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There are 45 station stops on the Empire Builder — the most of any Amtrak route.

The Empire Builder operates daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland and was named for James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railway.

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Unexplored Points of View

High Plains and Headspace on the Empire Builder

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An elderly passenger wearing a pressed blue blazer inched his way down the aisle and a woman and her daughter stepped aside. He invited them to go ahead, "I'm moving slower than you are," but they smiled and waved him forward.

The high plains of eastern Montana, east of Wolf Point.

Deborah whispered, "We're all going to get to Portland at the same time."

I made my way back to my bedroom. Darryl had already made up the bed and left two chocolates — dark with orange — on the crisp white pillow.

     *

Pale light sifted through a crack in the curtains. I pushed one aside and squinted. The world was overcast, a dozen shades of gray broken only by a coyote loping across the snow. I sat up and stared, then glanced at my clock. Seven thirty-six. According to the train schedule, we were somewhere between Rugby and Minot, ND. I felt around for my flip-flops, pulled on a fleece, poked my head out the door, and darted down the aisle for coffee. The train rocked along the tracks, the rhythm reminding me of Debra's mantra: DEtox, UNplug, SLOW down. I repeated it to myself as I poured hot coffee into my cup. Back in my cabin, I built a nest of pillows and blankets beside the window.

North Dakota was definitely lacking the usual content — I saw no houses, cars, billboards, traffic lights, or people. Far in the distance, a single clump of trees. A few minutes later, three geese. Knolls and hillocks bumped up against each other, making a rumpled tumble not unlike my blankets. Occasionally patterns emerged — tractor furrows breaking through layers of snow, golden stalks, and black earth.

The barren country reminded me of science fiction stories — a solitary figure hastening over an abandoned planet in a hovercraft — or edge-of-the-world chronicles by Louise Erdich, Paul Bowles, and Cormac McCarthy. The starkness roused the imagination. It was easy to conjure up an epic, a horse-drawn sleigh disappearing over the horizon. A line by Muriel Rukeyser whooshed through my mind: The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

Debra Kritner moved from Seattle to Fargo last year and appreciates the community spirit she's found in North Dakota.

The train whistle howled, low and furtive, and the PA system crackled to life. "This is Miss Oliver in the Lounge Car. A very pleasant good morning to you." A long list of breakfast options followed: hot oatmeal, Special K, croissants, cream cheese and bagel. 

I had been so enthralled by the emptiness I'd forgotten to eat. Fortunately I'd had enough wine and cheese and ribs the night before to last a while and I settled back to the window. I photographed a yellow school bus, an especially animated stretch of fence, and four deer bounding away from the tracks. A lone black cow reminded me of an exhibition I'd just seen in Chicago's Field Museum: a black bull drawn on a cave wall in Lascaux, France, almost 20,000 years ago.

It was hard to believe that this was the same route I'd traveled three days ago. Was the north side of the trip more interesting than the south, or did I need the trip east to clear my head so that I could actually see the trip back west? The stark terrain, reduced to minimal lines and angles, tinkered with perception and engaged the mind's eye.

Around Williston, ND, isolated pump jacks and natural gas flares began to appear, followed by freight cars full of pipes, and rows of trailers. I finally dressed and buzzed for Darryl to help turn my bed back into a couch.

He arrived a minute later, looked at me and looked at his watch. Slightly after eleven.

I shrugged, guilty but happy. "I've been up since seven."

Darryl looked unconvinced.

"Am I the slowest ever?"

After 30 years, Darryl Kent still likes coming to work.

He shook his head, a parade of late risers with better stories than mine clearly passing behind his eyes. As he tucked my mattress back into the top bunk, Darryl told me a few stories of his own. He'd started working on trains back when Lounge Cars still had bars and pianos in them, and smoking was allowed along with the wine tasting. Occasionally passengers staged impromptu concerts, pulling out guitars and assorted instruments from their luggage. "Thirty years later," he said, "I still like coming to work." 

Darryl was well on his way to replacing Damalia as my favorite cabin attendant. Damalia, or "D" as her friends called her, had a smile that could charm a snake. Four days ago, she had won me over with her over-the-top kindness, ousting Victor, who had held the title since I met him on the Southwest Chief in 2006. 

But now here was Darryl. He looked me straight in the eye and held my gaze with a smile that spread across his face like light. Even when his expression changed, the light lingered. I invited him to come back when he had a free moment and share his favorite travel stories. Somewhere east of Havre, MT, Darryl reappeared, offering highlights from his month-long journey through Asia — climbing to the Potala Palace in Tibet, and riding the train from Eastern China to a panda reserve in Chengdu.

He nodded out the window at the raw wilderness of eastern Montana. "You're looking out this window at this landscape, your mind relaxes into what's really important in life. There's no overload."

Everything was still except for the rumbling of the train.

The Empire Builder passed through Harlem, MT, and I glimpsed a small billboard, white and empty except for one black-spray-painted-word: LOVE. [continued...]

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