words + photos by Rachel Dickinson
In September I took a trip to Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec. And although I was really looking forward to seeing where the St. Lawrence River leaves the confines of its banks and flows into the ocean, one of the biggest draws for me was the night train from Montreal to Gaspe. Trains have always held a fascination for me, drawing on some part deep inside that really wants to live in the 19th century (although I’m not so much of a sentimentalist that I don’t know that 19th century train travel also involved lots of soot and hard seats).
The Montreal train station has wonderful heroic bas relief friezes on either end of the large cavernous waiting room – the words of O Canada run along the bottom of the frieze with stylized art-deco figures doing Canadian things above.
Because we had an hour to kill, we walked over to the Hotel Elizabeth where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their Bed-In forty years ago. The bed was displayed in the hotel window with a large peace sign painted on the window glass. Someone had scrawled – It was for Money not peace! – into the paint of the peace sign.
The train we were taking to Gaspe was actually two trains – the train to Gaspe was attached to the train to Halifax, which would split off at some point. I got all excited as we walked along the side of a sleek new train but the Gaspe train was the old one, like something out of the late 1960s with bad institutional drapes and stained upholstery. We had sleeping accommodations, which were teeny-tiny little compartments with Murphy-type beds that pulled down from the wall and completely filled the tiny room.
Clickety-clack and side-to-side motion all night long – slow and fast – stop and go – as we lurched our way east.
I kept the window shade up most of the night and looked out at the starry, starry night as the train traveled across the peninsula. We had several station stops during the night where I watched people as they stood outside in the cool early autumn night smoking cigarettes in the glow from the station light.
I finally got up at 4:30 a.m. and put the bed back into the wall. I took my little camera and walked through several cars – all sleeping compartments – on my way to the observation car that sat up above the canteen. The roof and sides were glass and I figured that would be a great place to see the sunrise.
Several people were sprawled across the seats with flat pillows under their heads and thin blankets covering them – refugees from coach – taking advantage of the open double seats and the dark. I was there just as a hint of light showed on the horizon then got brighter and brighter. At that moment we were traveling along a river filled with gravel bars and tiny islands. A layer of fog hung just above the ground. I sat in the front of the car sharing the seat with an Asian woman – we watched the front of the train make its way along the track and took photos through the dirty window.
Lighter, lighter, lighter then suddenly it was over. The sun was up. I became aware that we were traveling east with a large bay on our right and little villages and farmland punctuated by forest on our left. Big round bales of hay sat in the fields and mountain ash – with their leaves of serrated edges and heavy clumps of orangey-red berries hanging from branches – grew near the tracks.
I headed to the canteen for a cup of coffee and sat with a pediatrician from Montreal. She traveled to a small community on Gaspe Peninsula about once a month because a good friend of hers had spent a summer in the little town after he developed bladder cancer. The pediatrician came to visit him and saw the need for doctors in the area so she’s been coming ever since. Her friend has since died but the pediatrician keeps making the journey by train; keeps taking the night train to come back as a way to give back.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her latest book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) is now a featured selection in the YourLifeIsATrip.com Trip Shop.