Dolores Vitullo, a pediatric cardiologist from Chicago, is gifting her great-nephew, Mike Krebs, with this vacation as a graduation present.
Marty Lesh, a retired oil manager from New Jersey, is here with Sue Kaplan, who works in healthcare. Crystal Eid, a mother from Melbourne, Australia, is here with two sons and both of her parents. Duke professor Elizabeth Ross and her mother, Mary Frank from Michigan, make up the rest of our instant club.
We have nothing in common, other than curiosity about this train and the vast region it runs through. That is all it takes.
We sit together in the dining car for the thickest pancakes you ever saw, then with other folks at lunch (pork tenderloin with apple confit). In between, we point out wildlife or kibitz about past travels.
The only real ding on this Rocky Mountaineer trip comes late on the first day, on an unseasonably warm afternoon, when the rear of our clear-roofed car heats up like a terrarium.
Repairmen work on the AC overnight, then attach a spare car, just in case, for the next day. The Australian tour group seated in the warm areas remain good sports, though their tour director looks ready to explode.
Yes, they work on the train overnight, which reminds me of one key detail: These are daylight trips. To sleep through scenery like this would be a travel crime.
So this touring train stops in the evenings, and passengers bunk at above-average hotels. After 285 miles the first day, the 500 passengers aboard this trip are in Kamloops, a town I'd never heard of.
It turns out to be a lovely Canadian outpost, rich in rivers and copper mines, though the teenagers sport an alarming number of tattoos. I have to get over that, but so far I can't.
After a lamb burger at an uncommonly good brew pub called the Noble Pig, we close Canada Day — its version of Fourth of July — with fireworks over the Thompson River.
The show doesn't start till almost 11 p.m., making for a long first leg of our adventure. But you're in Kamloops only once in your life, right?
Well, let's hope.
Scenery and salmon poems
Oh, I kid the Kamloopians because I love them. But Day 2 aboard the train is why we're really here. Day 2 is a photo feast. Day 2 is Shangri-La.
Starts early — we have to be in the lobby of the Hotel 540 at 6:15 a.m. for a 7 a.m. departure, and nobody is late. We will cross seven rivers in our 13-hour day, passing lakes too numerous to count, marveling over Class 5 rapids wicked enough to carry a Chrysler.
And let me say this: Bald eagles are the celebrities of the animal kingdom — fans go nuts when they spot one. There are maybe a dozen along this route, too many to count.
Our primary narrator on the trip, Carlo Myles, has a following almost equally intense. The women on the train speculate about his age. He is kind of a Canadian Jimmy Fallon — comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time but always engaging.
"The lifestyle of the salmon is really quite interesting," he says as the train lumbers across the wilderness. "And it might be a menu item later."
Carlo actually recites a salmon poem: "I hesitate to be unkind, but salmon have a one-track mind …" that is probably more endearing in person than in print (see Web video clip). He challenges the passengers to create poems of their own, then his co-host Charlie Millar tells a moose story. Ainsleigh Dawiskiba, another host, announces that, at 9:30 a.m., happy hour has begun.
This rail trip involves a couple of long days, and by the time you get off in beautiful Banff, you are rocking back and forth even while standing still. So unsteady are your legs, so fooled is your inner gyroscope, that you'll spend the next several hours thinking you just felt an earthquake.
Two days on a train turns out to be just enough — not too much, not too little.
But they are happy hours, all of them — jovial, outlandishly scenic, hypnotically serene. Clickity-clack, clickity-clack. The afterglow lasts for weeks.
The Rocky Mountaineer may not be for everyone, but almost. And those other folks? Nobody wants them along anyway.