THE TRAIN: THE PRAIRIE
With a succession of metallic creaks, the train slowed as we approached Winnipeg. The smudged floodlights of industrial plants mingled with the long streaks of dawn until the sky blossomed into a clear blue arc from horizon to horizon.
To facilitate the change of train crews, etc., we had an entire morning free to roam. We took advantage of the halt to join a guided tour in a people carrier led by an amiable gent called Dr. Phil. He had some interesting stories.
Admittedly Winnipeg, known as ‘the Gateway to the Prairie Provinces’, is the capital of Manitoba, but the splendour of its State House and other public buildings seemed to suggest that a far larger role had been planned for the city than its current population of under a million might suggest.
It turned out that the original settlers had spotted the geographical fact that the city lay just sixty miles north of the US border, and just sixty miles south of the long impassable streak of Lake Winnipeg. Therefore they reasoned that all national rail traffic between the Atlantic and the Pacific must pass through their town. Ker-ching!
With huge optimism they built big and by 1911 it was Canada’s third largest metropolis. Then in 1914, the Panama Canal opened – as did the trapdoor beneath the hopes of Winnipeg. The city still thrived but to this day seems to be wearing a civic and architectural suit that is several sizes too large.
Dr. Phil said that the name of the city came from the First Nation Cree word for ‘Muddy Waters’ (which must come as a surprise to Rhythm and Blues fans). It was an apt title as the confluence of local rivers and poor drainage meant that flooding was rife; also that during the summer months, the inhabitants were plagued by mosquitoes. During the winter months, temperatures could reach minus fifty degrees – in fact three days before our arrival, it had been minus thirty.
All this information seemed to collaborate an impression that I had picked up in Toronto – that Winnipeg was regarded by the rest of Canada as a bit of a joke city – a combination of remoteness, bugs, and dreadful weather. Truth to tell, though, I rather liked the place. Also, by chance, it had left an indelible mark on world literature.
In 1914, a Winnipeg soldier en route to the First World War had taken a bear cub with him. Arriving in England he donated the animal to London Zoo where it was christened with the name ‘Winnipeg the Bear’. A writer named AA Milne decided to take his son Christopher Robin to see the new exhibit – a visit that led to the creation of the probably immortal ‘Winnie the Pooh’. Thank you, Winnipeg!
In comparison to the blood-drenched convolutions of Europe, the city did not have much local history to relate, though one story did emerge. In 1871 a group of Irish Republican Fenians planned an invasion of Manitoba and Winnipeg itself. Moving north from their base in Minnesota, USA, they crossed over the border and captured a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and a customs house in what they believed was Canada. Unfortunately two years earlier a survey team had placed the real boundary several miles further north of their invasion point. As they were still on United States territory they were arrested by United States soldiers. They were later released on the grounds that they were idiots.
We returned to the station and boarded the train. As we pulled out of Winnipeg I saw a crowd of people skating away up the frozen Red River.
Then we began to travel through some of the most remarkable country I had ever seen. It was impressive simply because of its sheer lack of features – just endless white snow fields stretching in every direction for hundreds of miles. With a pure blue sky above, all day the sun glinted on the empty immensity of ice below. Occasionally one could see a clump of trees presumably acting as a wind break for an isolated farm – in the haze of distance they reminded me of phantom green ships on a white ocean.
There is a Canadian saying that sums up the vastness and flatness of the prairie: ‘If your dog runs off, you can still watch him running three days later.’
It brought back to me Oscar Wilde’s own experiences in 1882. He crossed the America continent way to the south, of course, and through desert rather than snow. But he spent six days on a similar sort of train going from Omaha to San Francisco. He was not as enamoured of the experience as myself:
‘I don’t know where I am, but I am among canyons and coyotes – one is a sort of fox, the other a deep ravine: I don’t know which is which, but it does not really matter in the West’.
He added that the plains reminded him of a piece of blotting paper and the only diversion for the passengers was shooting prairie dogs from the train windows.
‘The desolate prairie, the alkali plains, convey the impression that Nature has given up the job of decorating the country, so vast its size, in absolute despair’.
Every hour or so we would come across another small railway town, another legacy of Macdonald and Van Horne’s foresight. The one with the most romantic name was Portage La Prairie. Originating obviously from the French, this referred to the fur trappers’ method of carrying their canoes across the open ground from river to river.
Fur trapping effectively having disappeared as an industry, the people of the region seem to have moved on to the cultivation of wheat – at least in summer. Stephen Leacock said of the Prairie Provinces: “The Lord said ‘let there be wheat’ and Saskatchewan was born.”
Train in Manitoba
As the day wore on another more recent passage of life on the plains returned to me. Although again occurring south of the border, it seemed entirely in keeping with the present landscape. Back in the UK in the 1970s I had been told a story about the English band Uriah Heep, then at the height of their heavy metal/prog rock stage. One December they arrived to play a Christmas gig in a North Dakota city. Having finished their concert in a crescendo of whirling sound, the rock gods strode majestically offstage. They then discovered that both they and their thousand strong audience were marooned by a blizzard that had completely blocked all the exits. It took two days to clear the paths and roads out of town, during which time Uriah Heep had to keep up the spirits of their fans by performing everything they knew. They were reduced to nursery songs by the end of the second day.
It might be assumed that the relentlessness of the view could become boring. My experience was the opposite. Every time I looked out of the window it seemed like the recreation of yet another landscape masterpiece of the High Dutch School – it was a Renaissance Holland that went on forever.
The sun sank lower and the shadows lengthened over the snow. I watched as the sky above the observation car slid from blue to purple to black. It was entirely hypnotic.
It was on this second night that I discovered that I was not the only performer on board the train. Sean and I walked to the last carriage after dinner and found a young woman called Shawna Caspi intently tuning her guitar. She was a Toronto-based folk singer on her way to a five-stop tour of Alberta. She added that she was being paid and provided with a free train ride in return for entertaining the passengers. Damn it – I had really missed a trick here. To make things even more galling the train remained stationary throughout her whole one hour set.
She was a top class act in the traditional Joan Baez style. Amongst other songs, she gave engaging renditions of that classic American railroad ballad ‘City of New Orleans’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Lonesome Hobo’, and then in our honour the Beatles ‘Let It Be’. The song over which she dwelt most lovingly was ‘Both Sides Now’ by Joni Mitchell whom she described as ‘the golden girl of Saskatchewan’.
Suddenly something dawned on me that was so obvious that I was amazed it had never crossed my mind before. This patch of the Great Plains – on the face of it a flat featureless wasteland – had produced a cultural phenomenon that could match anywhere else on earth. Out of a triangle spanning two or three hundred miles, in Canadian terms practically next door, had emerged not just Joni Mitchell but two more of the greatest song writers of the twentieth century: Neil Young and – although American (born in Hibbing only one hundred miles south of the border) – Bob Dylan.
Neil Young, whose best known song the autobiographical ‘Helpless’ started with the line: ‘There is a town in North Ontario’. Bob Dylan, who on his album ‘Planet Waves’ wrote an elegiac song about his adolescence called ‘Something There is About You’, containing the lines:
‘Rainy days on the Great Lakes, Walkin’ the hills of old Duluth’.
Thinking further, there was Gordon Lightfoot, writer of the haunting ‘Early Morning Rain’ – born in Ontario. Then Buffy Saint-Marie, who composed ‘Universal Soldier’, ‘Up Where You Belong’, and that savage indictment of settler brutality ‘Soldier Blue’ – born on a First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan. Then the superb singer K.D. Lang – born in Alberta.
It was K.D. Lang who wrote that most mystically Canadian of anthems ‘Barefoot in the Snow’. If there is a better song to describe a winter’s dusk on the prairie, I don’t know it.
“When the sun goes down here / And darkness falls / The blanket of winter / Leaves no light at all” ……. “You hear the howling / Of dogs and wind / Stirring up the secrets / That are frozen within.”
Between them, they have created an extraordinary musical poetry of the endless Great Plains – the children and troubadours of the prairie.
Incidentally Rosemary had mentioned K.D. Lang back in Toronto. She said that the good folk of Alberta hadn’t kicked up much of a fuss when they discovered that their native daughter was lesbian, but they were furious when they found out that she was also a vegetarian.
By 9pm, we reached the town of Melville and climbed off the train to stretch our legs. Fresh snow had fallen and a bitter wind swept the ill-lit platform. By the light of a flickering torch I read a tourist brochure. It appeared that Melville had been named after yet another railroad president, one Charles Melville Hays. His only claim to fame seems to have been that he had drowned in the Titanic disaster. I looked around the deserted station, shivered, and returned to the bunk.
The train jerked and shunted and then glided forward towards Saskatoon. I had always thought that Saskatoon was the capital of Saskatchewan – it sounded right. However it now turned out that the real capital was Regina. Actually, Regina’s original name would have sounded far better than either of them. The First Nation people had used the area as their main killing ground for bison and habitually left the carcasses to rot. Hence the district became known as ‘Pile O’ Bones’. When the territory was turned into a state, the inhabitants decided that this name was too undignified for a provincial capital and changed it, in a boring tribute to Queen Victoria, to Regina. Pile O’ Bones would have been much more fun.
I had noticed earlier in a newspaper that Saskatoon had recently acquired a slightly sinister reputation. In response to a rise in violent crime the city police had reputedly engaged in a practice called ‘starlight tours’. This involved officers arresting homeless First Nation men, driving them out into the country in the dead of winter, and then abandoning them out there.
This felt very much at odds with a quality that struck me as quintessentially Canadian – what appeared to be the national pursuit of racial harmony. In fact, it was rare to find a country that seemed so doggedly determined to support tolerance.
I wondered whether Canadian history might be responsible. Firstly, whereas the Americans saw the ‘Red Indians’ as a pest to be eradicated, the rivalry between the British and the French meant that the First Nation tribes were useful military allies who, if upset, could defect to the other side. Hence the comparatively diplomatic handling of the indigenous peoples. Then, especially in the West, the building of the railways in the 19th century had necessitated the immigration of thousands of Chinese labourers who, despite some appallingly bad treatment, had become a permanent minority. In addition, the cohabitation of Europeans and the First Nation had produced the mixed race Métis. Then came the influx of East Europeans to populate the prairies. Finally, the uneasy balance between the British and French meant that racial tolerance became perforce a norm in Canadian political life.
However, both in Toronto and Winnipeg I had heard the same argument – that Canada was not interested in ‘multi-culturalism’ but more in a ‘mosaic’ of peoples. It thrived on ‘Little Italys’, ‘Little Polands’, and ‘Little Tahitis’ (admittedly in this climate the latter was quite rare). But the idea of ‘starlight tours’ seemed an aberration.
Staring out of the window into the blank darkness I spotted one solitary light. It could have been fifty, even one hundred miles away. But nothing else – just one lunatic lonesome light. Who the hell lived there? I went to sleep.