ABOARD THE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER IN WESTERN CANADA — The land, baronial and steep, dwarfs this 20-car train as it snakes through the wilderness.
Go ahead, smudge your nose up against the wide windows. Slip outside into the warm, pine-scented vestibule between the cars.
At times, the Canadian Rockies seem one misty dreamscape. There are almost too many thrashing waterfalls, too many forests, too many vistas that look as though they've never been hiked.
Grizzly bears, elk, moose and big-horned sheep still roam these rugged canyons. Signs of civilization are so few that you feel as though you're an explorer seeing North America for the very first time.
In midsummer, the Canadian Rockies are a giant breath mint, with this rail line the iron thread on which Canada moved west, built vast hotel-castles to draw the rich and the royal, then commissioned artists to capture it on canvas and spread the word back East.
Photographer Al Seib and I are riding this famed rail system, privately owned and deftly run. It is Canada Day — July 1 — not a bad time to start a 23-hour, 600-mile jaunt across the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta and up and over the Continental Divide.
Ride the friendly rails
Two hours out of Vancouver, and our Rocky Mountaineer crew can't do enough for us.
Were I a vice president of human resources, I would send trainees here for lessons on how to listen, look people in the eye, follow through on requests.
Tea, coffee, stories. Lots and lots of stories. Four guides tend to our 68-seat, bubble-topped car as it passes through the lush Fraser Valley of British Columbia.
"It's pretty good right now," says one of the guides of the tunnels of trees. "But tomorrow it gets amazing."
Canada, of course, follows a west-to-east topography similar to that of the Lower 48. The coast is as green as your kale salad, but moving east you hit scratchy stretches. The Canadian desert is far from desolate, but it is rocky and relatively dry — and makes up much of your first day.
In all, the Rocky Mountaineer railway offers four routes through western Canada, most winding around postcard-perfect Banff and Jasper. The tours, starting at less than $1,000, begin or end in Vancouver or Calgary (the last leg from Banff to Calgary is about 11/2 hours by bus); the railway is launching a Seattle segment in August.
They are the best way to cross the Continental Divide, elegant and easy, the domed cars roomier than a first-class jet cabin, with two plush fabric seats and plenty of legroom on each side of the aisle.
Air travel has become basic public transit, but rail travel in western Canada is still a bit of an indulgence: tablecloths and silverware, fresh orchids. "More coffee, sir?" is a familiar query, whether you are in the dining car or relaxing with a book at your window seat.
This region has a rep as a deep, relentless wilderness. How does it differ from our Sierra? More trees, billions probably, all of them washed and watered by a rich, cerulean watershed.
"The Bow," Rudyard Kipling wrote of the Alberta river that some say is the greatest trout stream in Canada, "does not slide or rustle like prairie rivers, but brawls across bars of blue pebbles, and a greenish tinge in the water hints of snow."
"Brawls" is the operative word there. Western Canada is nature brawling.
One unexpected perk of train travel is the camaraderie. I don't know that we're lucky in this regard, for folks who choose a trip like this have similar sensibilities and self-sort.
Dolores Vitullo, a pediatric cardiologist from Chicago, is gifting her great-nephew, Mike Krebs, with this vacation as a graduation present.
Marty Lesh, a retired oil manager from New Jersey, is here with Sue Kaplan, who works in healthcare. Crystal Eid, a mother from Melbourne, Australia, is here with two sons and both of her parents. Duke professor Elizabeth Ross and her mother, Mary Frank from Michigan, make up the rest of our instant club.
We have nothing in common, other than curiosity about this train and the vast region it runs through. That is all it takes.
We sit together in the dining car for the thickest pancakes you ever saw, then with other folks at lunch (pork tenderloin with apple confit). In between, we point out wildlife or kibitz about past travels.
The only real ding on this Rocky Mountaineer trip comes late on the first day, on an unseasonably warm afternoon, when the rear of our clear-roofed car heats up like a terrarium.
Repairmen work on the AC overnight, then attach a spare car, just in case, for the next day. The Australian tour group seated in the warm areas remain good sports, though their tour director looks ready to explode.
Yes, they work on the train overnight, which reminds me of one key detail: These are daylight trips. To sleep through scenery like this would be a travel crime.
So this touring train stops in the evenings, and passengers bunk at above-average hotels. After 285 miles the first day, the 500 passengers aboard this trip are in Kamloops, a town I'd never heard of.
It turns out to be a lovely Canadian outpost, rich in rivers and copper mines, though the teenagers sport an alarming number of tattoos. I have to get over that, but so far I can't.
After a lamb burger at an uncommonly good brew pub called the Noble Pig, we close Canada Day — its version of Fourth of July — with fireworks over the Thompson River.
The show doesn't start till almost 11 p.m., making for a long first leg of our adventure. But you're in Kamloops only once in your life, right?
Well, let's hope.
Scenery and salmon poems
Oh, I kid the Kamloopians because I love them. But Day 2 aboard the train is why we're really here. Day 2 is a photo feast. Day 2 is Shangri-La.
Starts early — we have to be in the lobby of the Hotel 540 at 6:15 a.m. for a 7 a.m. departure, and nobody is late. We will cross seven rivers in our 13-hour day, passing lakes too numerous to count, marveling over Class 5 rapids wicked enough to carry a Chrysler.
And let me say this: Bald eagles are the celebrities of the animal kingdom — fans go nuts when they spot one. There are maybe a dozen along this route, too many to count.
Our primary narrator on the trip, Carlo Myles, has a following almost equally intense. The women on the train speculate about his age. He is kind of a Canadian Jimmy Fallon — comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time but always engaging.
"The lifestyle of the salmon is really quite interesting," he says as the train lumbers across the wilderness. "And it might be a menu item later."
Carlo actually recites a salmon poem: "I hesitate to be unkind, but salmon have a one-track mind …" that is probably more endearing in person than in print (see Web video clip). He challenges the passengers to create poems of their own, then his co-host Charlie Millar tells a moose story. Ainsleigh Dawiskiba, another host, announces that, at 9:30 a.m., happy hour has begun.
This rail trip involves a couple of long days, and by the time you get off in beautiful Banff, you are rocking back and forth even while standing still. So unsteady are your legs, so fooled is your inner gyroscope, that you'll spend the next several hours thinking you just felt an earthquake.
Two days on a train turns out to be just enough — not too much, not too little.
But they are happy hours, all of them — jovial, outlandishly scenic, hypnotically serene. Clickity-clack, clickity-clack. The afterglow lasts for weeks.
The Rocky Mountaineer may not be for everyone, but almost. And those other folks? Nobody wants them along anyway.