Days in Motion

Days in Motioninto the mountains

This is an article I wrote for the Irish Daily Mail (March 23, 2013). I thought it would make a good blog post, especially as I've been thinking about Canada so much lately - because of the cross-country publicity tour I'm planning for May and of course the Canadian 80s song countdown, started today! If you'd like to see how the original article looked, just click here and scroll down. The picture to the right was taken by me, on the upper floor of the observation car on the train, over twenty years ago. (Yeep!) The photo to the lower left is just some filthy hippies. I don't know where it came from. Anyway, here's the article:

I'm Canadian, and the first thing you should know about my country is that it's big – in fact, you could get on a train in Halifax, Nova Scotia on the east coast and be travelling for five days before you'd reach Vancouver on the west. I know this because I've done it myself.

It was back in 1992.

I was fresh out of university and my friend Marni and I decided that we needed an adventure. But we had other motives as well: Nova Scotia is a part of Canada that has always struggled economically – if you want to succeed, you know that someday you'll have to leave. In Ireland the word for this is 'emigration'. In eastern Canada it's known as 'heading west'.

hippiesSo in January Marni started from Halifax and met me 1,400 kilometres down the tracks in Ottawa where I'd been spending Christmas with my grandparents. From there we boarded the train for Vancouver, over 4,000 kilometres away. We never considered flying. Such a waste, we thought, not only of money but of the journey itself. We wanted to see our country.

Berths and sleeping compartments were too expensive. So we sat for the entire duration, camped out on four seats by a window. The dining car was also out of our price range – we lived mostly on peanut butter and rice cakes. At night we'd curl up in strange origami shapes on our seats and try to fall asleep, hoping that our legs wouldn't uncurl and block the aisles. One kid told us that he was planning to spend the night on the baggage rack, just so he could stretch out.

I read. I wrote long letters. I sewed patches on my jeans. I watched the country roll past my window. When the train stopped, I'd crowd with the others into small towns that flanked the railway line and come back with more peanut butter, and postcards from places like Hornepayne, Ontario (population 1,050).

Rural Ontario was mostly trees, lakes, and farms sleeping under snow. Ithornepayne took us days to clear it. I remember the morning when the train finally moved into the prairies – the expanse of sunshine and long white fields was pure exhilaration. The rhythm of a train is lulling, and knowing that you're being carried forward while standing still is a comfort. I liked moving between the cars – the sudden blast of clear cold air, the noise of the engine and the wheels. Trains are great places to get ideas, to daydream, to make friends with strangers.

We had quite a collection of train friends after a while. There were two skate-boarding buddies who'd bought their tickets by 'borrowing' a classmate's credit card. There was Greg, a stern intellectual with long hair and a guitar. There was a guy named Vern who carried a bottle in a bag and said very little other than, 'Alright! Yeah!' Lisa was a dark-haired girl my age, and she had more money than all of us put together. The skaters told me she was selling contraband cigarettes in her room. As we headed into Saturday night, Greg brought out his guitar. We were shushed by a conductor. Later a small tape player appeared. This band was going to be the future, Greg informed us, and popped in a cassette. Gradually every head around us started bobbing. jasper-prince-rupert-1The tape turned out to be Nirvana's Nevermind – the first time I'd heard it.

Lisa was travelling to Saskatoon, and when her stop came, she didn't want to say goodbye. The train was paused for fifty minutes. Lisa decided to take advantage of this by packing the lot of us – at least eight people – into taxis and taking us to her favourite night spot. We got to the bar and realised we could only spare fifteen minutes. Lisa didn't care. She bought pitchers of beer for the table. 'Here's to 'party all night long!' she said. There were eight minutes left. We clinked glasses and drank up, hit the dance floor for one song, and then it was time to scramble for the taxis again. The conductor was waiting for us when we got back to the train, wagging his finger in our faces like an angry parent.

On the last leg of our journey, I took a seat in the observation deck, an upper floor encased in glass windows, just as we started into the Rocky Mountains. A light snowfall was descending. Soon I was looking at forests and frozen waterfalls on sheer vertical walls of rock poised above me. The peaks soared upwards. It was beautiful, unforgettable, but oddly diminishing; I felt awestruck and small. I realised just how far away from home I was.

The feeling persisted when we got to Vancouver. Marni seemed to be flourishing, but I couldn't get settled. After nine months I decided to go home.

So I hugged my friend goodbye and headed back to Nova Scotia. This time I took a plane.

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