Rail Tripping on AMTRAK: Looking For America, #2
On the Empire Builder
Chicago, WI, MN, ND, MT, ID, WA, OR
Last night, after a big dinner of grilled hangar steak and butter-fried crab cake, and lingering as long as I could over dessert of caramel parfait and coffee until the gravel-voiced hostess booted me out citing that they needed to prepare the dining car for breakfast, I prepared for bed reluctantly and as I switched off my light and looked out into the darkness, there was the near full moon, and with that, this 46-hour rail journey from Chicago to Seattle, was instantly transformed into a thrilling quest for adventure. To set the mood I put on my earbuds and listened over and over to the many interpretations of Dvorak’s Song to the Moon, from Rusalka. I awoke at 5:30 am, with the North Dakota plains still in darkness, was first at the communal shower and first seated at breakfast at 6:30 am. At 7:10 I had a nice seat in the observation car to watch the sunrise unfold in a spectacular burst of oranges and its mutations with reds and yellows in an expanding ripple across the heavens until we were enclosed in a fiery dome. And then the sun blazed in the horizon and washed out all the fire in the sky. The landscape bathed in this low angled illumination, was silent, and sparse, a vast gently undulating golden grassland with herds of black angus cows grazing in the open space and broken by random stands of trees wearing their early fall colors and where there were small ponds grew white-barked birch with their yellow foliage brilliantly rustling in the breeze. The train passed big farms planted with corn, heavy with drying ears ready for the animal feed market. And everywhere shaved open fields dotted with barrel-shaped rolled hay and alfalfa. Every so often, when the tracks were laid close to stands of low shrubs, a flock of birds would fly out all at once from their obscure perch. From dawn to dusk, the Empire Builder crossed this vast North Dakota plains where once bisons and Indians roamed in harmony.
Blending in with Montana, the scenery was unchanged, but in Havre, we had a long stop over where border police boarded the train and asked the man I was seated next to whether he was a US citizen. He was the only one asked in this group of more than a dozen Caucasian passengers. I was not questioned, but politely acknowledged with a smile and the two ICE uniformed young men moved on to the next car. The man questioned looked typically Mexican and in fact was originally from Mexico, and I presumed I was assessed to be with him, and therefore escaped questioning. He said this was the second time this year that he was asked to which he answered, yes. He now routinely carry his passport, just in case. He commutes every week between Williston ND where he worked in the oil fields and his home in Ephrata WA where his wife resides. He mentioned he has five roommates from the Philippines working with him in the oil field. He has 3 children ages 32, 25, and his youngest 21, all emancipated and tax-paying citizens. He was going home to join his wife for their annual month-long vacation in Mexico, in a small town near Guadalajara. I am wondering why there are random border checks between two states but I couldn’t google anything because there is no WiFi on the train and cellular signal is intermittent, and brief if you happen to catch it.
The observation car with its all around glass enclosure offers a panoramic view of the passing scene and a glimpse into the people who ride it. There was raucous laughter and loud conversation from one corner where a young man with shaved and tattooed head and tomahawk hair held court and kept his audience enthralled with accounts of his travels. I had a quiet conversation with Stephen who was a book publisher, a poet who had readings and exhibited his abstract art in San Francisco and New York and Chicago and who just completed a boxed set of haptic drawings paired with quotes about the first 100 days of Obama. He happens to know a lot about the Philippines as his uncle who was a pilot in WWII and who became a pilot for PAL married a Filipina from an elite Philippine family and who moved around in power circles with names like the Aranetas, Ayalas, Zobels, etc. He was acquainted with Filipino artists and he was the publisher of Hagedorn’s the Dogeaters. I was impressed but he no longer publishes and now he is visiting his friend in San Francisco who is a philosopher in his 80’s, and himself is 75 years old and they discuss what is a good death by living well. Then he inquired about the book I was reading about decline and rage in rural America and our conversation went to the Kavanaugh and Ford testimonies. Meanwhile our mohawk performer was getting louder and was drowning all other conversations, at which point lunch was announced, which gave us a good excuse to flee.
At lunch I was seated with Calvin and his wife who is a registered member of the Chippewa Indian Nation, but they lived outside the reservations. He was originally from North Dakota, with Scottish ancestors who moved from Canada, but now he lives in South Dakota to insure better economic opportunity for his family. They were traveling to Seattle to babysit their grandson which they love to do. He served in the military and was in Germany during the Korean War. That was his only trip abroad, but they have been taking rail trips in the US since his retirement. He was a former representative from South Dakota and served in the House Appropriations Committee. He didn’t have any college education, but he learned a great deal about finance and how the government works during his term in the House. He doesn’t like what’s going on now in the government, even if he voted Republican.
In the afternoon I was educated about the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railways and how AMTRAK has to defer right of way to its freight cars which cause us schedule delays. Rich is a farmer from Wisconsin, who is married to a Hawaiian who bemoans Trump’s tariff war with China which he fears will hurt him in the end, and sees the fate of farms like him like the demise of Hawaiian farms growing pistachios, macadamias, pineapple, and sugar. On the other hand he agrees with fracking and doesn’t see how it could damage the earth when the holes drilled are to such depths that he ‘s convinced about its harmlessness from sheer belief. It appears this train carries locals across regularly, and these farmers have varied stories to tell. Carol from Michigan has 240 acres just outside Lansing, which had been family owned since his great grandfather acquired the land, which was planted with subsistence crops until her father was forced to plant cash crop when his wife birthed three daughters and no sons. He was able to keep the land with cash help from his daughters’ employment in the city. Now three generations are living in the old homestead, after two sisters divorced and Carol returned to care for her father. Her husband farms the land with modern equipment and methods but market fluctuations in the price of corn, and alfalfa keeps the anxiety level about keeping the farm high. At dinner I was seated with Henry who was reticent and at first appeared to be unconcerned about being engaged in polite conversation. I figured I’d ask to be seated elsewhere if he didn’t help in the dialogue at all, and would give him feedback about being rude as a parting comment. He appeared elderly and frail and used a cane to help his balance, but he was traveling solo. This intrigued me as I rarely met elderly men traveling solo as compared to senior women. Further he was dressed carefully in checked flannel shirt, and well fitted corduroy pants and he wore those funky, expensive sports sandals favored by outdoorsy types which gave him a stylish and elegant air that I decided to be charming and draw him out. I found out he was a retired Professor of Mathematics from the University of Kentucky, a Stephen Hawking type it seemed. He was on his way to see his friend outside of Seattle, and he travels the Empire Builder at least six times a year from Chicago to see him. I thought this must be an important relationship to warrant this frequent visit and he must be gay. I was careful to not pry, unless he volunteered, but he didn’t and we had to end our conversation when the hostess announced the closing of the dining room. Well, it was affirming for me to find out I could still turn on the charm and draw men to be charming and gallant too towards me. You know, the confucian philosophy, do unto others, what you would have done to you, worked well here.
Another night on the train was uneventful except without WiFi there should have been the option of watching movies in the lounge/observation car, but time passed unobserved while reading and plugged to music in my iPhone. Early morning brought the colorful fall landscape as the Empire Builder hurled towards Glacier National Park. My new publisher friend Stephen, got off here. He will rent a car and explore the park and sketch the scenery using his colored permanent ink pens. Next time I travel I will pack pastel colors and canvass and draw too.
After breakfast I wanted to sit in the observation lounge but I found out it was no longer with us. We were uncoupled sometime ago and as the train headed to Seattle the snow-capped Cascades and the Olympic range came into view, and skirting Puget Sound we arrived at King Street Station.by