Friday, January 15, 2016

And All That Raw Land



He looks like Floyd, the barber on The Andy Griffith Show. Same horned-rimmed glasses with the thin silver metal at the bottom of the frames, same haircut, same slur to his words. He says “right” a lot.

“We’re a few minutes outside St. Cloud,” I say, an answer to his question about where we are on the line.

“Right,” he says. “I can’t see much in the dark of the morning here. And I just got up. But I know this line well.”

He likes talking about the train line, the towns it runs through.

“We're heading for St. Paul,” he says, cutting into his pork sausage and sipping apple juice. He’s directly across from me in the diner car. I look at my phone. It’s 6:35AM.

“That’s where you’re going? St. Paul?”

“Right,” he says.

“Where you coming from?”

“Cut Bank.”



“What's in Cut Bank?”

“Just wanted to see what I can see,” he says, smiling. He smiles after everything he says, a shy, quick grin. “I live in St. Paul.” Another smile.

“Cold up here,” I say.

“Yes,” he says, acknowledging my obvious observation. “How cold is it right now?”

I look at my phone. “15 degrees,” I say.

“That’s not too bad,” he says. He’s a Minnesotan. He knows cold.

“Not bad?” I say.

He laughs, pushes his sliding glasses back up his nose. “There’s no bad cold. It’s just what it is,"

“It's cold to me,” I say.

“Right,” he says then looks out the window and sighs. “The stop before St. Cloud was Staples, North Dakota.”

At Staples, I saw an Amish family standing outside the station in the light of street lamps, waiting for the train doors to open. Several men in black brimmed hats gathered their luggage and two women in bonnets nestled infants tight to their breasts. They moved slowly, as if the frigid weather would allow only deliberate motion, as if they would crack it they moved too quickly. They chose several of the seats behind me in the coach car, their luggage in the racks above. They spoke softly in what sounded like German, but I wasn’t certain. The babies cooed. Someone sang a lullaby.

“The Staples station is on the north side of the tracks,” Floyd the barber says, with a grin, of course. "The St. Cloud station is on the south side of the tracks. And they go on like that. Back and forth.”

“You do know this line,” I say.

“Right,” he smiles.

This is not the kind of ride one takes when in a hurry. Despite a schedule, despite the notation of exact departure and arrival times on every ticket, those on the train, although keenly aware of the element time plays on this journey, are less concerned about its passage. Time is not something to maintain or adhere to here, not for the passenger, it is instead only a marker, the clock’s stamp on individual moments of the journey.

This is the third day on the train. My last. I will be in Chicago in late afternoon. But if I were a true train passenger—like Floyd—I would not be counting days or noting arrival times, would I? I would instead be noticing on what side of the tracks the stations stood, how I slept, on what page I would return to my reading, and if my body was ready to eat pork sausage.

In St. Paul, the train’s power is out. We are switching locomotives and they must unplug for a few minutes. The coach car goes oddly quiet. Engine off. Heat off. The hum of movement on the rails is gone. I can now hear only soft breathing, the creak of seats as people adjust in them, the crinkle of plastic being removed from a packaged breakfast muffin, and the sigh that comes after a sip of coffee in a paper cup—sounds that had disappeared in the chug of rail travel. A few passengers step out for a smoke on the platform, others to stretch. This is also where Floyd departs. It’s his stop. He passes my seat in coach.

“You enjoy your day, now,” he says, smiling. “The next stop after Minneapolis is Red Wing.”

I check my schedule. “Right,” I say. Floyd is right.

The power returns in a few minutes and the conductor announces all aboard. We are again in motion.


At La Crosse everything changes.

This is where we cross the Mississippi, more frozen and wider than anyone who has never seen it could ever imagine. And at the La Crosse station the Amish step out of the train, and the party steps on.

Men and women. All of them drinking. I’m guessing they are in their early 30s, holding beer bottles and blasting Neil Diamond from a portable speaker presumably connected to a smartphone.

“Sweet Caroline! Good times never seemed so good!!!”

They take a spot in the back of the lounge car and order wine and more beer. The conductor, a burly man in his navy blue uniform and cap greets them warmly. He takes their tickets and asks where they’re headed.

“Chicago!” Several scream and raise their drinks. “To debauchery!” someone belts. More cheers.

Someone in the group asks to take a selfie with the conductor. He agrees. The partier asks if one of the women can sit on his lap. He reluctantly agrees. “This is not going viral, is it?” he asks.

They cheer again. “To the conductor!” someone yells. A woman with blonde hair and what looks like Mardi Gras beads around her neck takes her seat on the conductor’s knee and wraps her arms around his bearded neck. Another cheer, many smiles, and the click of smartphone cameras.

We are some 300 miles from Chicago.

I find a quieter spot. How boring I am? I ask myself. I read a new book on my iPad—A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable. A novel about the treasures discovered inside an abandoned apartment in the French city. Across from me, a husband and wife argue about meeting friends for dinner. She wants to; he doesn’t. “Who will feed your horses if we go out?” he asks. There are a number of husband and wife travelers on this stretch. Some young and some old. Some sit together, up close in the lounge seats, others separate themselves with the booths in the eating area of the lounge, across from one another but seemingly miles apart. There are few words. Their eyes do not meet. Strangers in some way. I think of the novel, the Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. I don’t think there’s anything sinister going on here like the story’s two travelers who swap murders. But there is a kind of sadness.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” – Henry David Thoreau.

The cackles from the rowdy crowd in the back now echo in the front of the lounge car. They are singing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The volume grows as others in the group join in. A man in a blue denim shirt and CAT hat walks past them and towards me and stops.

“If that’s the tavern back there, this must be the library,” he jokes.

I smile.

I’ve moved all of my belongings—one overstuffed backpack and a light jacket—to the lounge car after giving up my seat and the one next to it to another group of Amish who boarded a stop or two after La Crosse. I was asked to take the seat behind me next to another man. “Happy to,” I said. But I didn’t stay. The man’s body odor was overwhelming, the stale smell of a high school boy’s locker room after a Friday night basketball game.

No one smells in the library.


I’m ready for Chicago. I’m not tired of the ride, the humming motion, or the marginal food. I desperately want to step out and walk. Really walk. A long way. There’s a lot of sitting on the train. But that's not my biggest annoyance. What I’ve had enough of is the granny factor.

At every turn on the train now, from Columbus, Wisconsin, heading south and east, grandmothers have stepped aboard. And at every chance grandmothers are telling other grandmothers how many grandchildren they have, their names, their ages, their favorite colors, and the times of their hockey practices. Grandmothers in the lounge car, the dining car, outside the restrooms, in the cafĂ©. This stretch of the Empire Builder should be called the “Granny Train.”

I have not switched trains; not left one for another, no transfers. But much has changed over a few hundred miles. There was a solitude and even a reverence in the ride from Seattle through North Dakota. All that has slowly evaporated. No, it’s not all about the grandmothers. There something deeper.

The wide open spaces of the West and all of what that offers the mind slips away as you head East. There’s a book I truly love. It’s a bit obscure but I offer it to anyone who sees the connection between the human condition and the harshness of dense populations—Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. I think of it now, somewhere between Columbus and Milwaukee.

“Everything in nature constantly invites us to be what we are. We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still.”

And I wonder if we also are often like a train: quiet and brooding, accommodating and mighty, scheduled and tardy, journeying, chugging, at rest.


The conductor calls for Chicago.

“This is the last stop on the Empire Builder!” He then adds something about checking your baggage and connections at Union Station, and something about Red Cap service, whatever that is. I dismiss this. It doesn't matter.

All around are the last of the passengers, an eclectic mix of students, traveling businessmen, couples, Amish families heading for a connection to Pennsylvania, and a few remaining grandmothers. The crew gathers trash and collects the white cloth covers that protect the head rests. The lounge area is now closed. The drinkers and the singers are silent and in their coach seats in another car. In the distance is a big, hard, sulking city, and in the rear view mirror, as Kerouac once wrote is “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast.” And in my mind, right in front of me I think about what is present, how none of us know anything about what will happen to us tomorrow, tonight, an hour from now. We plan, we schedule, we prepare, we organize, we arrange, but we can only be certain of this very moment. So, what I know for sure is this: The rock of the train entering Union, the pungent smell of oil and diesel, the familiar screech of train wheels on steel, and the rush of that unmistakable Chicago air, chilly and damp. And as I step from the train, I think of what I have seen and those I have met, brief but nevertheless lasting encounters, gone now along the tracks stretching out over my shoulder and disappearing in the last light of day.

Early Morning in Fargo



North Dakota is tired. It is worn out and beat. It needs a vacation from itself.

And it’s cold. Bitterly cold. At 4AM the temperature is  -7 degrees. As the train pulls up to the station, the lights of the city appear to be muted by crystallized snow, the kind that sparkles  No one is out. The station and the streets are as bare at the landscape, as if everyone here has gone somewhere else.

We are at least an hour behind schedule. Freight trains needed to pass somewhere in Eastern Montana and our train had to pull off on a siding to permit them to pass. We waited about 45 minutes. No one complained. I thought about that. No complaints. If this were an airline flight delayed on the runway, there would be much grumbling. There was none.

Last night before trying to sleep I sat in the lounge car with the sofa seats and the big windows. I read in a book of travel essays about a journalist’s trek to find an African spiritual man who had claimed to have cured AIDS. Across from me sat a young woman, maybe in her mid 20s—deep black hair, pale skin, a nose ring, and a tattoo on her neck. I could see the spine of the book she was reading—Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I wonder if she had read far enough yet to recognize one of the themes in the book—trains. Ironic? Purposeful? Did she know this? Did she choose the book for this journey on the rails? And does she know yet about what happens to Anna on the tracks of a train?

Train coffee is not as bad as you might think. It’s better than what one gets in many of those Greek-run breakfast restaurants you find scattered around Chicago. It’s not Metropolis or Intelligensia, still it satisfies somehow. Maybe because it's all we have. There are no choices. And it makes me wonder about the other passengers on this train—the young man with the skull cap and the backpack who speaks to his daughter on his cell phone: I’m on my way, girl. It’s just taking a little longer than Daddy hoped. I’ll be there. Promise. Or the man with mud on his jeans, wearing an old green flannel shirt and black cap, and nursing a dark bruise under his eye—a black eye turning blue as it heals. Does he have other choices? Or the silver-haired elderly woman dressed in her best skirt and blouse, and her shiniest earrings, sitting at a small table in the lounge, playing solitaire for hours. Does she have options?

And the girl with the tattoo and Tolstoy…has she brought another book to read, another choice? Something that doesn’t end with suicide by train?

The train has left Fargo and travels east. There is nothing to see out these windows, only darkness. Inside—people sleep, snore, and wrap themselves in blankets in coach chairs. Small green lights on the floor show the way down the aisle to the bathroom, the lounge car, and diner car. From the front end of the train comes the faint smell of coffee brewing, the earthy aroma of morning. When the diner hours begin, I will walk past sleepy travelers to ask for a cup and I will have choices of sugar or cream or none nothing at all. And I will sip it and savor it, hoping it will warm me as I wait for the sun to rise up over the top of America.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Train Across the Top of America

This is a story in three chapters.



The King Street train station in Seattle is not in the best part of town. It’s near the International District and that part of the city has  been in decline for sometime. “Be careful down there,” the driver alerted me as I stepped from the bus at 3rd Avenue and Main in the middle of the afternoon.

Homeless men wrapped in blankets slept on the sidewalk. Groups of young and older men, huddled together in the light rain, drinking  from tall cans of beer in front of a convenience store and cigarette shop.

I was an hour early for my scheduled train. I waited at a tavern a block from the station. I nursed an ale and ate clam chowder at the bar. A college basketball game was on several of the TVs. I couldn’t tell you who was playing.

“You from Chicago?”the bartender asked, eyeing the credit card I had given her.  An image of the city’s skyline under the card’s numbers gave me away.

“Yes,” I said.

“Me, too. Grew up in Aurora,” she said.

“My kids were raised in Naperville.”

“I went to Naperville North High School.”

“Central,” I said.

“I love Seattle. But I’m still a Bears fan,” she said, showing me the big Chicago C on her keychain.

“Heading there the slow way. Train,” I said, as I stood to gather my backpack and jacket.

“Always thought about that,” she said.

“First time. We’ll see.”

This trip was about research, observation, and writing. I’m working on a novel that includes a significant train journey from Chicago to Seattle. My trip, albeit the reverse, was a good way to gather details. I had never traveled this far in a train. Two days. Two thousand miles across the top of America. I needed to know more, to understand it, to understand the people who travel this way—those who live far from airports and cities and sometimes far from anyone else.

I did not sleep well. Going coach was cheaper, but maybe an upgrade to a sleeper car would have been a better idea, although a friend told me it wasn’t worth it. Too cramped. The ride was quiet, even serene and the coach seats are big and roomy, but not made for sound sleep. I awaken several times—1:33AM, 2:46AM, 3:36AM, 4:48AM, 6:10AM. I washed up in the restroom and brushed my teeth. The bathrooms are clean, but small. Bigger than an airplane’s, but just as cold and hard—made of chrome and steel,  an uninviting industrial toilet is the centerpiece.

Sylvester is a retired railroad worker. He started as a laborer, went into management. “I take trains all the time,” he said. “It's free.”

We shared a morning of coffee and eggs in the diner car with a young couple from Seattle heading for White Fish, Montana to visit family. The couple was smart, friendly. She wore a Google t-shirt with an image of the Space Needle in the background. He wore a Pints of Pasta t-shirt. It had something to do with Portland. I didn't ask.

“I’m a Native American,” Sylvester said. “I know Montana. Beautiful in White Fish. Skiers love the area. Not a big resort. But still good. I’ve worked this area. Repaired rail here. I know these tracks.”

“What are the people like in Montana?” I asked.

“Good people. Ranchers. Smart,” Sylvester said. “I grew up on a reservation.

“My brother lives here,” the man from the couple said, “and there’s a difference in West and East Montana.”

“Wide open spaces in the East. Big country,” said Sylvester, “but it’s changing.”

“More people?” I asked.

“Yes, but something is unbalanced,” he said. “Last night a train hit a large herd of elk grazing on the tracks. Twenty three dead animals. Too many elk. And too many people pushing them into places they shouldn’t be.”

“Awful.” I said.

“Do you know what happens when a train going 60mph hits a big animal?” he asked. “They pretty much explode.”

The woman from the couple grimaced.

“Can't even save the remains for meat,” Sylvester said.

A voice over the train speakers interrupted. “Last call for White Fish.”

The couple rushed to grab their luggage and hurry to the train doors, leaving sausage links and half-eaten toast on their plates. White Fish appeared to come up quickly. Sylvester said the train was ahead of schedule.

“Thank you for your time and the conversation,” he said, standing and offering a handshake. “I wish you good travels.”

For two hours I sat in the observation car, writing in my journal and watching Montana go by, arrow straight pines stretching tall into the snowy sky against a backdrop of steep mountains. And for miles and miles, the scene through the large window did not change. There was no cell service. No homes tucked in the hills. An occasional road could be seen, but no vehicles. Not one. Who wouldn't want to escape here? Who wouldn't want to find a individualized life in this wilderness?

I rested my back against the seat, placed my boots on the metal rail just below the window and waited patiently for what might come.