The Cost of Taking the Train Across Canada with a Bust of Shakespeare
It was a rare feeling, to be so far from everyone I knew and have no immediate obligations.
The greatest travel deal I’ve ever gotten was a 75-percent-off train ticket from Vancouver to Toronto. I’m still proud of that deal, even though it didn’t quite work out to be the greatest vacation because I spent most of it crying.
The year was 2012, and I had just finished my MA at the University of Victoria. I had to figure out how to get myself and an appalling number of personal belongings, including a bust of Shakespeare, back to my hometown of Toronto.
After four years of taking the train between Montreal (where I’d done my undergraduate degree) and Toronto, I was already very familiar with VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger rail service. I’d observed that was possible to take a lot of luggage on the train without anyone batting an eye. At the time, I don’t think there was even a limit on the number of checked bags per passenger. (VIA’s current policy is two checked items per passenger.)
VIA runs a cross-Canada train, known as The Canadian, beloved by retired tourists both here and abroad. In addition to checked bags, The Canadian allowed two carry-ons plus a personal article. The trip from Vancouver to Toronto takes close to four days, which meant I could carry on clothing and toiletries for the journey, but I could also use that generous policy to transport breakable things—like Shakespeare— without abandoning them to the baggage car.
The more I stalked the VIA Rail website’s special fares section, the more The Canadian seemed like the most cost-effective way to get myself to Toronto. The cheapest possible train fare between Vancouver and Toronto was something like $197 for a regular seat in economy class. (All prices are in Canadian dollars. The Canadian and U.S. dollars were almost at par during that summer.) For that $197, you got no bed and no leg room; just a regular old train seat that reclines a little bit.
But the four-day trip from Vancouver to Toronto is a long time to spend in an uncomfortable seat. So, I reasoned, why not splurge a bit to make it into a vacation? I was sad to be leaving Victoria and grad school behind, and I thought taking the train would make the transition feel a little more exciting, like the train could be a bridge between my old life and my new one.
I bought my ticket three months in advance and benefited from a youth discount for being under 25 as well as a special flash sale. The full price of a private cabin on The Canadian was $2,000 at the time, and this is what I paid: $575.96 including tax. Just over 75 percent off. Here’s a screenshot of my receipt:
I left Victoria on August 31, a year to the day after I’d arrived. Victoria is on an island, so I booked a seat on a bus that went directly from downtown Victoria onto the ferry and then to the Vancouver train station. I don’t remember how much that cost, but I think it was under $100 and that included the cost of the ferry.
I had three bags to be checked, a purse, and three carry-ons (one over the limit; we’ll come back to this later). It was a nightmare wrangling so much luggage by myself in the Victoria bus station. In retrospect, I wish I had just given away some of that stuff I was so determined to transport across the country.
As soon as I got onto that bus, I burst into tears. I’m not normally a crier, and the only way I can explain my uncontrollable crying over the next four days is that I was heartbroken to be leaving a place where I’d been very happy, even though I knew it was time to go. I cried all the way out of Victoria and kept crying as I got off the bus and found a seat on the ferry, looking pathetic enough to inspire a kind stranger to give me a banana. I was sad about finishing grad school, which I’d loved, and sad to be leaving behind some wonderful friends. I was also anxious about what was waiting for me in Toronto: an unpaid internship, an uncertain future.
I managed to stop crying by the time we pulled into the Vancouver train station, where a friend met me and helped me get my bags to the check-in counter. The VIA staffer told me that I had too many carry-ons and would have to check one.
“What’s in that one?” he asked, pointing to my shoulder bag.
“That’s my laptop, I can’t check it,” I said.
“And that one?” He pointed at my small purple suitcase.
“That has my clothes and things for the trip,” I said.
“All right, that one,” he said, a bit exasperated, gesturing toward the matching purple tote that I’d packed very carefully.
“Well, that one has a bust of Shakespeare in it,” I said. “It’s too fragile to check.” I’d wrapped the bust in a fleece blanket and padded it with several scarves, but I was still reluctant to let it out of my sight.
He looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “What’s a bust?”
“You know, like a little statue of Shakespeare’s head. It’s not that heavy, but it’s breakable.” I tried to show by my firm posture that Shakespeare and I were a package deal: either we both got on the train, or neither of us did.
The VIA man had clearly never encountered this before, but he was a good sport. He laughed, shrugged, and took away my carry-ons to place them in my cabin.
The first thing I did after I boarded the train was check to make sure Shakespeare was there. Then, for the next three days and four nights, I sat in my little cabin feeling sad and crying while looking out the window. Every so often, I watched an episode of Call the Midwife or tried to read. During a brief spell of internet access, I posted a photo of Shakespeare looking out the window and captioned it “Shakes on a train.”
The train was very loud, so it was hard to sleep at night, jolted as I was in the little bed that folded down from the wall. Before the trip, I’d joked about solving a murder, like something out of Murder on the Orient Express. That was my only cultural reference point for cross-country train travel, and it was all glamorous passengers with secrets to keep and an egg-shaped Belgian detective who was determined to expose them. But I wasn’t any more fashionable or mysterious on the train than I was in my real life. I was just a teary person taking a train from one city to another, someone transient whose worldly possessions, as a fellow passenger pointed out, were all somewhere on that train.
The trip would have been a relaxing vacation, had I been able to appreciate it. My cabin was small but comfortable, with a large window. We had delicious, multi-course meals and free wine tastings. The other passengers were very friendly, even though they were mostly twice my age, and the scenery was stunning. Every time we stopped, we could get off to stretch our legs and marvel at beautiful mountains in Jasper, windswept plains in a tiny town in Saskatchewan, or a musical festival and fireworks in Winnipeg. Through it all, I was either crying or about ten minutes away from crying, but those fireworks helped to lift my misery.
I felt guilty that I wasn’t appreciating this amazing experience for which I’d paid so little. It’s hard to imagine I will be able to do that again, financially speaking, and VIA doesn’t seem to offer the same kind of discount these days. With only the bust of Shakespeare for company, I was free to do whatever I wanted, whether it was read or sit in the half-glass observation car and count stars. It was a rare feeling, to be so far from everyone I knew and have no immediate obligations, and I wish I had realized that at the time.
I still enjoy taking the train, especially when I start from the opulent Great Hall in Toronto’s Union Station. It may not be Poirot-level glamor, but it does feel like something from another era. Train travel takes longer than a plane and is more expensive than a bus, but sometimes meandering can be worth it. Maybe I needed those four days to be sad so I could rejoin the world like a real person. Maybe I needed to look at all that scenic wilderness to appreciate where I’d come from, where I was going, and how lucky I was to experience both.
If you ever take The Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, here’s what you can expect: On the first morning, you wake up as the sun rises over the mountains. Later, you get to stop and stretch your legs in breathtaking Jasper and count the hay bales in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and spot the lakes that dot Northern Ontario. There are prairies and wild animals and so many trees.
If you’re as lucky as I was, you even see fireworks in Winnipeg, and they make you feel a little better, just for a minute, about how different your life is going to be when you reach your destination.
Kathleen Keenan is an editor and writer in Toronto. She contributes at Book Riot, writes a monthly newsletter for a local bookstore, and blogs about what she’s reading. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenMKeenan if you’re interested in tweets about books, cheese, and Nancy Drew.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.
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