If you want to ferret out the character of a country—examine its social complexes, its cultural eccentricities, its sense of self, things like that—there are certainly more scientific methods of research than to cross that country on a train. The images and ideas you derive from looking out the window of a moving train during days and nights of travel are basically impressionistic, if not surreal. You are struck by an endless barrage of fleeting, romantic notions. Possibly, some soft poetic insights will occur to you, and perhaps a few light philosophical observations will drift into and out of your mind. Such material, as a rule, is dubious as social research and useless for drawing scientific conclusions.
Yet traveling through Canada may be different. Everything about the country is, in one way or another, a result of its geography. Its culture, politics and economy are ruled by the sheer size and wildly diverse topography of the land. Thus the act of riding a train through that all-pervading terrain may reveal much more than just the wonder of the scenery.
At any rate, I did exactly that—rode a train across Canada in its mind-boggling entirety a couple of times last winter. During my trips I found myself adrift in odd dimensions of time, space and thought about this perplexing nation. Let me tell you about it.
For three quarters of a century, give or take a few years, the railroad was the thread that stitched together that massive land. A single track was laid in the late 19th century across some of the wildest, meanest real estate in the world. That track exacted a devastating price in money and men's lives. It spanned a distance of more than 2,800 miles, which is about one ninth of the circumference of the earth. It was by far the longest railroad anywhere, 1,000 miles longer than the first span that U.S. builders had pushed to the Pacific in 1869.
The early miles through Canada's cultivated east were relatively easy, but then, above the Great Lakes, the builders came to the massive granite Canadian Shield. This is the oldest, hardest, most implacable rock in North America. When the French explorer Jacques Cartier first glimpsed this stony wasteland in 1534, he wrote in his diary, "I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain." The railroad men had to blast through the Canadian Shield for 700 miles. Then they came to the oceanic expanse of the Canadian prairie, 650 or so miles of flat, windy, treeless terrain. Every stick of timber for railroad construction—crossties, bridge supports, telegraph poles—had to be hauled from forests many miles away. And when the great prairie at last heaped up into foothills near Calgary, beyond stood the worst obstacle yet—a 400-mile labyrinth of unmapped mountains beginning with the Rockies and ending at Vancouver on the Pacific Coast.
The idea to build a transcontinental track was used in 1871 as bait to persuade the citizenry of British Columbia to join the rest of Canada in a coast-to-coast confederation. Many saw such a railroad as madness. Alexander Mackenzie, who a few years later would become Canada's second prime minister, denounced it as "an act of insane recklessness." But the final spike was driven on Nov. 7, 1885, and today you can ride that act of insane recklessness every day of the week in either direction, covering the full distance in less than 80 hours.
The Soviet Union is bigger, but Canada is emptier, lonelier, lovelier, wilder, colder, leaner, cleaner, safer, duller, freer, saner, soberer, sweeter, neater. In the mid-19th century, when Canada was still ruled by Great Britain, a writer from London called the country "at best, the Siberia of Great Britain." Today, people might be tempted to call it "at best, the Siberia of the United States," except that the U.S. has Alaska to play that part. Even with Alaska, the U.S. is geographically smaller, 3,623.420 square miles to Canada's 3,851,790—but it is many times richer, and has nearly 10 times more people and an infinite number of times the world clout. The two countries claim the longest undefended border in the world, but they are careful neighbors who maintain a distant, and sometimes uneasy, friendship.
In his perceptive 1984 book, The Canadians, Andrew H. Malcolm, a former Toronto bureau chief for The New York Times, wrote of the strange and complex relationship between Canada and the U.S.: "Throughout its history Canada...has been many things to Americans, including a puzzlement. It has been friendly neighbor, ally, vacation playground, enemy, investment paradise, provider of raw materials, electricity and numerous inventions, refugee haven, guerrilla base camp, rumrunner, military buffer, hostage rescuer, prime trading partner, practice bombing range, and recalcitrant cousin. It has also been taken for granted. But one thing Canada has never been to Americans is understood."
Now Canada is inviting the world in for its second Olympics in 12 years. Will this make Americans care more about Canada? Understand Canada? Will this illuminate the Canadian psyche, reveal the Canadian soul? I doubt it.
Allan Fotheringham, a political columnist for Maclean's magazine, put the situation very well in a funny book called Capitol Offences: Dr. Foth Meets Uncle Sam: "One cannot expect Americans to know much about anything or anyone from the country lurking on their northern border. Americans, from birth, are conditioned to think of Canada as an outpost of the Arctic...which accounts for the number of sophisticated American sportswriters who, when the Toronto Blue Jays were in the 1985 American League playoffs, phoned Canadian radio stations asking what time the sun went down, whether they would be able to exchange their money and whether you could see Quebec from Toronto."