Anne Thériault on the Perfect In-Between of Train Travel

It's the ecstasy of setting off on an adventure, of becoming someone new—but also of coming home to myself

Railway tracks cutting through a winter forest

(Photo: Stocksy)

I was 19 when I took my first long-distance train trip. It was the first week of September, and I was leaving Kitchener, Ont. for my first year of university in Halifax. I was also, I hoped, heading towards a new, better version of myself—someone pretty and vivacious and popular, which was the opposite of the unbearable self I’d spent five years dragging through high school.

I dressed for trip in an outfit that I imagined my new self would wear: a long-sleeved T-shirt with thick horizontal stripes and a pair of brown denim pants, both from Smart Set, which was an expensive departure from the thrift stores where I usually shopped. I’d also cut my hair the night before, giving myself bangs that lay in a blunt line across my forehead. I hoped that the new hair combined with the stripes would give me a shaggy gamine look, like the sort of person who smoked French cigarettes and had opinions on Camus. By the time I hit Moncton, I knew that the bangs looked terrible; it took me much longer than that to figure out that it takes more than a haircut and a train ticket to change who you are.

We didn’t have much money, but my mother and I had set aside enough to pay for my registration, the deposit for the dorm room, and my trip to Halifax. Student loans would have to cover everything else; after the clothing and administrative expenses, the rest of what I’d earned at my summer job had been spent on the giant Rubbermaid bin into which I’d crammed as much of my stuff as I possibly could. When we got to the train station we had to drag the bin out onto the platform ourselves, because you could only check baggage in Toronto. My mother, who hadn’t realized this, started frantically giving me instructions: Once I got to Union Station, I would have to find a redcap to help me get my luggage to the right desk, and I absolutely, no exceptions, had to tip him afterwards. I had no idea what a redcap was or how to tip, but I promised that I’d do what she said. Along with this advice, my mother also gave me a Ziploc bag with $60 in it from my uncle and told me to hide it under the waistband of my pants so that no one could steal it while I slept. As the train pulled in, my mother and my youngest sister started to cry. My middle sister stared off into the distance and said that she couldn’t wait to have my bedroom.

It’s a two-day train trip from Southwestern Ontario to Nova Scotia, and for the whole first day I felt wildly euphoric. I remember walking down Front Street during my layover in Toronto and thinking about how free I was. Now that I didn’t belong to my past, I could be anyone; it was like standing in the doorway of a dark room and waiting to finally step through. I now know that there’s a word for that strange, suspended moment: liminality, which describes the portion of a rite where the participant no longer holds their previous status but has not yet achieved the status they will have afterwards. It’s like a moment partway through a baptism: The baby isn’t unbaptized anymore, but because the ritual hasn’t yet been completed, they aren’t quite baptized either. It’s an in-between space, a neither-nor space, a space from which you can only move forward because going back is impossible.

That last part hit me in Montreal, where my Aunt Brenda met me for dinner and made sure I got in the right line for the train to Halifax. While I was waiting to board, she rushed to meet my grandmother and my Aunt Diane across the river in Saint-Basile, Que. where the tracks ran along the end of my aunt’s street. It was dusk by the time the train rumbled through Saint-Bruno—the town where my mother had grown up, where I’d lived as a small child, and where I’d spent almost every Christmas and summer vacation up until that point—and as we crossed into neighbouring Saint-Basile, I saw three tiny figures standing by the railroad siding, waving furiously. I waved back, even though I knew they couldn’t see me, and then, embarrassingly, I started to cry. What if I didn’t like whatever was on the other side of the threshold? I knew, then, with an awful certainty that it didn’t matter whether I liked it or not—I had to meet it. The only way out was through.

I was still the same person when I got to Halifax, of course, with the same frustrating flaws; a night spent on the train hadn’t somehow gifted me with the social graces that I wanted (or, if not those, then at least the ability to not care about not having them). But even if running away from Ontario hadn’t magically changed who I was, it was still a big step towards becoming who I wanted to be: someone who was independent, who took charge of her own narrative, who wasn’t afraid to make big changes. Those two days on the train did end up being a boundary marker between who I had been and who I am now, although not in the way I’d imagined it would be.

These days, I take the train whenever I can. It lets me skip the things I hate about driving or flying—no traffic, no aiport lineups or security checks, no ugly highway vistas. Sometimes, of course, you can’t avoid taking a car or a plane, either because of a need for convenience or speed. But I love taking long, slow trips when I can: I’ve done the Toronto to Halifax haul more times than I can count, and I’ve also gone west to Edmonton and Vancouver. Nothing rivals the magic of rolling across the countryside, with a book on your lap and cup of coffee that gently clatters against its saucer with every bump and sway.

Travelling by train still feels like entering a liminal space, a perfect in-between place that’s neither where I started from or where I’m going or even, really, any of the places we’re passing through. The train is its own self-contained transition, where you move through the world—through forests and corn fields and backyards with washing out on the line—but you’re not really a part of the world. Every time I board the train, I get the same feeling that I had when I was nineteen: the ecstasy of setting off on an adventure, of becoming someone new, but also, increasingly, of coming home to myself.

More from Anne Thériault:

How Being a Girl Guide Informed My Budding Feminism
Marc Lépine Didn’t Want to Kill Women, He Wanted to Kill Feminists
Anne Thériault: What Women Want From Jian Ghomeshi