Band on the Run: The Gatineau Choo-Choo

I just got back from a weekend in Wakefield, Quebec. I’m at home for one day between tours and as I’m typing this, the train whistle is calling me from across the fields through my open windows. Whenever I hear it, and provided I’m not completely indisposed, I go to the window and watch the train pass. I love watching it flicker through the trees, emerge along the neighbouring fields and then disappear into the distance.

The country is beautiful out here.

Trains are also amazing pieces of machinery. In Wakefield, they have a century-old steam train – one of the few remaining working steam engines in Canada – that runs up and down the Gatineau Hills. It is a tourist attraction and I was right in there too, snapping pictures and smiling. I especially loved the sounds it makes. It really sounds just like a cartoon train with its “choo choo” and “chug-a-chug-a.” You can almost hear it whispering “I think I can, I think I can” as it gathers speed and rolls away.

Wakefield is its turning point (i.e. it actually turns around in Wakefield), which is a sight to behold.

The train gets turned around on what is called a train turntable. When the engine is pointing back the other way again, caboose taking up the rear, it chugs on back to whence it came.

The people working on the train helped to push it around, including the musicians. I couldn’t resist the punny jokes about musicians being turntablists on the side. Imagine being employed to strum your guitar on a train with the caveat that you had to be on the “train turning” crew at half time! Such a mixed list of workplace expectations! It made me smile.

My friend works at CN and talks regularly about the environmental impact of planes and automobiles versus the lighter footprint of rail travel. Trains use up to 70% less energy and cause up to 85% less air pollution when compared to a jet. They use 17 times less fuel versus a jet and 5 times less than a car per passenger kilometre. (source.) Think of how many tractor-trailers we could take off the road if we were to put more of our tax dollars into repairing rail lines and renewing efforts to promote rail transport! It boggles the mind.

I was walking alongside of this tourist train with my friend Virginia and her son, Rowan. Virginia is my drummer Cheryl’s partner and together they have this perfect three-year old whose little voice saying “choo choo” was enough to melt me into a puddle of goo right there. He was so excited about the train, (which he was correctly calling a “steam engine,”) that we had to walk its length so we could see it all as it was preparing to roll away. He kept saying “Look Mommy! It’s the conductor!” or “Look Mommy! Look at the steam!”

I followed them slowly, snapping photographs and feeling wistful. My friend’s father drove trains for a living and he passed away a few years ago now. She’s told me stories about getting to ride with him when she was a kid and I wondered if she was as excited as Rowan was right now, exclaiming the whole time to her “Papa” about what she was seeing around her. What a thrill it is for a kid to just see a train up close, let alone get to ride with the conductor! I made a mental note to ask her about those experiences the next time I see her.

When we got to the engine it was giving off shimmering rays of heat, so much so that I had to stand back a bit out of its aura. The conductor, wearing the requisite overalls, sat in his little area in the engine car equipped with a window opening large enough for him to lean out of, one summer-tanned arm dangling over the edge like the train were his personal roadster. He tipped his striped blue and a white cap for the tourists and pulled the whistle from a string above his head, just like in the cartoons, and the steam billowed upwards with a woosh. It was all so storybook-like that I just stood there gaping at the thing, captivated.

As it pulled away, we waved to all the strangers who smiled and waved back. Each face looked happy to be waved at, as though they were the only ones we were seeing and bidding farewell to. The illusion was perfect; everyone could feel special when we were waving from the platform because (separated by the tall seats) they couldn’t see their fellow passengers waving back as well. Though regardless, the smiles were genuine. I think the charm of the experience reflected in everyone’s eyes. How could it not?

When the caboose finally passed by us it was like the flop of a dragon’s tail before it disappeared into the ocean. The sound of the train moving into the distance bounced off the river water – the perfect reverb on the fade-out to a perfect evening scene. We watched it weave around the angles of the river and leave Wakefield behind. Rowan was sad to see it go and wanted to follow it, but his Mommy reminded him that there’d be another one the next day and we could see it again. He perked up quickly. Not much keeps that little voice from sounding sunny.

And now as I’m writing this, I’m wistful again. There’s something about having been around the new joy of a three-year old that can remind a grown-up exactly how beautiful everything really is. Well, that’s what it did for me.

As I leaned out my upstairs window today and watched the train, I thought about how every moment can be complete if we just give it the space to be filled. Watching the train pass by at my house takes about two or three minutes, but they were the best three minutes I have spent all day.

I’m glad I took the time.