I've been blogging on the railroad

Sometimes, you get those strange little burps in life that turn into the greatest of experiences. Ones that you don’t pass up for anything — not for all the challenges you might face or things you might lose.

In late summer of 2002, the CBC needed an unusual person. They needed a computer geek. They needed a writing geek. They needed a photography geek. And they needed a true rarity, a train geek: Someone who knew the difference between a U-1-f or a F40PH2 rolling down the tracks; someone who could determine where he or she is in the Prairies by reading railway mileposts, someone who’d love being on a train for a month.

I was that geek.

The CBC was planning to celebrate 50 years of television and had created a travelling exhibit that would voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Trains, of course, have been used that way before. But this trip would be different because it would also be appearing on the internet. For one month, while living on the CBC Television 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, I’d be responsible for all things technical while keeping track of the events in words and pictures. My journals were posted to the CBC’s website almost daily, to showcase the experience to the country and the world.

The vision had been to take the best of the CBC Museum in Toronto and roll it across the country. Two baggage cars held the museum. But they also held other things we wanted to show Canada: CBC Sports, Newsworld, the CBC Shop, and the new kid on the block, CBC.ca. Twenty-eight of our staff handled event management and the other exhibits, leaving me and one other person to run the computers.

My internet work had four criteria:

  1. It had to be fast;
  2. It had to be simple;
  3. It had to represent what was online;
  4. And, here’s the kicker — it had to work without actually using the internet.

Long before the days of Wi-Fi, we weren’t going to have continuous access to the World Wide Web – at least not good enough access to allow nine computers to find a connection. And certainly not from places like Biggar, Sask., or Campbellton, N.B. Actually, London, Ont., wasn’t easy either, now that I think of it.

So we decided to cheat, a bit. If we couldn’t connect to the CBC website, we decided to take chunks of it and copy it onto our computers so we could simulate the experience for visitors to the train. Not as easy as it sounds when you have to display a complicated, database-driven piece of work like the CBC Archives site.

Our deception went largely unnoticed. Everywhere the computers were set up, people were surfing to their hearts’ content. (And making off with free mouse pads and pens, but I digress.)

The only place where our substitution was really noticed was when we were mobbed by a few hundred school kids on a field trip in Winnipeg. A bit young for the typical CBC demographic but, hey, they seemed enthusiastic.

Within mere seconds, they had flipped out the keyboards we had hidden under the tables and were hacking their way into what they thought was free access to the World Wide Web. Little did they know they were trapped on a non-existent network. They left almost as fast as they arrived once they’d learned that the computers were not, in fact, online. Who knows what interesting things we would have found on the monitors if there had been an internet connection?

Winnipeg was one of our hardest events: lots of people visiting a small space, all trying to do the same thing at once. In Montreal, we ran into the tail end of tropical storm Isidore, which effectively washed us out of our outdoor event at Le Vieux Port. (Rain and computers don’t mix very well.) In Moncton, the power went out for several blocks around the train station, shutting down most of the exhibits yet by some twist of fate, the electricity to the New Media exhibit continued unaffected. And there were the hoards of mosquitoes that descended upon us in Melville, Sask., as the sun set –no amount of clothing or bug spray could fend them off.

Though I wrote daily journals about all of these happenings, they didn’t always appear online at the touch of a button. Sadly, the technology wasn’t where the CBC (and I) needed it to be. Even the newest technologies of the new millennium barely allowed me to connect half the time on the road, including one near-panicked last-second-before-losing-signal upload as the train departed Edmonton. Southern Ontario was usually OK; the Prairies were not. There was no signal through most of the Atlantic Provinces, and I swear there are no internet cafés between Quebec City and Halifax!

And then there was the writer’s biggest fear: was anyone actually reading this stuff? But validation came in the most unlikely of places.

Due to an organizational gaffe, when the train rolled into Toronto, the New Media exhibit ended up shunted into a dark corner of Union Station, away from everyone else during the meet and greet event. Let’s just say the visitors weren’t streaming in — no one knew where we were.

So imagine my surprise when I met Emily, a young woman who had travelled from Hamilton for one reason –to meet me. Emily had come (with her fiancé) to thank me for the journals. Emily is visually impaired. She’ll never see the white-capped Rockies, the endless horizon of the Prairies, or the glint of the Northern Ontario lakes.

But she told me that things I had written on the website allowed her to see what I saw, do what I did.

Humbled barely scratches the surface. Shocked is putting it mildly. It taught me that what I was doing did matter. Even if it was just to one person, it mattered. That was enough for me.

That experience changed the way I wrote. I thought more about what I was seeing and how to express it, bringing my experiences to others not fortunate enough to go where I was going. And if it takes a few extra words, then so be it.

Today, I still write journals. My blogs don’t appear daily but the locales certainly have been exotic, including remote places like Kazan and Ulan Ude, Russia; Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia; and Xi’an, China.

Times have changed since my adventure by rail. If the CBC were to run the museum tour by train again now, we’d find the wireless internet a little easier to use, at least where cellular technology allows for high-speed data connection. And now there are even internet-enabled VIA Rail trains that would solve all our problems for us.

I look back at the experience and wonder how we did it. Little did any of us know what we were getting into. We boarded as strangers in Vancouver and left Halifax 30 friends richer and thousands of encounters wiser. We’d go our separate ways, and all we’d have are the memories of what we did.

But it won’t be soon forgotten. The journals still exist online, as do the pictures. The internet has a long memory, and with luck will still be around when it comes time for CBC New Media to celebrate its own 50th anniversary. And I plan to be there.

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