Life on the train soon falls into a lazy rhythm. We play cards in the Park lounge car. We gaze at the landscape from the panoramic Dome car. And we try – and fail – to count the wagons on passing freight trains, which can be up to four kilometres long. We become accustomed to the constant rocking motion and learn to walk with our knees slightly bent to cushion any jolts. The absence of WiFi and phone signal is a treat; our world is contained within this steel capsule, all daily stresses temporarily forgotten.
Meals, served in allocated sittings at smart white-clothed tables, provide a bit of structure to our days. Each is a multi-course affair washed down with Canadian wine and we marvel at the delights the chefs manage to whip up in their tiny moving kitchen – stacks of pancakes drizzled in maple syrup, just- right steaks, grilled trout with mounds of fresh vegetables.
Every now and then we pass remote outposts sporting evocative names such as Mud River, Flindt Landing and Savant Lake, each barely more than a cluster of cabins. Most are request stops only, but on our first afternoon there’s a scheduled pause in the town of Hornepayne where the temperature is -21°C and giant, dagger-like icicles hang from the station gables. We swaddle ourselves in layers and venture outside, posing for photos by the pair of towering locomotives that are hauling us across the continent. In the evening we roll through the tiny settlement of Longlac where my great-grandfather once applied for the post of station manager in a bid to find more stable working hours; my great-grandmother talked him out of moving his family to the middle of nowhere and his life on the rails continued.
On our second morning Ontario’s forests give way to the plains of Manitoba and we gam an additional hour in the day. This is farming country, so flat that the horizon seems to merge with the sky. There are few signs of life; only snow- covered wheat fields, deserted roads and occasional grain elevators that rise from the landscape like skyscrapers.
After mile upon mile of emptiness we reach the provincial capital, Winnipeg, where a crew change allows us a couple of hours to stretch our legs. We slip and slide our way across the icy road to Forks Public Market, set in a converted warehouse opposite the station, and stock up on snacks for the rest of the journey.
As we climb back on board a snow storm descends. We spend the next few hours travelling through a near-total white-out, unable to see anything other than the ghostly outlines of telegraph poles, which briefly emerge from the mist before vanishing again. By the time the blizzard clears to reveal a pink- tinged evening sky we have crossed into Saskatchewan, whose prairies stretch as far as the eye can see. Relaxed after doing very little, we linger in the Dome car until the small hours, finally submitting to tiredness as the tram pulls into the city of Saskatoon.