Canada's Highway of Steel
This article, originally printed in the December 1994 edition of National Geographic, caught my eye, and my heart ever since I laid eyes on it. Having always been a fan of trains, this article gave me a much deeper understanding of their role in society - and of their role in keeping countries together. I have been wanting to re-type the whole article here on my blog, as it has been such an inspiration to myself. I have however been worried about copyrights and such. That being said, I finally decided to type it up. If I receive a request to remove it, I shall. However at the moment, I am claiming its use for educational enlightenment.
CANADA'S HIGHWAY OF STEEL
By MICHAEL PARFIT
Bill Bell, the locomotive engineer on the Canadian Pacific Extra 3091 train, out of Regina, Saskatchewan, is whistling "Moon River." This shows he's feeling cranky. "Always whistle 'Moon River,'" he told me once. "Calms you right down."
He has good reason to need calming. Right out of the yard, as the train started southeast down the branch line known as the Tyvan Subdivision, his second engine overheated, rang the alarm bell for five minutes, then expired for the day. "I hate using one unit," he said. "No pizzazz." Then his breakman, who was inexperienced, nearly jammed a switch. Now, on our way home, pulling loaded grain cars, he has the throttle all the way to position eight, but though the engine roars and sways, we can barely manage 21 miles an hour. "Now we suffer," he says.
I'm not suffering. North American commerce doesn't get much more basic then trains and grain. And here I am, in a big old locomotive, hauling grain west across the plains of Saskatchewan, one of the great wheat producing regions of the world. And this train is part of the most romantic and legendary of North American railroads: the Canadian Pacific, the steel spine of Canada.
"No one who has not lived in the west since the Old-Times can realize what is due to that road - the C.P.R.," wrote Father Albert Lacombe, a missionary who helped pacify Indians while it was being built. "It was Magic - like the mirage on the prairies, changing the face of the whole country." So I'm here listening for the echoes of that old magic - to watch the grain move from the prairie to the sea, to feel the thunder of engines and the roll of steel wheels under my feet, and to understand the strength and the trouble in a very old partnership between farmers and railroaders that's as undervalued, yet as fundamental to North American life and business, as the bread we eat.
"This is rated some of the best farm dirt in America," Bill Bell says. He's stopped whistling. He must be feeling calmer. He is the good host telling me about the landscape he has worked in for 21 years. "There's that Saskatchewan gumbo," he said, pointing at dried mud beside the rails. "It looks hard as cement, but if you throw a seed on it - bluiee!"
The train rocks along the Tyvan Sub. The cab is a small room with a power-control console on the right and seats for conductor and break-man on the left. The engine roars and whines, wheels screech on curves, and there's a spit and hiss of pressurized air. In the lowering sunlight the ties are in shadow, but the wheel-polished rails catch the sun like water and seem to float out ahead of us, free of the ground.
"The Lord said, 'Let there be Wheat,'" the humorist Stephen Leacock once wrote, "and Saskatchewan was born." Sun, rain, dirt, and farmers here produce 55 percent of all wheat planted in Canada - an average of about 16 million tons a year: 30 tons a minute. Much of this is exported - with an increasing tonnage going to the United States. But since the U.S. also produces wheat, this set off heated dispute between the two countries over trade limits and subsidies. That battle is a microcosm of the volatile and contentious world grain market, in which virtually every wheat producing country - including Saudi Arabia, which farms grain at incredible expense - uses massive subsidies to lower the price it charges overseas.
Against this backdrop of vast cargoes and international disputes, the area of the Tyvan Sub looks fairly simple: fields of wheat still green, fields of yellow canola or mustard, a straight dirt road every mile. In the charmed warmth of the late afternoon sub, the circle of life through which we move seems welcomingly small. Maybe it's because we can't see far around the curve of the earth. As we rumble along in our train from town to town, this landscape that has no edges is nevertheless close and intimate. Wind blows in silver waves across the grain and washes up against groves of trees around storage bins and old farm houses, and it seems that this land of wheat and farmers has been here for all time.
"Fifty-Seven Fourteen, two cars back to a bump." The conductor is calling out instructions from behind the train. Bill Bell eases off the throttle. There's a slight shudder of a connection, then he gives it a notch of power to pull forward. Another car - another hundred tons of grain - has joined the train.
As we get moving again, Bell reflects on the land and its people. "Family names out here are Ells, Fhalman, Shinders," he says. "Most of them are in the fourth generation. They're snap-crackle good farmers here."
Bell's family name belongs here just as surely as these. His grandfather, son of a railroad man in England, came here as a young man and worked on steam engines for the CPR. Bell's father worked on the railroad for 42 years. From the age of six Bell himself went out Saturdays with his father in the steam locomotives, up and down some of these same lines. His father would put a can of beans up on the boiler, they'd cook hot dogs in the firebox, and they'd haul grain.
The dream that made this world of grain was a dream of rails. Grain is the railroad's biggest single commodity, but the farmers couldn't have reached the prairie without the railroad, and then, without the railroad, there would have been no way to market the abundant grain the prairie can produce.
The idea itself - of a railroad from coast to coast - is older then Canada, but it began to take shape just after nationhood in 1867. Soon it became the single most important thread in the fabric of Canadian identity.
"Every nation rejoices in at least one epic moment from its past, as much myth as history," wrote Pierre Berton, author of two best-selling books on the CPR, "the Spanish Armada, the storming of the Bastille, the Boston Tea Party, the Long March, the Voortrek. Ours in unique, less violent but equally dramatic: the construction of a line of steel to unknown shores to create a nation."
The story of the CPR is almost as frequently told to Canadians as the legend of King Arthur is told to Britons: A grandiose dream born long before Canada became a nation, a series of backroom political intrigues, a web of desperate financial maneuvers, and an ordeal of construction across ancient granite, endless prairie, and walls of rock, carried to triumph in 1885 by a young general manager named William C. Van Horne. The final spike - made of iron, not gold, since Van Horne did not like elaborate ceremony - was driven 27 miles west of Revelstoke, British Columbia, on November 7, 1885.
"All I can say," Van Horne remarked when asked to speak that day, "is that the work has been well done in every way." He had been similarly terse in a speech the previous month: "We were under the inspiration of a national idea, and went forward."
Before I rode the train, I flew my small Cessna over the route of the main line from Vancouver to Regina. The farm fields lay, vast and widespread, across mile after mile of prairie; if I were to climb to the edge of space, I would have only seen more. But the rail was almost invisible from as low as a thousand feet. Compared with all the things the rails made possible - the cities, the reservoirs, the highways, and the great grid of farmland - the track seemed utterly insignificant. The scratch it drew across the landscape looked like a faint line on a big bold canvas, just a sketch drawn by a pencil among much brighter things.
But that pencil drew Canada. This insignificant line made Winnipeg king, and Regina queen, led the stampede to Calgary, carried climbers to the Selkirks, founded industrial trade on Lake Superior, made fortunes in Vancouver, and brought the checkerboard to the prairie. Its link with grain is not just a handclasp; it is a weld.
On the Tyvan Sub, our stops prove the link, and give me a hint of trouble. Bill Bell brings the train to each little town along the track - Heward, Creelman, Fillmore. The towns are tight low clusters of white clapboard houses nestled in trees, each with a wide dirt Main Street, a few false-front businesses, a ball park, and curling and hockey rinks. At each we pause, either to drop empty cars or pick up full ones. At each stop one or more grain elevators tower over the train and over the whole prairie: The plain white or steel sides of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool or United Grain Growers elevators or the wonderfully gaudy, orange-and-yellow elevators of the Pioneer Grain Company.
In every prairie town the elevator has always been the symbol of commercial success. But when we get to Heward, there is no elevator. The last of three was shut down in 1985. And as we lumber northwest past the next town's single Saskatchewan Wheat Pool elevator. Bell stares out the window with a knowing melancholy on his face.
"Poor old Creelman," he says. "There's a town that's sinking into the sunset."
I know. I'm fond of Creelman. As well as riding the rails here, I've been up and down the highway that parallels this stretch several times, trying to get to know this piece of the railroad. I've been to the annual Sports Day in Fillmore, where the curling rink was full of baseball players eating steak. I've sat in Nicolina's Cafe in Creelman with May Allan, and Thelma Becksteed, talking about old Charlie Loucks, who used to run the barbershop and pool hall next door. May, who dropped by Nicolina's to pick up five tapes from the movie co-op, is the town secretary. Thelma called herself "just an old farmer."
"If a lady went in there," Thelma said, nodding in the direction of the pool hall, "Charlie'd cut her hair, but he wouldn't let a lady play pool."
Charlie died in 1985, and the pool hall has been closed since. That's how it is all along the Tyvan Sub. There isn't a single business left in Heward, and Creelman is down to the cafe and a general store, where once there were two groceries, service stations, and implement dealers. The town has been consolidated with Fillmore's, though Creelman students picketed the district school board.
"Creelman's changed terrible much," Thelma said.
What's happening here? Mostly it's low grain prices, increased farming efficiency, and the high cost of equipment; you have to have a bigger farm to survive, and bigger farms mean fewer people per square mile.
"Fifty years ago there was a family with eight children living on every quarter section," Eliford Mott, a Creelman farmer, told me. (A quarter section is 160 acres.) "Fifteen years ago my father, uncle and I made a living off of 11 quarters. Now those same 11 quarters will support only one family."
We sat at the dining-room table in his house in Creelman while his son, Josh, put graduation gift thank-you notes in blue envelopes. They were like good-bye letters; Josh wasn't likely to live here again. He was going to Saskatoon to study auto-body repair.
"There's not enough people here driving cars and having accidents," his father said, "to make an auto-body shop viable."
Josh can't come back to the farm either. His parents are too young to give it up.
Bill Bell is succinct about it. "With only income for one on the farm now," he says, "the others need to get gone."
At the Creelman crossing, Bell blows the whistle: Long, long, short, long. There are no cars to warn. We rumble slowly out of town.
The partnership between rail and farm is a conspiracy to attack distance. To each community the prairie may be intimate, but its dominant characteristic is expanse. From Winnipeg on the east to Calgary on the west is 839 rail miles; the whole Canadian prairie covers 275,000 square miles. Distance itself is the enemy here; the train must conquer it to make the system work.
A few days after riding with Bill Bell, I catch CP Extra 5741 West at Moose Jaw, a big town with a railroad yard right through the middle of it, about 130 miles west of Heward, Creelman, and Fillmore. Grain cars from places like the Tyvan Sub are gathered in the yard, assembled behind four or five engines, and sent west across the miles.
I stand waiting for a train on the edge of the yard. The air is full of pressurized air, and the squeak of steel wheels on rail. This yard is huge; 15 sets of rails, which all seem full of cars; but the size of the operation it represents is amazing: I imagine the grain like a river, threshed off the fields and flowing to the elevators, pouring in a golden cascade down dozens of branch lines to gather at other yards like this in Regina, Swift Current, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, or Calgary. There it becomes a Mississippi of grain, tolling down the long, thin pencil line to the coast.
On engine 5741, the machine that drives all this enterprise, Duane Weekes eases the throttle back. The engines awake from a purr to a growl. This is called lifting the train, a feat of raw power. The speedometer climbs slowly to 0.5 mile an hour. We feel gentle thumps as the slack - spaces in the couplings between each car, which can add as much as 3 percent to the length of the train - stretches out down today's 5,000 feet - 78 cars and 8,481 tons of grain.
"Amy? Hello Amy? Have you had your supper, Amy?" Duane holds his cellular phone hard to his right ear, talking to his four-year-old daughter in Moose Jaw. The throttle's in p osition eight and we're 30 miles west of town, roaring and rattling along at almost 50mph."We're away from home for 3,800 miles a month," Duane says after hanging up. "We miss a lot of Kodak Moments with our kids. I'm paid really well for the time I'm away from home, but I earn every penny of that. You never get that time back." The cellular phone is evidence of changes in railroading. "Used to get to the end of the road, and the guys would go to the pub for the night," one engineer told me. "In the morning they'd throw the conductor in the caboose to sober up and drive the train home. That doesn't go on anymore." Crew jobs have been replaced by automation: Where once a crew of five took a freight train across the rails, often there is only the engineer and a conductor. The caboose has been replaced by an automatic sensor on the last car, known as a rear end device or, for unprintable reasons, a "Fred." And the pub has been replaced by the golf course. "Nice day for nine," I once heard over the train's radio, and on another train an engineer spent a couple of minutes on the radio setting up a foursome. Every crew book-in office has flyers for golf tournaments posted on the wall. One thing hasn't changed from the very beginning though: Railroading's hard on the family. You are subject to call at almost any hour, and freight trains run on only one schedule: Probably Late. "Your wife always asks the same questions," Duane says. " 'When are you going to go to work, and when are you coming back?' We never have the answers." He opens a small refrigerator in the cab and drinks one of two dozen bottles of water provided by the CPR, which the crews call "rail ale." "We have a lot of good ideas on how to make this railroad work," he says. He's also a union representative. "But on a lot of issues the company and the government don't consult with us. They tell us we don't see the big picture. We are the big picture. Railroading is getting the train from here to there as quickly as possible. We know how to do that." Maybe someone should be listening; things are not working well right now. A few miles later familiar alarm bells sound: Another engine problem. This time the number four locomotive is overheating. The conductor, Grant Vierling, opens the engine's access doors to try to cool it, and we rumble on. This railroad is having power problems. Its diesel-electric engines, which the crews call "the power," are struggling. Almost every time we encounter another train, I see access doors open on one or more units. Almost every train I've ridden has lost an engine while I've been aboard. About a week ago, coming into Medicine Hat on a train pulled by two units, we lost both engines about four miles out. The engineer decided to coast in; it was all downhill, but his breaks were limited. I will not soon forget coming into Medicine Hat yard at a very fast 15 mph, unable to see more then a hundred feet around a curve of grain cars ahead, with the conductor standing beside me saying: "This is hairy." The engineer brought the train to a smooth stop right in front of the craft and antique shop that occupies part of the station. He smiles. "That," he said, "is fuel efficiency." Engineers are getting used to this sort of thing. They accuse management of cutting back maintenance in a shortsighted attempt to save money. Management responds that increased buisness has forced the company to use all available engines, and new units are on order. But the power problems are symptomatic. Both the CPR and the Canadian National, its government-owned half sister, are running as hot and stressed as the power. Both have emerged from lean years to see dramatic increases in business and profit, part of a North American railroad renaissance that has some executives talking about a "new golden age." Yet the CPR, which owns lines reaching to lucrative U.S. markets, claims that unions, taxes, and regulation make it hard to compete with U.S. carriers, and it lobbies provincial and national governments for change. But by the close nature of its partnership with the farmers, and move to change operations has its effect on the prairie. One of those decisions - to make it easier to close less profitable lines - could eventually kill the Tyvan Sub. It's easier and cheaper to fill a whole train at one time than pick it up in bits and pieces, as Bill Bell did. To encourage this efficiency, the CPR offers discounts for grain trucked to "high throughput" elevators that can handle 50 or more cars at a time. For Terry Hanson, another farmer at Creelman, the discount makes it almost three dollars a ton cheaper to have his wheat trucked about 30 miles to Weyburn then three miles to the Fillmore elevator. The problem is that is more farmers are attracted to the Weyburn elevator, the railroad could justify killing the Tyvan Sub. Not long ago Bill Bell presided over the final moments of such a line. When he picked up carloads of old rails that had been pried up from the track, a group of farmers stood there with signs that said things like "Good-bye to our line." "Will you truck it to Weyburn?" I asked Terry Hanson. "No!" he said. "There's a principle there. I want to maintain my services on this line. It's only cheaper as long as this line exists to compete." Ironically, as the railroad is pushing high quantity loading, the farmers are going in the opposite direction. They're cutting their big wheat fields into smaller chunks, diversifying into specialty crops like lentils, spices, peas, or canary seed because these crops offer higher prices per acre. The general push for what appears to be the efficiency of consolidation is widespread across Canada. It is labeled with a curious word, which has different meanings in other places. The word for making the kind of decisions that kill towns like Fillmore, Creelman and Heward is "rationalization." The train passes a small rail-side building, and a couple of minutes later an authoritative male voice comes on the radio, talking to us: "CP detector, mile 49.5, Swift Current Sub," the voice says. "Total axles 341. No alarms." It's a computerized scanner, which can detect overheated breaks or other potential disasters. But the automated voice sounds so human that crews sometimes have persuaded new employees to throw bottles of rail ale out on the embankment beside the scanner for that poor thirsty guy in the hut. We reach Swift Current at 10 p.m. A ballpark is lighted brightly against the day's last twilight. Duane and Grant leave the train. They'll wait here for a few hours, then drive an eastbound home to Moose Jaw. I stay with the westbound train, and two Pauls get on: Paul Hickson is the new engineer, and Paul Taylor is the conductor. By midnight, darkness is complete. Small towns pass quietly: a light on an elevator, a closed cafe. They make almost no disturbance in the deepening lake of prairie night. At about two in the morning the CP Extra 5741 meets an eastbound carrying containers, cars and lumber. "That's a hot one," Paul Taylor says. He's not talking about the power problems this time; he means that to compete with truck lines the railroad must move these cargoes faster than grain. We roll slowly into a siding to wait for the other train. Paul Hickson and I go out on the engine's walkway. "If you look up there and a little away from it," Hickson says, "you can see Andromeda." The engines murmur in idle. In the distance a sodium-vapor lamp high on a Pioneer elevator at Carmichael glows against orange paint. Farther away a beacon flashes on a tower. There's a farm light to the northeast, and, beyond it, flickers glow up from a storm below the horizon. There's a smell of cut hay and diesel smoke. In the silence I think of two more things about the prairie. Pierre Berton described the first days of the coming of the line to the young towns: "The sharp, spring air was pungent with the incense of fresh lumber and ringing with the clamor of construction ... lasting friendships were forged among soiled tents on the river bank ... every man was young and strong and in love with life." And I remember sitting around a dining room table near Creelman with Dennis Smith and his family. At the table were his wife, Judy, and his pretty young daughters: Janelle - at 15 all braced and blushy - and Amber, 13, who was still on the happy, sharp edge of childhood. The family was neither bitter not resigned; they seemed to share a kind of resolve common in families who survive on the prairie for generation after generation, adapting, as Wallace Stegner has written, "to the terms the land sets." We talked about Creelman's small post office. Hours have been cut, but the government has promised it won't be closed. "So it'll be there for a little while yet," Judy said. Amber sneaked a wicked grin at me. "Like everything else," she said. "A little while." On CP Extra 5741 I hear the whistle of the oncoming train. The lead engine rounds a bend a mile away, and the broad beam of its headlight hits Paul Taylor, who's standing down on the grass to check the train as it passes. Weird shadows shift and jiggle as the light moves. Paul's shadow dances wildly, and in the shadows in the long grass I cannot tell light from wind; it looks as if the dazzle of the CPR itself is blowing the prarie grass before it. The locomotives roar past. The doors are open on the second unit. I've been on the prarie so long that when I see a cloud with darkness under it west of Calgary, I think it's the shadow of heavy rain. But it's a mountain. Suddenly we are going up long grades between walls of forest and sedimentary stone. Both the scene and the railroad have changed. For the farmers and the grain the mountains of the Canadian West are just more distance to conquer. By the time the grain gets here, all the gathering is done, and it's time for the long haul. All that stands between it and the sea are two walls of rock - The Rocky Mountains and the Selkirk range - the canyons of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, and the toughest 125 mile stretch of track on this railroad: the notorious Mountain Sub. We Climb slowly out of Calgary along the Bow River between groves of cottonwoods, passing an entire town where no one lives at all: a set for the television series Lonesome Dove. Entertainment rather then wheat sustained the railroad through here for years: CPR opened the northern Rockies to tourism and made Banff and Lake Louise famous worldwide. There are no more CPR passenger trains; that's all over now. We creep upgrade through Banff and Yoho National Parks like a moving ghost town ourselves, passing both tourists and bears by the tracks. After descending through the two extra-ordinary spiral tunnels, in which the train completes two-thirds of a circle inside a mountain, I get off at the town of Field and sleep in the clean, quiet CPR bunkhouse. Field has changed too. The town, deep in a canyon, was once a railroad village, but now it caters almost completely to tourists. Bill Bell, who was here in the sixties, remembered it as a "cow-kickin', slam-bangin' town," but now it seems almost peaceful. The people I talk to in Field have the softly polished exterior of professional public servants. It is a long way from the prairie. "The older guys," jokes Wayne Tetrault, "they get scared of the hills over here." Wayne is the locomotive engineer on CP Extra 9015, which I join in Field. This is the beginning of the Mountain Sub. Wayne's 31. He's like all the young crew members I've met along this stretch of track - cocky, cheerful, focused on his train. It's true that when you get enough seniority here, you usually choose other subdivisions, but Wayne knows that it's not fear: Other runs are simply quicker and easier than the Mountain Sub. But there is plenty here to scare you. This 125.7 miles of track consists of an initial downgrade, a tough upgrade through two tunnels, and a long, winding downhill haunts by the memory of one of the railroad's most costly wrecks. Right away we talk about disasters. "I once hit a pile of snow near here," says the conductor, Frank Bonanno. "I thought we were going to bite the weeds." Railroaders take a certain satisfaction in remembering old wrecks, like the time a train hit a Ferris wheel east of Calgary. (The Ferris wheel was being hauled to a county fair. No one was hurt.) But for some reason, as we cross the Columbia River and start up the long grade on the other side, we don't talk about the wreck that happened here one night in November 1977 just on the other side of the hill, when a train run by Timmy Hamm, Clarence Thacker, and three other men bit the weeds big time. I have talked to both men and remember their story - a coal train without breaks plunging down 20 mph track at 50, 60, 70, 85mph; the hammer and scream of wheels; the expectation of death; and the bloom of light at the end, when the train came apart just behind the lead locomotives, plunged into a river and burst into flame. I remember Thacker's description of how the locomotives, freed from the wreck, glided to a stop in the eerie light of the fires, and how, after a while, he heard the supervisor estimating damage over the radio. "In excess of three million dollars," the super said, and Thacker, alive beyond any expectation, leaned over the side of the locomotive and threw up. But now we don't talk about it, maybe because everyone who works on the railroad knows that, as Timmy Hamm said to me: "This could of been anybody's train. You just happened to be the person who's called for it, and there you are." The trouble that calls for us is not the hill, but the power. Our last two engines are running with the doors hanging open, but that doesn't help. As we emerge from the Mount Shaughnessy Tunnel, a poorly ventilated, mile long hole in the Selkirk Mountains, three of our four engines, cooked in the tunnel, switch out of action. The train, with the last surviving unit pouring its smoky heart out in futile effort, comes to a roaring halt. We're stuck. These power problems are getting absurd. Ten days ago Wayne stalled inside this same tunnel with a coal train. The place filled up with diesel smoke so fast he had to dissconnect his units from the rest of the train and drive out to open air just to stay alive. I happened to be in the railroad's offices in Revelstoke at the time and overheard the engineer on the radio. The two men on the crew knew they would have to go back in that place sooner or later, and the engineer was discussing the train's emergency gas masks. "i've been reading the literature on these masks," he said, a little plaintively, "and it says 'Use in a well-ventilated place.'" Well-ventilated does not describe this tunnel. We're lucky we didn't get stuck in there ourselves. As Wayne and Frank work to get the train inching forward, I look back. Clouds of smoke pour from the tunnel's mouth. It looks like the gates of hell. "Where are you, Wayne?" asks a voice on the radio, the engineer of a train behind us. "Stalled," Wayne says. "Got four on the head end, and three of them died." "Only three?" the voice says sardonically. I remember what another engineer said when one of his engines gave out: "The leaders of the company now are ivory-tower people. The power's falling apart; the tunnel isn't working. Yet they've got these big projections." The Canadian Pacific's history has always been full of contention; if this were an Old West family, it'd be riven by feuds, subterfuge, and gunplay. Today the issues are the killing of branch lines, the subsidies, the railroad's attempts to streamline. A CPR handout itself acknowledges the rough edges of its own reputation: It shows a farmer staring at a flat tire on his tractor: "@>%^#!/ the CPR!" he says. But the day-to-day partnership between rail and farm has power of its own. It may be running with its doors open, but it's still going up the track. There's something sustaining about the value of the work itself. If I come back here in ten years, I'm sure Dennis Smith and Terry Hanson will still be farming, and Bill Bell, Duane Weekes, and Wayne Tetrault will still be working on the railroad. Ten days ago when Wayne was involved in the smoky stall in the Mount Shaughnessy Tunnel, he eventually put on one of those masks and drove back into the smoke to help pull the train out. This was loyalty not to his bosses, but to his train - and in a way, to his partnership with Bill Bell, and the people of the Tyvan Sub. "I guess you do it," he says now with a shrug. "Whatever it takes to get the train going again." For all the railroaders I met from the Tyvan to Vancouver, that was always the bottom line. The wheels keep moving, and the grain rolls west. The scanner calls in our progress: "Total axles 384, no alarms." It's a different voice out here. In the mountain region someone decided that the scanner took too much radio time to give its reports, so the automated voice was sped up. Now the authoritative thirsty guy in the hut chirps out reassurance as if he's been breathing helium. Finally, on the afternoon of the fourth day after leaving Moose Jaw, I ride with the grain into Vancouver. The last miles are fast. It's double track: no meets and 50 mph. The prairie could be half way around the world; this is utterly different landscape: mountains, forest, and water. We pass a cedar-shingle yard, kids fishing under a bridge, and a huge sulfur terminal surrounded by heaps of yellow. The tall skyline of the city shows up ahead. At last we coast into one of the many tall grain terminals on the shore of Burrard Inlet. The engineer, David Partridge, backs pieces of the train into three different sidings. He has to talk on one radio frequency to his conductor, and on another to a yard engineer he calls Long Country. He has to trust the radio voices completely; as he backs up blind, he looks serenely ahead. This is incredibly hectic compared with the steady running of a train cross-country, and I wonder how long before he starts whistling "Moon River." It turns out he's having a great time. In the middle of it he grins at me and says, "See what we have to go through?" Soon each car will be pushed into the terminal, and an operator will open its hatches with a pneumatic crank called a sidewinder. Grain will pour out in a sudden smooth golden rush, and the car will creak as its coiled springs rise. In 12 minutes the car will be empty. The grain will be cleaned and graded. The chaff, seeds, and even dust will be siphoned off and turned into feed pellets. The clean grain will be stored and eventually run across a high conveyor into a ship. Today the ship is Pisces Pioneer, a Hong Kong vessel taking on 33,000 tons of soft white spring wheat, bound for Chile. I can see dust where the conveyor dumps grain into the hold. I get off the train. I look around at the tall Vancouver skyline, at ships waiting in the harbor. Behind it all I see the Tyvan Subdivision: Heward, Creelman, and Fillmore. I miss it. I miss Nicolina's, Eliford and Josh Mott, Dennis and Judy Smith and their kids, that spirited next generation of the land. You can't see many things on the prairie, but everything you can't see goes down deep. Whine I started, I thought the tough side of the tracks was the challenge of the mountains. I was wrong. On the prairie the mountains are in the ground: the hard terms set by the land and the railroad. The dream sketched out over a century ago by the pencil line of tracks has come true more grandly than the dreamers imagined. Now the dream is aging, and the power that drives it is ragged. But the dream runs deep. The people of the prairie reach down into the earth with that calm resolve of generations and take hold among the invisible mountians. With strength of arm, will, and history, they bring up life. Then a train comes by, run by people who have also been doing this for generations, and takes the life to the world.