Monday, 3 August 2015

A Few Old Train Photo Yarns

What does one do with old railway photos and images that don't quite fit into a category or topic but may have a story behind them nonetheless?

Following are a few thoughts.

1. An introduction

Summer 1974

One memorable warm summer Saturday evening I was to meet up with and join a group at one of those popular restaurants in Gastown. 

With its partly re-cobbled streets, quasi-quaint exotic shops, and unusual eateries with fancier names than their fare, Gastown was that area of refurbished older buildings in what was probably the oldest part of downtown Vancouver. CP Rail was immediately behind the buildings on Water Street.

My cousin Monica had spontaneously organized this outing, inviting any friend and acquaintance she could think of inviting on the spur of the moment, and then she scrambled to make the arrangements. Monica was often arranging last-minute group outings to unusual locations and establishments. Usually invited to tag along, I was grateful to be included. At times I also wondered if she was deliberately trying to introduce me to some of her friends.

Just feet away from the entrance of my intended destination, I unexpectedly noticed a bright red CP Rail diesel sitting in the yard near the foot Carrall Street. My then new Kodak pocket camera was tucked into my pocket so I detoured over to quickly grab this scene of CP 8515. 

No doubt this wasn't the party Monica had schemed for me to meet, however this was the only photo and number I took home that evening.

2. Thanksgiving in Kicking Horse Pass

Mile board 133 of CP Rail's Laggan Sub in October 1974.

October 1974

October 1974, Train 2 departing from Field, BC.
Moments after abandoning the onboard comforts of "The Canadian" at Field, BC, I grabbed this image of CP Rail's departing Train 2 about to commence its assault of the "Big Hill"

Watching that train disappear really did feel like having waved good-bye to the last chance to change my mind about walking up that same hill.

Two hours later at mile board 133, I was in this craggy corner of British Columbia that I had often dreamed about one day visiting. Now truly in the middle of nowhere, I was alone and isolated from everyone except for the people in the cars and trucks that raced by overhead.

This day had certainly arrived but I hadn't expected a cool, damp, overcast October weekend because I had always visualized a warm, sunny, late August summer day. My temporary resting place was beneath the Trans-Canada Highway on the bridge's concrete support footing, a sheltered front row seat facing the famed Canadian Pacific route through Kicking Horse Pass. 

The highway overpass was a perfect location to break my trek, rest and celebrate Thanksgiving Weekend with the special meal I had brought along just for this occasion. My meal consisted of English muffins, cheese slices and a tiny bottle of red wine. To provide some atmosphere of elegance, other than only the scenery, I brought along a few paper cups I had picked up from train's water cooler. At least a paper cup was a step above having to drink out of the bottle. Of course I would've preferred that traditional hot turkey dinner with my family in Montreal''s West Island, which I was certain they would be having this weekend, but I was a little too far away to join them.

After opening the bottle of wine and filling a paper cup, I stretched out and raised my arm then exclaimed aloud, "Here's to you Canada!" and then as an afterthought added aloud, “Here's to you CPR!”

3. Welcome to Field

CP Rail's Train 1 during the 10 minute crew-change stop at Field, BC.

Summer 1975... when we were young and foolish.

At dusk we were unceremoniously awakened by a park ranger who ordered us to pack up and move to one of Yoho Park’s designated campsites; we had camped out beside the main highway. 

Upon inquiring where the nearest site was, we were informed it was several miles back near Leanchoil. Absolutely no way were either Michael or I going to be moved in any direction away from Field so we refused to move our camp. In spite of the ranger's threats to fine us for illegally camping we continued to refuse to be pushed into walking any further in any direction. 

Neither one of us could have walked anyway; our feet were too sore. Relenting somewhat, Michael and I did offer to break camp only if we could have a ride into Field. The park ranger refused and gave us some official excuse about not being allowed to carry passengers in a park vehicle regardless of the fact his girlfriend was sitting in the cab. After a few more minutes of heated argument and our unbending refusal to move, the ranger finally gave in and accepted our terms. He drove us into Field.

Field did not have a hotel or motel but, with some assistance from the park ranger, Michael and I managed to rent a room for the night in the upstairs of the local watering hole. Beyond the door to our room was a single uncovered light bulb in the ceiling, an unshaded window and two beds with bare mattresses. In some way the architectural similarity of the building reminded me of the bedrooms in my grandparents' house. 

"What a dump." Michael complained.

"Looks pretty darn good to me... and clean too." I said, very grateful not to be spending another night outdoors sleeping on top of rocks.

"Eighteen dollars for this? I think you paid too much." he commented.

"This was a bargain Mike. Believe me, in the morning you'll feel differently about this place." I said.

"Which bed do you want?" he asked.

"The nearest one. I can't walk any further." I replied.

Our ordeal was over and I felt like a humiliated survivor rather than a triumphant adventurer. We fell four miles short of our goal but in those two days we had managed to cover on foot at least 31 miles of the 35 miles from Golden, BC. We were probably lucky to be leaving with our bodies and minds intact. 

The following evening we picked up Train 2 for our return to Vancouver.

Our foot journey was a gruelling experience that neither of us would forget and that day would prove to be my last visit on foot into the wilds of the Rockies.

4. Amtrak Days

Abstract from Amtrak's public timetable effective May 15, 1975

November 1975

For a brief time my Saturdays became "Amtrak" days. An Amtrak Day to Seattle was long; four and a half hours of train travel to get there, seven hours there and almost five hours to return. Travelling alone and spending a rainy day in Seattle was depressing. 

Daily I prayed to God and begged for a miracle to change some circumstances (read: floundering LDR) in my life, so that doing crazy things such as going to Seattle to send and receive mail would not be necessary, but nothing changed. I felt as if the louder I shouted toward heaven, the more God seemed to ignore me.

The downpour outside was unrelenting and walking around was not in any way appealing. More than four hours remained until train time and I was wasting those hours in Seattle’s King Street station. A panhandler was shuffling around and searching through the station’s garbage bins. Eventually he stopped in front of me but I did not look up from what I was doing. 

“Do you have any money you can part with?” he asked.

That was a strange way to ask for money because all money was money that could be parted with in one way or another. 

“Here.” I eventually answered and handed him a few dollars, hoping he would go away.

“Thank you.” he replied, sounding somewhat surprised.

Instead of wandering off, the vagrant sat on the bench and began to talk to me. “I haven’t always lived like this.”

I did not say anything. I did not know what to say to him. I did not want to have to say anything to him.

“Where are you from?” he questioned, even though I had remained silent.

“Canada.” I finally answered but trying to avoid a conversation.

“What are you doing down here?” He continued.

"Just visiting from Canada.” I revealed.

“I’m from Mississippi.” He announced.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, aware that Seattle was far from anywhere in Mississippi.

“Couldn’t take it anymore.” He stated, now sounding somewhat agitated.

“Take what?” I wondered.

“All the nonsense, the lies, the crap. I had to get out.” He continued, sounding as if he was repeating to me something that he thought I should have already known.

What he said did not mean anything to me and I did not ask for more details. I really did not want to know any more.

“I quit university.” He added, and then continued, “I’ve been drifting around and trying to find a purpose in life.”

He went on to inform me that his father owned a fishing resort in Kenora, Ontario, and then began to tell me about the resort. He then abruptly stopped and asked, “Have you ever heard of Kenora?”

“Yes, it’s near the Ontario-Manitoba border. CP Rail’s trains roll through there.” I stated authoritatively, certain of this much.

“Yeah, you know it.” He confirmed. 

He then handed me a folded slip of paper with the name and address of that resort in Kenora and while pointing at the paper said, “If you ever visit Kenora, go there and ask for my father. Just tell him I told you to ask for him.”

He wished me well and wandered away and I wondered why he had stopped to talk. I looked at the name and address on the paper and thought, “Why would I ever go to Kenora?”

His comment about quitting university and finding a purpose in life stirred me though and compelled me to question why I was coming here to Seattle every Saturday. 

Desperation was my excuse. But what was my purpose?

From the internet: Amtrak's Pacific International circa 1975

Amtrak’s Pacific International was a four-car train outfitted with worn-out, hand-me-down equipment from Union Pacific and Great Northern. A dome-observation car on the tail end gave the train an air of importance; not every passenger train included a dome car. Unlike CP Rail’s Canadian, which offered coach seating in their dome cars, Amtrak had turned the dome into a dining area and served meals up top. 

During the return trip I sat in the rear of the dome car and from the curved back windows watched the track racing away into darkness. Occasionally I would puff away on my pipe when the lounge area was deserted. As I stared out, my mind wandered aimlessly...

“A smoldering, half-smoked cigarette has been left in the ash tray.” Holmes pointed out after making a cursory inspection of the immediate area.

“Is this a clue?” Watson asked.

“No.” Holmes responded immediately, having already dismissed the cigarette as irrelevant.

“What makes you so certain?” Watson challenged.

“Left by a woman, you will observe smudges of lipstick on the end.” Holmes pointed out.

“Ah... yes... but what if our quarry's not alone?” Watson suggested.

“The young lady who left this here was quite alone.” Holmes replied.

“How do you know?” Watson questioned.

“We passed her only moments earlier but you most likely looked at her rather than observe her. She was wearing the same shade of lipstick, slightly smudged as if by…” Holmes started to explain.

“A cigarette against the lips.” Watson interjected.

“Exactly!” Holmes stated, almost sounding like a teacher who had been explaining the solution of a problem to a student.

A yell came from the galley, abruptly awakening me from my daydream. 

“What? Another murder?” I asked aloud mindlessly.

“No. Cook fried some fingers on the griddle.” The Amtrak steward replied, having heard my silly question.

A half-smoked cigarette in the ash tray on the empty adjacent table was still smoldering away, and sure enough traces of lipstick were visible; but I couldn’t recall who may have been sitting there moments earlier.

After 41 days without mail the strike ended and Canada’s postal services resumed. Two weeks later I made my final trip to Seattle to close the mailbox and hopefully, to find a letter or two.

The Oddblock Station Agent

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