Bill Arnott is a travel writer. Sounds like a dreamy occupation, and it probably is, we wouldn’t know. But, as you can imagine, that’s been a difficult path these past few years. But it’s not only travel writers who miss the singular excitement of dipping toes in a foreign culture. Anyone with a passport and an urge to peek over the horizon has been deeply affected by a pandemic world in which travel has been difficult, at time impossible, and, for many, dangerous. First-world problems of course, but for those of us whose lives have been brightened by international adventuring, things have been a bit dimmer in recent years.
So, Arnott decided to revisit his travel journals from years past, to retrace his steps, often just through memory, to mine his previous travels for new experiences. Traveling through his own past, you might say. The result is Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, a follow up to his book, Gone Viking, a series of recollections and thoughts about the joys of country hopping. For the armchair traveler, it’s a shot in the arm, a reminder of what once was, and what might be again soon.
The following excerpt sees Arnott remembering a luxury train voyage, something that sounds fantastic and fantastically exotic about now.
I was on the sofa in our tiny highrise apartment, the ambient score a rattle of shopping cart wheels on sidewalk, reminiscent of passenger trains slowing through town, crossing roadways. Clack-clack, clack-clack … clack-clack, clack-clack. Identical journeys in their way. Somehow synesthetic. The same familial line of sensory sounds associated with every peregrination—whirr of rubber on bitumen, rumble of engines asea, and the wind-fueled rustle and snap of mainsail and jib.
I remembered losing myself in the incubating whoosh of a bow parting ocean in feathers of froth, a blend of cocooned isolation combined with utter connection. And the comforting, familiar yet foreign hum of coach tires speeding on sand—New Zealand highway where road was literally the coast, low tide sand that stretched for miles to the dunes at Te Paki. Speed limit on the beach: 100 km/h. The light there at that time was the same as where I am now—flat, dampened sunshine, the kind that makes you squint, tear-up, and question your emotions. Every photo from that long, dreamy trip is over- or under-exposed, muted in a way I now realize captures the experience precisely.
Back to the train, or more accurately, trains. We’d been living with covid for what seemed a very long time—numbers spiking again at an alarming rate. And I was attending a lecture, virtually. Propped up in a nest of plump pillows, feeling like a sultan, a steaming cup of coffee to hand. Travel author Monisha Rajesh spoke to us through laptop screens, as she was the presenter for London’s Royal Geographical Society lecture series. The subject? Her travels around the world on eighty trains, some of the world’s most scenic.
It had been a year since my own travel plans had been cancelled as a result of the pandemic—flights, accommodations, rental cars and commuter trains—refunds received, some forgone, airline points reinstated and turned into cash. From a traveller’s perspective things looked dire, other than a pleasant but fleeting debit balance on the credit card. So along with a stack of travel-lit, -logues and -memoirs, I was doing my best to quell wanderlust as best I could. And for a jonseing dromomaniac [ed note: the unshakeable urge to wander], Monisha’s globe-spanning lecture was an ideal, albeit temporary cure.
When we eventually swapped messages, I was pleased to learn one of her favourite experiences on that expansive journey had been her travels in Western Canada, specifically through British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies. Interestingly, the same pockets of planet a globetrotting friend from Greenland described as her favourites as well. When I rode a similar route aboard Via Rail, I felt much the same.
Even as a local I was awed, slicing through mountains of sandstone, limestone and shale, a route I’d bisected many times in a car, but somehow from the sliding perspective of a train the same land’s renewed. Invigorated. Old stone reborn.
Join me for that rail-bound journey across western Canada, skirting the American border with a northerly lilt, a sharp jog north, then a gentle traverse south, returning to the Pacific. If you’ve read my memoir Dromomania, some of this trek is familiar. While the beauty of that ongoing journey, individuals met, and those windows onto life’s meaning remain ajar, I believe this viking voyage, shared space and travel, resonates now more than ever.
“Ahhhhh-board!” a conductor hollered from the platform, walking the length of our passenger train. As he climbed three metal steps we began to roll, shimmying from Winnipeg Station along the Assiniboine, rattling west.
A woman named Claire (shoulder length brown hair, tortoiseshell glasses and neckerchief knotted to the left) introduced herself and passed me sparkling wine, the bubbles served with hardening cold-cuts, stiff from handling and age—Via Rail’s interpretation of canapés. Claire would be my coach porter for the trip, she said, and told me to let her know if I needed anything. There weren’t many passengers, she explained, so I’d be seeing her a lot. It was the last time I saw her. How someone manages to vanish in a thin tube with a single corridor remains a mystery.
I was riding in Silver and Blue Class, suspecting, at a glance, that denoted passenger hair colour. Even in middle-age I was the youngest passenger by thirty years. I staggered my way through the long, tight passageway, jostled by the shimmy of the train as though in a Metallica mosh pit. I’d had the same vibrating experience at a St Paddy’s Day show at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom with Spirit of the West, perpetually body-slammed by an aggressively affectionate woman whose name I never did learn.
As I eventually reached the pullman car I was nearly starving, ready for a big, sit-down dinner. I’d been given a chit with a three on it.
“What’s this mean?” I asked a dining car attendant, having to raise my voice over the rumble of my stomach.
“That means you’re in the third seating for dinner; at 9 pm,” she said. It was 5 pm.
“So, in four hours from now?” I asked, punctuated with another stomach growl.
“Oh, no,” she replied. “9 pm new time; five hours from now.”
I sighed heavily and bumped my way to the bar car to fill up on booze and see if I couldn’t rustle up more fossilized cold-cuts.
Pick up a copy of Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries