Rare Mileage

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Decades before, I had regularly traveled the Twentieth Century to college, never paying much attention to its glories and certainly not understanding that the train would soon vanish into history. But I still recall my sense of wonder upon waking at night in a “sleeperette,” pulling up the shade, and imagining what hamlet lay at the side of the track in dark and dreamless sleep or what factory complex was spewing its smoke into a reddened sky. So it was a pleasure to open my eyes late one night, somewhere on the cusp of the Cascades, and peer out at a winterscape of pillowy snow that looked bright enough to shed its own light on the branches of tall pines and on the ravines that fell away sharply from the tracks.

If that was the best of my trip, the worst, as other passengers agreed, was the lack of solid information along the way. There was a printed guide, but it was sparsely detailed; since routes and times of arrival tended to change, using the public-address system to announce interesting sights as the train approached them would have helped. A staff member told me that when this was done on an earlier trip, some passengers found it an intrusion. Still, if you’re passing a large body of water and no one can tell you what it is and it turns out to be Puget Sound, you may wish someone had broken the silence.

There was no such problem the summer before, when I traveled with Rocky Mountaineer Railtours on a nearly nine-hundred-mile run over the Canadian Rockies from Banff to Vancouver. Upon boarding, passengers received a tabloid-sized, nearly mile-by-mile guide through the most dramatic scenery of western Canada. Because the path the nation’s first transcontinental trains carved out of this most forbidding wilderness in 1885 is also a main reason Canada’s west was settled, the guide is in effect a compact and lively narrative of the building of a nation. “We have no blood in our history…. We are the only nation in the world created non-violently by the building of a railway,” says the Canadian author Pierre Berton.

The Canadian Pacific’s president, William C. Van Home, an American, made his railway both an engineering and a marketing triumph. “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists,” he declared. To lure travelers to what was the remotest of wildernesses, Van Home designed comfortable passenger trains and set up restaurants and camps along the route. These eventually grew to become the Canadian Pacific hotels, gargantuan chateaus that always took the best locations and were from the start places everyone wanted to be.

After VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger railway, decided to turn over part of its route to private ownership in 1989, Rocky Mountaineer scored a coup by winning exclusive rights to daylight service through the mountains. You can still travel coast to coast by VIA, but if you do, you’ll have to follow the less dramatic northern route through the Rockies. You may instead start a trip in Toronto on VIA, then switch to Rocky Mountaineer at Jasper.

Rocky Mountaineer’s regular cars are refurbished 1950s stock, but you can upgrade to a luxury service called GoldLeaf, as I did when I decided to splurge. The two-level domed observation cars are almost all window, held together by thin ribs of steel.

There is one overnight stop in Kamloops, a town whose significance for the train traveler mainly lies in its location, halfway between Banff and Vancouver. Otherwise you spend two days on the train, rewarded by a spectacle that for most of the route can’t be reached by any other means: waterfalls, glaciers, rapids, forest, desert, steep canyon walls, and thrilling mountain ranges.

Some of the passengers I met, especially those from abroad, considered this the trip of a lifetime. An elderly Australian told me she had longed to visit western Canada since she was a child and her aunt brought her a doll from Lake Louise. I met an Englishwoman on the open-air observation platform who confided that her husband had recently and unexpectedly died. After staring at a distant vista of snowy peaks that were turning blue in the dusk, she quietly said, “Maybe I’ll move here.”

A week of dining and overnighting on a train specifically designed to re-create the railroad’s most luxurious days or a two-day trip over a route entirely devoted to a spectacular landscape. Which should it be? I say both.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP