by Eva Kent
Picking up the VIA Destinations magazine from the ticket counter at the train station, I saw that the main topic of the September issue was “What Do Men Want?” I realized this would make for painful reading material.
The night before I had been stood up by a Canadian guy I really liked who worked at the Victoria Youth Hostel where I was staying. In search of something therapeutic, I decided to take the Malahat, VIA Rail Canada’s train service that runs up and down the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
I told the ticket agent that I wanted to go to Courtenay, the last stop on the line, and return the same day. She stopped me, saying, “If you are looking for a day trip, it would be much nicer to get off at Qualicum Beach.” She explained that I would have two hours before the train returned to look around downtown and get something to eat. “Okay,” I said, thinking that she was right. I might as well enjoy my excursion by exploring a new place.
Minutes later the two silver railcars that were to whisk me away from Victoria arrived. Everyone pushed toward the entrance, reminding me of competing to get on an overcrowded bus in San Francisco. Once onboard, I found a window seat and put my things on the adjoining chair.
As we moved away from the city, I watched the buildings slip out of sight, while listening to the commentary of the older couple behind me.
The man read the slogan on the Trackside Café out loud: “Welcome to the
Wrong Side of the Tracks.”
“Isn’t that cute?” his wife offered. The owner of the café came out and waved at the train as we blew past him. I felt comfortable sitting there, listening to others appreciate the scenery, and recognizing that the people in Victoria made a special effort to appreciate us at the same time.
I pulled out the railway’s magazine I had stuffed into my backpack. I was curious to see if any of its answers to “What do Men Want?” would apply to my sad situation. It claimed that today’s Canadian man is becoming more in touch with his feminine side. Really? It didn‘t seem
like that to me. A Canadian guy might have fashion sense or a cute accent, but that’s all a facade. The inside is still all male, and unfathomable to me. Downcast, I put the magazine away.
Looking out the window with my arms crossed, and head against the rest, I saw that we were passing through early morning forest. It was nine a.m. and a morning haze settled on the wooded land, creating a mystical charm. The ferns that lined the track waved at us with their alien-like tentacles.
This eerie scene did not last long.
We came out of the protected forest and found ourselves passing over a deep gorge. The train slowed down as we went over a freestanding bridge. I leaned forward in my seat, attempting to examine the mountains across the bay and the tops of trees that were below the train all at the same time. The passengers were excited, some so much so that they got out of their seats to take in the view. For a moment I forgot my troubles and was wrapped up in a new and wonderful experience. A few minutes after that, we passed over another bridge with an equally amazing view.
Lots of “oohs” and “ahh’s” were exchanged between passengers. As the train moved on, we went through one short tunnel in a mountain lining the bay, and the scenery became tamer. The land was once again flat and covered with forest.
The train stopped at a series of quaint communities. I was especially taken by the serenity of Shawaigan, a community built around a large lake of the same name. The longest stop we made was at Namaimo, a town with connection points to various activities on the island as well as a harbor where passengers could catch a ferry to the mainland. The train rested for about fifteen minutes so people could buy snacks from a lunch truck since there was no on-board food service. As we traveled through the town I heard the man behind me say, “Oh look another Wendy’s! You know it’s a big town when they got two of something.”
Three and a half hours into the trip we made it to Qualicum Beach. There I took the ticket agent’s advice. I had lunch and walked around the small downtown area. Deciding against going to the beach, I sat in front of the closed historical museum located across the street from the station. The bench was at the start of a trail leading into the forest. The ground was soft, with inches of fallen pine needles, and moist from the morning dew. I noticed that the people downtown said hello when they passed me; when people walking the trail passed me, they said hello too. Coming from California, I am unaccustomed to strangers acknowledging me, but it felt good—especially since I was experiencing a lot of lonely feelings on my solo trip.
As the time neared for the train to return I walked across the street to wait for it at the station.
Two older couples were also waiting to be picked up. One lady said, “I’m glad you are all here. I didn’t think the train would know to stop.”
This was my first time boarding a train from a station in the middle of a small community. It was like waiting for the bus. Pretty soon we heard the train whistle and then saw the train come around the bend. The train was framed on both sides of the track by thin, new-growth trees.
I realize that people wave at trains all of the time, but there was something extraordinary about how people responded to the Malahat. The return trip was later in the day, and kids were out playing. At the same sleepy lake community we went through earlier, parents and children waved at us as we went by. When we were on the outskirts of Victoria, the train whistle blew as we plowed through someone’s backyard. There was a party of about twenty people who simultaneously turned away from their BBQ preparation to wave wildly at us with big smiles; some even took their hats off to us. It was a welcome that I never expected.
When the train made it back to town, I felt nervous and excited because I had to face the person who was the cause of my earlier grief. The memory of people being so open to the presence of the train and acknowledging me one-on-one gave me courage to move on. I could face the man who broke my heart and I could do a million other challenging things with a little encouragement from strangers. I walked the few blocks to the hostel and felt my heart beating against my chest. From behind the reception counter he asked, “Where were you?”
“On the train,” I said with dignity.
The Malahat leaves once daily from Victoria, B.C. at 8:15 a.m., Monday
through Saturday and 12 p.m. on Sunday.
It leaves from Courtenay, B.C. at 1:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday and 5:15 on Sunday.
The trip is four and a half hours between Victoria and Courtenay. Arrive at Victoria
station, 450 Pandora Avenue, 30 minutes before train is due, to order
tickets. VIA offers discount ticket prices if trip is booked seven days
in advance, totaling $58 CAD- $47 USD for the whole distance roundtrip.
Day of tickets for the same is $95 CAD-$76 USD. The price for roundtrip
between Victoria and Qualicum Beach, B.C. the day of is $64 CAD-$51 USD.
For reservations call 1 888 VIA-RAIL
(1 888 842-7245).
Or visit www.viarail.ca.
No on board food service. Lunch truck provided at Nanaimo station. You
are encouraged to bring your own snacks.
For visitors information about Qualicum Beach, B.C. visit
www.qualicumbeach.com/ and for Victoria, B.C. check out