The Empire Builder goes all the way back to 1929, when it was owned and operated by the Great Northern Railway, and later the Burlington Northern Railroad. It runs from Chicago and then splits in two at Spokane, continuing on to either Seattle or Portland. Much of the route parallels the Canadian border.
I’d taken the Empire Builder once before and will never forget it. We were crossing from Minnesota to North Dakota, out in the wide-open country, and you could see a dust cloud being tossed up on a dirt road as a guy in a pickup truck tried to beat the train across the tracks. He failed and struck the rear of the engine, disconnecting it and sending it flying down the line solo while the rest of us shuddered to a halt. It took them seven or eight hours to remedy the situation, and in the meantime no air was circulating and the toilets wouldn’t flush. Not long after we got moving again, the train once again came to a sudden halt and a crew change took place, way out in the middle of nowhere. To compensate us for the inconvenience we were all given a six-inch Subway sandwich, a bag of chips, and a soda.
No mishap of that magnitude had occurred on this morning, but the long, tall dude next to me was back on his phone, almost shouting into it from two feet away as he sprawled across both seats. He didn’t care that everyone could hear his conversation. No one else existed, as far as he was concerned, even the other person on the phone, who was just a sounding board for his ego. I had to look around for hidden cameras. Maybe he was the star of some reality show I didn’t know about.
Now that I’d talked to the doctor and found out that my tailbone was fractured, it did seem to hurt more. The arthritis in the hip too. I got up, almost limping, and headed to the café car to get a cup of coffee. We were passing by Devil’s Lake, an intriguing name which I discovered to be a flimsy translation of a Native American name, which referred to the high salinity of the water and the bad spirits they blamed for it.
The observation car was full of Amish people. The reason so many of them take the train is that they are not allowed to drive cars, and when forced to travel are required to take the lowest form of transportation. The men were wearing black coats, pants, and boots. Some wore felt hats while others donned straw ones. Those who could grow facial hair had beards, but no moustaches. Their hair looked like the bangs had been cut straight across with a pair of hedge clippers. The women wore dark dresses, and their bonnets were either black or white. Sitting in a car full of them made me feel like I’d traveled back in time four hundred years and was in the hull of a wooden ship, sailing across the Atlantic in search of religious freedom.
We had a half-hour layover in Minot and I approached one of the younger Amish men, who was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and had a sly grin on his face. I asked if he was Amish and he admitted he was, but didn’t elaborate. I then wandered from one end of the train to the other, loitering at the edge of Amish conversations, unable to understand one word of the Old-World language they were speaking.
Once we got back on the train it occurred to me that I better track down hostels in Seattle and San Franciso, and was glad I did because there were only a few spaces available. My first choice in Seattle ended up being sold-out so I went with the Green Tortoise Hostel near Pike Street. In San Francisco, I booked a bed in a place that said it was also the San Francico Music Hall of Fame. It was a good thing I made the reservations when I did, because shortly thereafter my phone service dropped off and from then on only worked intermittently until we were just outside Seattle.
There was an old couple I’d seen earlier. The man had been wearing a Dodgers hat and I’d commented on the team. Now he was sitting beside me in the observation car, without the hat, but with a head full of memories about his life in the world of baseball, first as a player, then as a coach. He talked about Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson being some of the first black players in the league, and how Ronnie Lott, who later played football for the 49ers, had been one of the most talented athletes he’d ever had the pleasure of coaching. His memories were all over the place, something he apologized for, but I had nowhere to go. He recalled an incident from his wild youth where he’d gone to a bar to hear some music with some buddies, and on a dare at intermission had hidden the accordion player’s accordion. He wouldn’t do the same thing now. He’d given his life to Jesus after a close call he’d had a few years ago during a heart valve operation. He might’ve talked into the night, and that would’ve been OK, if his wife hadn’t come looking for him. They had reservations in the dining car and it was time for them to eat.
After hearing the old man talk about his satisfying career, successful kids, and how they’d just come from visiting their grandkids, I became overwhelmingly unhappy, thinking about my own life. I returned to my seat, where the long, tall dude was calling every woman he knew and talking at length about what they could be doing better and who they shouldn’t trust anymore. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, trying to mediate my way out of a bad depression. Instead, I was consumed by it.
Late in the afternoon, the train stopped in Havre, Montana for twenty minutes. Two curiosities they had on display in the yard were an antique steam engine and a statue called Hands Across the Border, featuring a Canadian Mounty and US Border Patrol Agent, shaking hands over their commitment to protecting the border. A few hours later we stopped again, this time in Shelby, and I wandered into the station and found a book of Louis L’Amour stories in a small library of free books. Louis L’Amour is the best-selling Western novelist of all time, and the cover featured a man in classic cowboy garb, raising a pistol, and ready to defend the law, however he saw fit.
To distract my tortured mind, I began reading the book as soon as we got back on the train. The protagonist was the classic drifter, with the mysterious past and growing reputation. He wandered from town to town, sticking up for those who showed him kindness and gunning down those who didn’t. He was impervious to the things that would destroy most normal men, long days in the saddle, cold nights in the canyons, rattlesnake bites, treacherous women. It reminded me of an article I’d once read about the disparity between the myth of the drifter and the reality. To highlight this, the photo they used beneath the headline was that of a homeless man sleeping on a bench.
We were going to be passing Glacier National Park right after sunset, which was unfortunate timing. There was just a little light left when we reached the East Glacier Park Station, but in the few minutes we sat there, the night fell quickly. As we journeyed on, I could just make out the dark outline of mountains and trees, and couldn’t avoid my own reflection, lit up in the midst of them, that of a true desperado if there ever was one. Would I shoot up a saloon or rob a stagecoach anytime soon? Probably not. What I was about to do with a credit card, however, wasn’t for the faint of heart.