It is seldom a journalist with 40 years experience writing feature stories finds herself at a loss for words to describe a sight seen while on vacation – but that’s where I find myself. I wanted to write a brief sparkling introduction to my latest railroad adventure story but was stymied on how to describe emptiness.
We’ve all seen empty land. All over Mendocino County, California and the U.S.A. there are vast empty tracts of wilderness. I’d traveled to Churchill on Hudson’s Bay in Canada by rail through hundreds of miles of wild lands but even that does not approach the wilds of northern Quebec I observed from a window on a train headed to Labrador City, Canada.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want to go to Labrador’s interior? Because if you’re a fan of travel by rail and someone offers you the opportunity to go someplace really unusual on the North American continent and your pocket book can afford it you grab the chance. “Sojourn in Quebec” was our sixth tour with Mountain Outin’, a tour provider specializing in unusual rail travel destinations. We had a great time and it took a few weeks, and thousands of miles of train travel, to get to the aforesaid emptiness, but first…
Since the tour actually started in Vermont we took the AMTRAK “San Joaquin” down to Los Angeles where we boarded the “Southwest Chief” to Chicago where our son lives. After a brief visit we were off to Vermont via Washington D.C. and Trenton NJ north to Burlington VT.
Watching 3,000 miles of scenery with a book in my lap and a drink in my hand is my idea of travel. No madhouse at the airport, no TSA, no crowds…none of that. Yes, rail travel takes longer (3 days and 2 nights to Chicago) but when you’re semi-retired comfort can trump expediency. AMTRAK was on time on all our links of this trip and meals are free when you have a sleeping compartment. It’s my favorite form of travel.
In an airplane you’d never notice that spiraling staircases around huge storage tanks in sunshine cast crazy patterns on tank surfaces. You wouldn’t see cell phone towers disguised to look like palm trees. Did you know Indian casinos in the southwest now promise “Traditional Navajo Food?” You couldn’t discover that in Waldo, NM there is a shop with a billboard that says “Hides, Furs & Pelts Purchased.” I joke traveling by rail is like taking a peek into America’s back yards. Did you know folks back east don’t fence their yards and build walls between neighbors? Backyards just flow one into another and this was quite common in Canada too.
Looking out a train window you can see that no new invention has ever taken over the practice of putting brown paper on the ground and placing fresh grapes on it to dehydrate into raisins. Observing the passing landscape you can rejoice that orchards of walnuts, pistachio, and pomegranates are newly planted instead of vineyards. Solar arrays large and small appeared in every state we went through, even New England. Why are glass insulators on old telegraph lines not being saved by collectors? Perhaps because they are on rail lines out in the middle of no place with no road access.
Back east rail lines are electrified and catenary structures hold power lines over the tracks. Vines crawl up the insides of the old metal towers and spew out the top like volcano lava spurting from a caldera, only it is green growing lava spreading out. Rivers in the east are slow moving as they are controlled by dams and they often have canals carved into the land alongside them. Every second house we saw in New England was a Bed & Breakfast and every third barn had antiques or quilts for sale.
Want to know what the most universal commercial enterprises you see all over North America are? Nail salons, dollar stores and paint dealers. But the eastern half of the continent offers businesses we Westerners don’t often see, like auction houses, billiard clubs and taverns, chimney cleaning services, mink farms and slaughterhouses. We never would have seen any of this flying through the sky.
Meeting our tour group in Vermont we went on an edible walking tour of Burlington. What a delightful way to learn about the ethnic history of a community through the foods they brought with them to the New World. We were told how Lebanese, Greeks, Welsh and French all shaped the dining habits of the community and we ate our way along the city streets. We traveled by bus up into Quebec’s Eastern Townships and the planning by Mountain Outin’ tours took us day after day to unusual dining adventures. The French love soup and we enjoyed a wide variety of them over two weeks. Just outside Quebec City we caught Canada’s VIARAIL for an overnight trip to New Brunswick province.
While I’m not a musician my love of folk music has lead me on some great adventures to see the landscape described in a folk song. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” led me to ride the train from Vancouver, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia a decade ago and this trip I got to the Gaspe Peninsula he sang about in that ballad. From New Brunswick we rode around Quebec’s Gaspe where the Appalachian Mountains march into the Atlantic Ocean at the town of Perce. We learned about the salt cod industry and Devonian fossils and saw 35,000 gannet birds on Bonaventure Island. It was educational and visually beautiful at the same time. I was rather disconcerted to see that tour boats, BIG tour boats, come down the Saint Lawrence River, circle around the Gaspe, and drop down to Nova Scotia and the New England coast line. I knew Alaskan waters were full of cruise ships but I never imagined them all along the East Coast too.
On an eight deck ferry that could carry 180 cars and 800 people we crossed the Saint Lawrence River south to north to head to the town of Sept Iles and the Tshiuetin Railroad to Labrador. Native First Nations crews run the train route to Shefferville in Labrador. There were three passenger coaches, two for natives and one for tourists. Our tour group of 37 white Americans was a novelty and the native folks in the first two cars would come back to our “quiet car” to look at us and wonder what the heck we were doing. Going to urban civilization from Labrador for shopping and medical care was a chore to them and yet traveling north was an adventure to us.
Remember that emptiness I spoke of? For 225 miles there were railroad tracks and power lines out the east facing windows and looking west there was only what Mother Nature put there. Boreal forests of stunted conifers, lichen covered ground, and everywhere abundant water…but no people. None. Anyplace. No cabins, no roads, no lights, no nothing. Certainly I’d expect there to be natives out there someplace but we saw no sign of them. We stopped to let moose hunters off the train where they were met by guides on ATV’s to be taken on hunting trips.
We passed countryside where a million acres of black pine and spruce had burned off in a forest fire in 2013. The fire was only fought when it approached towns and civilization and it burned until the winter rains came. We passed waterfalls like Tonkas Falls where water fell 200’ from granite escarpments. It was so very empty and indescribably beautiful.
Overnighting in Labrador City the next day we visited the mining area that caused the rail line to be constructed. Completed in 1954 it was one of the largest peacetime construction projects on earth. Airstrips and housing for construction workers were built with leftover military equipment like dozers and graders used in World War Two. The names of these construction camps are now the “ghost stations” on the train line. Places like Oreway and Seahorse once existed, but are gone now, the land reclaimed by forest. Iron ore is mined in Shefferville and Labrador City and taken by rail to the Saint Lawrence River to be exported elsewhere for processing. Labrador City had experienced a winter hurricane a few years ago with temperatures 65 degrees below zero. Some of the iron mines are closing and times are tough for folks living there. We travelers enjoyed our return trip as much as the ride north.
Canadians are obsessive about lawn mowing. In two weeks I never saw a lawn overgrown. Every home seemed to have a riding lawnmower with a snowplow blade for winter. Garden centers and home improvement stores stocked concrete niches so you could install your favorite saint or a Virgin Mary statue in your yard. We saw hardware stores with “fresh eggs” signs out front and mini-marts offering fresh lobster. Fathers and sons came down to the stations or stopped by the train tracks to wave at the train as it passed. We waved back.
Dropping back down into the USA by bus we headed to New Hampshire. Our tour group featured several retired school teachers who had been on dozens of Mountain Outin” tours. You’d be amazed what you can learn from little old ladies. Never pass up a fresh apple at the morning breakfast buffet. In your hotel room that night you can chop the apple up, put it in a cup, sprinkle it with sugar from the coffee supplies provided, add a little water, and microwave it and you have instant applesauce. These same ladies joked with me they never buy green bananas. You don’t know if you’ll live long enough for them to ripen. One woman wore three skirts every day and she never had to squeeze them into her suitcase. Another told me she looked forward to getting home and “bigger” her photographs on her computer. With 37 folks over 60 years of age we figured there was about 2,000 years of collective knowledge to share. One senior seriously told me the mosquitos were so big in Maine they needed landing lights. I couldn’t have asked for better, or funnier, traveling companions.
We all really wanted to see a moose, but we never did. We did see an amusing road sign warning of moose in the area. It showed a moose on the road and a car crashing into it with the car flying off a cliff. In Canada highways often have 12% grades. A sign showed a car cresting a hill with a giant question mark on the other side. Along the Saint Lawrence River is a raised embankment but every quarter mile a pool ladder is built into the structure. If your boat sinks you can swim to a ladder and climb to the roadway.
In New Hampshire our group rode two tourist railroads, the Conway Scenic Railroad and the Mt. Washington Cog Railroad. The line up Mt. Washington goes to 6,200’ and folks there are in awe of this lofty peak. We Californian’s tried not to smirk at what might be considered a foothill in the Sierra, but the view was great and the leaves were just beginning to show fall colors.
Brunswick Maine was the “California Zephyr” in Chicago for a ride back to Sacramento. While the “Sojourn in Quebec” had shown us scenery we loved and will never see again it also showed that my husband of 41 years and I could spend 24/7 with each other for more than three weeks and still be speaking to each other after all that togetherness. I was happy to get back to my job at Gallery Bookshop and he was happy to get back to puttering around in his workshop without each other’s company.