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Aaaallll Aboard!
William Oscar Johnson
January 27, 1988
A 2,887-mile train trip across Canada yielded rare insights into that vast country
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January 27, 1988

Aaaallll Aboard!

A 2,887-mile train trip across Canada yielded rare insights into that vast country

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As we rolled into Saskatchewan, I learned from Coo's slightly less elegiac prose that Regina, the capital of the province, used to be known as Pile o' Bones because it was once the site of an Indian buffalo camp and these hunters believed that leaving the bones behind would cause buffalo to return. I also learned that the town of Moose Jaw might have gotten its name when a British toff, the Earl of Mulgrave, may or may not have fixed a broken cart wheel with a moose's jawbone during a 19th-century hunting trip. Also that Medicine Hat may or may not have acquired its name after a band of Blackfeet sent a band of Cree fleeing in retreat just as the wind blew off the hat of the Cree's chief medicine man. This was a very bad omen, and, ever since, the area was known as Where-the-Medicine-Man-Lost-His-Hat (mercifully shortened to Medicine Hat). Also, a typical Coo item: In 1907 Rudyard Kipling visited Medicine Hat and described it as "the city with all Hell for a basement" because of the enormous deposits of natural gas that lie beneath the town.

As the train left Medicine Hat, I glimpsed white triangles on the horizon far to the northwest, much like the sails of America's Cup yachts at sea. These were the Canadian Rockies at least 100 miles away.

The Canadian arrived at Calgary at 1:35 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. We had traveled 2,246 miles in two days and about three hours since leaving the Gare Centrale in Montreal. The prairies had risen into rolling country where cattle and sheep grazed, and oil rigs were at work making the money that will help underwrite the '88 Winter Olympics.

Two hours out of Calgary the train reached Banff, and the mountains were upon us, their snowy peaks turning blue as twilight moved in. Banff was the place where the great Van Home made his famous pronouncement: "Since we can't export the scenery, we shall have to import the tourists." And in 1885 he ordered two magnificent hotels to be built—the Banff Springs and the Chateau Lake Louise, about 35 miles away. They became hangouts for the rich, the royal and the celebrated. At one time or another in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the Banff Springs Hotel was visited by the Queen of Siam, Teddy Roosevelt, Cole Porter, Agatha Christie, Jack Benny, Helen Keller, the Maharaja of Boroda and the Prince of Wales, who later returned as King Edward VIII. After the Depression and World War II, both the world's upper crust and the hotel itself fell on hard times. Today the clientele is a much less aristocratic and less interesting blend of tourists, skiers and conventioneers.

The train left Banff at 4:45 p.m. sharp. As evening approached, the ragged mountains were a melodramatic sight and the dome-car seats were filled to capacity. People were hushed as if in church, and whatever comments they made were made softly.

A young woman murmured to her companion, "No one will ever know we were here 100 years from now."

"On this train?" he asked.

"No, on this earth," she said.

A father spoke in a teacherly whisper to his small son: "Ten million years from now, Kevin, this will all be flat."

The boy stared at his father in amazement, then said loudly, "I don't believe that for a minute, Dad."

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