As in most cases where people sit cooped up for long periods with little to do, rumors travel quickly on a train.
In my experience, they generally start at the back, in, say, the glassed-in sightseeing car that serves as VIA Rail Canada's caboose. From there they quickly work their way forward, through the fancy sleeper cars and then the less-fancy sleeper cars, to the dining car, to the cafe car, and then to the comfort-class car, where, despite the name, passengers are given a pillow and a footrest and little else.
When a rumor at last arrives at the conductor, 18 cars and iterations later, it might go something like this: Our train, the Ocean, is stopped here in the middle of nowhere at 7 a.m. because a moose wandered onto an adjacent track and was struck by a fast-moving freight train. Dying, the moose staggered a bit, and then, in a kind of death lunge, threw itself onto the Ocean's track, coming to rest antlers-up.
If true, this was significant. Antlers-up is one of the few ways a moose can damage a passenger train, it turns out. Usually such encounters end with the doomed animal's being obliterated without anyone noticing; or, as one man in the glass caboose put it, "You hear a bump and somebody says, 'What was that?' and you think maybe it was a bump, but maybe it was a moose."
But antlers-up is something else. If the Ocean rolls over antlers, "they could break air lines and electrical lines under the train," said a man named Freddy, a Rail Canada engineer who happened to be on vacation with his wife.
Around this time, Bob wandered into the conversation - a barefoot American in a bathrobe seeking coffee in the caboose. This was his second trip on the Ocean from Montreal to Halifax. He deposited himself next to Freddy, and soon the car was filled with bleary-eyed passengers in various states of dress, all of them wondering why the train hadn't moved in more than an hour: the pair of retiree couples from Michigan, the smartly dressed man from Miramichi, the German guys who apparently do nothing but travel the world in search of the best train rides they can find.
Among the other rumors we'd heard was that passenger train service was experiencing something of a renaissance in North America, thanks to the triple threat of high gasoline prices, epic dissatisfaction with the airline industry, and a world situation that almost demands a retreat into nostalgia. Indeed, more than 28 million people have ridden Amtrak trains in the last year, the most in the line's history, and VIA Rail Canada, its north-of-the-border counterpart, is experiencing its own ridership increase. This renaissance is no rumor.
"People take a plane to get someplace as fast as they can," Ron Doiron told me. "People who take trains aren't interested in that."
Doiron's declaration sounded innocuous enough, but to inveterate train people - namely, the caboose crowd - they were full of code. Plane people "are the ones who created the mess the world's in now," a woman confided in French, drawing some sort of connection between the headiness of Wall Street and the speed of air travel. The upshot: If Wall Street had been run by train people, they'd know that life is about the journey and not the destination, that life isn't about only the heedless pursuit of goals but also the avoidance of collateral damage.
And so we sat, waiting for them to clear the moose.
I liked Doiron, especially his job. Unbelievable as it may sound, Rail Canada employs a "learning coordinator" on some of its trains - a plaid-vested chap who is something of a cross between a pedant and a concierge.
For those passengers with the means to afford Rail Canada's Easterly class, the trip includes sleeping accommodations, meals and, best of all, access to that caboose, where stairs lead to a second-floor observation dome, a thrilling conservatory on wheels. There, Doiron would serve champagne and hold court, regaling us with stories of the struggles between the British and the Acadian French, while the Ocean wound its way through forests of sumac and sugar maple, their leaves a hundred brilliant colors on this equally brilliant October afternoon.
Our journey had begun the night before, the Ocean having left Montreal's Gare Centrale at precisely 6:45 for its northeastern trek across Quebec. Dinner was served immediately in the dining car, a handsome beige room where there was a tablecloth and lamp for each of the 16 tables, and where I got my taste of both whiskey-infused salmon and the Ocean rumor mill.
The Canadian stock market was in danger of imminent collapse, maybe, and all because "70 percent of our exports go to America," said one man between forkfuls of braised short ribs. Somebody else had heard that 401(k) accounts would soon be "frozen," but that was OK because there was hardly anything left to freeze.
Eventually, however, as the lights of Montreal receded and the landscape became dotted with fewer and fewer porch lights, thoughts slowly turned from journey's end to just plain journey.
"You do not want to miss the Baie des Chaleurs," Doiron told me as he passed through the dining car. "We get there at sunrise. Make sure you don't sleep through it."
I passed a fitful night in my sleeping cabin, though I could hardly blame the cabin. In one fluid motion, Claude, my steward, had turned a bench seat into a cot draped with an inviting comforter, showed me how to use the ingenious shower facilities in the cabin's tiny bathroom, handed me a Maclean's magazine devoted to the world economy (headline: "Really Bad News"), and offered a glass of champagne for a nightcap. Then, as happened so often on this trip, the conversation turned to the subject of moose.
"I really fear those things," said the gray-haired man in his French-accented English. "That's my worst fear about driving at night."
A deer will bounce right off a car, he told me, but a moose is so big and its legs are so long that "the animal can come right through the windshield."
My dreams that night were like a drinking game. People would come up to me, we'd talk a while, and then they'd say, "Really Bad News," at which point a dead moose would fall into my lap. On the plus side, I was the first person in the observation car the next morning, and no one had a better view of Chaleur Bay at sunrise.
Overnight near the town of Rimouski (which means "land of the moose" in the language of the native Micmac Indians), the Ocean had headed southeast to New Brunswick, then hugged the Chaleur coast just as Doiron had said. The bay was unearthly still at sunrise, placid and pink, its coves thickly lined with evergreens. None of the passengers who had gathered for this morning spectacle dared say a word; all you could hear was the rhythmic chugging of a train winding its way south to Nova Scotia.
It was afternoon when we arrived at the endless expanse of bogginess known as Tantramar Marsh, a muddy goodbye to New Brunswick. While lunching on shrimp Caesar salad and fish chowder, we passed through the tiny town that, we were told, gave the world singer Anne Murray, and then the slightly larger town that gave the world Charles E. Stanfield, also known as the inventor of shrink-proof long underwear for gold miners.
At 5 o'clock, we began to see the cranes and container ships of bustling Halifax, the train rounding the harbor under a beautiful, cloudless sky. It had taken us almost a full day to travel the 836 miles from Montreal to Halifax, but thanks to the scenery and the food and the sleeping quarters and the convivial atmosphere, my religious conversion to trainism was complete. Henceforth I would profess the life-is-not-about-the-destination credo to anyone who would listen. I would completely ignore the snickers.
Accordingly, the next morning, less than 18 hours after journey's end, I boarded the Ocean again and did the trip in reverse, enjoying the instant replay of the Halifax harbor and Anne Murray's town and the muddy marshes and the tranquillity of Chaleur.
And then the moose fell on our track.
Thanks to quick action by engineers on the train that had hit the moose, the Ocean's chief engineer had enough warning to begin the lengthy braking process. When our train finally rolled to a stop a few hours east of Montreal, a light rain was falling in the predawn twilight. There were lots of silences.
"Like the saying goes, 'Nature is neither cruel nor compassionate,' " Freddy said, wearily glancing at his watch.
The caboose-crowd faithful nodded silently as one.
"But here's the thing: I don't ever hit a moose if I don't have to."
The crowd shook its collective head - not if we don't have to.
"In fact, I once followed a moose for 22 miles. For 22 miles he just walked in front of the train. Finally he darts off. Goes right through this guy's front yard. Guy's on the porch holding his coffee cup. You should have seen the look on his face."
The Ocean, VIA Rail Canada's train from Montreal to Halifax, leaves six days a week in each direction, and sleeper cars, comfort class, and multiple dining options are available year-round (1-888-842-7245, www.viarail.ca).
Prices vary; the round-trip fare for the one-bedroom class next month is $412 per person; comfort-class seats (which partially recline and have head- and footrests) go for $163 year-round.
A continental breakfast with yogurt and cereal in the Ocean's dining car will cost about $5. Lunch might be a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich ($11). Dinners are three-course affairs with such entrees as coq au vin ($15).
Montreal and Halifax have reasonable dining options within a stone's throw of their train stations.
Just two blocks from Montreal's Gare Centrale is Bofinger (1250 University St., 514-750-9095), which serves surprisingly good barbecue at great prices. A bountiful brisket sandwich with a side and drink goes for $6.95, and a generous helping of poutine - that old Montreal standby of french fries, gravy and cheese curds - is $3.85.
Everyone's favorite breakfast spot in Halifax is the Bluenose II Restaurant and Grill (1824 Hollis St., 902-425-5092), where the pancakes and bacon ($5.40) will leave you full for hours. At lunchtime, the place goes Greek, boasting a pork souvlaki that's a terrific bargain at less than $9.
Places to stay
Montreal and Halifax have a wealth of hotel options.
In Halifax, I stayed at the Westin Nova Scotian, a handsome four-star property that's just steps from the Halifax train station and boasts a wonderfully warm indoor pool (1181 Hollis St., 1-877-993-7846, www.westin.ns.ca). Prices for a double typically start at about $108 a night plus taxes, although I paid $85 by bidding on Priceline. Down the street, there's the Radisson Suite Hotel Halifax (1649 Hollis St., 1-800-333-3333, www.radissonhalifax.com), where doubles start at $99 plus tax. Both properties are convenient to the city's bustling harborfront area.
Nova Scotia Department of Tourism
- Scott Vogel