ABOARD THE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER IN WESTERN CANADA — The land, baronial and steep, dwarfs this 20-car train as it snakes through the wilderness.
Go ahead, smudge your nose up against the wide windows. Slip outside into the warm, pine-scented vestibule between the cars.
At times, the Canadian Rockies seem one misty dreamscape. There are almost too many thrashing waterfalls, too many forests, too many vistas that look as though they've never been hiked.
Grizzly bears, elk, moose and big-horned sheep still roam these rugged canyons. Signs of civilization are so few that you feel as though you're an explorer seeing North America for the very first time.
In midsummer, the Canadian Rockies are a giant breath mint, with this rail line the iron thread on which Canada moved west, built vast hotel-castles to draw the rich and the royal, then commissioned artists to capture it on canvas and spread the word back East.
Photographer Al Seib and I are riding this famed rail system, privately owned and deftly run. It is Canada Day — July 1 — not a bad time to start a 23-hour, 600-mile jaunt across the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta and up and over the Continental Divide.
Ride the friendly rails
Two hours out of Vancouver, and our Rocky Mountaineer crew can't do enough for us.
Were I a vice president of human resources, I would send trainees here for lessons on how to listen, look people in the eye, follow through on requests.
Tea, coffee, stories. Lots and lots of stories. Four guides tend to our 68-seat, bubble-topped car as it passes through the lush Fraser Valley of British Columbia.
"It's pretty good right now," says one of the guides of the tunnels of trees. "But tomorrow it gets amazing."
Canada, of course, follows a west-to-east topography similar to that of the Lower 48. The coast is as green as your kale salad, but moving east you hit scratchy stretches. The Canadian desert is far from desolate, but it is rocky and relatively dry — and makes up much of your first day.
In all, the Rocky Mountaineer railway offers four routes through western Canada, most winding around postcard-perfect Banff and Jasper. The tours, starting at less than $1,000, begin or end in Vancouver or Calgary (the last leg from Banff to Calgary is about 11/2 hours by bus); the railway is launching a Seattle segment in August.
They are the best way to cross the Continental Divide, elegant and easy, the domed cars roomier than a first-class jet cabin, with two plush fabric seats and plenty of legroom on each side of the aisle.
Air travel has become basic public transit, but rail travel in western Canada is still a bit of an indulgence: tablecloths and silverware, fresh orchids. "More coffee, sir?" is a familiar query, whether you are in the dining car or relaxing with a book at your window seat.
This region has a rep as a deep, relentless wilderness. How does it differ from our Sierra? More trees, billions probably, all of them washed and watered by a rich, cerulean watershed.
"The Bow," Rudyard Kipling wrote of the Alberta river that some say is the greatest trout stream in Canada, "does not slide or rustle like prairie rivers, but brawls across bars of blue pebbles, and a greenish tinge in the water hints of snow."
"Brawls" is the operative word there. Western Canada is nature brawling.
One unexpected perk of train travel is the camaraderie. I don't know that we're lucky in this regard, for folks who choose a trip like this have similar sensibilities and self-sort.