Go by train

I’m realizing my long-standing daydream of traveling cross-country by train. I boarded the Empire Builder line in Portland, OR around 4:30 yesterday. Right now I am at the station in Shelby, MT. Tomorrow evening I should be in Chicago.

On the platform, I see the woman with the tiny poodle has disembarked. There is an old man in flip-flop sandals with a hoodie pulled tight over his head. The wind is whipping everyone’s hair.

The Amtrak is a shadow of the past. When this train was new, it must have seemed very modern and sleek. Today the train is a little shabby. Nothing is wrong it’s just no longer nice. The edges are worn, latches are loose, and everything could use a good cleaning and a coat of paint. I feel like I’m traveling in a museum exhibit. “Once upon a time Americans cared about things outside of themselves…”

The train that left from Portland was incomplete. The dining car and a few coaches were meeting us in Spokane. The sleeper car attendant brought boxed dinners by each room. I chose the most vegetarian option he had, which was a green salad with shrimp. After I ate, I rambled three cars up to the observation car, and downstairs to the café car where I bought a little half-bottle of red wine.

The Portland train station is downtown. The train rolls right back through my neighborhood which feels like a bit of ironic backtracking. After the train leaves Vancouver, WA it takes a hard right and heads east towards Hood River, OR. The train is on the Washington side of of the Columbia River. I hear the announcement for the station at Bingen. It takes me a moment to recognize where I am. I’ve watched trains on this track from across the river many times, but here I was in a train looking back across at that cute little, overpriced mountain town.

I sipped my wine and watched movies on my iPad as the landscape became rugged and alien. The sun set quickly and soon it was very dark. I get a few poodle updates over text, catch up with a couple of friends the same way, and try to finish a second movie. After a brief struggle, I figure out how to unfold my bed from the wall. I realize now that I’ve unfolded the bed, I’ve made it very difficult to unpack anything so I leave my suitcase where it is, strip down to underwear and socks and slip under the blanket.

I wake up around 5:30 and it’s so very dark outside. I try to occupy myself on the internet, but out here there is no internet. I am somewhere in Montana and I have zero bars. I give up trying to sleep and try to quietly reassemble the room. The bed is now a couch again and I pull down my suitcase and pull out some fresh clothes. Time to figure out the shower.

My sleeper car bed room somehow contains a sleeper sofa couch, a bunk bed which folds from the ceiling, a little coat closet, a chair, a folding table, a small vanity, and a sealed bathroom which doubles as a shower. This is accomplished through a Tetris like arrangement of all the parts and pieces. Everything is mechanical. The chair across from me folds up and swivels out of the way to make room for the ladder for the upper bunk. The vanity wraps around the face of a rounded closet which is the bathroom, which itself has a rounded door which tucks away into a corner.  There are handles, printed instructions, glow-in-the-dark emergency labels, velcro, and industrial fabrics. It feels like a late model spaceship.

I’m showered and fresh and toddle down the hallway to find the coffee machine is hot and ready. I sip coffee and watch the day break. We’re headed towards the Rocky Mountains and there is snow on the ground. We are passing Whitefish Lake - which appears to be entirely frozen.

Around 7am I make my way to the front of the train to the recently-attached dining car. I’m shown to a seat. Solo travelers are coupled up with other solo travelers to save space. So I found myself talking to a nice grandma from Montana. She has a son in Raleigh, she’s on her way to the eastern part of the state to buy a used Honda Element because her grandson totaled her car. We compared the geography of the east and west. My wife called while I was having breakfast, and not wanting to be that guy I texted back to let her know I was at breakfast and would call her back as soon as I was done. I missed my cellular window. As we got farther into the mountains we left the bubble of radio waves surrounding Whitefish, MT and once again I had zero bars.

I tried to read my Murakami but the landscape fought for my attention from outside the window. I gave up and snapped photos and dozed until I felt my phone buzz. Precious radio waves! My wife and I chatted for a while and I fired off a few photos to friends. Finally I was able to focus and read a few chapters.

I had intended to use this time on the train to be “productive” - do some drawing, reading, writing, etc. It’s just too peaceful to work on anything. Maybe I should try to be productive at night when the landscape is swallowed up by the dark and there’s nothing to see.

I dropped by the dining car at 5:30pm for my dinner reservation. This time I’m seated with a nice younger couple who are returning from Portland. He notices my Murakami novel and immediately strikes up a conversation. He quickly recommends three more novels I should read. He and his partner are both bicycle aficionados and came to Portland to experience the bike culture. They raved about the Tilikum Crossing bridge. We compared notes on Powell’s Books. I ordered a bourbon with my dessert. When I tried to pay our attendant waved me away .“She’s too busy right now”,  referring to the other attendant. Then, winking, said “We’ll just put it on someone else’s check”.

My plan to try to be productive once the sun goes down proved to be ridiculous. I settled into my seat, full from dinner, and watched the sun go down over Montana. I watched about half of “Chinatown” on my iPad before dragging myself up to assemble the bed so I could fall back to sleep on it.

When I awake we are just crossing into Minnesota from North Dakota. I have about 8 to 10 hours before I reach Chicago. I’m meeting an old friend there. We’re going to visit the Art Institute and attend an Art Fair. I’ve never actually been in Chicago, only at the airport. I’m looking forward to walking around and gawking at the architecture. Visiting my friend and this city is my excuse, my justification for the train trip. But, honestly, I could be satisfied with a night in a hotel (with a proper shower) and quick flight home.

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