Timeless Journey by Rail: Rocky Mountaineer

Time on Rocky Mountaineer’s luxurious journey by rail across Western Canada is measured less by hours and miles than by trestle bridges and mountain tunnels, bighorn sheep and bald eagles, green lakes and roaring rivers, glasses of wine and lavish meals.

Outside my window is a nearly untouched, uninterrupted landscape of majestic beauty, and I find myself losing my sense of time altogether. Here, the long ago yesterday of railroad builders and gold prospectors and fur trappers, or of Cree and Shuswap and Nakoda First Nations pre-contact, seems as if it could just as easily be tomorrow in a strange but believable transmutation of time and space—a magic that if it belongs anywhere, belongs here.

The Boy in the Photo

Printed in the pages of Rocky Mountaineer’s “Mile Post” guide, tucked in the seat pocket in front of me, I find him.

The boy looks into the camera with his head tilted and chin up, one booted foot resting on a railroad tie as if the railroad itself belongs to him. In this historic moment—the driving of the last spike connecting the Canadian Pacific Railway from ocean to ocean in 1885—the boy is surrounded by much older and taller men, important men already written into the nation’s history; yet in the grainy black-and-white photo, the boy, small as he is, becomes the center.

For me, something in his level gaze expresses the spirit of this place, its wonder and wildness, in a way that words cannot.

The two-day Rocky Mountaineer journey I’m on, which travels between Banff and Vancouver with an overnight stop in Kamloops, is called “First Passage to the West,” a nod to the celebrated connection of the rails across the continent. When Rocky Mountaineer started in 1990, this history-rich route was its first offering.

Rocky Mountaineer’s other routes include “Coastal Passage” between Seattle and Vancouver; “Journey Through the Clouds” between Vancouver and Jasper; and “Rainforest to Gold Rush” between Vancouver and Jasper via a longer, more interior arc through Whistler and Quesnel. Guests choose between single-level SilverLeaf or bi-level GoldLeaf service, along with a variety of other package options for trip details and itineraries.

One aspect of all the journeys, however customized, is the same: Each traverses a remote wilderness of dramatic beauty.

In the passenger coaches, all that separates you from that beauty is a domed top of clear, gleaming glass. Inside the coach the temperature is perfectly regulated, but the light and fullness of day streams in. Along with the unobstructed views, there’s a sense of openness and space.

And tranquility. As a passenger, your job is simple: There’s no route-finding or driving, no complicated scheduling. The seats are spacious, and armrest controls allow you to adjust comfort minutely, including lumbar support and a footrest.

Days are spent on the train, immersed in the scenery and its history and wildlife, and in the afternoon or evening, guests disembark in towns and cities for dinner and the hotels they chose during booking. Rocky Mountaineer’s hosts, assigned to an individual passenger coach for the duration of the journey, become well-known faces, keeping you well-provisioned with food and drink and also pointing out historical features and other points of interest along the tracks. As this highlight reel unfolds, you need only sit back and admire the view.

Even off the train, the process is seamless. Before our overnight stop in Kamloops, we’re handed the keys to our rooms. Without having to check in, I step a few feet from Rocky Mountaineer’s shuttle bus to the doors of my hotel and straight up to my room, where my bag is already waiting. In the morning, as instructed, I leave my suitcase in my room, and it’s spirited back to the train again.

Rocky Mountaineer’s VIP-style service is often as mysterious as the inner workings of the locomotive itself. The cuisine is perhaps the greatest marvel of all. Between each set of passenger coaches is a kitchen car, where teams of award-winning chefs are hard at work crafting meals inspired by the regions the train winds through. Here, in these spaces that seem impossibly small, the logistical and culinary feat of serving hundreds of passengers is accomplished with elegant presentation and extraordinary flavor.

SilverLeaf passengers are served meals at their seats. I’m on a bi-level GoldLeaf coach, so I descend to the dining room on the first level for breakfast as well as the three-course lunch. At the table, adorned with a crisp white tablecloth and gleaming silverware and glassware, I choose what sounds the most sumptuous.

For breakfast, will it be the cheddar cheese soufflé, the sourdough flapjacks, the cranberry apple French toast, the eggs Benedict with Montreal-style smoked beef? For lunch, perhaps the steelhead salmon with garlic herb risotto? Or better to go with the beef short ribs braised in Okanagan Valley merlot? (In GoldLeaf, menus include three to seven options. With advance notice, Rocky Mountaineer can also accommodate most special dietary needs.)

Complimentary bar service is available both at meals and above in the observation level. The wine list features local British Columbian wines, and on my trip I find nothing pairs better with the snow-capped mountain peaks than the Jackson-Triggs Reserve Select Cabernet Sauvignon.

When we’d left the station in Banff at the journey’s start, the world was dusted and draped in a bright white splendor, the result of an unseasonably early snowstorm. The conifers, the mountain peaks, the intense blue of the sky and water against the snow—as a native Texan, such scenes feel far at home.

I didn’t know to expect such variety in the landscape here, such color. As the miles pass, I see the muted grays, browns, reds and ochres of the arid regions; the deep greens of the evergreen forests; and the mixed palette of the rainforest, accented by bright splashes of yellow from western maples.

The Rocky Mountaineer passes through many national park areas and wilderness lands inaccessible by other means of travel. As I look outside, I can’t imagine any other place in the world that feels so uninhabited and majestic, as if here nature painted everything in its largest, mightiest brush. On Rocky Mountaineer, even among all the comfort—or, I might argue, the opulent excess (“Wine and cheese plate? Yes please!”)—the wildness outside the window is what makes the hardscrabble life of Canada’s earliest inhabitants and explorers feel tangible, close enough to touch.

Headlong Adventure

In a quick internet search, I find the boy from the photo: Edward Mallandaine is his name, and I’m not the first to wonder about him. There’s even a children’s book about his story, published in 2010.

Edward was not the born-to-riches son of a railroad tycoon, as I’d imagined, nor was he one of the thousands of workers who’d toiled to lay the railway, through floods and avalanches and sickness, across the unforgiving wilderness. He was an 18-year-old “delinquent” who’d caught a ride on a flatbed train to Craigellachie and stood there shivering in that isolated Canadian hinterland in rain-soaked clothes. As the story goes, someone had tried to chase him away, and a train manager had said, “Let him in. Don’t you know that’s the Craigellachie kid?”

It’s not clear to me whether the moniker meant something, or if the sound of it, perhaps combined with the boy’s bold demeanor, was enough to convince the crowd to allow him to remain and be recorded as a part of railroad history.

Edward, who lived to the age of 82, would go on to become a colonel, stake a 180-acre homesite, and help found the mountain town of Creston, for which he served as magistrate and politician.

History is made meaningful by the people who lived it. Sometimes we forget that we’re living it now and that our own stories are important, expressing who we are.

On the Rocky Mountaineer, strangers become friends quickly. Passengers hail from many places in the United States and the world, but they also have much in common. Many are retirees celebrating a milestone event, such as a birthday or anniversary. More than a few couples say they’re here for their golden anniversary. “Fifty years married to the same person,” one woman says with a chuckle.

By my trip’s end, the entire train car is singing along with the words of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” and two fellow passengers participate enthusiastically in a historical “bandit” skit with dinner napkins tied to their faces. Our coach has a convivial air.

Though on the Rocky Mountaineer you’re traveling along the same set of tracks as everyone else, there’s also something very individual about the experience.

I notice at least one true railfan with a collection of train pins adorning his blue-and-white-striped conductor’s hat. I think of my own awe in passing through the 5-mile Connaught Tunnel and the spiral tunnels in Kicking Horse Pass, and imagine how much more thrilling such experiences must be for guests like him, who can put these feats of ingenuity and engineering in the context of railroad lore.

For a Missourian across the aisle from me, the highlight of the trip is the salmon run. On the second day we can see flashes of red swimming up the clear water of the Fraser River, and bald eagles perched in the trees above or eating the salmon already washed up on the banks.

A bear, though much coveted, never materializes on our journey, but we spot deer, bighorn sheep, elk and coyotes. Osprey sometimes float at eye level as the train travels across a high ridge.

I love to watch the water, a near constant: tall waterfalls on the sides of mountains. Small cascades rushing between rocks. Gentle rivers and streams. Roaring rivers with rapids so intense they’ve been given names like “Hell’s Gate.” Wide, smooth-as-glass lakes colored turquoise by tiny suspended particles of “rock flour,” the glacial equivalent of sawdust.

When I feel the need to stretch my legs, I go downstairs to the open air of the outdoor viewing platform. The space between coaches is large enough to fit about a dozen people comfortably, and it’s a good place to take photographs.

Inside the train car, you’re insulated from the noise and power of the rails, but on the viewing platform the thwack thwack thwack of the rails is nearly deafening. When I stand there, the sharp cold air and wind make me feel like I’m hurtling toward something, make me feel a rushing, headlong sense of adventure that’s both nostalgic and forward-looking.

American jazz music is said to have been inspired by the sound of trains—the rhythm, dissonance, acceleration. As we near the outer reaches of Vancouver, our last stop on the Rocky Mountaineer, the rhythm of the rails feels like a song I know the words to without ever having heard it before.

I imagine staying here forever, between places, neither here nor there—lost in the fullness and richness of a moment in time, and in my own small piece of history.

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