It must be the most overused and therefore undervalued word in North America. When the person serving me breakfast in our hotel described my choice of two eggs over-easy, bacon, sausage and hash as awesome I was slightly amazed – I thought it was a very undistinguished choice. But the true meaning of the word came home to me as we left Vancouver – sadly, it is a beautiful city – and boarded the Via Canada train which would deliver us, five days later, in Toronto.

Boarding the train in Vancouver

I’ve never been on a long train ride. As part of my last sabbatical I had a few longish train journeys, one overnight on the Blue Train in South Africa which was perhaps the most luxurious and indulgent thing I have ever done and then a couple of overnight journeys in India. But it was hard to imagine five days on board.

One of the most anxious making elements was that whilst we were in Vancouver we visited a shop for every mobile company trying to buy a data only SIM for a mobile device we have. It couldn’t be purchased; it seems that such a thing does not exist in Canada.  Be warned potential data addicted travellers! It’s been the only time in my life that I have thanked God every time I have seen a branch of Starbucks (and believe me they are as numerous in Vancouver as Prets are in London) and my phone pinged back into life.

So we boarded the train dataless and were shown to our cabin.  I have to say that they are a miracle of planning.  By day ours (which was not Premier Class) had two reclining chairs and in the evening a set of bunk beds.  It had a loo and sink, a little storage place and a window onto the world. Most of the luggage had to be checked in on arrival at the station and so smaller bags had to be packed for the cabin.  We were travelling with the minimum – the ‘what shall I wear today’ decisions had already been made.

The train set off eventually, rumbling out of the station, a half mile long, gleaming, chrome snake with four observation cars, a panorama car, two restaurant cars, a bar and two coffee lounges.  The assistant came and let down the bunks and later on we settled down for the first night.

In the morning we woke – I was on the bottom bunk with the blind open – to the foothills of the Rockies.  It really was awesome.  What we saw over those five days was absolutely incredible.  People had said that the Rockies were wonderful but the long stretch of the prairies and the trees, lakes and rocks of Ontario could get a bit monotonous.  It’s not true – it’s simply amazing.

Truly awesome

The first stop was in Jasper at the heart of the Rockies.  Snow topped peaks were visible from this small town.  But it was a metropolis compared to other places we stopped and jumped down from the train into. I was amazed at the isolated places in which people lived, these really were isolated.  In each place we looked on the iPhone – any unsecured data? Nothing.  In the end we gave up.

And that was what was so awesome. This is a sabbatical and the train ride was one of the most effective and powerful retreats I have ever been on. There was nothing to distract me – no Twitter, Facebook, email, blogs – there was no news, no TV, nothing.  I read, of course, firstly ‘A Man called Ove’ which made me cry (what a beautiful book), then ‘Brighton Rock’ (followers of mine on Twitter will know I’ve been going through a ‘Green’ phase in my reading), and I’m now half way through a disturbing book ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ by Kate Hamer. And as we sat in the observation car at the rear of the train we read and looked.  That car was very quiet, it was too far for most people to walk to. We went for our meals (delicious), had a gin before dinner and – relaxed.


We were warned that the train would be delayed.  The amazing thing is that as the rail network is owned by the freight company, freight gets priority, passengers are an also ran. So very very very often we were in a siding, for an hour or more as mile after mile of frieght train rolled past.  At one stage we were four hours behind schedule, in the end we arrived only two hours late! And there was nothing I could do, nothing to get stressed about but simply to say my prayers and live and breathe – and it was sheer, unexpected gift and it was wonderful.

‘Detraining’ in Toronto

When the train pulled into Toronto (we were told this was ‘detraining’ a new word for me) I felt upset, it was over and if I was told I had to make the journey back I would have done it at the drop of a hat.  Sleeping, rocked and shaken as the train ate up the miles overnight, glorying in stunning scenery, big skies and wilderness views by day – it was awesome, much more so than two eggs over-easy!

God is amazing. All of a sudden gifts come along and all we can do is accept them. As I have sung on occasions

So amazing, so amazing
Your love for us is overwhelming
How awesome is our God
You love me, You love me
And no boundaries can come between us
You have me, You have me
And no power can separate us
Oh, my soul cries out
Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

God of surprises,
for that unexpected,
gracious gift,
thank you.