Homecoming in a strange city

THE mode of travel often defines the flavor of a trip. When I travel by plane, I grit my teeth, hang on, and wait for it all to be over. On a train, I can't do this. The clank and squeak of the metal joinings and the constant clackety monotone of wheels on the rails measure out the slow miles. I ease into the journey, slumping into my seat, and unshackle my thoughts, letting them drift out to where the train's lone whistle sounds. I like trains. This is why I boarded the VIA Rail train at 11:59 p.m. at Brownville Junction, Maine, lifting my two sleepy kids gently to their seats. We would be two days traveling the northern route to Sudbury, Ontario, and a half day coming south along the Thousand Island chain of Georgian Bay to our destination, Parry Sound.

Brownville Junction is not a large town. The signs for entering and leaving the town are nearly back to back. But its train station is international, since it services both American freight and the Canadian VIA Rail line. Two passenger trains whistle through each day, the eastbound from Montreal at 3:05 a.m. and the westbound from Halifax, the one we were boarding.

We arrived at an unlit station. A light flicked on in the stationmaster's office - customs slips needed distributing. Then a long train whistle pierced the stillness and an engine inched its cars past and jerked to a halt.

We hurried to the far end of the platform to board. We needn't have hurried, but something about boarding seems to require it. We settled ourselves, waving from our window into the blackness. Leaving someone behind also seems required for a journey, and we saw my husband's silhouette blow us a warm farewell as we lurched and squealed forward.

The train groaned forward and trundled around the bend of Lac M'egantic with mist wisping off the gray water into the cooler air above, and I watched the pale changes of the horizon as we entered the lush flatlands of the broad St. Lawrence River Basin on our approach to Montreal.

The Montreal train station is clean and crowded with shops and the irresistible smells of pastries and fresh bread. We bought sticky doughnuts and sat on an old baggage lorry listening to the lilt of Quebec French floating around us. Our boarding light flashed, and we stumbled forward under our luggage, a comical procession down the steep steps to the loading platform.

We crossed into the Ottawa River Valley, narrower than the St. Lawrence and rimmed by gentle hills. Logs, rafted into expansive floating mats, told of the more northerly industries that clog the rivers with their harvest. We veered out of the valley at Mattawa, a border town between Quebec and Ontario, and moved out onto the bold outcroppings of the Laurentian shield - a mountain range, weathered and tamed by 4 billion years of rain and ice, exposing some of the oldest rock in the world. Sudbury sits on this ancient shield, mining the reddish stains out of the rock to produce nickel.

The outskirts of Sudbury are unmistakable. The acrid, sulfurous fumes from the nickel smelters have smothered plant growth, leaving a moonscape of barren, rocky domes. As the sun burned an orange glow into the low western sky, the train wound us through this surrealistic approach and finally to the Sudbury station.

We were tired. We were hot. And I had not known that Sudbury was so much a city. The station is in a section where street people linger through the night and darkened doorways are marked with blinking neon arrows and broken windows. I asked a policeman about guesthouses. He said to try elsewhere. We walked quickly, sweating through the traffic.

A guesthouse, nested in bright geraniums and red framing, held promises of a haven. I saw empty rooms through the lace-curtained windows. I knocked. The door was cracked open and a cold face with a thin, stiff mouth told us they were full.

We roamed down Paris Avenue to Red Cross Boulevard. A stylish Tudor house with rubbed woodwork and brass door lamps was hung with a small sign - Paris Guest House. They had rooms. I asked the price - an absurd question. I would have paid anything. It was reasonable and gracious. The hostess brought us cold juice and butter tarts. We sat in the cooling breeze of a balcony. We slept in a feather bed. It was a homecoming in a strange city. Just as a trip requires the excitement of anticipation, so it requires the thrill and wear of the unexpected to appreciate the gentle ease of a homecoming.

I let the residual sway of the long trip rock me deep into the bed. The morning train would complete our trip, connecting the two pinpoints, barely readable on our map, with its ribbon of rail, and I was satisfied in knowing that I had seen what lay between.

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