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.