Monday, June 21, 2010

Observations from the Empire Builder

For three days last week Amtrak carried me across country, from Boston to Portland.

I wanted to get a sense of the nation's vast breadth and diversity.

Of course the real way to experience place is to walk it, Lewis and Clark style. Much of the train’s route followed Lewis and Clark’s.

There similarity ends.

Much of the country rolled beneath me at night when I was oblivious to the sweep of the darkened landscape.

I struggled to find enough comfort in my reclining coach seat to sleep. In the course of three nights, I experimented with a restless hodge-podge of reclining postures, often by observing dozing passengers nearby. I finally nestled into a contortion that allowed me to nod off.

At one point I toyed with sleep by having my iPod pipe Oscar Peterson’s “Night Train” into my skull. A Sinatra/Basie track, “Please be Kind,” finally put me down for good.

Trains have their own legendary rhythms. Swaying, jostling, click-eting. They meld in syncopation. Just about any tune can find a groove in the music of the rails.

One blessing: no one sat next to me at night. I could stretch out — in a manner of speaking. "Curl out" is more like it.

I rode a half day plus a night and a morning on the Lakeshore Limited between Boston (leaving at noon Sunday) and Chicago (arriving at 10 a.m. Monday).

The Empire Builder (a unsettling, imperialistic, dark reminder of a name) left Chicago at 2 p.m., took a sharp left at Milwaukee, stopped in the Twin Cities then rolled out across the northern tier of North Dakota and Montana for the entire next day. The silver Amtrak snake wound through the Rockies in the dark, rushed along the Columbia most of Wednesday morning and arrived in Portland at 10:10 a.m.

I stirred from sleep in my seat/bed early on the Tuesday morning of the northern tier. The sun must have been just on the horizon, directly behind the train. I had no idea where we were but we had to be somewhere in North Dakota, “The Peace Garden State.” I wandered up to the observation car with its big over-arching windows. The seats are arranged side-wise to look out on the landscape. I took my handy Neo keyboard (a slab of keys with a screen for only four lines of text at a time.)

There, a cup of watery Amtrak coffee at my elbow, I wrote a landscape-guided monologue into the little computer.

A sampler:

Trains reveal detail: the backside of towns, the work of the land. Jet bound, you can’t see people , but here on the rails punching through the hamlets and towns of the northern plains you see signs of striving and pride (a pocket park, a war memorial, tool sheds, dust-covered pickups, streets named for heroes and patriots).

I’ve looked down on this place, North Dakota, from the sky and seen the patchwork of plantings. The glint of lake and pond. It’s a perspective farmers do not know or think of as they go about their toil.

From on high, one can’t see the lovely white church we just passed, or the deer by the grove or the Masonic Lodge next to the gravel road.

There’s an electrical transmission station. Evidence of power and the need for it.

And graffiti. Freight cars as itinerant galleries.

Serene, hidden, unassuming, frog-inhabited ponds.

Wood-framed houses, far, far older than their inhabitants. Pitched roofed boxes with aspiring horizontal windows. Proud and revealing survivors.

Last night, late, I watched windows for lamps and signs of life. Once, the glow of TV on a huge screen.

Public works yards, dump trucks. Abandoned, rust-yellow Caterpillar tractors.

It’s early Tuesday morning in the observation car. I just changed clothes in the broom closet they call a rest room. Houdini like.

We’ve stopped at a station. Where are we? Devil’s Lake, North Dakota.

We’re moving again. The land is a flat, grassy sea with islands of trees. It's honest beauty. Green. Stolid. (My God, imagine the winters!)

Morning ground fog wisps over flat grain fields. The road crews are out working on the interstate paralleling the tracks. Between train and freeway, a reedy swale morphs into a pond at 70 miles per hour and then vanishes.

Here’s Devils Lake — the lake not the town. Beaver dams, loons. A great expansive aviary. A refuge on a flyway. A glorious, wild place.

Hamlets whisk by, no more than gathering spots. Where a general store communes with a church that blesses two or three houses served by a shed under the elms.

I’m looking north now, the non-freeway side of the train. Freshly plowed fields. Forested groves, patches of trees, where farmhouses and barns huddle against bitter winters. The out buildings anchor fields, nurture crops, house the harvest.

Man made, nature-made, serving and sustaining life.

Life here is distilled to mending fences, tilling fields. Harvesting. Wondering/worrying about weather and the price of wheat. Surrender and acceptance.

In the early morning, the shadows soften the flatness. When there’s a roll to the land, as there is now, the angle of the sun defines it.

On this short stretch, I’ve seen two deer loping across fields.

Dead, dying, struggling trees stranded in ponds. Their bone branches and trunks angle up from still waters. Their final purpose: perches for birds.

Ducks ignore the rush of steel on the tracks above their ponds.

A fox running across a field intent on a fluttering, escaping bird.

White bee hive boxes in a green field.

Another deer, alert, scanning the flatness. And another, prancing into reeds. Another pausing between clumps of trees.

More deer than people.

We are stopped in Rugby, North Dakota. It has Sinclair gas. $2.84 for unleaded. A “Hair Emporium.” We stopped all of two minutes. Rolling out. A sign on the receding, red brick train station announces: “Welcome to the geographical center of the US.”

We have a long way to go and only a day to do it.

I’ve seen the isolated cellular tower here with relay dishes and flashing lights. Communication courses quickly across these plains. A trunk rail line just split off to the north. The first rail diversion I’ve seen. Is it still used?

Abandoned cars, stacked next to a barn. Did they belong to one family? Uncle Fred’s old Chevy deLux sedan on top of Grandpa Ben's Studebaker pickup.

Artifacts of ancient journeys. To Fargo? Pierre? Denver? Cheyenne?

Chicago, where I was just yesterday, is beyond far away.

A Sunday morning like mine in a Boston? A dream.

The Empire Builder rolls through North Dakota, on into the West, the afternoon, the night and the Rockies.

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Blogger Paul Souders said...

This is wonderful. I moved to Oregon 15 years ago (from Nebraska) on the train. It felt epic: one man, one bag, 40 hours.

Think what a miracle this would have seemed to Lewis and Clark, and how quaint it seems in the 21st century when for my last trip from Boston I flew direct in about five hours.

Three days is fast enough in my opinion.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

Very nice post! Thank you.

If you ate in the dining car, you may have had something cooked by a friend of mine who has been cooking on the Empire Builder for several months now. He says it's the best job he's ever had.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Joe V said...

I enjoyed your writings, wishing that I too were on that train.

I'm also a Neo user, I love the thing for writing. I can see how the panorama of the lounge car is a perfect setting with your Neo for writing.

Come visit us at the Yahoo Alphasmart forums.


9:51 AM  
Blogger Mariseo said...

Damn good travel writing.

Brian Byrne
Automotive & Travel Writer

2:17 PM  

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