(This excerpt should give you an idea of what my book is about, at least in terms of narrative structure. And if it doesn’t, it needs some serious rewriting. For more about the book, click on “ABOUT ME.”)
The ticket agent at Toronto’s Union Station is trying to save me from myself.
“You’re going to Needles for two days?” she asks, not so much wanting to confirm what I’ve told her, as to give me the opportunity to rethink it.
“I sure am,” I say. Needles, California is going to be my first stop out of Los Angeles on my winter’s train journey from Southern California to the sub-arctic. And I am, in fact, going to spend two days there.
“To visit family or something?” she asks.
“To visit Needles,” I say. “Do you know it?”
“We stayed a night there once, when we drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.”
I have to ask. “Did you find it interesting it all?”
She’s old enough to be a grandmother, and has the big-framed glasses and large, round cheeks to suit the part. When she smiles, as she does now, her cheeks elevate the glasses off the bridge of her nose. “Noooo,” she says, with an indulgent and amused tone I suspect she normally reserves for her grandchildren. “Needles isn’t interesting. The only thing to see there is a giant thermometer. Because it’s the hottest place in the country. Besides the giant thermometer, hon, there’s nothing to see.”
We’re silent a moment. She, because she’s hoping I’ll do for myself what she would do if only her job would allow it, and shorten my two-day visit to Needles by, let’s say, two days. Me, because, there’s an unkind place in my heart that’s enjoying her suffering.
“Great,” I say, finally breaking the silence. “So LA to Needles on February fifteenth, then two days later, it’s Needles to Williams Junction, Arizona.”
She looks at me again.
“The closest Amtrak stop to the Grand Canyon,” I explain.
Satisfied with my answer, she books the ticket.
“And then I guess we jump ahead to my Canadian fares.”
Fortunately for her, Amtrak in the United States and Via Rail in Canada don’t communicate very well. My North American Rail Pass, which will cover the final thirty days of my journey will kick in at Williams Junction, which means I’ll have to take care of my other US fares once I get to LA. The less she’s forced to hear about Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and Grand Forks, North Dakota, I suspect, the happier she’s going to be.
“So what’s the first Canadian trip?” she asks.
“I’ll be leaving Winnipeg on March thirteenth for Grandview, Manitoba.”
She looks at me a moment to see if I’m going to flinch. Maybe give away that she’s on some kind of hidden camera show.
“Grandview?” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “Do you know it?
“Know it? I’ve never even heard of it.” She’s trying to look it up on her computer now, but all this does is make her sigh.
“D-V-I-E-W,” I confirm.
“I can’t find it.” She pulls out a couple of timetables, and hands one across the counter to me, so we can track it down together.
“There it is,” I say. “Page ninety-two.”
“How’d you find it so fast?”
“I looked it up in the index.” An index, in all fairness to her, that I’ve probably consulted more often in the last month than she’s needed to in all her years with Via.
“I don’t see it,” she sighs again. “I see Gladstone.”
“About six further down. Past Glenella, Ochre River, Dauphin.”
“There it is,” she says, relieved. “Must be a whistle-stop or something.”
“It is. If I understand the timetable correctly, it only stops on advance notice to the conductor.” Her brow is furrowed, her computer giving her more trouble. She’s probably not listening to a word I’m saying, but I can’t stop myself. “In fact, it’s small enough that the woman who runs the motel where I’m staying says there’s no station, or even a depot. And since the train only comes through in the middle of the night, and she’s not sure where it stops, she can’t even give me directions to her place. So to keep me from freezing in the cold, she’s going to find out where I get off, and be waiting for me.”
“I need to get the expert,” the ticket agent says, getting up from her work station.
When she walks away, it’s as if I have all of Union Station’s Great Hall to myself…
[it’s here in the book that I stop to wax rhapsodic over Union Station and the experience of train travel]
…The Via ticket agent has returned, looking less burdened than before.
“The expert’s coming over as soon as he can,” she says, sitting at her computer, “and in the mean time, he’s given me a few codes to try. Nope. Not G-R-V-E. Now do you know anyone in Grandview?”
“About as many people as I know in Needles.”
“There it is!” she shouts. “G-V-I-E! Okay, what’s next?”
“Grandview to The Pas, Manitoba. March sixteenth.”
For all the difficulty she has finding The Pas, it might as well be Zanzibar. Or Grandview.
“I’m going to be dreaming a lot tonight,” she says, “and you’re going to be giving me nightmares.”
But she doesn’t fool me. I am now the funnest playmate she’s ever had.
The expert, a slim guy with grey skin, a pock-marked face, and a warm look in his eyes comes up to her. “How’s it going?” he asks.
“This guy’s giving me a hard time. Can you make him go away?”
“Really?” says the expert, giving me the once over. “He seems like a perfectly nice fellow to me.”
“He is nice. But my brain’s not going to be so nice tomorrow. The places he’s going. Hey! The Pas! I’ve got it! What’s next?”
“March eighteenth. The Pas to Churchill, Manitoba.”
“Now that’s a great run,” says the expert. “And the crew will treat you right on that train. Not so many people go when you’re going, though.”
As I’ve learned since first seeing Churchill on the railway map, in November, when tourists come to see the polar bears go out onto the ice, hotels there require thirty days notice for cancellations. In late winter, when I’ll be arriving, with polar bear sightings unlikely, and the only tourist attraction being the Northern Lights – and that, only if they decide to appear – cancellations require one day.
Wisdom would dictate that I wait for more temperate weather, not only for Churchill, but for all my destinations. But that would require patience, and at the moment, patience doesn’t interest me very much. What does interest me is giving life to my inner soft-core deviant, determined to ride the train into Needles, California and Grandview, Manitoba in the middle of winter, and mine the experience for meaning. In fact, I am so giddy over my plan to go to the wrong places at the wrong time that, were I less inhibited, I would jump straight into the air right now and coming down, stamp my feet in syncopated rhythm on the Tennessee marble just to see what kind of echo I could summon, and dance around the Great Hall, doing it over and over again. I even have the illusion at this moment that, were I to think about it, I’d actually believe that self-doubt will not join me on this voyage.
“With that flag stop of yours in Grandview,” says my Via Rail ticket agent grandmother and newfound ally, “I’m going to make a note on your ticket. ‘Throw him out on moose back.’” She sends my tickets through to the printer, my name stamped on each one.