The Christmas Train
It probably won't surprise you to hear that one of my favourite Christmas traditions involves a train.
Christmas is a special time for me and my family. My brothers live in Toronto and my parents have generally divided their time between Ontario and Prince Edward Island, on the east coast of Canada.
I live in Vancouver, thousands of miles away, so I don't get to see any of them more than a few times a year. But Christmas, we always get together.
For years, I've been making the trip east at Christmas time by train. Partly because I love trains and train travel, and partly because it's simply the most magical winter adventure I can think of.
The train is Via Rail's "Canadian" which runs from Vancouver to Toronto twice a week. The trip takes four days and four nights, passing through Jasper National Park, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg en route.
The train itself was built in 1955 for the Canadian Pacific Railroad as part of a last-gasp attempt to keep people riding trains instead of airplanes, and even though it more or less failed, the train survives.
It's been updated, obviously, but it still maintains that glamorous, vintage air that makes you feel like you've stepped back in time.
There are sleeping berths and rooms, of course, and a dining car serving gourmet meals (they're included in the price of a ticket), and a sleek bar/lounge car at the rear of the train where you can relax and socialize and watch the world go by.
I spend most of my time in the lounge car.
And the scenery is wonderful, too. We don't get much snow in Vancouver, so it's always magical to wake up that first morning in the middle of a Rocky Mountain winter wonderland, the whole world coated in fresh snow.
Immediately, you start to feel that it's truly Christmas.
This year, my train left on December 18th, a Tuesday, and was set to arrive in Toronto in the early afternoon of the 22nd, a Saturday.
In my experience, the train is *always* significantly late, and even though they've tweaked the schedule, this year was no exception.
We pulled out of Vancouver station at noon on a warm and overcast day, and slowly snaked through the city's industrial outskirts until we'd cleared the city of Surrey, whereupon we picked up speed as the rain began to fall.
One of the very cool things about this train are the dome cars with their glassed-in rooftop observation bubbles. You feel as though you're riding atop the train as it winds through the mountains, and the viewing angles are obviously amazing.
This particular train is always packed-full of Australians en route to the mountains to enjoy a rare white Christmas. They all mostly get off in Jasper to spend the holiday at the park lodge or down in Banff or Lake Louise, leaving the train noticeably emptier when it pulls out of the mountains again.
This year was no exception; we probably lost 150 passengers in Jasper and by and large they were all Australian. The ride from Jasper onward across the prairies isn't as glamorous, I guess, and tends to attract more of a pan-Canadian crowd.
One of the neat (and sometimes anxiety-provoking, for the introvert) things about the train is that at meals you're never allowed to sit alone; space is limited in the dining car, and you're seated with other parties in order to fill up the available space.
This results in a kind of enforced socialization, and since I'm pretty introverted but also live in fear of awkward silences, generally is the only way to get me to break down and actually talk to people onboard.
It works, though; by the time the train pulls into Toronto everyone who's made the trip has a host of new friends, and we all disembark with promises to keep in touch and stay connected online and whatever.
It's neat and I've met a lot of cool people over the years.
This year's assortment of passengers included the aforementioned Australian contingent as well as a few people around my age from across the country, and some really fascinating older folks with incredible stories.
The couple from Wisconsin, for instance, who spent their free time rescuing and raising orphaned lion cubs.
The elderly woman from Vancouver, whose brother had fought and died for the Nazis in the Battle of Stalingrad and who had become a staunch environmentalist over her years in Canada.
There were familiar faces, too; the train crew stays the same, year after year, and some of the passengers have the same Christmas tradition that I do and we catch up in the bar car as the train rocks its way across the prairies.
We were late, of course, but it didn't really matter. At times we were ten hours behind schedule, but the itinerary is padded enough that we made up a chunk of time before we pulled into our last station stop.
In the meantime, I don't think anyone cared too much. The train is festive, inside and out, with egg nog flowing and Christmas carols on the sound system in the bar car, and every day there were one or two extended station stops where you could get out and stretch your legs in the snow, make snow angels and throw snowballs or simply jog in place to stay warm.
I always kind of root for the train to be late. This year, its arrival on my mom's birthday had me hoping we'd avoid any major catastrophes, but usually I don't care if it takes a little longer than it's supposed to to get us where we're going.
It's free time on the train, after all, and if I wanted to get somewhere quick, I'd fly.
The train is like a throwback; it's enforced relaxation. There's no WiFi and cell service is sparse across the country. You're left, by and large, to read and listen to music and talk to people and watch the country drift past.
For me, it's a really welcome oasis of calm amid the chaos of modern life, especially at Christmas.
Eventually, though, you have to get where you're going. We arrived into Toronto on the evening of the 22nd, about six hours late, but enough in time that my mom wasn't asleep yet and I could wish her happy birthday.
The end of the ride is anticlimactic; the train pulls to a stop with no fanfare, and everyone files off to wait at Toronto's creaky subterranean baggage conveyor for their bags, and when the bags finally come we all drift away into our own worlds again.
But hopefully we take something away from the trip; I always do, whether it's a new Facebook friend or a new story idea or just a new way of thinking about a problem I've been struggling with.
And even if I shoulder my bag and walk to the subway with nothing more than a few days of relaxation, I know my family's waiting for me and that Christmas well and truly has arrived, and that's always more than enough.