I sat glued to the window of my compartment as the Canadian headed west through the snowy train yards of Montreal. After a bit, I pondered a map that showed all of Canada. The space and the distances were enormous. I did some arithmetic and found that the distance from my position on the outskirts of Montreal to the far corner of the Yukon Territory in the northwest—in the wastes that explorers used to refer to as the Canadian Gobi—was about 3,500 miles. To the north, Canada extends almost to the North Pole, which is some 3,100 miles from Montreal. Nearly all of this terrain was winterbound, roadless, reachable only by plane in good weather. If Canada's 25 million citizens were spread evenly over their entire national landmass instead of being huddled along the U.S. border, they would average only seven people per square mile. By comparison, the Soviet Union has a density of 32 people per square mile; the U.S. has 66; and Saudi Arabia, one of the emptiest countries on earth, has 13.
Once out of Montreal, it was only a matter of a few miles before we reached the Quebec border. Then came the massive province of Ontario. Traveling steadily for the next 29 hours, we would cover 1,250 miles and never leave its boundaries. Eastern Ontario was snowy and gentle, a bucolic landscape much like Illinois. Soon we came to Ottawa, the very forgettable capital of Canada. Malcolm wrote of the city, "Ottawa, the plain, cold old canal town chosen as the nation's compromise capital by a queen named Victoria who never saw the country, remains a cold, old canal town.... [with] one old industry, a frustrated federal government isolated from the country by geography and its own sense of self-importance."
After leaving Ottawa, we reached a spot where we were about 175 miles from the U.S. border. That, amazingly enough, was about the farthest the Canadian would wander from the boundary. And, as the railroad runs, so runs the nation—in a lo-o-o-o-ng narrow border-hugging strip that contains 90% of the people and nearly 100% of the cities, the factories, the politicians, the financial clout. Thus, the operative force of the country is crammed into something like a longer, thinner, lying-down Chile, while a land-mass approximately six times larger than Western Europe is almost vacant.
My first day on the train drifted into late gray afternoon, and I wandered about the corridors. Eventually I wound up talking to a man from Allentown, Pa., who said he was a train buff. He was a normal-looking fellow, neat as a pin in tie and jacket, probably in his early 60's. His wife was also impeccable in dress and demeanor. The man told me that he loved riding on trains so much that the destination was really beside the point. "I would just as soon arrive in Vancouver at 11 in the morning and just sit on the train until it goes back east at 3 in the afternoon. I have no interest at all in what there is to see that is not associated with a train."
His wife spoke gently to him, but firmly. "Of course, but I have made reservations in Vancouver, and we will spend three days there, and I think you'll probably enjoy it, dear, don't you?"
He chuckled. "Maybe, but it will be against my will."
Later this fellow put down some railroad literature he was studying and said to his wife, "Do you realize that when you finish this trip, you will have crossed the Continental Divide in three countries—Panama, the U.S. and Canada—and that each time you will have traveled in a different type of passenger seat? What will your bridge club think of that?" She was reading and didn't look up. "I think that will put them all right to sleep, dear."
I asked an attendant if he ran into many railroad buffs. "Oh, hell, yes," he said. "There ain't that many good passenger trains anymore, and you get them on the Canadian all the time. Sometimes they have conventions on the train. They tape-record train whistles and wheel noise. They're real nutty. They don't hurt anything, though. They're a real harmless type."
The service attendant paused, then said, "There's a funny thing about those buffs, though. Much as they love trains, I never met one who actually worked for a railroad. Except, of course, Bill Coo."
Of course. Coo is the consummate railroad buff. A beefy, friendly man, Coo, 55, has been working on the railroad in Canada for 34 years—in research, marketing, public relations, publishing. And he is a buff, but not one of those harmless nutty ones. Coo has created one of railroading's indispensable forms of travel literature, a two-volume opus called Scenic Rail Guide to Central & Atlantic Canada and Scenic Rail Guide to Western Canada. The work is a unique combination of travelogue, pathfinder and encyclopedia of Canadian railroads.