I suspect that when the 1988 Games are over, the same conditions Dr. Foth deplores will still prevail. Having seen only a slice of Canadian life via the one-eyed vision of TV, most Americans will go on thinking of Canada as the place that sends down cold fronts and hockey players, while the U.S. comes back with acid rain, baseball and the old, insulting veil of ignorance.
However, taking a train across the Canadian geography is something else again. There is much to be learned about Canada that way, and only a train will do. Yes, you can cross the country by car on the Trans-Canada Highway, which was completed in 1962. And, yes, you can do it by plane. But driving a car doesn't allow the dreamlike state of total immersion in the scenery that riding a train does, and, of course, flying tends to reduce geography to the size and substance of upholstery fabric.
Viewing the world from a speeding train presents unique dimensions of space and time, as well as abrupt oscillations from the sublime to the ridiculous. One minute your window is full of the rocky coast of Lake Superior and you are pondering the thousands of centuries of geological turmoil that created it, and the next minute the train is passing a ramshackle farmhouse and you are confronted by a toothless old woman emerging from an outhouse. One minute you are breathlessly watching a herd of antelope flowing across the prairie, and the next you are passing the outskirts of a village and there is a man kicking a poor dog chained to a woodpile.
This mix of cosmic grandeur and backyard trash is weird and heady stuff. There is a compelling integrity to it. If you indulge in it for a substantial portion of your waking hours during the trip from Montreal to Vancouver, you can't help but feel that you have been served up one hell of a lot of insight into the body, if not the soul, of Canada.
Last winter I took the two long journeys across Canada, one going east and one west, plus some short trips along the main line. I did my traveling exclusively on the train called the Canadian because it is one of the most famous in the world and, as it happens, the only daily transcontinental passenger service in the country. The Canadian follows the original route that was laid out more than 100 years ago.
The easternmost starting point for the Canadian is Montreal, though Canada, of course, begins more than 1,000 miles to the east. Another section of the train leaves daily from Toronto. I chose to begin my trans-Canadian odyssey in Montreal—partly because it allowed me the longer ride to Vancouver (2,887 miles compared with 2,750 from Toronto) and partly because I like the French quality of the town. Montreal is, after all, the world's second-largest French-speaking city, after Paris.
And to start my travels there accentuated a fact usually forgotten by Americans: Canada is, by any definition, a foreign country. It is a great mistake (and to the natives, a great insult) to think that because Canadians sound and look so similar to Americans, the two people are interchangeable. Canadians despise this idea. In his book, Malcolm wrote, "Canadians can agree on very few things: perhaps the vital importance of hockey in the world, the belief that Canada's Rocky Mountains are prettier than the Americans' Rockies and the efficacy of leaving Canada at least once every winter for the warm sunshine of the American South or tropical islands. Canadians, however, can always agree on who they are not—namely, Americans."
After spending a winter's night in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in downtown Montreal, I was aroused at seven by a wake-up call in French and had croissants and cafe au lait. My room looked down on the Cathedral. Snow had fallen during the night, and the lines of the old church stood out cold and white.
I descended to the regions beneath the hotel and found myself in the vast, well-lighted waiting chamber of Montreal's Gare Centrale (Central Railroad Station). The Canadian awaited at a track one flight down. I had engaged a bedroom compartment (pull-down bed, reclining chair, private sink, private toilet) for the trip to Vancouver. At 9:50 a.m., a conductor bawled those enchanting words, "Aaaallll board!"
The train jerked gently, then headed down the track at a dignified pace. Slowly, steadily, it shifted into a stately acceleration with a quickening clack of the wheels. For me, this always produces a surge of anticipation that no airliner thundering down a runway ever matches.