HEALING THE SOUL ON AMTRAK’S EMPIRE BUILDER
After a family trauma that left me grieving, I chose to go home to Seattle by Amtrak rather than Delta, so that I could use the slower form of transportation as a way to quiet my sorrow. I hoped that the passing American landscape would sooth my soul.
I boarded Amtrak in Ann Arbor on a muggy summer morning; I was among the first at the station, but gradually the platform filled with about a hundred day trippers and overnighters, most going to Chicago for a Monday outing. In the seat in front of me, a little girl going to Chicago with her parents looked forward to going to the zoo, which her patient mom and dad explained repeatedly was the city of Kalamazoo–not the zoo of her imagination. After we passed through Kalamazoo and they didn’t get off the train, I think she got it. Her mother explained that they woud be visiting a museum and an aquarium, and that her little daughter was going to walk with a penguin.
Amtrak slowed repeatedly on the trip to Chicago, once stopping because of a signal light that may or may not have indicated an oncoming train (best to be prudent!). The Norfolk Southern, upon whose tracks Amtrak runs along this route, had designated parts of the tracks a 15 mph zone, so we crawled along past houses, farms, and fields. Then we had to pull over to stop for a faster freight train. After all this, we were over two hours late getting into Chicago.
The lady conductor sternly gave us a lecture over the intercom that the delays were not Amtrak’s fault and “don’t go complainin’ to Amtrak–call the State of Michigan and Norfolk Southern if you are going to complain!” I was’t going to complain. Heck, it’s all an adventure to me, so I just chuckled.
At Union Station, we detrained and walked the platform back to the terminal, ears cowering next to the giant, hissing beasts. It would have been even more atmospheric if the locomotives had been black behemoths hissing steam, like they would have been 75 years ago when men were men and steam was king, but we live in a kinder, gentler age when oil is king and men are unemployed.
Inside Union Station it was anything but kinder and gentler. The place was packed. There was a lot of milling around and a lot of asking Amtrak employees where the portal to the next train woud be. I had to ask three employees before I got to the right gate, since the signage was so poor. But I at last arrived in the steerage waiting room, where people sat and stood and sprawled against every available wall. The place was packed. And hot. A giant fan worked overtime to ineffectively cool the room and effectively silence the announcements.
Upper Class train travelers, who book sleeping compartments, got better treatment. They walked into a darkened space with frosted glass doors that looked like the VIP lounges for first-class air travelers. But our waiting room made for a richer experience, if you like noise and heat and watching Amtrak cops chatting inside their sterile, air-conditioned office while the rest of us sweated outside.
After waiting a half hour, the young woman sitting next to me said she had never ridden the train before and wondered if she was in the right place. I asked what train she wanted, and she said “the Empire Builder,” and I assured her that she was in the right place. We waited. I asked about her trip and she had taken a bus from Tennessee to Chicago, and she was taking the train to Libby, Montana to see her fiance. I asked what he did for a living, and she said
he was retired military, a cop, and an EMT. Sounds like Superman, and he’ll be a good protector of her. I sensed that this shy and pretty woman, approaching thirty years old, had rarely been outside Tennessee. A vigorous older man sitting on the other side of me had a strong southern accent that seemed like what I had heard in rural southern Indiana or in West Virginia. He had a longish gray beard and an easy affability that allowed him to wait patiently and with a sense of humor.
Finally, a big woman from Amtrak sternly told us that the train was boarding and to show her your ticket as we passed. To each of us, she loudly admonished us to get in line “SINGLE FILE” after we passed her unsmiling face. She missed her calling: she should have been one of the occasional battle-axe teachers I observed in my youth (my favorite cartoon, Frazz, features one such teacher, Mrs. Olsen, to great effect).
We boarded. I sat down next to a man from Seattle. With typical Seattle reserve, he didn’t even glance up at me. But in 24 hours next to him, he did open up and say that dinner was “OK, but expensive.” And he said his steak was overdone. In my experience, a person could be stranded in the Seattle airport for a week and nobody would ever, ever talk to him. In contrast, I once waited in the waiting area of the Marquette airport in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the sparkle of people chatting with strangers reminded me of the tinkle of stemware in an expensive restaurant. Coastal people, in general, are jaded and prefer separation, perhaps because they live packed so close together. Rural Midwesterners, by contrast, prefer connection.
The train shrieked and groaned out of the Chicago station: something was clearly wrong with our train car’s rear truck–it had a rubbing metal sound that occurred every time whe went around a curve at low speed. Had I been on a plane with that sound, I would have been praying!.
We passed derelict warehouses and factories, and overgrown yards, and enough rusty metal and graffitti-adorned buildings that the route felt like Chicago’s unofficial back alley–a fascinating place to dig for photographic treasure, but not a great place to live your life. Looking out the window at a dead end dirt road below the support columns of a road bridge, I saw a late model dark SUV with five beefy, unsmiling guys standing around it, one on a cell phone. The quick glimpse reminded me of a TV mafia story just before some guy got cement shoes to be used for his final dive into the Chicago River.
The woman sitting across the aisle from me was from Michigan. A hint: if you want to talk to somebody on a long trip, sit near a small town Midwesterner. She is from a rural area near Battle Creek in southern Michigan, and had been on the train from Kalamazoo. She told me then about being struck by lightning a few years ago: a tremendous bolt of lightning hit her house, then traveled in via the old wiring, slammed into her shoulder and out through her fingers and back into the wall. Meanwhile, she was knocked unconscious, tossed eight feet across the room, and burned and bruised on her arm. She awoke to her dog licking her face and the walls on fire around the room. She got out just in time … thank God for dogs! And for women from Michigan to entertain us with great stories!
On we snaked through Milwaukee, with more urban grunge. Farther on, up through Wisconsin forests and lake country. On to Minneapolis, where I fell asleep. I heard the next day that young people enjoyed the lounge that evening, with guitars and beers late into the night. Strangers on a train connect more effectively than strangers in virtually any other situation, perhaps because the surroundings and seats are comfortable and the atmosphere relaxed. Life stories are readily passed.
Night in a recliner seat. Stiff neck and need for coffee at dawn as we raced across the prairie. The pothole country of North Dakota gave us displays of brilliant American White Pelicans and red-stained Sandhill Cranes who had groomed their feathers with oxides from the mud where they feed. One young man ahead of me in the car was moving to Portland on this trip, accompanied by his guitar and by a potted Venus Flytrap that sat on his tray table. He said it looked much better than when he had started the journey and had the carnivorous plant sealed in a plastic bag. Apparently meat-eating plants like to breathe as much as meat-eating humans. His colorful left arm was covered with bright tattoos, looking much like all the other young people flocking to Portland in the great exodus of the decade. Portland is the glittering “City That Works” along the Willamette River, where commuting on bicycles is cool and food vendors in mobile food carts descend upon the city by the hundreds. There is even a funny TV show exploring this hip, young culture: Portlandia.
Three friendly young people were independently making their way to Rugby, North Dakota, which is kind of opposite of Portland in its hipness quotient. Still, one young woman had a bead of blue inserted in her lip piercing, so she wasn’t totally uncool. Her mother had moved to North Dakota from Wisconsin because the housing and land prices were so low and jobs were plentiful, with the lowest unemployment rate in the country during this endless recession. The shocker when she got there was that the jobs paid very little, so she had to get two jobs to make ends meet. Nothing is ever easy.
The prairies went on for hundreds of miles, punctuated by tiny towns with skyscraper grain elevators. The breadbasket of America, with the harvest starting in the golden fields. Not everything was golden; the town of Minot, North Dakota, had been the site of once-in-a-century flooding, and there were still farms and outbuildings surrounded by giant lakes where there should be no lakes. In the town, a sports park had been deeply gouged for its soil, which had been mounded high around some lower-lying buildings to provide a fortress against the flood. The train slowed considerably through this stretch, as the roadbed was just a bit over the waterline.
I had carried much of my food on the trip, but used the cafe to stoke up my alertness with periodic doses of coffee. Each morning, when we coffee drinkers got in line with puffy faces and uncombed hair, the lady attending the cafe laughingly greeted us with “How many?” We must have looked desperate for coffee. On the second afternoon, the train took on boxed dinners provided by a restaurant in a small Montana town, available for ten bucks. These included broasted chicken–a mostly western specialty I hadn’t enjoyed in some 30 years, as well as a roll and some good old-fashioned blackberry cobbler. The Dining Car offered more options, but was expensive for those of us on limited budgets. Most of the Dining Car diners had meals included with their private sleeping quarters.
We took on three private cars, which were attached to the back of the train while stopped at a Montana town. The Michigan woman decided to go check out one of the private cars, but as she walked close with her camera, several big guys with aviator sunglasses came out and gave her the evil eye, so she backed off.
Michigan woman is a lover of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as am I. She spent many weeks of her childhood in the U.P., and said that her first taste of whiskey–at age 11–came from John D. Voelker, an ex-Michigan Supreme Court judge who became widely famous under his pen name of Robert Traver. He wrote the classic Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a popular 1959 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. The success of the book and movie allowed Voelker to retire to his beloved U.P.–he was born in the U.P. mining town of Ishpeming–to pursue a career of writing and trout fishing. As a teenager, I had read his wonderful book about fishing and whiskey drinking, Trout Madness, and had been captivated for a time by the classic and romantic sport of fly fishing.
Two guys from the same Montana town–but who didn’t know each other–boarded the train in eastern Montana and plunked down in my end of the car. One immediately rose and walked down to the cafe to get a beer. Alas, the cafe was closed for 45 minutes for a staff break. From that moment on, I heard stories about craving beer. One guy was a construction worker whose long-term job was cleaning up an old lead mine site, which had heavy arsenic contamination. He said they were removing the contaminated waste and dumping it in a lined pit on the mountain, which would be sealed over when the job was complete. He was a vigorous thirty-something with a friendly and open Montana personality.
The other guy who came on board said he was really ashamed of something he had done, but he didn’t feel like talking about it. Finally, the cafe opened and the two guys got their beers, and that loosened them up. The younger guy, a twenty-something who now lived on the coast, had gone back to his small town for a wedding, and was arrested after the wedding and pled guilty to a DUI charge by a cop he had gone to school with (as in: “sorry, just doing my job”). He had his old acquaintance take his picture behind bars, as he was wearing his tuxedo. Now the guy faced the possible loss of his job, which involved driving, and a permanent stain on his record.
The other guy topped this story with his own background of two DUIs; the second one had cost him confiscation of two vehicles and spending seven days in jail. He figured that it cost him over $20,000, which probably didn’t include the long-term raises in his insurance. Both guys agreed that in their small town, lots of people thought drinking was the only thing to do. At least drinking on a train is a relatively benign activity, unless you are going to be driving right away when you reach your destination. I drifted to sleep as the Amtrak attendant shuffled the noisy drinkers off to the observation car so that we teetotalers could get some shuteye.
When I awoke, all the people I had talked to had vanished at remote Montana stops in the night. I changed clothes in a changing room, then lurched down to the dining car–staggering because the tracks are pretty rough in places. It reminded me of being on a small ocean-going ship during a storm. I was seated at a singles table with three others who had no dining companions. I turned out to be the most talkative of the bunch, which will astound and amaze everyone who knows me. Two of the other three were from Seattle (remember my comments above about Seattle reserve?), and the other was a lady from Oswego, New York, who was going to the Seattle area to see her son, whom she hadn’t seen in five years. Five years … really … what’s the son’s excuse for that?! She and her kids had often been to the nature center I once managed in the Syracuse area, near her hometown of Oswego. One of the Seattle guys owns a sailboat for navigating Puget Sound, as well as a cabin in an old gold-mining area of the Cascades; he said that if he is down in the Olympia area, he’ll look me up for a sailing trip on the Sound.
Breakfast, for me, was an excellent spinach and cheese omelet, with American fries and good coffee. The service was good, but the table setting was not the storied linen tablecloths of the classic days of train travel. The tablecloth and napkins were paper, the coffee cups were styrafoam, the china was plastic (though not made in China) … but at least the flatwear was classic metal. After several cups of coffee and pleasant breakfast conversation, I went back to my seat and enjoyed the view of the channeled scablands of eastern Washington.
The channeled scablands were formed when ice dams suddenly broke open during the ice age, sending unbelievable sudden surges coursing through the thick volcanic basalt formations of eastern Washington, ripping away solid rock and creating networks of channels. Now only the remnants of those natural catastrophes remain: basalt cliffs rise above sagebrush valleys, telling stories that geologists were able to piece together from clues on the landscape. As the train thundered westward, hawks and Great Blue Herons constantly fled the noise and commotion, flying away from the tracks and small wetlands toward distant refuge.
Speaking of noise: the train is not nearly as noisy as might be expected. The engine was so far ahead that I could hear no engine noise and I could only faintly hear the train’s whistle–used when approaching highway crossings–when I thought about listening for it. Inside the train cars, there was a constant soft hiss from the ventilation system, which creates a soothing white noise that I found relaxing. There is no clickity-clack of the rail joints these days, since the tracks are now made using long stretches of continuous welded rail.
Approaching Stevens Pass in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, the train was again delayed, this time by a freight train having engine trouble on the west side of the pass. The Conductor estimated a delay of an hour. Actually, delays of Amtrak trains are common, because freight trains have the right-of-way on tracks operated by private railroads. For these railroads, Amtrak is an inconvenience–but also a source of revenue, so they probably don’t want it to go away.
Several National Park Service volunteers boarded the train in eastern Washington, and went on the loudspeaker to interpret the passing landscape for us, adding to the richness of the trip. They told us about early settlers and Indians and the Columbia River and the apple orchards and such. They did not, however, tell us the history of one of the greatest train disasters in the history of America, which occurred along this very route over Stevens Pass. Perhaps Amtrak and/or the National Park Service are afraid of upsetting delicate sensibilities, but the Wellington Train Disaster is a great story.
In late March of 1911, two trains were stopped at Wellington in a place very close to where we were stopped on our journey. Except that it was the dead of winter, in a blizzard. They were stranded for six days in the blizzard; on the seventh day an avalanche roared down the mountains, sweeping the train cars off the tracks. When it was all over, 96 people were dead in the greatest natural disaster ever to hit Washington State (that is, until the next big earthquake …). To read more about this event, which “celebrated” a 100th year anniversary in 2011, go to Wellington Train Disaster. A long tunnel, built in 1929, dramatically reduced the avalanche hazard for train travelers.
During our one hour delay–without avalanches, thank God–riders patiently occupied themselves. Lots of books were open, but no Kindles, perhaps because coach passengers on a train tend to be traditional. My part of the car had four Macs in operation (one guy working on a spreadsheet, one gal watching a movie, one guy writing code, and me writing this story), and occasional PCs. One lady knitted. One played solitaire. Several slept. Some chatted to seatmates. One demonstated something to the attendant on an iPad. Many used iPods or similar equipment to listen to music or watch recorded video. But it was all the books that impressed me most; people who ride trains still like to read–a slower-paced activity in this digital age. Considering that we were running four hours late on this route, there was little grousing about lost time. In a sense, the delays were a gift of quiet personal time for us–a rare commodity in this caffeinated and over-stimulated age.
Traveling on, we reached Puget Sound and snaked right along the edge of the Sound in what would be prime real estate if the railroad tracks didn’t run there. It gave me a view of a part of the region that I had never seen before. Finally, we arrived in Seattle, creaking our way through a tunnel before arriving at the King Street Station, which I officially designate as the armpit of Seattle, the status of which may change pending future renovation. Tired, I detrained and wheeled my suitcase 0.7 miles to the ferry terminal, so I could take the last leg of the journey home on a ferry across Puget Sound to Bremerton.
Would I take Amtrak again? Absolutely! This is a civilized way to travel, on a human time scale, that is more energy efficient by far than planes and cars and is kinder to our sense of time (with no jet lag!!!!). The seats are comfortable, and the quiet time without the constant distractions (for me) of radio and television and the internet gave me many hours of quiet work and reflection and observation. The Amtrak attendant for our car was new in her job and couldn’t have been any nicer to all of us. I made friends with two people, Dave and Wyn, and gave them my contact information. What more could you wish for on a trip with total strangers?
The trip was also inherently beautiful, an unwinding mural of the great American landscape, from the lush midwestern farms and decaying rust belt cities, to the endless prairies with big skies, to the towering Rocky Mountains, to the dark fir forests of the Cascades, to quiet Puget Sound with hardly a ripple on this pleasant summer afternoon. All this made for a stunning trip loved by most everyone on board.
The journey succeeded in another way. It salved my soul a bit, after the death of my mother, with the gift of time and quiet and the fleeting friendship of fellow travelers.
A note about the photography: I played with the camera a lot during this journey in order to give a poetic and impressionistic feeling for the passing landscape. I overcame the challenges of dirty windows and sun glaring in and high rail speeds using long exposures and quick grab shots. There are no second chances for photos at track speed, so I had to use all my accumulated skills to get these photos. And I came away pleased.
To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com
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