I boarded the train from Chicago to Portland, preparing to retrace the route I'd traveled just three days earlier and surprised to realize that what I was craving most wasn't a second look at the snow-covered Rockies or Oregon's striking Columbia Gorge, but the stark plains of eastern Montana and North Dakota. On the trip east, I couldn't wait to get out of the Northern Plains. Then the train reached the outskirts of Minneapolis and I'd felt an unexpected twinge of loss for all that emptiness.
Over two days, the Empire Builder rumbles across eight states, through large swatches of the Lewis and Clark Trail, the new oil boomtowns of North Dakota, and the pristine wilderness of Glacier National Park. I'd always assumed Glacier would be the trip's high point. In much of the Northern Plains, beside the infrequent clusters of houses or lone lines of scrub, the railway tracks are the only landmark in vast tracts of empty country — territory so empty that I'd eventually stopped looking at it and begun to consider different ways to describe it. Stark. Bleak. Completely lacking usual content. That brought me up short. Wasn't that exactly what I liked about the train? The complete lack of usual content.
Darryl Kent presents the first of four wines from Washington on the Empire Builder.
As the train eased out of Chicago's Union Station, Darryl Kent, the sleeper car's attendant, appeared at my door. "Champagne?" he asked, offering me a half bottle. "And your fine stemware." He ceremoniously presented a clear plastic cup.
"I see you've got a layover in Portland," Darryl said. How he knew that, I couldn't say. "Don't you disappoint me and spend that time sitting in the station."
"What do you recommend?"
"Powell's Books," he said immediately. Powell's is a city-block sized bookstore that qualifies as an Oregon institution and one of my favorite places, so Darryl now had my undivided attention. We exchanged current favorite authors — George R.R. Martin, Ken Follett, Robert Sapolsky, Luis Urrea.
"Mostly I read fiction," Darryl said, "Mists of Avalon? That's in my top five."
I'd have to stay tuned to hear about the other top picks. At the moment, other passengers were waiting for their champagne minis and Darryl's version of The Basics: where to find fresh coffee, bottled water, juice, clean towels, the temperature controls, the Dining Car, the Lounge Car, the wine tasting, your private shower and the yellow button in case you thought of something that Darryl hadn't already answered.
I settled into the blue couch running the length of my second-floor bedroom cabin and watched suburban Illinois pass by, followed by Milwaukee, bracketed on the east by a bright turquoise mural of fish reading "Sweet Water Organics," and on the west by a complex of high-rises sporting a Miller Beer sign that was five-stories tall. West of Milwaukee, the landscape became more rural: furrowed farmland, and marshes aflutter with birds, ducks and Canadian Geese. I studied the farms, intending to be more perceptive about the fields I was inclined to dismiss as empty. Eastbound passengers had pointed out wheat, barley and cranberry bogs. I tried to differentiate wheat stubble from barley stubble, but after 20 minutes with no progress, I gave up and headed for the Dining Car.
Debra Franke and Jamesine Braxton share dinner and stories on the westbound Empire Builder.
I ordered salad and ribs. The woman across the table ordered steak and potatoes and introduced herself as Debra Franke. Debra wore heavy rimmed glasses, a black and white shawl and a subtle lavender streak in her hair. The day before, she had left her job of 13 years. She completed her exit interview by video conference to Singapore, drove to the train station from her home in Harrisburg, PA, and boarded the train for Portland.
"I am de-toxing, unplugging, and going a little slower," Debra said, emphasizing the de- and the un-. "No internet!" she added, looking around the diner as if contemplating a minor miracle.
Outside, a sign welcomed us to Minnesota and Debra outlined her globetrotting youth — born in Italy, a year in Germany, another in Austria, and then single years in different states, most frequently New Jersey. She'd settled finally in Pennsylvania, but her job involved offices around the world.
"I was on call 24/7. Slept with the phone by my bed." Debra glanced out the window. A moment later she sunk back into the booth, "Now I have a full week off before my new job starts, and nothing to do." She smiled at the waiter. "I'll have an éclair."
After dinner we walked back to the Observation Car to watch the Mississippi. Between La Crosse and Minneapolis, the train parallels the river for 145 miles and at this point; it was broad, tranquil and half pink in the last of the sunlight.
Debra nodded toward the far end of the car and three women in white bonnets and gray dresses. One sat alone, her head bent over a book. In the early evening light, she looked like a Vermeer painting. Debra told me they were part of a larger party on their way to a wedding in Montana.
"The train's a real slice of life," Debra said. "Everyone made a decision, for a different reason, to be on this train." [continued...]