Earlier this year I applied to the Amtrak Residency for Writers. I didn’t have high hopes; I was sure there were going to be a lot of applicants. I’m not the only person who loves writing on trains.
Almost as soon as the program was announced, people started having problems with it. No real surprise, people have problems with everything. I had to admit there were some genuine concerns but since I never expected to be chosen, I figured that applying would be good for me, a kind of motivator.
So I filled out the forms and waited. Today I got the very nice, So Sorry But… email. And that’s fine. It’s all what you’d call grist for the mill. I figured I’d get a blog post out of it at the very least. And while I was trying to think of a good title for the post, and listening to umpty gazillion versions of “City of New Orleans” on Spotify, I came up with a plot for a train story. So far from losing, I’ve gained something from the whole process.
You’ve stuck with me this far, so let me share a bit of the essay I sent to Amtrak with my application. It was written on a trip I made on the Empire Builder in April of 1989.
I intend to read for a while before I sleep, but am distracted by the special, secret pleasure of watching a moonlit landscape move past my window. The land is very hilly here in Minnesota, and it has the look of a sound sleeper. In small towns, grain silos stand like patient giants beside the tracks. I imagine them filled with treasure, or terrifying secrets. Or both. Even the most prosaic landscape changes at night into something mysterious, vaguely threatening and wholly exciting.
Around midnight we pull into the St. Paul/Minneapolis depot. This is a long stop and I can see Sandra from my window. She is standing on the platform talking to a conductor; they both look cold. While we’re at the station I fall into a fitful sleep despite the noise from the next compartment where it seems there’s a party going on, and the fact that the bed is so hard it’s like sleeping on the floor. I sleep surprisingly well, rocked in this unfamiliar cradle.
But by six the next morning I am irrevocably awake; the swaying of the train can no longer lull me back into sleep. Anxious to see where we are, I raise the shade and encounter something for which I have no frame of reference. Now, just before dawn, the sky and land are a uniform shade of grey. There are no landmarks, no trees, bushes, fences, nothing to break the seamlessness flow of earth into sky, not even a discernable horizon line. Powdery snow devils swirl and sweep across the void. It’s like traveling along the edge of the world. But in another few minutes, the sun is high enough to cast a few shadows, and give the landscape some form. It looks as tired as I feel. Can anyone else be up and about at this hour?
Sandra has already slipped a copy of USA Today under my door, so I begin my morning by catching up on the outside world. After the shock North Dakota, it’s a pleasure to read sports scores and national weather. As I read, the sun brightens the landscape and a wide expanse of white clouds breaks up a sky which grows progressively bluer. The land is so flat out here that it could be used to teach perspective. Here there are not even those piles of rocks and stones I saw in Wisconsin and Minnesota. It is as if nature had not enough energy to throw up the smallest protuberance. I am uncomfortable with such starkness; it strips away my defenses and makes me feel serious and mature. Later still, when the land begins to rise and fall a bit, I am finally able to feel frivolous again. I wander down to where there’s an urn of coffee, and some sleepy-looking people chatting about the trip. Some of them are waiting to get off at Rugby and aren’t looking forward to the icy morning. Rugby, North Dakota is the geographical center of North America, according to the route guide. There is a monument to mark the spot and a museum nearby, but all I can see when the doors slide open is a lot of very cold people. The town itself is drab. I joke that they should have put the geographical center of the US someplace warmer. One of the passengers tries to explain the concept to me, and I have to tell him that it was a joke. It’s early, we both say, and laugh.
My breakfast companions are more cheerful than the group from the night before. There is a woman traveling to Spokane to see her sister, a man from North Dakota who rides the train regularly, and an older man who is an Amtrak employee. We talk about the weather (cold), traffic (sparse, even along main highways), and trains (in the Eastern corridor the trains are newer and faster.) I wonder how to account for the difference between last night’s awkward conversation and this morning’s easy dialog. Is it the people? Are they more garrulous? Or is it that we are now all veterans of a night on board? I find I am too late for the ‘famous railroad French Toast’ so I order pancakes and find them unremarkable. The coffee is wonderful, though and I have several cups as we talk.
Just outside Minot the landscape changes dramatically and I find this very exciting for no better reason than that I am sick to death of flat land. I rejoice too soon. Suddenly the country flattens out again. The man from North Dakota assures me that most of the land I’ll be seeing from here to the Rockies will look like this and I begin to wonder about the wisdom of this trip. They all promise that the Rockies are wonderful.
Like the land, the sky is wide and unbroken.
The morning’s commentary brings some interesting information. North Dakota is the coldest of the lower forty-eight states; it has more millionaires per capita than any other state and so much military power that if it ever seceded from the United States it could become the third most powerful military nation in the world. I spend some time trying to correlate these statistics but the connection eludes me.
Train conversation mostly centers around travel. It’s the one thing we all have in common, and as I am to discover, it’s a topic of great interest to nearly everyone I meet. Train travelers enjoy the journey as much as the arrival. I don’t think I’ve ever met an airline passenger who could say as much, though some profess to love to fly on commercial airlines. I feel certain that they’re the same people who like Wonder Bread and instant coffee.
On the way back to my compartment the disembodied voice over the P.A. system exhorts us to look to the left where a herd of buffalo are grazing. ‘Herd’ is, perhaps, optimistic. There are about as many animals in the field as there are passengers on the train. The sight of them shocks me into an unpleasant realization. We have so much to lose, and already we have thrown much of it away. Our land is beginning to be tired; it is beginning to look tired. How much garbage can it absorb? How many people can it sustain? How much of its natural resources can we deplete before it becomes unlivable? And then I realize that this country is only the world in small, and that the same choices will have to be made over and over again, in every country on earth. It’s not a productive line of thought for someone cut off from her life, and living among strangers, so I pack it away to consider later.
At Havre, Montana there is a stop of about a quarter hour. I need to walk a bit in the fresh air so I gather up a handful of postcards and go downstairs. Sandra gives me more postcards from other passengers and asks me to mail them too, which I do. Then I go into the station and call home just to make sure that my family is coping without me. I am first to the phones, but by the time I have finished dialing there are twenty people lined up behind me. I resent having to cut my call short, but I do it because I understand the need to make contact with the familiar.
Good night, America, how are you?
ETA: For anyone who is interested, the full text of this essay is available here on this blog
More on the Amtrak Residency for Writers Program: