After a year of working in beautiful BC it was time to head home to rest before starting grad school. I swore to myself that the next such trip would be by land for two reasons: one, I hadn’t been to Manitoba or Saskatchewan yet, and two… I don’t like turbulence. So when a chance to take a train from British Columbia right through the Rockies, then the prairies, then home to Ontario came up, I was all in! I’ve since learned I don’t mind turbulence that much after all.
The first thing you need to know about trains in Canada is that there is only one and it is prohibitively expensive. $800 one-way is about average for the 4500 km, near week-long Vancouver-Toronto trek, though you can find seasonal deals for under $500. Compare this to a six hour return flight for $600 and you can see why our trains travel half empty. The second thing to keep in mind is that your journey will be sloooow. Bring that Dostoevsky you’re always putting off or that family tree you’ve always wanted to get started. A last protip: if you buy a direct pass, you’re only allowed to stop once anywhere along the way for longer than just an hour… but you can buy individual legs of the trip separately (this also applies to the aforementioned deals), thereby still breaking up your trip without having to pay any extra fees. Win!
My own trip was broken into two rail legs and a series of smaller bus routes through the prairies:
- Train (A-B-E): Vancouver-Kamloops-Jasper-Edmonton (1200 km, 26h, $186)
- (D): 3-day trip to Calgary to visit friends and family (300 km, 3h, drove with cousin)
- Bus (E-F): Edmonton-Saskatoon (500km, 7h, $50)
- Bus (F-G): Saskatoon-Regina (250 km, 3h, $42)
- Bus (G-H): Regina-Winnipeg (575 km, 9h, $56)
- Train (H-I): Winnipeg-Toronto (2000 km, 36h, $186)
- Bus: Toronto-Hamilton (70 km, 1h, $10)
There were, of course, stops along the way for food where I used local transport but, all told, these costs didn’t surpass $150. I was lucky to make this a “Tour de Friends” and so had showers, beds, and meals available for much of the way. Protip no. 2: bring a sleeping bag and buy cheap food at grocery stores along the way, especially for the 20h+ train rides. Food on board is not cheap and not particularly good, and sleeping sucks in economy class. You can do two nights before you start looking like Quasimodo.
I did need to ship two additional pieces of luggage via Greyhound (119 lbs, $146) and this ate up some cash as well. This last not recommended though; Greyhound was particularly unreliable. My baggage was close to a week late and I was unable to reach their customer service line for three whole days. Definitely looking for an alternative next time.
Total damage: $800, 7 days, 5 provinces.
Things I learned
You will meet some interesting people on board who will make you think about life. There is always at least one old man on the train who’s on his way to die somewhere and who wants to make friends with everyone on board. Be prepared for small talk.
One meeting that really caused me to sit back and reflect on life was a 4-hour conversation I had with a cycling Dane who was just coming back from finishing biking the Top of the World Highway. He was easily approaching forty and his life consisted of spending alternate years traveling and then working to pay for his travels. Talking with him I realized that this sort of life is empty; always on the move. I am curious how such a person’s golden years look. Curious, but not enough to find out first-hand. I’d like to build something and have many good friends whom I have known for years as I approach this time in life. I realized then, somewhere near Kamloops, that the true nomadic life is not for me.
Cities: Vancouver is one of the jewels of Canada. Jasper is gorgeous, but small and touristy, Calgary is sweet and full of friendly faces, what little I saw of Edmonton and Saskatoon was run-down, and Winnipeg has a blue-collar, cramped feel that just wasn’t me. Saskatchewan’s capital, Regina, was the big surprise of this trip. It was exceptionally clean and going through the vast, empty spaces was not nearly as boring as I anticipated. The downtown core is small but exceptionally nice and they have some really neat statues right in the middle that add a cool, artsy flair to a city where you definitely don’t expect this. A second surprise was just how mindbogglingly huge Ontario is. I mean, 17 hours to get from Hornby-something to Toronto? Crazy.
Would I do this again? Not unless I wanted some away or catch-up time. Otherwise it’s just too expensive and time-consuming. The landscapes are neat but it’s much better seeing them on a calendar than going through entire days of mountains-then-prairies-then-forests-then-lakes.
Why was it worth it? Yes, definitely. My mind settled as this trip prepared me both for my upcoming graduate work in Europe as well as starting to project further, into post-MSc plans. My budget formed, emails got caught-up on, the computer desktop became almost clear, and finally a neat mobile/desktop integration solution seemed to present itself just in time for syncing my calendar, contacts, and documents across devices. Visiting each friend in all major cities also had its perks. Visiting Tim in Winnipeg was especially neat because he flashed Paranoid Android onto my Nexus 4. I’m excited to play with something that’s not an iThing. With other friends, it was a nice closing, with my realizing I probably won’t see some of them ever again; life is tugging us in different directions. And my goal of visiting all the Canadian provinces and territories, along with all the States down south, is slowly edging into reality! This year alone I added seven to this list, including four of the more remote locations. The rest will be a piece of cake.
A final badge I earned this trip was shedding Mr. Nice Guy with customer service reps. For some it’s easy; for most native Canadians, not so much. I had to be firm with Greyhound and was surprised to be called “Sir” in a respectful way, and even more surprised to see the efficacy of this approach. Verbal strongarming actually goes much further than the mediocrity of not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. Who knew?
A final note needs to be said about finally making it home. It was really great cruising my old haunts again but the moments definitely had an air of the ephemeral. I knew it was going to be a quick stop, and I knew that, from this moment on, all my stops home will be quick ones. For the next few years at least. Still, as with all times I visit, I fell in love with the Golden Horseshoe all over again. The orchards, the fruits, the warm summer winds, the calm dozing towns along the lakes… home is home, after all.
Visiting Monica, a cousin completing her internship in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was especially gorgeous. If ever you find yourself near Niagara Falls be sure to make a day trip of visiting this region’s best-kept secret: take a walk through the lovely orchards, buy fresh peaches and apples right from the farmers’ stalls that line the roads, and certainly book yourself a wine tour. Then go catch a theatre production to cap off the evening. If you can, do all this in late August/early September. Canada truly turns magical as summer leafs into fall.
And then Supercrawl! Supercrawl started a few years ago as housing in downtown Hamilton got cheap and artists started moving in. Once a month we’d have what was called an “Art Crawl”: artists would open up the doors to their studios and show their work to locals. In September of each year, a Supercrawl was organized. Main streets were closed, stages were put up, and things generally just got fun. This year I got to see Young Rival, a band fronted by an old high school friend, and then walked into a random building with my cousins to find a room full of books. Three hours and a new friend later, we were out to catch Passion Pit’s concert as the festival closed. All in all, a most excellent way of saying bye to home yet again.
Here, before you go, check out how awesome Young Rival is (also worth a peek is their single Your Island):
… something else I learned? Don’t put blogging off; adventures quickly add up. Coming up next: my life in Greece. Hang tight!