Switching Tracks

Fine Arts

- Cormac O'Brien

Cormac O'Brien (left) and brother Fintan on stage at a Rifflandia event in 2018. Photo Credit: Belle White

The train snores at night, just as my bunk­mate does. Its aluminum carriage walls rattle and rock as we weave our way over the Rocky Mountains and through the Prairies; if you lie awake at night (this is pretty much an inevi­tability, given the motion and noise) it sounds as though the train itself is alive and breathing.

The train is called The Canadian, and its cars and carriages are named after historic Canadian icons. The 4,400-kilometre trip from Vancouver takes four nights and features breathtaking views of the Rockies, the Prairies and the lakes of Onta­rio. It has panoramic views of the countryside, plenty of windows and no Wi-Fi.

My younger brother and I took the train to Toronto, where we had a few gigs lined up for the month of March, performing under his name, Fin­tan O’ Brien. As participants in a ViaRail program that allows musicians to travel for free in exchange for playing concerts to the passengers, we saw it as the cheapest way of getting to a much bigger musical city and kick-starting our pop-music careers.

I am a journalist and musician (my apologies to every high school guidance counsellor who tried their best with me), with a BFA degree in Cre­ative Writing from UVic. After I graduated in June 2018, I stepped away from the offer of a journalism internship in Edmonton and joined my brother in pursuing music.

The prospect of diving into music was terrify­ing—the internship felt secure and straightfor­ward, while a career in music seemed hectic and unclear. But I felt I could handle it. I’d survived the business and bustle of a university degree, after all. I was a writer and editor at the Martlet, the campus newspaper, for most of my degree, split­ting nearly all of my time between late nights in a musty basement newsroom and early mornings in cold lecture halls for four straight years.

But then I graduated, and I realized that it’s not always the bustle that a new grad has to struggle with: sometimes it’s the emptiness.

In university, things are always moving. It’s a bit like a train journey, really. Your schedule, for the most part, is decided by someone else. There is a clear direction, with a clear goal. No matter how disoriented or hungover you feel, you can always count upon the linear motion.

As my brother and I filled our days in Toronto, our route was decidedly more muddled. The train tracks gave way to city intersections, with no clear path through them (even with a grid system that puts Victoria’s twisting roads to shame).

During my UVic days, any fears of being sta­tionary were swallowed by the comfort of univer­sity monotony. But now, the 7 a.m. wake-ups for 8 a.m. classes were gone, as were the check-ins from professors or the email reminders from university admin. In their places were squandered mornings spent holed up in a rented basement suite fielding spam emails from online coupon services.

Our time in the big city, my third visit there, was short. We left Toronto in April, boarding the Canadian at Union Station and squeezing ourselves into our tiny, two-person cabin. We were heading back to Victoria and the quietness it promised. We looked back on a busy and breathless month in Toronto, filled with exciting opportunities and the promise of a big break, and both of us hoped we might soon be back. Whether we would or not was up in the air.

I was glad to get back on The Canadian, tuning into the stillness of the snowy Prairies and hearing the train breathe and creak beneath me. I’d missed feeling the motion as I slept and knowing I was going somewhere, no matter where that anywhere was. I’d missed looking out the window at the track ahead and knowing which direction was forward.

Fin Fintan O'Brien's music on sound cloud.


In this story

Keywords: alumni

People: Cormac O'Brien, Fintan O'Brien

Publication: The Torch

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