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STEP IT UP! USA Travelogue 2005 - Parts 3-5

  • Submitted by: Steve Roach, United Kingdom
  • Submission Date: 12th May 2006


We have a booking at the Ice Hotel in Quebec, and the only way to get there is via Montreal. Back in the rough itinerary stage, I found that the trains weren’t an option, as one route had us going all the way back to New York for the night and another route had us staying overnight in Albany. The Greyhound bus, however, went straight to Montreal from Boston.
Unfortunately, that meant we had to get back to Boston bus station and be ready to board the bus by ten. That’s after driving back, getting rid of the car, and catching a cab to the station. It’s an early morning start that sees us out of bed just after six am.
We make it as the bus is about to drive away, and the counter staff radios the driver to hang on for us whilst we complete the admin. With no time to grab any refreshments, we literally run to the bus and board, embarking on a nine hour trip through Massachussetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. The further north we get, the more appalling is the weather. The roads are hardly discernible from the verges, but everybody speeds along regardless.
Our driver seems to be a miserable old coot. As well as a passenger vehicle, the bus doubled up with parcel delivery. He knew there were smokers on board, but whenever we stopped, he made no comment, there was no friendly “Five minutes for a smoke, people!” He just cleared off, left the door open, and started unloading. Later, at Burlington, the drivers swapped and a slightly more genial fellow took over, a Lawrence Fishburne lookalike who at least offered us a “Morning!”. Also, another passenger boarded, an older white guy who went straight to the back of the bus and struck up a conversation with himself. He was very funny, at least he thought so, because he was soon chortling away and having the time of his life.
When we stop for immigration at the Canadian border, this guy is ahead of us. He won’t tell the guards where he lives. We pass through another guard, listening to the conversation.
“Where do you live, Sir?”
“Ah, it doesn’t matter. What do you want to know that for? Awww, I’m only gonna be here two weeks. Awww, you people.”
I’m kind of glad of the commotion he causes as it gives us more time for a smoke whilst we wait at the other side, on Canadian soil. Eventually the driver goes back to check what’s happening, and when he returns he says “He has a bag of hunting knives on him. He ain’t getting on my bus.”

We get to Montreal about seven. Walking out of the bus station, I like what I see. It’s open, sprawling, and there are people and shops everywhere. We walk to see where the hotels are and a guy calls us over and says he’ll do us a room for $60 CAN. He’s standing on the doorstep of a small but decent looking hotel, so we go inside and take a look. The room is like a studio flat, but it’s clean and warm and we’re right by the transport links so we agree and check-in.
We leave the bags and head straight out. It seems to be another gay spot but I really like the place anyway. We cross a big, open common and I stop dead at one point because I think I’m on the surface of a pond, but I’m already committed and carry on.
Even the beggars are friendly here. One guy asks us for some money, we tell him no, he tries asking for a smoke. We let him have a couple of cigarettes and he starts to tell us his life story.
We go for a meal at ‘Mike’s’. It seems to be very cheap, but when the bill arrives (sorry, check) we see the drinks are horrendously expensive and there are two taxes to pay - state and provincial. A $60 bill jumps immediately to $70, and when I give the waitress a $4 tip she says “Fifteen per cent is normal,” and adds she’d like $9 instead. Now the meal costs $80, a third more than the [--]hotel!
We walk around the shops some more, and one of the beggars asks us for a job. We tell him we’re not in any position to employ him. Then he asks for some plain old money and we apologise and say the waitress just cleaned us out. He makes do with a couple of smokes and says he’ll sell them for food.
It’s cold here. Parked cars have icicles hanging from the bumpers.

Up early, as is becoming the norm, and we try to get the train to Quebec. We chat with the proprietor whilst we wait for a cab and he tells us Montreal is a brilliant place to be in the Summer. The snow will last until March. This is the first realisation that the weather here really is more than something that affects your choice of coat for the day. The snow and ice is a permanent fixture for about for months a year, and your entire lifestyle revolves around it.
The taxi arrives and takes us to the train station. We have just missed one, and the next isn’t for nearly three hours. We phone the bus station and there’s a bus every hour, they take the same time to get there, and are much cheaper. Before getting another cab to take us back, I try an ATM to get some cash but either the machine or the bank isn’t playing ball. Only mildly concerned at this point, we get a cab and leave.


From Quebec, the cab to the Ice Hotel costs $60 CAN. We disembark at a large wooden building and wander into the reception area. Through the windows, we can see the hotel itself. It looks unfinished. Diggers and people are shovelling snow everywhere. We see a bride and groom emerge from one of the entrances, having just been married in the ice chapel.
We check ourselves in and go outside to see whether the fuss was worth it. It doesn’t look that impressive, to be honest. However, we change our minds once we step inside.
The place is deceptively huge. It’s like a labyrinth, a maze of ice rooms connected by tunnels and walkways. There’s not a stone or brick in sight, everything is literally carved out of the ice and compacted snow. The blend is beautifully done - clear ice forms gigantic pillars, ice furniture and ornaments, and the opaque snow forms most of the walls and ceilings, many covered in embossed reliefs. The building is solid - tapping the walls or structural supports reveals the frozen materials are as hard as rock. It’s amazing to think that you’d be hard pressed to knock this place down with a bulldozer, but the Spring sunshine will bring it all down in a quiet silence.
The attention to detail is astounding. Apart from the reliefs, there are ice chandeliers, tables, chairs, reception desks and carved telephones, and a number of large ice sculptures dotted around. There are even ice pictures, in ice frames, hung on the walls.
There are dozens of bedrooms, and every single one is different. We are free to wander in as many as we like before nightfall, and we gawp at the different themes and layouts. We later hear that there’s a competition each season, and this year a bunch of design students did the plans and the winning entries are the ones we see.

We go back to the main reception building for a warm-up, a coffee and a safety talk from one of the staff, Yanek, which lasts 30 minutes and almost puts me off staying the night. We have an intricate ‘mummy’ sleeping bag each, and various coverings. The enemy is moisture - rather than sweat, Yanek advises us to sleep naked. Sweat equals moisture equals freezing cold at 2am. He said avoid coffee and alcohol. He added that some people like to jump in the spa - inside the ice hotel itself - then run outside and roll naked in the snow before jumping back into the spa.
We’re starving. We haven‘t eaten today. There is a large hotel complete with restaurant about a quarter mile away. We go and have a big, expensive feed, and then discover that they have a free internet pc in the lobby. We check our emails, and sit on the plush leather sofas for a while, staring into a fire in the enormous hearth. Soon we’re in that happy, warm and tired state where we could just lie back in the sofa and sleep. Steph says that it’s only half-eight. We’re in for a long night. We have to be up and out for six-thirty tomorrow morning, as we have to get a train at Quebec at eight-twenty.
We go back to the Ice Hotel for our free cocktail. When the guide said to avoid alcohol, he must’ve forgotten that a free cocktail is part of the package. The bar area is spectacular, dim but dotted with pockets of light in cosy corners. I say cosy, but that’s a relative term. Deerskins line ice benches, set into coves. We get a free shot of flavoured vodka each, served in an ice tumbler, literally a block of ice with a hole sunk into it.
Some woman with a load of camera equipment ambles over, helped by an assistant, and asks if she could take our picture. She’s a student of some kind, and whatever she’s putting together I forget, but she takes a couple of shots as we try to act like fashion models and look cool.
Then, after we try out another spot and sit on another bench in a more open spot, a guy with a video camera ambles over and asks if he can film us. To top it all, a reporter from the Boston Globe introduces himself and also asks if he can take our picture. We say OK, and answer a few questions about what we’re doing here. Passing through, I tell him, on our way to the greatest show on Earth, the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Las Vegas. He asks if he can take a picture of us in our room, and we agree, but then he wants us to get undressed and actually pose like we’re sleeping, and I politely tell him to [--]off and find another couple who are willing to freeze their asses off in the name of newsworthiness. He leaves, a little upset I think.

Yanek pops his head into the room and calls us at six-thirty the next morning. We dress quickly. The taxi driver is already here. A staff member gives us all a free coffee and we drink up and leave. Just as I’m walking around the front of the taxi, I slip like Joe Pesci in Home Alone and land on my ass in a puddle. It will take nearly two hours to dry out.
The cab driver does 100kmh, tailgating and switching lanes on roads that are as icy as [--]. I’m close to telling him to slow it right down, but we hit some congestion and he takes his foot off the gas. For the rest of the way, he’s forced to take things easier, but the odd grunt and curse in French tells us he doesn’t much like it.
He drops us off at the station and I sign the paperwork. As I’m ordering the train tickets to Toronto, he reappears. Cab drivers are apparently charged ten per cent for any VISA transaction over fifty dollars, so would I take the paperwork back and sign two separate bills for $40 and $30 instead? He’s already charged us ten dollars more than the first cab, but I don’t say anything because at least he made it to pick us up at some ungodly hour. I sign and he thanks us and leaves.

We board the train and spend three hours going to Montreal, where we change and spend another four hours or so getting to Toronto. There, we change some our US currency into Canadian, so at least we have some cash again.
Outside, it’s cold. Colder, it seems, than the very furthest corner of the Ice Hotel. We don’t have much time to see Toronto, so the important thing is to get to the hotel and then get some food.
The woman checking us in at the Best Western has been to our home town of Birmingham, and we have to laugh when she mentions the Bull Ring. She hands us an envelope. The guy I booked the cross-Canada rail trip with has done his job and arranged for the tickets and documentation to be here when we arrived. I love competency, it means we get to have a good time and relax.
We’re on the eighteenth floor. The view from the window is…. high.
We go out about 9pm to get some food. It’s FREEZING. Various people we speak to tell us it feels colder here because it’s a damp kind of cold, brought in on the wind from the great lakes. We settle on a Pizza Hut mainly because if we don’t get indoors quickly we’re likely to end up frozen solid.


We have a small hotel breakfast and catch a cab back to the main train station. The check-in guy says we won’t see our luggage again for three days because it all gets stored in a carriage that’s inaccessible for passengers until we reach our destination, which for us is Jasper. We rifle through the cases for extra underwear and hand them over.
The train itself is just the cross-country beast I was expecting. It’s a lovely looking machine that seems to be both sleek and enormous at the same time, a yellow and blue marvel of modern engineering with a tail of silver and blue magnificent carriages. Just looking at it makes me know we’re about to undertake a great adventure.
Inside, we’re directed to our seats, and it turns out that’s where we’ll be sleeping - something from above will drop down to form the upper bunk. There are no coat hangers and no real room for stowing your hand luggage except under the seats.
We’re relieved when Steph reads there is a smoking coach attached, then instantly distraught when the attendant tells us the brochure is out of date and the only time to smoke will be at scheduled stops. There will be one at 4:30pm and one at 12:30am. The attendant, Gary - a bearded, slightly camp guy - tells us it’s a $500 immediate fine if we’re caught smoking, but then says he wants one and motions for us to follow him back out onto the platform. At least we have a sympathiser. Maybe with a small bribe, we can get away with smoking in the toilet, and Gary will just give a knowing nod and say nothing. Maybe we’ll have some smokers solidarity.

The train leaves and we’re on our way. On the other side of the carriage sits an amiable Canadian called Ken. This, he says, will he his twenty-first time on this VIA Rail trip. He lives on an island off Vancouver, on about ten acres of land. He’s interested in the GPS, so I get it out and give a demonstration, watched by a guy who was passing by but got caught up in the excitement. Steph looks out the window.
We take a wander down to the back of the train. There’s an Observation Car, with open plan seating downstairs so passengers can sit and look out of the bigger windows, and a seating area upstairs. Up there, the roof has the added height of a glass dome, so you’re surrounded by glass and get a much better panoramic view of the countryside. We were still in the outskirts of Toronto, so there wasn’t yet much to look at, but the journey is timed so we hit the Rocky Mountains in daylight.
Also, there’s as much free coffee as you like, and the odd biscuit.

Not long after, the train comes to a halt. A freight train up ahead is having some trouble and we have to wait for it to get out of the way. A short while later, the train stops again. This time, the track is the problem.
We eat our free lunch (all food is included) and remain stationary. With maybe a couple of thousand miles to go, I wonder how they handle all these stops. I mull it over whilst eating a bison burger.
We share our table with a journalist called Margo and a chap called Richard. She’s doing a piece on the train, something along the lines of a romantic break for couples, which is due for publication in the LA Times on Valentines weekend. She doesn’t eat much and leaves early. Richard points out animal tracks in the snow in a condescending manner, which leaves me bristling.

Later, we play Bingo. Up towards the front of the train - before the plebs in the coach class carriages - there’s a kind of communal area with a few tables and a tv for screening the odd movie. One of the train staff calls out the numbers and about five of us sit around and get overly competitive. Steph wins twice, getting a key ring and a sew on patch. It’s hardly Vegas, but it’s fun. I’m distracted by what’s going on out the window, admittedly not much for most of the time, but every now and then the trees break, a snowy vista will open up, and by the time I’ve got the camera ready the flash of perfect scenery has gone. We’ve been told that the real scenery, the stuff for photos, is further up north, maybe tomorrow if we don’t keep stopping.

It gets dark around half-five. We sit and chat to Ken, idly looking out of the window. Before dinner, we get a brief smoke stop. The station thermometer says it’s minus twelve centigrade.
At dinner, I ask Steph what the [--] that Richard guy was on about when I asked what the difference was between an elk and a moose. She quietly tells me that he’s sitting right behind us. Oh dear. The waiter tells us that the temperature in Winnipeg, including the wind chill factor, is minus forty-six degrees centigrade. He says it’s so cold there, the flashers just show pictures of themselves.

The beds get made up just after we get back. We watch Gary as he goes about his work. He later admits that this is the worst part of the job, each one takes about five to ten minutes and follows a set procedure. He says that these bunks, especially the lower ones, are probably the best beds on the train. The more expensive ones in the cabin rooms lie at right angles to the tracks and you get bumped around a lot more.
It’s an ingenious design. After about twenty minutes, there are three beds. Gary goes back down the carriage to make up the last one, for some old lady who didn’t much speak to anyone else. Every now and then we’d sneak a look to see if she was still alive. If she wasn’t, I had first dibs on her free pillow chocolate.
We put on our nicotine patches and Steph feels sick, so I get the top bunk. It has no window, but it’s the top bunk, so I’m the King. There are heavy curtain dividers to block off the corridor. Enclosed, the pocket of space soon heats up, and it’s bordering discomfort, but I manage to drop off and sleep rather well.

The next day, the scenery is much the same - wide open vistas of ice and snow, dotted with the odd building, and millions of trees. The trees look sick, thin and bent under the weight of the snow. Much of what we see is actually frozen lakes - there are literally hundreds of thousands of them out here. In the Summer, everything would be blue and green, totally different, and worth another journey.
The build up to Sioux Lookout is bad enough to consider sneaking a quick smoke in the toilet, but we’ve been told that as well as a $500 fine, some smokers have been dumped off at the next available station, a thousand miles from their destination.
Sioux Lookout is a frozen little outpost that’s -29C when we get there. Within a minute of getting off the train, my nostrils start to feel strange, and there’s a clicking sound reverberating around my nasal cavity. A look in Steph’s mirror reveals my nostril hairs have frozen.
Back inside, the drinking water feels positively warm. A female VIA Rail attendant says the whole train is pretty much frozen up now, and we’re lucky to get any water at all. The showers have already stopped working in many of the carriages.
“It’s an adventure!” she says.

Later that afternoon, we go back to the Observation Car. Ken has told us the scenery is about to undergo a drastic change. The hills and wooded areas will be replaced by the flat and empty Canadian Prairies. The change will be sudden and startling. I stand at the front, nose almost pressed up against the glass in anticipation, camera at the ready. The horizon becomes lined with a band of orange, some welcome colour. Still the trees come racing towards us, with no sign of an ending. The sun sets and it gets too dark for the camera to take any decent pictures.
We go back and chat to Ken for a while, and count the minutes down to Winnipeg, our next smoke stop. We’re delayed again as Train 2 (The Canadian running in the opposite direction from Vancouver to Toronto) is blocking the station up as it’s thawed out. Apparently they have to go along the piping with a blowtorch to get the water moving again.

After dinner, I get desperate for a cigarette and ask the new staff (Gary left at Winnipeg) if it will be OK to nip into the toilet for a quick smoke. I think that by asking, I can get sympathetic permission, and, of course, validation for having a smoke whenever I felt like it. I asked with my best puppy dog expression, but I guess I picked the wrong staff member.

At some crazy, dark and icy hour, the train stops at Saskatoon. Steph is already awake, so we quickly get dressed and go outside. It doesn’t feel that cold. I walk to the front of the train and get a fantastic photo of the main engine, a brooding hulk of blue and yellow against the snow covered night.
As I walk back, I’m heading into the wind, and the temperature suddenly feels just about right for 5am in the Canadian wilderness.
My nostril hairs go again.

We sleep until the breakfast call at nine. Steph hangs around whilst I have a shower, and then we go to the Observation Car to take a few photos and video clips. The batteries run out at a most inopportune moment, right as we’re crossing the mildly spectacular Fabyan Bridge.

We get to Edmonton, where Ken is getting off. We have bonded quite well with the majority of the group, but Ken was that little bit special because we were cooped up with him for most of the time. We say we’ll write to each other, having earlier swapped addresses. He leaves, and we have a couple of smokes. Edmonton doesn’t look much from where we’re standing, just flat land covered with industrialisation and a nearby airport.
I turn Ken’s empty seats into a bed and have a lie down. We’ll miss him, but the extra space is useful. Margot comes along and lets me use her laptop to look at some of the photos we’ve taken so far, and also burn them to cd. It’s very kind of her, and this camaraderie adds to the whole VIA Rail experience.

Approaching Jasper, we’re going to be delayed enough to squeeze dinner in, some small comfort after we hit the Rocky Mountains in darkness and saw nothing of the spectacular views we were hoping to see. We sit opposite a large, old and white haired old man - yet another journalist, though now retired - and after a slow start we end up having a lively conversation and find him very agreeable.
We finally pull into Jasper, and there’s a lot of fussing at the windows as we all get up to stare at the silhouettes of more than a dozen elk, idling on the nearest embankment.


We disembark and stand in a small queue waiting for our luggage. When it arrives, an old French-Canadian lady grabs my case and makes a run for it. I gently but forcefully intervene but she insists that the case is hers and tries to carry on. Wondering if I should choke out an old lady in plain view of everyone, the situation is saved by a more understanding husband who comes over and tells her that the case is not hers at all. We sort it all out amicably, with no need for violence, and she slopes off to get her own bag. It’s about half the size of mine, completely different. Dopey old [--].
We get a transfer bus to the Amethyst Lodge, which turns out to be about three hundred yards away, and the driver pulls over so that we can coo at the elk, still lounging around on the embankment.
Once checked in, we find our room is huge, which is a pleasant surprise. We don’t stay long, dumping our bags and heading back out to see what’s what. The darkness away of the glow of the streetlamps is total. We stick to the lighted path, and look in the shop windows on the way to a pub.
We can drink and smoke in there! And they have internet access, so we can check our emails. We stay for an hour or so, and then leave. As we’re heading back to the hotel there’s a power cut. Instantly, the entire town falls into complete darkness. We laugh nervously, and stand in silence for a minute or two, thinking they’d get the power back on, but they don’t. The odd car passes by, nothing but headlights and two lit triangles on the ground in front of each one, but there’s enough cast off light to see the snowy bumps on the embankment.
I stumble across the ice to get closer, clumping to within about ten metres or so, and start taking pictures. There’s a lot of flashing, and all I get are great pictures of an inky black background with blurry flakes of brilliantly lit snow. I later read a leaflet that says you should ideally keep at least thirty metres between yourself and an elk. They make look docile but they are one of the most dangerous animals in the park, but there are plenty of others to be wary of, including bears.
Back in the hotel, the staff are wandering around with torches. Steph grabs the beer whilst I go into the basement to use the toilet. It’s quite scary down there, like being in the hotel from The Shining.
One of the barmen is into the UFC and the Japanese equivalent, the Pride Fighting Championships. He says there are a lot of fights out here, in this tiny town with a population of about two thousand. He says there are a few locals that go out looking for tourists, just to start a ruck with them.
The barman adds that there are cougars here, too. Last time he saw one it was running through the town.
Being chased.
By wolves.

I wake at about six the next morning, now getting used to these early morning starts. Even though it’s cold, I get up and have a smoke just because I can, then go back to sleep. About three hours later, I get up again, and open the curtains to look out the window.
Mountains! Big [--], the like I have only ever seen on the television. It’s an awesome moment. I wake Steph and get her to come have a look.

There aren’t just a couple of mountains outside the hotel - we are surrounded by them. It’s very exciting for about ten minutes, and then they just become part of the scenery. As we’re in the middle of winter, in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, everywhere is white and icy under layers of snow. This place is picture postcard perfect, and I take a few photos, which couldn’t turn out bad even if I tried. It’s kind of shameful to admit that we very quickly got bored of looking at these beautiful mountains, and typing this up back in the concrete [--] we call home I’d trade pretty much anything to be transported straight back there, but that’s just the way it was.
On a whim, I decide to get my hair dyed. It’s quite long now, and I fancy a new look. I ask one of the salons if they can make my hair turn a snowy white colour (going for the look of the bad guy in ‘Ichi The Killer’), and one salon agrees to have a go. We look around a few shops and then return for the appointment at four. Little did we realise that I’d still be sitting there four hours later. It looks reasonably whitish, and the girl stayed over to finish the job, so I tip her $15.
Outside, it’s now dark and raining. The wet squall has turned the roads and streets into an ice rink. On the way back to the hotel, sliding and skidding all over the place, we seek sanctuary in a Cantonese restaurant and have a very nice prawn curry each. After this, we realise we need to get some more cigarettes, and slide our way back to the local gas station to buy some. If there are any mountain lions or bears, or any number of local people-eating wildlife around here, we’re sitting - sliding - ducks.
It’s only a half mile or so back to the hotel, but it takes awhile. Once there, we take off our big jackets and look forward to sinking a few beers in front of the fire. However, we quickly find out that the hotel bar shuts at ten, and we have time for just the one beer. ‘American Idol’ is on the tv as we drink our beers and try to ignore the bar manager, who is trying to let us know we’re pissing him off without actually saying so.