neverendingly astonishes me. The incredibility of the vast space came to me most sharply, probably, when I tried to explain it to friends in the old, small lands beyond the Atlantic. I sought in vain for words to draw illustrative parallels. The size and shape of Canada is comprehensible, I think, only to a train-weary Canadian, looking out at the land ticking by beyond the window with his heart warm.
Small Towns In the Darkness
I LEAVE the East to the night that unfolds in deepening purple waves from Cape Race, Atlantic frontier in Newfoundland, across the sand dunes of P. E. I., dusking the white-housed ancient villages of the St. Lawrence, sparking to light the red cross on Mount Royal on its riverbound island, bringing peace to the busy rich
valleys of eastern Ontario, following, engulfing the Toronto train westbound.
Lights of small towns, of desolate trackside settlements mark the passage of the night, shout feebly against it. I pull the curtain and go to sleep.
The night is speedier than the train. It has swept far beyond us, westward, rushing around the globe, when I awaken. It is morning and 300 miles northwest from home.
The windows open upon the bare, purple rocks at Sudbury. The copper sun, rising, is muted by a haze.
In wooden houses, perched on rocks barren but for weakling scrub and blueberry patches, German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian — Canadians, all — awaken, too, to take their part in the life of the booming, rough-hewn mining town.
Out of a trackside frame house, still moving slowly with sleep barely shaken off, comes a man swinging his lunch pail, a peaked cap pushed off his head. He is swarthy and stocky, and as I watch him for that fleeting second I think of the promise latent in that small house. His son may help shape the future of Canada in Ottawa as sons of other immigrants have.
Now the waves of rocks drop back, the forest begins. Mile on wilderness mile the track is shaped and guarded by unpeopled space. I think of the men who pushed on the End of Steel, hour by sweat-streaked aching hour, three or four miles a day, through solid whispering wilderness, spike by spike, rail length by rail length, trestle by trestle, so that today I can span Canada at ease. The wonder of their achievement grows into a song of singing wheels.
Burned land, poplar, spindly fir. White flowers glowing in the black marsh pools. Buttercups spilling yellow by the track side. Lakes, islanded, cloud-flecked, taking the solitary shape of your
heart for a brief, right fit. The wheels sing of loneliness, solitude, space.
At Chapleau—a station is always a station, red brick, dull, like a mimeographed signature of the railway, without character, without any attempt to capture the interest of the passer-by or the personality of the place—the passengers get out to stretch their legs for the first of the transcontinental parades. The train variant of a shipboard constitutional. Curiously they slant first looks at one another. Who is going all the way? For here the difference from the ship appears; there are islands of civilization in this sea of unsettled land where to drop your travelling companions.
Gulls In An Inland Sky
RAY, the porter, now becomes significant. He knows about everybody. He is the one person who will be with you all the way to the coast, for certainty. He is part of North American history based on past tragedies.
He’s cleaned your moving home while you paraded and you lean to the window again to contemplate the land falling back, building up, behind you. This, jungle of north Ontario, is that wedge of wild land that halved this country for many years before the railroad came. Impassable then except by hazardous canoe waterways.
Now the waste land has redeemed itself. No longer is it the stumbling block to unity. Now it’s the unplumbed pot of wealth. Lumber above ground. Mineral riches below. Even latent farm lands. Work for a growing nation. Lebensraum for the desolate.
We pass lumbering villages, log huts red-roofed and cosy in the valleys. Flumes twisting to a lake, logs floating in the narrow high channel. Here is a school car parked on a siding for the children of the rail workers and trappers. Education of a Canadian. Young characters tramping the quiet miles to their alphabets.
The train circles a wide bend and you see the engine, spuming smoke, ahead eating up the trestled miles.
Suddenly out of the green forest rises an incredibly blue, vast slab of water. I didn’t need the trackside sign to tell me that this was Lake Superior.
Here the headlands rise craggy and lush with fir. Gulls wheel out to meet the train and follow it as though it was, really, a ship. They trace white marine patterns in the inland sky. The evening view is like sombre music, Sibelius to the sternest note. Deep, purple-blue, immense. Hours chant by. The inland sea silvers. The headlands turn black blue;
The fishing villages stand out stark wind-washed grey. Hemlo, Heron Bay, Marathon, Jackfish. And then Finmark (Finnish steambaths smoking by the shore), Buda (gipsy music in the town hall on Saturday nights), Upsala (co-operatives and Swedish songs on accordions), Bonheur (pea soup and tourtiere on Sundays).
Again night comes on. The porter’s full of gossip and conversation. A trout stream flashing by enthralls him. “That’s for me,” he says. “Funny thing people don’t stop at places like this. Always rush to the crowded centres. Like that Lake Louise.” He stares into the speeding dusk. “That Lake Louse was discovered by Randolph Scott. I seen it in a movie.”
The Twin City Blues
DINING car windows pattern the night outside with bright squares. Small lights wink back from lonely settlements. By a settler’s home gate I glimpsed a group of wide-eyed children staring at the sharp glimpse of luxury and the outside world.
The few transcontinental travelers are beginning to pick one another out of the crowd. Their air is leisurely, slightly superior.
At midnight we get out at Port Arthur, walk the hollow, echoing platform and watch the transient passengers get off. The woman who had been talking about the lake city’s grain elevators (“the only functional, appropriate, new architecture to emerge from this continent”), the Port Arthurian who’d been damning the civic methods of Fort William, the tired girl with the baby—they get off and vanish into a night haunted by staring eyes of taxis.
The white-jacketed porters, standing sentinel by the foot stools at the sleeper steps, hurry you anxiously. “Board! Board!” We are off to Fort William across the bay to drink a glass of milk at the station restaurant with a classics professor from Edmonton who talks of hockey and quotes Greek verse.
You find you’ve gained an hour. It’s no longer 12 p.m. Eastern Time, it’s 11 p.m. Central Time. But that doesn’t hold back sleep, which still functions on a habit good only a few minutes ago and a few miles back. The fact remains to impress even in sleep, though. Canada apparently rules the sun, turns back time.
As I drowse off the wheels sing. “Big the land, big the sky, miles and miles, far from home, big the land, big the sky ...”
The second morning of the western journey I woke to rain on the window. The dank impenetrable bush was hazed by it. Soon after breakfast the land emptied, flattened out.
Then out of the empty plate of earth the shape of a grain elevator, like a small headed giant, climbs up to dominate the plain. The symbol of wheat, king of a thousand miles to come.
Behind the elevator a city rears like a mirage against the sky. The rain has stopped. The air transparent. Winnipeg, the lusty, first western city on the frontier of the prairie, aprons out its ugly outskirts, its vast rail yards to encompass and welcome the dusty, steaming train.
In the mountains ... “I didn’t have enough eyes.”
There are many accents shouting greetings, crying farewell, in the station rotunda. A big blond Pole and his wife meet a son back from an eastern college. Two French women are on hand to welcome a blackcassocked priest. The drawl of western voices mingles with the more clipped Ontario accent, the halting speech of the new Canadian.
I come out at the station to a small dusty square with a little, ancient, bell-funneled locomotive set to graze on a grassy plot as a reward for being the first engine to reach rails for prairie service. It’s the Countess of Dufferin, named for the lady who welcomed it off the Red River barge that brought it from the Stiltes, while rest of Winnipeg shouted, whistled, shot guns off, rang bells and drummed drums.
An energetic companion persuades me to take a cab during the halfhour stopover to see Portage and Main, “the windiest corner in Canada.” 1 did and it is.
“La Verendrye came here, to the conflux of the Assiniboine and the Red River,” I say smartly, “and Louis Riel had a rebellion, and . . .”
“I’ve read a book too,” Zena Cherry says, “even if I do live in Toronto.”
Trains crews change, conductors change, dining car staff changes, trainmen change, getting their,proper sleep at their jumping off places-the porter remains. And is cheerful despite it.
We are on our way again. Green land stretches immense and flat to the big sky. There is nothing to stop the eye. You feel you’ve never really seen the sky before. The light is so washed, so sharp.
Farms—house, barns, home bluff to the prevailing wind—punctuate the plain, mirage sharp on the horizon.. A visit here’s no small thing. No shouting over back fences in Manitoba. A child on horseback may be riding to borrow a cup of sugar. Calling on neighbors must be an event calculated in miles.
Sentinels of the plains, the grain elevators, speak of size and prosperity. Four in a line, stolid against the wind that blows unhindered a thousand miles, stand at a wayside station. The wheels sing, “. . . bate the land, /lat and oast, big the shy, winds blow high, baiv the land . . .”
A Man With a Bottle
Cupolas of Greek Orthodox churches glinting back the sun upon the prairie. Begonias in a tin can glimpsed at a window of a shack at a water stop. Black earth, good earth. A memory of a westerner gazing out of a car window at the pastoral farms, the rolling, wooded land of Ontario and saying it suffocated him. He needed the arch of sky, the space. This is it. His land. To each his own. The bigness of the land has become a spiritual quality in our way of life as much as it is a geographic fact.
And at the stations, small, shadowed by the water tower and the grain elevators, l seem to see the shadow of the little man in a black worn suit of queer cut, standing by his worn, ropetied wicker valise, just off the colonists’ car. The steerage. But the shadow is dimming. The reality Is the big young man in denim overalls, the second generation, walking with a looser, easier step.
We follow the route La Verendrye took by canoe and portage to Portage
la Prairie, he up the Assiniboine, we by rail.
On the train chants. Mile on mile. Tirelessly. “. . . Big the land, big the shy, miles and miles, far from home . . .”
A hot, tired child cries in the next carriage. Two young sailors play cribbage across this sea of prairie. Three sisters, immaculate and cool in their heavy black robes, make pretty cards out of cutouts. In the observation car a man with a bottle picks up a girl with a thirst.
Brandon, Kemnay, Alexander, Virden. Then Kirkella, Man., and Fleming, Sask. And then it’s Broadview, and 6 o’clock in the evening until we get there. It is 5 when we leave. For again the sun bows to Canada. It needs six official times to span the width of Canada.
Young Dewart Farquharson, of Toronto, walks down to the station office with me to find out from a redheaded young man in a fancy shirt how about this time business. Does it complicate, say, dates?
“We don’t pay no attention to it,” the young blade says with a grin. “Eastern Time, Central Time, Mountain Time, what do I care? That’s for trains. We go our own time. It throws us none.”
The plain and low brush changes into ravines for a moment near Qu’Appelle. I love the early French explorers’ name for this valley in the flatlands. After the silences of the prairie, the echo here would stroke their ears and they’d call back, “Qu’Appelle—who calls?”
Banff—Jalopies and Packards
Regina is only a street seen from the front of the station. A wide western street, planned for growth. Harsh names jab at your imagination. Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Medicine Hat. It’s night again.
“. . . Big the land, big the sky, far from home, big the land . . .” the wheels sing you to sleep.
And then, in a bright shining morning, Calgary. The air seems to taste different. Like a cold drink. The light was never this sharp before. The morning is intoxicating. In the sky there are pink cutouts of clouds. No, they are mountains! Calgary, of the Stampede and a photograph of a rider spread-eagled into dusty whirling air from a bucking bronco, becomes real.
Here an observation car is tagged on to the train. It’s open, a little ramshackled veteran of many journeys through the mountains. You ride in it through the brown, rolling foothills, eyes fixed on the growing cardboard peaks on the horizon. They look close but it takes an hour to get to them.
And then you haven’t enough eyes. Eyes for the heights, the precipices, the peaks. Eyes for the valleys, the churning white torrents, the canyons. Even through the familiar sooty smell of the train you catch the pungency of the sun-hot fir. And the sharpness of the air, as you ride higher and higher.
To the north the Fairholme range rears a steep shoulder. The Bow River cascades almost under the wheels of the train. Tunnels under the tons of mountain are periods of blackness. The train winds and curves like a convulsed snake.
Ray, the porter, tries to make you look at Mount Eisenhower, complaining, “Used to be called Castle Mountain. Looks like a castle, don’t it? Why didn’t they name a nameless mountain? Lots of those about.”
And it’s noon. And Banff. Tourist attraction and holiday land.
The main street of Banff, blocked off by mountains at both ends, with a fascinating effect of somehow elevating
not pygmying, the street itself has a cosmopolitan look. I read the license plates on jalopies, station wagons and Packards in a single block; they were from every province but New Brunswick and included 17 States. Just 34.7 miles distant scintillates Randolph Scott’s Lake Louise.
Under the looming shadow of Mount Rundle is Banff Springs Hotel. Super de luxe, just like Macdonald in Edmonton, the Chateaus in Ottawa and Quebec, as incongruously elaborate as the Richelieu at Murray Bay. It seems silly to me, to transport these castles-on-the-Rhine, the stand-bys of older lands and threadbare civilizations, into the Canadian scene.
The luxury hotels may dominate the scene, but in little pockets even here in the mountains people live their daily lives, battling avalanches, guarding the forest from fires, building snow sheds and repairing tracks, keeping a firm guardian eye on the game.
Song of the Cascades
On the train again I remember back to Mackenzie, Thompson, Fraser, who came to find this place, trekking the wilderness, running the rapids, onward. For them the Lyall larch turns apple-green and verdant on the higher slopes, the winds blow off the top of the world where the barrens begin, the cascades sing their lilting song down the precipices.
The train plunges into a snow shed and sunlight stripes swiftly the carriage. Then again the mountains tower, the valleys and clear lakes sweep by.
When we get to the spiral tunnels, where the train crosses the river twice making a perfect eight under the mountain passes, it’s dinner time. Even the waiters who’ve passed here again and again crowd the windows.
The train twists and curves, the rapids foam, the tunnels slap your eyes blind. We’ve crossed the Great Divide now—this, the Kicking Horse River, is the first we have seen flowing from east to west.
Yoho Valley, Kicking Horse Pass, Mount Wapta, and Field. Here again we snitch an hour from the sun. The third hour saved from passing time. The rest of the day is staring wonder.
Sicamous at nightfall, a wilderness lake with hills, not mountains, dusking on the other shore is almost a relief. The hotel-plus-restaurant hangs over the lake’s edge. A night bird calls, a long, longing, promising note. I walk up and down the train platform, between salad and dessert, and talk to the pleasant, broad-shouldered man from the Maritimes who knows about the blight-free potatoes. The lake is deepening blue. The moon rises.
In the morning I could hardly wait to prop open my eyes to see whether the mountains were still there. Whether the new-found wonder of the night before actually existed, or was merely dream-found magic.
The dawn awakening is worth it. The sun’s coming into the Fraser Valley.
You wonder why the train doesn’t roll off the sharp edge of the river canyon precipice into the cascading foam. The river and its mist-clouded islands, the candle-straight black pine, holds mysterious, unknown, fierce promise.
It is the fourth morning out of Toronto now and the last stage but one to the end of the journey. Three days, four nights, and I started, not from the far reaches of the Dominion, but 1,000 miles inland. “. . . Big the land, high the sky, on we go, far from home, big the land ...”
Vancouver. City by the sea. I came off the train shed as along a covered bridge, reminiscent of a gang plank, the comparison emphasized by the sight of sea, the wheeling bright-white gulls outside. My memory tag-lines were about roses in December, skiing in June, the cathedral trees and the honey bear in Stanley Park.
Vancouver to me was, first of all, the mountains at the ends of the street. Even a squalid little alley with its intricate composition of fire escapes, back stairs and garbage cans had at the bottom of it the looming, blue, white-plumed mountain. The contrast had jolting impact.
Even small houses have vast views here in Vancouver, an air of graciousness. More people than seems possible live on the sea, within the sound of the tide and the sight of ships breaking a foaming line to Alaska and San Francisco, to Australia and the Orient.
The attitude of the Vancouverites is evenly divided between leisurely ease and indignation at the East for thinking they are leisurely. One of them said, “You easterners always keep rushing, worrying, hurrying. You say, ‘You could do much better for yourself away from here, why do you mildew here?’ Well, we like it. We don’t mildew. We make an art of living.”
You get this attitude yourself for a bit. You sit for hours by a window overlooking the harbor and the hills and find the day an effort when, ultimately, you take a white ship at a dock in Burrard Inlet and embark on the last step of your journey west, to Victoria on Vancouver Island.
The ship shrinks beneath the towering Lion’s Gate Bridge, green copper high in the sky, ants of cars speeding along it with purposeless energy. The North Shore mountains, Hollyburn, Dam, Grouse, Dome, are cardboard sharp in the sun. Big homes from British Properties look down at the squatters’ driftwood shacks on the inlet shores. The water widens to Strait of Georgia.
The boat is crowded. Two wellturned-out women with an American twang stop you to ask, “Where is the English tea served?”
Finding a Pattern of People
The wind blows, the gulls wheel, and 3,000 miles away, on Canada’s Atlantic shore, the wind blows, the gulls wheel. A white ship is probably pulling out of Halifax for St. John’s, Newfoundland, the way this one plows the swinging waves from Vancouver to Victoria. You try to cope with the idea of this immense distance hut cannot get beyond a mental kaleidoscope of all you know, and love best, of Canada.
Fishing boats edging out of Pouch Cove in the predawn dusk. The Maugher light on an Atlantic rock at sunrise. P. E. I. lagoon at Brackley Beach and the sailboat stuck on a sandbank. Freighters heavy laden taking the tide down the St. Lawrence and you in the sun on Pointe Platon stone quay. Montreal pub filled with friends. Lake Ontario from Sca-borough bluffs streaked with wind-swept colors, sailboats bending whitely to the wind. And northern Ontario with the hot rock, the tang of pine, the clunk of a canoe paddle. A flight of wild ducks over a Great Lakes marsh. The vast spreading, never-ending everlasting whiteness of a winter prairie; green and gold of the summer flatlands and the free, long unchecked wind above it. The Assiniboine peak in the sunset and the valleys below hazed blue. And now this.
Victoria coming out of the sea like a sedate queen. The cupolaed parliament
buildings above the neat lawns and flower beds, the sprawling Empress Hotel amid rose gardens, the many small craft busy in the tidy quadrangle of the harbor.
You cross across the moss-soft, moist green lawns to the Empress and suddenly the roughness, the frontier primitiveness, the loneliness and space of most of the trip you’ve just completed becomes quite unbelievable.
Here Canada has lost her brash youth. Surely this verdant sea-bound island of valleys and mountains has a gracious, slow history. See the carriages, the abundances of flower and blossoming shrub, the elegant elderly men and the lovely old women—so many of them—the flowerpots hanging from the lampposts, the well-shaped, lush hedges. Hear the tidy, lazy English voices over their tea.
The sense of understanding I had been seeking suddenly clarified into a sense of people. For a sharp, poignant moment I felt my part in the pattern that includes the red men sheltering in the ocean-battered west coast villages of this island, with the Englishwoman kneeling in her Victoria garden, with the fruit farmer in the Okanagan Valley, the vacationer in the Rockies, the rancher in the foothills and wheat farmer on the prairies. The miner is there, and the man on Toronto’s Bay Street, the habitant and the Maritime fisherman.
The names of the provinces make fine music: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. A pattern of space and faith. Changing time, changing scene, immensity and infinite variety.
But one land.