From outside the train you can absorb views of British Columbia like this. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
“No Internet”: when I hear those two words, they’re highlighted in my mind with a yellow marker. They’re the kind of words that can inspire panic when said at the wrong time. Now I was hearing them again days before my first train trip.
I should add that I love going off the grid when it means camping in the outdoors – witness my four-day adventure in Death Valley or my worm-eating survival camp with Bear Grylls. But sitting still in a train car for the better part of two days while making the 594-mile journey west through the Canadian Rocky Mountains with no cell reception or Wi-Fi was a different challenge. A challenge of impulses.
It’s one thing to unplug while you’re hiking in the cold or tumbling gleefully down sand dunes. But when I have no such obvious activities to indulge, my hands have a way of reaching for my phone or my laptop without my head even realizing it. Did my friend text me back? What breaking news was I missing? And what is the score of the Denver Broncos game right now?
I was ignorant to all those things for two days while heading on a Rocky Mountaineer train from Banff, Alberta, to Vancouver in September, except for an overnight hotel stop in a small town called Kamloops. But I was also reminded that ignorance can be bliss when you travel, because of the memories you can only make offline.
One of the many Canadian river-side views we had on the 594-mile ride. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
While many cruise lines are rushing to add or improve Internet service on their ships to satisfy customer demand, Rocky Mountaineer doesn’t include Wi-Fi on its trains. I’m told there was some debate about the policy, but I urge them to stick with it after getting a good nudge from my comfort zone.
This was my first time taking a train for the purpose of actually enjoying the ride (Amtrak commuter routes don’t count). Both days required us to travel from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Figuring out how best to fill that time became a sort of puzzle. Do I read? Eat? Talk to someone? Or look out the window? For a chronic time-maximizer like myself, these were no small questions.
The fall colors were out in full force in areas like this. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
But they were questions worth answering. Where I might have tried catching up on work emails that first morning as we left Banff, I threw on my jacket and went outside to the vestibule from the train’s rear, where the 40-degree autumn air hit me in the face as I stared at the wide expanse as my legs learned how to keep their balance. The wind chill was making my hands go numb while I took pictures, so eventually I put my camera away, closed my eyes, and just listened to the metronomic clickety-clack of the rails.
Exiting Alberta and entering British Columbia, we skirted the fault line that separates the Rocky Mountains from the Columbia Mountains. I would have loved to post an Instagram of the towering peaks that made me look up at them the same way I’ve craned my neck to examine the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps with cell reception I would have immediately shared a photo of crossing the steel bridges that contrasted beautifully with the surrounding green, gold, and red foliage, and in the case of the Stoney Creek Bridge looked down 3,500 feet. But instead I just admired them.
Looking up, up, and higher up at the Canadian Rockies. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Other ways I passed some time: eating breakfast, then eating lunch, playing “train bingo” with some other media folks where we tried to be the first to spot a certain animal (which included a black bear and bighorn sheep), waving to random people we passed by, and noting how the trees changed with the landscape – spruce and aspen the first day, cedar and cottonwood the second. Occasionally I got bored, sat there, and did nothing. Even boredom, I remembered, is a luxury to enjoy sometimes.
One of the Cisco Bridges overlooking the Fraser River. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
I didn’t talk to many passengers that first day – cue description of myself as an introvert – and it felt awkward at times because almost everyone on the train was about 30 years older than me. But the more I talked to them and learned their stories, the more this turned from passing time to actual fun.
Outside and inside the Rocky Mountaineer train. (Photos: Greg Keraghosian)
I sat next to Elaine and Herb, a couple from Buffalo, N.Y., who were celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary – is there a building, yet alone a marriage, that lasts 57 years anymore? Herb talked to me about making his living as a bus driver, reminisced about his wilder days, and wondered how his Buffalo Bills were doing that day. Which mirrored my own questions about whether my beloved Broncos were beating the Minnesota Vikings (as it turns out they did).
A mix of green and gold in the British Columbia mountains. (Photos: Greg Keraghosian)
During breakfast on my second day, a retiree from outside Vancouver who grew up on a farm showed me how to spot bald eagles from afar – and there were a lot of them fishing for salmon along the Thompson River on our left. We saw so many bald eagles in a row at one point, it was becoming routine.
At lunch I sat next to another older couple from the South who hit me with the best story of all: they had gone to high school together but were just friends. After graduating they married other people, started families, and pursued careers. Then they both became widowed, and 45 years after high school, they found each other on Facebook. One message led to another, which led to her paying him a nervous visit, which led to them getting married. Which led to me hearing about all this. And I wonder if I would have heard it I had a Wi-Fi signal to lean on.
Saying goodbye to Elaine and Herb. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The texts and emails hit me with a flurry as nature receded and we entered Vancouver. I took a picture with Elaine and Herb to remember them by, stepped onto terra firma, and was back in my digital dizziness within minutes. I don’t know when my next train ride will be, but the words “no Internet” will be a little less panic-inducing when it happens.
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