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Home Planet

Train travel brings community experience

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

I see a thousand automobiles every day. They’re all around me. They roll down my street in the morning and late at night. They ride in formation in front, beside, or behind me on the highways and freeways. And yet, never does it occur to me to wish I was in any of those steel cages. They hold no mystery. I suspect, for the most part, they are going to work, to the grocery story, to have the dog groomed or on any of the countless necessary but mundane trips I take each week.

But when I see a train, when I hear the whistle blow in the night or early in the morning, I automatically stop to listen; to wonder if it is a freight train or passenger train. To wonder where it is headed and where it has been. I put myself onboard, on the other side of the wide windows, and my imagination settles down onto the steel rails and is pulled forward with the chain.

I’m not alone. I hear others say the same thing. There is a romance to train travel that time and progress haven’t managed to dampen. A train is going somewhere slow and steady, rolling through valleys, over mountains and on high trestles spanning wild rivers. Even animals seem to catch the spirit, drawn to the fenceline beside the tracks and then stopping to lift their heads to watch the boxcars or coaches rumble by.

The last time I was on the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury excursion train that snakes across British Columbia and Alberta, winter was closing in. We left Vancouver in the darkness of an October morning and pulled into stations in deep twilight at the end of each day’s ride. The rivers were low and slow and grasses and shrubs painted the hillsides with autumn color that flamed at the feet of tall evergreens and the pale skeletons of Pine Beetle-damaged pines.

But this trip I gazed out at the fresh green of a late Western Canada spring. Sipping coffee over breakfast in the dining car, we left the big city behind and moved out into the countryside. In mid-morning we watched eagles and Osprey fly over rivers that were swollen with snowmelt and spring rains. in the afternoon someone called out “Bear” and people popped up like Prairie Dogs, craning to see a big Black Bear grazing at the edge of the road. Bighorn Sheep perched on rocky outcroppings, tails flicking as they watched us roll by.

The next day we reached the Rocky Mountains and cameras clicked all around me. Many of the passengers were making the trip of a lifetime: a dozen or so from Australia, two women from Chile, a couple from Wales, another from Scotland. All were there to see the iconic Canadian landscape of the west, and Mother Nature happily obliged. Just as we pulled into Banff, as if cued to provide the grand finale, a grizzly sow and her cubs stepped out of the pines and stuck around just long enough to be photographed before melting back into the shadowy forest.

Listening to others in the coach talk about the bears, about the mountains and the places we’d passed on the trip, I was able to put my finger on one of the aspects of train travel that is so appealing: It is a community experience. It is a journey in the company of others who share the love. And, really, when you think about it, that’s what we’re all looking for in everything.



Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Note: The Rocky Mountaineer has added SilverLeaf service for the 2012 season. Find more information about it here.


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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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