Earlier this year, Judy and I took the train from Toronto out to British Columbia. I was fortunate to be part of what Via Rail call their Artists on Board Program. The goal of the Artists on Board Program is simple – musicians get to travel across Canada by train using music to pay their fare. What a great idea. Thanks Via!
My adventure actually started out as a challenge from my good friend Jan Hall of Folk Roots Radio who loves to encourage singer-songwriters to look outside the box, and try out something a little different. I already have a few other folk singing friends that have travelled the rails across Canada including Sarah Hiltz, Allison Brown and Shawna Caspi – so why shouldn’t I add my name to that list?
Our first day of the trip was to be May 1, but before I could head out, I had to pop down to Frank’s Music Centre in Chatham to pick out a nice new acoustic guitar from Art & Lutherie Guitars which are handmade in Canada. A singer-songwriter can never have too many guitars! While I was there, I also picked out a cool blue bag with polka dot interior – it also had nice backpack straps and lots of storage for picks and capos etc.
Day 1 (May 1 2018)
Day 1 of our trip was rather eventful. The night before, we received a call from Via Rail to let us know that we would be late leaving and for that reason we would be put up in a very nice downtown Toronto hotel for the first night. They also provided us with vouchers for dinner, which was rather nice of them. My good friend Gord Harwood drove us to Chatham Ontario to pick up the train for Toronto, and who was the first person I should meet – but another bass guitar playing friend heading to Oshawa. A small world indeed.
On our way to Toronto Judy and I reminisced about our time in London as we flew past The Forest City on the train. Judy and I both lived in London as students. I was at Fanshawe College while Judy (the smarter one in this relationship) went to the University of Western Ontario (now known as Western University).
When we arrived in Toronto we were met by the train staff who very kindly put my new guitar and our bags into storage, while we took a limo ride to the hotel. As we had a little time to kill, we took a trip around the Eaton Centre and some of the other high spots in the downtown before a fine meal at the hotel. A little delay was not really a bad thing after all.
Day 2 (May 2, 2018)
Day 2 started with a quick bus trip to the train station, where we (The entertainers) were able to meet some of our fellow travellers (Our audience) at a very nice meet and great session. It was a really good icebreaker to the trip, and an excellent way to introduce ourselves. After that we all lined up for the train and were given a boxed breakfast. It felt a bit like we were going on a school trip.
We were about twelve and a half hours late leaving Toronto. Once we’d unpacked and enjoyed our breakfast we were given our dining times and work orders. Dining: Breakfast 6-8am, Lunch at 11am and Dinner at 5pm. We were asked to play music at 2pm for Economy Class, 4pm for Prestige Class and 6:30pm for Sleeper Class which sounded like a pretty good deal. I think this is what they call singing for your supper.
Three meals and three shows on our first day. We also had a nightcap in the Prestige Class bar car where we were able to meet some more of the staff members, with a visit to the glass roofed observation cars on the second level to enjoy some great views of the many waterways that cross Ontario.
Sleeping in our room that night was great, especially with the rocking movement of the train. The room felt tiny when both our beds were down, but fortunately we both like each other. Needless to say, Judy bagged the top bunk.
Day 3 (May 3, 2018)
We both slept really well with the rocking of the Train, Zzzz…
We started off the day with a one hour time change as we switched time zones. We had breakfast with a wonderful couple who were originally from Columbia but now live in Madrid, Spain. Like most the of people we met on the train, they told us that this was a trip of a lifetime for them and that they have been wanting to do this for many years. It’s certainly a wonderful way to see the country… and Canada is REALLY BIG! (which is actually also an Arrogant Worms song – but I digress).
When not performing, Judy and I would spend time in our room (with the beds put away), sitting in chairs that we could position to look out the window. A great way to capture the wonderful scenery. We also had the option of enjoying the view from the observation cars. This is a favourite area in all three classes of the train so sometimes it’s hard to get a seat.
Something I did not know, but despite 2018 technology, train travel is its not as smooth as I expected. I fell once while going between cars carrying my guitar and a few books and Judy got a few bruises bouncing off the walls while walking from one end of the train to the other. You also have to be careful while showering… and shaving! But, all in all, it was still a great adventure.
The Train stopped in Armstrong and Collins, two little towns along the way, and we also stopped at a little cross roads to drop off some supplies for local people. Food, household supplies and tools. That sort of thing. It was fun to see all the people waiting beside the tracks with their four wheelers and their family dogs.
We had lunch at 1pm, then sang at 2pm, and before we knew it, it was 5pm and time for dinner before another show at 7:15pm in First Class at the back of the train where they also had some very nice leather seats. Judy and I had a great time getting to know the audience and we all had a great singalong.
We stopped in Winnipeg for about 45 minutes, so Judy and I hopped off to go to a farmers market which was right next to the train station. There was playoff hockey coming up that night in Winnipeg and lots of people were wearing white hockey jerseys. Go Winnipeg Jets! There was also staff change at this stop, and a lot of new passengers (more audience members) joined us for the remainder of the trip to Vancouver. Unfortunately, while the train is on route, there is little to no wifi or phone service – so every time the train stops, people are busying themselves on their phones and iPads.
Day 4 (May 4th, 2018)
We woke up in Saskatchewan the next morning – its very flat with lots of endless fields that remind me a bit of Essex County. We had breakfast this time with two lovely ladies from Montreal with really thick French accents. When we stopped in Mellville for 10 minutes, Judy and I again hopped off, but this time for exercise and fresh air, and walked the length of the train twice. Train entertainers need to stay in shape!
For lunch, we had lobster ravioli with a very sweet lady from Scotland and a fellow from California. He was a real train lover and had travelled all across America by train. One thing about travelling by train, you meet so many interesting people.
The food and service on Via Rail are amazing. They have table service with linen table clothes and really nice staff that are so friendly and wanting to please… and a great selection of food at every meal. I guess that was part of the reason we needed to get some exercise. Yum! Yum!
The ride was a little rocky during our 2pm show which made the show even more entertaining. It’s also a good workout to stand while playing guitar, and rocking back and forward.
Our dinner guests that night were from Palm Springs California. There was a wine tasting event at the time of our 8 p.m. show, so everyone was in good spirits, and a bit noisier than usual but clearly having a good time.
After the show Judy and I went up to the bar car in Prestige Class and hung out with some of the staff on board. Our bartender was in her 10th year of working on the train and loves her job. She also made me a very tasty Rusty Nail which made for a very happy Dale!
Day 5 (May 5th, 2018)
We decided to skip breakfast this morning and instead headed to the observation car with a muffin and orange juice. When the train pulled into Jasper Alberta, we went for a nice walk all around town. Back on the train we set up our music for our shows and then back to the observation car to take some photos. We went through some tunnels today and the mountains are beautiful to see. Along the trip we saw a bear at the side of the tracks and a moose in the water. The Buffalo were also amazing. Some of the guests on train had never seen snow or frozen lakes.
When we reached Kamloops there was a short stop over. It was a great last day on the train overall – three more shows to do, and such wonderful and interesting people to chat to.
At 4am that night (or was it morning?) we were informed by our attendant that our stop was next…. Abbotsford. It was pitch black out. There was no light and not even a building or train station – just a cement slab beside the tracks with a sign that said Abbotsford.
The porter set Judy and I off at the side of the tracks… in the dark, and all alone except for the distant sound of a dog howling. Our ride wasn’t there to pick us up so I had to use the flashlight on my phone to see where we were going. Fortunately, just a few minutes later, we could see the headlights of a car coming down the dirt road beside the tracks.
The end of our Via Artists on Board trip of a Lifetime. It will live long in the memory… and who knows? Maybe there’s a song or two in there.