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dispatches from the west volume three: rolling through the prairies

Rolling Through the Prairies

“I punked off Saskatchewan.”

Waking up to the sounds of “breakfast is now being served in the dining car!” – Oh right, first class. I forgot. I peeked out from under my sleepy, cozy haze to have my first gaze of the Prairies. From my window, it all seemed to go by too fast.

I punked off Saskatchewan and I feel kind of bad, but my schedule (and the train’s schedule) didn’t allow for a visit, so the most I’ll get to see (between Winnipeg and my next destination, Edmonton) is just the passing scenery outside of my window. Wack. “At least I know how to spell Saskatchewan,” I tried to console myself, but I still felt bad. I struggled to remember pieces of a documentary on Regina hip hop and graffiti I had watched years ago. I kept my eyes open for passing freight trains and scanned their sides for familiar scrawls.

Many people in the West or in the East (which are definitely subjective terms in Canada) generally like to poke at each other either jokingly or viciously on this or that subject, but the Prairies always seem to get neglected and discounted from those discussions – as if they don’t count. I had an obnoxious argument with a Vancouverite recently, wherein he made some sort of claim about Western Canada (meaning BC) being in opposition to Eastern Canada (in his eyes, Ontario and Quebec), and when I counter-argued using the example of that little wheat-producing province one over from Alberta, his blank stare reflected the blankness of his feelings about it. Where is the dividing line? The mountains? What binds BC and Alberta, aside from blinding wealth and a job boom? In discussions of East versus West, why is Central Canada dismissed? However you may draw your borders, the middle is hardly worth ignoring. And yet here here I am, punking off…

I contemplated wheat fields and freight trains over a chef’s omelet and coffee in the super fancy dining car, and actually found myself sitting across the table from a couple from Saskatoon. They had boarded just in time to join me for a morning meal, and I confessed to them how I felt a little betrayed by the hills and streams in the province. “What about being able to see your dog run away for two days?” I asked them. “It’s not really that flat.” About an hour into our leisurely breakfast chat, the train rolled through a town called Biggar, a small farming community of several hundred. The VIA staff cracked jokes about a sign that read: “NEW YORK IS BIG, BUT THIS IS BIGGAR.” Dang — farmers with attitude! I immediately decided that I liked the Prairies a whole lot more.

Now, I have to say a few words about this first class business. For starters, I’m nestled just along the lower rungs of the first class ladder — Sharon in Winnipeg had put me through for an Upper Berth (a claustrophobic little pod with pillows and dim lighting), but availability and tiredness had encouraged the VIA staff on the train to upgrade me on the spot to a Lower Berth (a roomy throne with the best view a window-starer-out-er like me could hope for). Even the Upper Claustro-Pod would have run me a few hundred dollars as simply an upgrade from my regular Coach ticket. Moving higher up along the ladder, you’d find people dishing out thousands for tiny single rooms, bedrooms, and even relatively spacious suites.

As I’ve said before, I have taken the train to the Maritimes many, many times. My trips were always East-bound, and always off-season. Who takes the train West? Who takes the train in the summertime? Who takes the train West in the summertime in First Class? The short answer is, three types of people: 1 – rich, elderly couples, 2 – rich, vacationing single British men, and 3 – rich, kinda weirdo Americans. This list is in order.

Rich Elderly Couples:

There were a lot of older folks on this train. A LOT of them. Swarming. They were everywhere — jammed into every available seat in the observation cars, smiling pleasantly over their tea or coffee or chilled juice or whatever over meals, teetering and tottering in the aisles on their way back to their respective seats and beds. Generally very sweet and nice and in perma-vacation mode. They dressed in pearls and snappy sweater vests, and wore silk pajamas and night caps to bed. Most of them were asleep by 9 pm. Something about the rocking motion of the train…

Rich Vacationing Single British Men:

Okay, I really only met three, but I’m positive there were more stowed away that I didn’t get a chance to talk to. The conversation was the same with all of them:

“So what are you doing in Canada?”
“Oh, I’m on holiday, and I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s my first time, and I wanted to see as much of it as possible.”
“Where have you been so far?”
“Well, I flew into Toronto and stayed for a day, and now I’m on my way to Vancouver, where I’ll be for another day or two. Then I fly back to England.”
“That’s it? Straight across? On the train? No stopping anywhere in between?”
“Yeah. No.”
“Why? Why would you do something like that? You know it’s cheaper to fly, don’t you?”

At which point they’d give me a LOOK and the conversation would die. Seriously though, four days on the train? Just to have a “look” at the country? Being on a jam-packed train with a lot of idle wealth was starting to get to me, I think, and my tact had long disappeared. I suppose my own ideas of “seeing” a country go beyond merely stealing a few glances out the window while you stuff yourself with VIA Rail’s gourmet non-vegan non-organic dinner menu, but hey — to each their own.

Rich and Kinda Weirdo Americans:

Again, really only three of this variety, and “weirdo” is such a subjective term to begin with. The one I’d be least inclined to tack that label to was a lady I met from Detroit (or Ohio?) who had just stepped into her 50s and was set on crossing items off her well-appointed Before I Die to-do list. By the end of her trip, she said, she’ll have accomplished 13 out of 20. “Not bad for someone my age, hey?” She was boisterous and on her way to the Grand Canyon, Vegas, and multiple helicopter rides. I liked her.

The other two examples were both from Vermont, I think — a somber father and son, and a nerdy writer. The father/son combo made me uneasy in that they were extremely quiet, prone to staring, and bore matching army-style buzz cuts. The son was pudgy and the dad was thin, rocked an awful moustache, and had an uncomfortably high-strung air. They shared the berth next to mine and avoided eye contact during lunch.

As for the nerdy writer, we first connected (no pun) over our powerbook plug situation, but then quickly disconnected over Chapelle season one. He was going to lend his powerbook and some DVDs to one of the aforementioned Rich and Vacationing Single British Men in our section, and roped me into trying to explain the concept of Chapelle to the Brit.

“There’s this great scene about this guy named Little John,” he giggled, “and he can only speak in mono-syllables. How-how-how would you describe him?”

He turns to me and I pause. How would I describe him? “Uhhh…”

“He’s like this smoked-out, rasta guy with sunglasses. So high on drugs. Man, it’s hilarious!” He puts on an awful Jafakin’ accent. “Oh yeah! Ohh-kaay!

Those, I point out to him, are references to Lil’ Jon songs. “Songs? You mean he’s a real person?” I nodded. “Ohhhh.” His smile faded into confusion, as if the sketch had somehow become less funny. So, he moved on to talking about his other favourite sketch: the one about the blind white supremacist. I sobbed on the inside. It was going to be a looooong ride.

The best thing about being on a train is the train itself. It moves slowly, sometimes gracefully but mostly laboriously, along rails that took hell to lay down but that have been absolutely vital in the struggle to thread this country’s vast pieces together.

As I write this last bit, we’re beginning to climb into Alberta, Big Sky Country. The flats (I truly and honestly thought they’d be flatter, guy) have given way to rolling hills, thick families of trees, and glistening rivers. A landscape like the curves of a woman, as my friend Samira would say. Gentle and powerful. I just caught sight of some Grade A Alberta beef cows grazing near the steep drop of a cliff, right up close to the edge. Not afraid of heights in these parts, are they?

That’s pretty G.

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