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The great American landscape is beautiful, and rolling through Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin to cross into Illinois reminds you why so much of the American West and Midwest inspired so many great American stories and writers. Riding The Empire Builder brought a lot of this home both in name and in scenery; as you roll through so many great expanses in these states, there still lingers the vestiges of what drove so many hungry Americans westward; the American (Mid)west still feels like a tabula rasa waiting for someone entrepreneurial enough to come along and claim it. This country has always been founded on a principle belief that some great truth lies in its lands; that through ingenuity, persistence, pride and not more than a little enslavement (Negro, Mexican, Chinese, indentured, forced, etc.) virtually anything was possible to till out of an otherwise uncooperative country.

At night, these same vistas own a different, but equal power and awe; as you troll through these ‘scapes, every night-draped element (hills, cars, silos, mountains, trees, tracks) all seem like anyone of them could be an animal in wait. You’re struck by not only the great American landscape’s power and majesty, but how at any moment it can turn against you too. Mother Nature, the great schemer, suffers no one and has constantly figured out a way to outlive us all.

For me too, this journey is a reminder of how so many writers and stories came West for a great truth about America; Steinbeck in particular made a career out of creating a mythology out of how White America battled, scrambled, ambled, shaped, lost and won itself over and over and over again by trying to make life, and sense, out of Mid- and -West America and how fruitless much of that drive seemed to be in the end.

The Empire Builder, Night 1: Tent City

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On my first night on the Empire Builder’s dining car I was seated with three other people, all of them white: a college student bound for home after celebrating her 21st birthday in Seattle and a mother (late 30s) and her 11-yr-old son headed east to tend to her dying mother. We chatted the cordial way strangers forced to share a space tend to; we talked about the trip, the food, sleeping arrangements. The mother and her son often whispered to each other while the college student and I talked about Seattle; the two of them taking turns speaking closely in each other’s ear as the other nodded and listened in a manner that seemed to suggest that they did this outside of the train to. The son was pleasant and bright; he had a silver bracelet-chain dangling from his wrist; one jaggedly-sharp front tooth that made him look like a beaver in boy clothes.

His mother was in an aged, oversized Boise State sweatshirt; at some point during dinner as she tore and tore and tore the dinner roll she had into shreds, she shared that she had actually started school at Boise State, but soon had to drop out because the work was too much, and with her son and her husband to tend to, couldn’t keep up.

They moved at some point to a town outside of Olympia, WA (she made it plainly clear that she did not care for the “freewheeling” lifestyles found in Olympia) and it was only natural to give up schooling. She was now $30,000+ in debt for the two years she’d spent in school, and had recently completed an Associate’s degree allowing her to get some steady work.

What she really wanted to do–medical billing and sales–would require a move closer to Olympia, which would be easier for her husband (a construction worker of some type) but unlikely to happen; she shared off-handedly that he wasn’t “a fan of me working too much like that”. And that was that. We talked a bit about her mother’s condition which was unclear, but whatever malady they were running to tend to would require an extended stay; she shared how her son would have to enroll in a new school, and if need be, live with her brother in order to go to a good one. When dinner finished, the bill came for each one of us.

Their bill came to $24.75, and when the dining car conductor stated the amount the son, who’d been quiet for most of the meal, exclaimed, “….ma, that means we’ll only have $28.00 left!” and then snapped his mouth shut again when she turned and silenced him with an embarrassed and harried look. They slid out the booth soon after; when I saw them in coach a day later, they’d constructed a makeshift sleeping tent out of blankets with an opening just wide enough for the mother’s watchful eye to see where they were going.

After dinner, I turned in for the night, and as one of the conductors guided me to my sleeping car, which looked more like a solitary confinement cell from the future, he suggested that I make it a point of getting up early Saturday morning to see Glacier National Park from the lounge car since it was one of the best stretches of the Empire Builder’s cross-country trek.

******

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Saturday morning, I got up at 5am, showered and made my way through the coach cars of sleeping bodies–in the quiet rolling dark, through the windows a still-rising sun tossed intermittent flashes at the bodies of sleeping passengers, giving the feeling of witnessing a reel of flash-bulbed photographs of bombing victims; everyone strewn with limbs akimbo, mouths agape, still clumsily clasping things like magazines, purses, soda cans, each other.

I had the first 60mins-70mins alone on that car and able to take it all in, and getting to see it all was powerful, emotional, and fun. Like many things about my time on the Empire Builder, it’s a reminder that you don’t actually have to go that far to have wildly different perspectives of the country.

Sitting in the lounge car was amazing and felt like rolling through a nature-zoo; large, lumbering mountains grazed on clouds; lakes tumbled over each other to race along the tracks in an effort to keep up with the train; trees as tall as your imagination meekly reached out to try and touch fingers. The whole thing occasionally brought me to tears; the scenic views instantly took me back to being a kid in elementary school with an open textbook tracing my fingers over the crown of mountains, my index finger canoeing atop the foaming waters in photographs, my mouth wriggling the names to life like an incantation. As a young kid in Trenton, NJ, those types of locales seemed as remote and foreign and magical as any Star Wars planet.

The Empire Builder Day 2: The Whore in the Mountains

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Late morning Sunday, after spending an hour talking to a grad student from Portland (she wants to be a path curator; I make a lame joke about being ‘pathological’, she picks up her book and begins reading; my cue to go have breakfast), I headed back to the dining car to get breakfast. At this point, the Empire Builder is still pretty empty overall, giving the train the feeling of being in a rolling, off-season hotel. There are few faces and at this point, we’re all relatively familiar with each other.

Once again, because you don’t get to choose seating in the dining car, you’re always at the mercy of who the staff choose to seat you with. I’m seated though, with an older white woman (at some point I should probably just drop “white”-I’m traveling across the states of Montana, Minnesota and the Dakotas) in her late 70s. We have a spirited conversation over pancakes; racing past us in both dining car windows are bits and pieces of Glacier. At times the land drops wide open revealing the latest valley of frothing, rabid rivers, and in the distance peers another set of mountains.

It makes for a captivating backdrop to hear this woman’s story; born 6th of 7 children, and she, like me, is an aspiring writer. She shares that her writing is mainly about her family because people tend to find her family’s history so fascinating. She shares how her father enlisted in the army, and when he was sent out west, and saw the mountains for the first time, knew he’d never return home again. Soon after WW1, he met Carol’s mother, and they proceeded to build a life in the mountain towns.

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They moved around a lot mainly because her father insisted on making his dream of creating life out West work, and so at some point he opened a hotel lodge somewhere deep in Utah. Carol then told me about her childhood and adolescent years in the hotel lodge town in Utah; stories about her learning the business (she found she was good with numbers, which eventually led to a storied career in medical accounting) and the number of stars and writers she met because they sought out the quiet refuge of her father’s hotel lodge.

Carol thought of herself “worldly in mind but not in travel” and shared with me her tremendous fandom of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, showing me how she still has pictures in her iPhone of her first and only Seattle Seahawks game. Picture after picture I looked at Carol, red-faced and wrapped in a Seahawks scarf, hat and jacket, waving frantically into the too-close camera shot. Scores of people are around her, and there’s a burst-effect of seeing her in the same celebratory image over and over again, with minute distinctions (sometimes there’s a disembodied arm wrapped around her broad shoulders; sometimes other faces lean in and kiss her. There’s a confetti of blue/green/silver people all around her and there’s even a few shots of the game–brightly colored players hunched and bunched on the field like tiny piles of Skittles, or lined up in opposition to each other like toy soldiers right at the start of a new down.

As we flip through her pictures, she shares with me her take on Lynch and Wilson; each time I brace myself for some miscue or micro-aggression, but Carol is genuinely thoughtful and complimentary of the two players (Marshawn is her favorite for his vision on the field and the scrupulous way he saved his money to enjoy life after football on his own terms). She shares that Russell Wilson is an underrated intelligent QB, and thinks that the system doesn’t do him justice, and loves the loyalty he and Carroll have for each other. But as our pancakes come and she pulls her phone back into her purse, the mountains close in on us again, and Carol’s tone shifts a bit.

“….and that’s why I can’t support boys like Cam Newton, who does all that flailing and kicking in the air in the endzone, dressing and acting all frou-frou and running around like a hooligan. Rivera (Panthers coach) needs to pull that boy off to the side and straighten him out.”

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I don’t answer, but my knife is on a fruitless quest to try and burrow through the layers of pancake, plate, table, cabin car floor, train tracks, earth and succeeding layers of crust. In my mind this happens, and I see myself making a makeshift hole deep into the planet’s core. Soon after, I toss first Carol’s phone and then Carol into the hole, watching her tumble, tumble, tumble, chanting “worldly of mind, not in travel/worldly of mind, not in travel/worldly of mind, not in travel” the entire way to hell.

Carol muses aloud that Cam “…most likely needs Jesus Christ and a good beating to set him right–and it’s not too late for either one, as far as I’m concerned.”

Oh Carol, I think to myself as I watch my forefinger redden against the knife, Hell is going to be worse than those Utah hotel lodge summers washing bedsheets for starlets, and, Oh Carol, boo, how am I going to explain to these people why I’m trying to turn these strips of bacon into shivs like I’m Jason Bourne?

“…and you know who else needs Jesus? That Ciara woman–well, ‘woman’ is too nice a word for her–and frankly, a man like Russell is too nice for a woman like her, who seems more interested in showing the world everything under her dress instead of keeping it for Russell at home. I’m glad she didn’t stay around–I look and Carol and I are now both equally digging our knives into our plates in harmonized disgust, surgically trying to separate ourselves from unfathomable sentiments–she was too interested in showing all her goodies (an unintended, but hilarious, pun Carol!) to everyone. I was so glad to hear that she’s out of the picture, and–Carol steadies a piece of soppy pancake before her mouth–she’s a whore. A nasty whore.”

I am piling the debris over the hell-hole I’ve dug for Carol; an un-marked grave for a reasonable murder, I think.

Five minutes later, I leave the table. Abruptly. Carol is slightly confused, but largely non-plussed; I’ll later come to learn that much of this is Carol’s conversational “hook” as hours later I’ll find her about 3 more times along the Empire sharing the same lines and stories with other passengers about Utah and the Seahawks.

Looking for some peace, I head back to the observation lounge car, thinking that I can get some writing done (maybe even about Carol), but also to leave behind a distasteful experience, figuring that was the worst that I’ll come across on The Empire Builder.

 

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