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?”
“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’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 café. 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.