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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

A Berth of One’s Own

Transcontinental train of thought

Kyle Wyatt

As legend has it, a downcast young man boarded a train in New York City on March 13, 1928. An animator, he was bound for his place in Los Angeles, having just lost control of his one-year-old cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Several days later, he stepped onto a platform in California with sketches in hand for a new personality, one that he would call Mortimer. The twenty-six-year-old’s wife, Lillian, objected to the pompous-sounding name and insisted on something more relatable. Ultimately, she prevailed.

Walt Disney told many stories of how Mickey Mouse came to be, but his transcontinental train trip featured in most of them. Two months after he disembarked in Tinseltown, he and his business partner Ub Iwerks screened Plane Crazy, a zany tribute to the aviator Charles Lindbergh, starring what would become the world’s most famous rodent. (The six-minute silent short was given sound and wide distribution only after the success, in November 1928, of the better-known Steamboat Willie.)

“On his way back to Hollywood in an upper berth he could not sleep,” the British tabloid Daily Sketch reported years later. “The continuous but slight creaking of the woodwork in his compartment sounded like a million mice in conference. The idea made him laugh and in that split second Mickey Mouse was born.” Ironically, an extended journey across America inspired a pivotal celebration of air travel, which, of course, would doom overnight train service in the decades to come. Disney saw the future, but he had the past to thank.

Comparatively, my recent four-night trip from Vancouver to Toronto, in an upper berth of my own aboard the iconic Canadian, was much less consequential. I did no doodling, for one thing, and I edited along the way but a handful of the pieces that appear in this issue of the magazine. Yet those 4,466 kilometres that wind through Kamloops and Jasper, through Wainwright and Biggar and Watrous, through Rice Lake and Hornepayne and Parry Sound, were nonetheless inspirational. In fact, I would contend that there is no more awe-inspiring place to watch a sunrise than from a Skyline dome car somewhere in the middle of snow-covered Saskatchewan. And no, Via Rail did not comp my ticket or have any idea that this random passenger might end up writing about his rather anachronistic journey home.

Like the aging Buster Keaton in the National Film Board’s The Railrodder, I chose to roll across our sprawling country alone. Unlike him, however, I had the option of visiting with strangers — young and old alike, from Tennessee and New Hampshire, from France and Australia, from British Columbia and Quebec and countless points in between. Together, we spotted bald eagles in the Fraser Valley, coyotes in the middle of Manitoba, beaver lodges in northern Ontario. Together, we stretched our legs in Saskatoon and sampled wine outside of Melville. And together, we dined, while indulging in what is surely the unsurpassed sampler platter of Canadian travel.

This was not my first cross-country train trip. A decade ago, when two of my friends got married in Edmonton, I flew to Alberta but booked rail passage back to Ontario. Because I so enjoyed that solo adventure — especially the mad dash I made with a group of new-found acquaintances to the Fort Garry Hotel’s Oval Room during a crew change in wintry Winnipeg — I dismissed the notion of subsequent tours. How, I wondered, could any other train ever live up to that initial experience?

Perhaps the idea for another excursion was germinating for a while, playing out in these pages in ways I didn’t fully appreciate in real time. Last September, for example, I commissioned the illustrator Alexander MacAskill to do a train-themed cover. Then, in December, I wrote about how the Grand Trunk Railway had named communities west of Portage la Prairie in alphabetical order. In the issue after that, Charlotte Gray reviewed Stephen Bown’s Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada. Even the March number had hints of iron horses, with Sandra Martin’s discussion of Anna Karenina.

No sooner had I relented and made the necessary arrangements than The Walrus published a personal essay titled “The Diminishing Romance of Train Travel.” The writer, Lynn Cunningham, who had been provided a two-person cabin by Via Rail along with an attaché, described a more ho‑hum ordeal than the one that I remembered and hoped to replicate. Thankfully, even with my relatively modest accommodations and our many delays along the way, I had a much better time than the one she reported. I think that most of my fellow rovers would say the same. The Orient Express the Canadian is not, but it remains one of the world’s great rail routes. I won’t wait another ten years to take it again.

Kyle Wyatt is the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada.

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