train checkAt dawn, we pass Sudbury’s birch forest stands and graffiti-stained granite rock outcrops, picking up some new passengers at Capreol. One is carrying a fishing rod, which he leaves behind accidentally when they disembark. Pretty impressive how the conductors make arrangements to return it on an eastbound freight!

I’ve slept on and off in one position or another, curling up, straightening out, stretching this way and that, often waking with an aching limb or tingling digits, forcing me to re-arrange myself across my seat and the one next to me. And I’m cooler than is acceptable. I’ll have to dig out my thick red sweater from my suitcase.

The toilet at the back of our car becomes blocked. Then the front one. Then all the toilets in economy class! Apparently they are computerized and it’s a simple matter to re-set them.

Raven, who tells me her eye is recovering from nerve damage to the lid – “I see four of you,” she laughs — tells me about a three-month solo hike she did in the Rocky Mountains two springs ago that changed her life. She shed her fear of being alone, came to understand Nature and now works for an environmental lawyer. She also tells me of an earlier near-death experience, when she was unconscious for eight days.

“There was no white light or tunnel, just the feeling of being safe and loved. But I was where I was supposed to be. It’s hard to describe the experience. Now I understand I have to do the best I can with the life I have left.”

Athabasca River

Athabasca River

The young man behind me overhears us. He leans forward, grabbing the back of the seat next to me. “Was it like floating on water,” he asks the Native woman.

“No,” she says. “It was dark. I didn’t see anybody. No dead relatives.”

The young man, a CN conductor who decides to ride with his Via Rail discount instead of free on a slower freight train, tells us he “died” for a few minutes when he was eight years old after being bitten by a poisonous spider.

“I didn’t see a white light or any people, but I was floating and I felt safe.”

I fall asleep after noon. The day is a fine one, blue sky painted with white tufts. But I dream I’m driving through a snowstorm and I can’t see out of the windshield. I ask my daughter to get out of the car and brush off the snow, but it starts to float into the car interior and I’m getting wet.

I get off the train in Armstrong to stretch my legs and breathe fresh air. The Native environmentalist, Raven, and I chat with Natalie the conductor, a seasoned traveller who has been to 48 countries, including Togo, where she lived as an exchange student.

“We walked six kilometers every day, carrying wood or water on our heads. The people were so happy. The long walk is their social life.”

Natalie brings her daughter with her on the train.

For a brief time, a freight train conductor travels with us. A veteran of the rails, she was the first female freight engineer back in 1986. With retirement four years away, she only works weekends now.

At dusk, I eat a tin of sardines I’ve brought with me and some oat and wheat biscuits, and then I watch the sun set from the dome car. There, I chat with 28-year-old Justin Melville, a Windsor man who is about to embark on a 14-year walking tour of the world. He’ll start in Montana, take in the Grand Canyon and then head south to Mexico and South America. He wears Google glasses.

Our first time change occurs tonight. We get an extra hour of sleep.