25 February 2014

Trains, History, and Writing

My travel companion admiring the vistas
Photo: Joseph Gagné 2013
As I am writing my doctoral thesis on the logistics linked to communications in mid 18th century New France, I am constantly haunted by questions like these:

- How efficiently did news travel from fort to fort?

- What geographic challenges had to be overcome to communicate between factions of the French army?

- How did people back then experience and conceive of distance and time?

Regarding this last point, I can’t help but stress that today we have a very different relationship between these two things. I am under the impression that though travel time between destinations has considerably shortened thanks to planes, trains, and automobiles, distance, paradoxically enough, has increased.

Think about it: under the French Regime, human settlements were spread out, but few. Considering the most effective method of travel was by following natural waterways, people did not blink at the thought that it took 40 days to travel between Montreal and Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Michigan). They just did it. Today, however, people squirm at the thought of going from Québec to Montreal (a mere three hour drive, instead of a few days by canoe).

Time and distance are therefore relative. We do not have the same relationship with them today as we did 250 years ago, just as a country boy like me from Northern Ontario doesn’t have the same perspective on travel as someone from a metropolitan area (to use the Quebec-Montreal example once more, I personally find that a 3 hour drive is short. That’s about the amount of travel time between my hometown and the next town over). Studying the perception of time and distance in New France, therefore, pushes me to try and experience the colonial reality as best as I can.

Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) viewed from aboard Amtrak
Photo: Joseph Gagné 2012
How do I do it?

By far, my favourite method is by taking the train.

Ok, ok, I admit trains did not exist in colonial days. But for today’s busy and rapid modern world, the train offers a more personal, intimate relationship with distance and travel. As I travel Canada and the U.S. by rail, I love taking my time to experience sights that are often more beautiful than anything experienced by highway. I also love making new travel companions along the way, which you simply can’t enjoy nearly as much on airplanes (too quick) or by bus (too uncomfortable).

And I love writing on the train.

I cannot praise the train enough for getting my creative juices flowing. I can’t imagine greater pleasure than writing poetry aboard VIA Rail while admiring the boreal forests in Northern Ontario, or writing about the French and Indian war aboard Amtrak while gazing in awe at the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains and Lake Champlain. Like the voyageur river routes of old, there is something nostalgic, almost romantic about being on board a train, whether I’m travelling the Montreal-New York corridor or doing the full north-south stretch from Chicago to New Orleans.

But why should a historian travel if he now has online access to most of his sources? Despite our digital age, travel should not be crossed off the list of duties expected from the student of history. Travel permits to acquaint one’s self with geographic realities you can’t grasp from simply reading an atlas. Likewise, the digital age will never replace the need to touch and personally examine your most important source material on site. And besides, thanks to our digital age, a historian has less and less excuses not taking his work with him on the road! To illustrate the point, here is an excerpt from my travel journal:
My favourite Amtrak line: along Lake Champlain
[…]I love being able to walk about freely between wagons to stretch my legs and meet fellow travelers. Stories are swapped, smiles shared, and overall ecstasy over the scenery becomes a communal experience. The train also offers a more comfortable opportunity to sit down to catch up on reading and writing (as I am coincidentally doing composing these lines). Travelling owners of laptops or tablets are particularly lucky: on board access to the internet is becoming more and more common. I never cease to be amazed by the constant evolution of technology.

Yet, to paraphrase Louis CK, everything is incredible and no one cares! I find it is extremely important to never take this fact for granted and to remember how far we’ve come as a global community. As a historian, I find it extremely humbling to think of the amount of work our predecessors had to confront to do their research. A perfect example is the fact that until recently, the New France historian in North America was dependant on microfilmed French archives. Not only where they only available in Québec or in Ottawa, but the researcher had to hope the copy he was consulting was legible. Should any microfilm be damaged or badly photographed, the unfortunate historian had to write, or even travel, to France, either process requiring considerable time and money. Today, distance is often shortened to a mere click of the mouse.

I recall one case that made me marvel at my luck of being born in this era: midway through my master's thesis, I came upon an old word of which I didn't know the definition. My dilemma was quickly resolved by simply hopping online to browse the French national library’s website, tracking down the 1762 dictionary of the Académie de la langue française, and finding my mystery word. Within a few clicks, I had my answer.
Then it dawned on me: I was travelling back from Montréal to Québec, on a VIA Rail train whizzing by at a hundred kilometers an hour on agricultural land, and I was consulting a book technically thousands of kilometers away. Isn't technology awesome?
Now that I've spent the past years travelling and writing aboard VIA Rail and Amtrak, I've just learned that the latter is launching an informal “authors in residence” program. I sure hope I can garner a bit of their attention and have my own shot at travelling and writing once more across the continent to continue experiencing the span and beauty of the land. Here’s looking at many more adventures on board as I am writing my thesis!

P.S. Enjoy this video I made a few years back with old equipment (I now own a better camera and computer) for my first Amtrak ride between Quebec and Illinois.

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