The Empire Builder Westbound – Part II

Chicago to Whitefish, January 6 & 7, 2010   

Dusk arrived early on this mid-winter afternoon. The sun was already low in the sky as we traveled through Milwaukee at 4:00 p.m.  The remaining daylight dimmed into the dark of night as we crossed the Wisconsin Dells and through St. Paul – Minneapolis.  We were settled for the evening, passing the time with easy conversation over a glass or two of wine. As night set in, Norah Jones piped through my IPOD, and I waited patiently through the night to see North Dakota emerge in the first signs of day light.    

I haven’t met many people who express any appreciation for long rides across America’s heartland. They dread the thought of enduring what they describe as monotonous stretches overland at 65 miles per hour. If they’ve done it once – it’s once too much, but not for me.   I made my first road trip cross country in 1978, seeing for the first time the wide open parts of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. The ecstasy created by that experience has never left me, even after many subsequent cross country treks. These are the places I love.   That’s why I jumped at the chance to tag along when Lin first mentioned her plan to go to Montana by train to see Conrad and Dawn before the baby was born. Surely I wanted to see Conrad and Dawn, but traveling by train across the northernmost plains of North Dakota and Montana, a part of the country I had never seen, was enticing.       

I was awake when the train pulled into Fargo at 3:00 am.  Passing through, like a slow-motion movie playing through my window; I strained to see as much as I could through the darkness.  Street lamps dimly illuminated the town through a veil of heavily falling snow. The neat grids of north-south and east-west avenues were edged with mountainous snow banks. In spite of the snow covering, or maybe because of it, the place seemed orderly and well-kept.  I imagined that the town square and main street would be thriving during business hours, but at this time of night, it was a sleepy town. Nonetheless, municipal workers were on the job. Snow plows were hard at work, in tandem with bucket loaders and dump trucks, clearing piles of snow from parking lots and city streets in a well-synchronized operation. Since living in Bozeman, Montana, years ago, I’ve come to believe that good housekeeping, including meticulous snow removal, is a hallmark of mid-Western communities. (Margaret, my elderly landlady who pioneered to Montana with her family from Illinois as a child and hired me for household chores, gave me plenty of evidence to support this claim.) Snow-shoveled and broom-swept public and private walkways, aside from necessity, is just one way that the adage about cleanliness and godliness plays out.  I concluded there must be something saintly about Fargo.    Nothing more to see in the darkness, the train ambled on quietly through the remainder of the night, slowly falling behind schedule by an hour and a half.   

As the sun rose and brightened the early morning views, Lin delivered a steaming cup of coffee from the lounge car as soon as it opened.  Our breakfast snacks from the cooler – juice, oranges, bagels, and protein bars – easily satisfied us. We were freshened up for the day and looking forward to arriving in Minot, North Dakota, the first extended stopover in ten hours, for a chance to get off the train and get some fresh air and exercise.  It was coming up shortly, so I tuned to IPOD FM to get a local weather report:  “eighteen degrees below zero”.  I did a double take, circling the IPOD tuner one more time just to be sure I wasn’t hearing the report from a remote outpost in Saskatchewan.  But the frigid temperature was confirmed.     

Looking at eighteen degrees below zero!


Like pursuing a rare bird on a life list, I was intent on setting foot in Minot, and I wasn’t going to let inhospitable weather steal the opportunity. I pulled layers of outerwear from my over-stuffed carry-on bags that I cursed on boarding but appreciated now more than ever, and off we went. The sub-zero conditions made the experience of North Dakota in January all the more vivid and authentic.  Minot was giving us a good show.  The frigid, crystalline air hardened in my nostrils with every breath. Even my teeth felt the cold as it settled in my throat and worked its way deep into my lungs. Every foot step crunched the dry, hard-packed ice and snow, which was totally immune to the effects of salting.  Far from monotonous, America’s heartland was showing raw and dangerous extremes.  Whether it’s the blistering heat that breeds tornados and deadly grass fires on a late summer day in Kansas or this frigid crystalline air that can freeze brake lines and shut down cross-country train service for days at a time in January in North Dakota, I relish the experiences.  However, it wasn’t long before I surrendered to the cold and retreated back to my seat on board.  It didn’t take long to notice that time was moving on, but the train was standing still. Over the next few hours, the conductor announced more and more delays as the hearty brake inspectors climbed beneath each car, one after another, to work on the frozen couplings.     

The noon hour came and went, and we were still stuck in Minot as if frozen to the tracks. The dining car steward announced last call for lunch reservations, and we decided to treat ourselves to our first meal in the comforts of the dining car. We were just seated and getting acquainted with our two dining companions, when the train lurched forward, probably breaking free from an icy grip, and we were moving.  “Perfect timing”, we all commented in unison. I was thrilled to be under way, enjoying a nice meal with scenes of North Dakota playing around me. The sky was crystal blue, and the miles of vast, open lands in every direction were veiled in pure white.   

A blanket of snow over North Dakota


At this point – just west of the geographic center of North America, it’s possible to sense the heave of the earth as it lifts gradually towards the Continental Divide. The horizon broadens in all directions revealing a bigger sky than can ever be seen in the east.  Although the Rocky Mountains and the divide are still hundreds of miles away, the landscape of eastern Dakota gives a preview.  The plains rise gradually, and the cut banks of river bends reveal the ruggedness that lies ahead.  Throughout much of the mid-western high plains states, small mountain ranges appear in the distance, here and there, north and south of the highways and railways. Further west, they increase in frequency, density, and drama, until the Rocky Mountains come into view as a solid mass of ragged peaks, seeming to block any passage, marking the end to the journey.   

These in-between places quicken my heart.  I love seeing wide open expanses, approaching the rising mountains.  As if it were yesterday, my mind revisited a scene from my first trip west. I stopped at a road side pull off, inhaled deeply and absorbed the phenomenal view.  In awe, I was spellbound by the dramatic landscape of Wyoming sprawled in front of me. The high-elevation plain was strewn with massive rock outcroppings as if they had just tumbled from the sky, colored in clay, sage, and jasper. I picked up an unusual rock that fit smoothly in the palm of my hand, and for thirty years since it’s held a prominent position on my desks on top of my most important papers.      

During the afternoon, the train continued west at a slow pace, behind schedule by five hours, crossing North Dakota before arriving at Williston, ND, a commercial hub of the northern plains.    

High rises in Williston, North Dakota


 A young lady boarded en route back to college in Portland, Oregon. Her sophisticated fashion sense was incongruous with my view of mid-western style. She wore the all latest: leggings and Uggs, long jet-black hair, jeweled sunglasses, plenty of makeup, and she carried two large, glittering sequined bags, one pink and one red.  As she settled into her seat for the long overnight ride ahead of her, she unpacked a laptop, iPod, cell phone, a novel, and a few text books.   We chatted across the aisle about the late arrival of the train. There was no question she was glad to be on board and finally getting out of town. So, apparently it’s not only my eastern friends who tire of these places; she was one of what may be many North Dakotans who’ve had enough.   

With no visible boundary or fanfare, we crossed into Montana with the late afternoon setting sun casting a beautiful light across the Fort Peck area. The sky gathered more color, layering pinks and oranges with white cirrus clouds on a background of the fading blue sky. New colors were revealed: yellow grasses sprouted above the snow cover and masses of orange-tinted willows and red dogwoods outlined meandering stream beds and fields. To me, the all-too-familiar complaints of sameness reveal an indiscriminate eye for detail. So much more than merely brown, there’s every shade of earth.  America’s open plains have inspired my favorite color combinations: the sage green and red clay palette of Wyoming, and now the soft, cool colors of an eastern Montana winter afternoon.      

Some of my favorite colors from a Montana afternoon


What should have been a late afternoon arrival in Havre, Montana, was 9:00 pm instead, and temperatures were twenty one degrees below zero. Once again, I wasn’t going to be deterred from setting foot on new ground. I wanted Havre on my life list, too. So we bundled up to venture off the train, stretch our legs, and breathe in some more lung-numbing air.    In the dark of night and with no suggestion of warming sunshine, Havre seemed more cruel than Minot.   

Here is where one journey was ending and another was beginning for a father and son, who had traveled with us since Chicago. We couldn’t help but overhear their story. They came to Havre to purchase a 1966 Chevy Impala in original condition, sight unseen, from a private seller found on-line, and then drive it back cross country to refurbish. The dad was on the quest of his life, buying and restoring his dream car. I got a kick out of their story. (You’re gonna do what?) I thought what he may have in mechanical skills he may lack in judgment, facing the cruel weather conditions they’ll undoubtedly encounter on the way back home.  I imagined the inevitable risks and hazards ahead of them on the miles of wintry and desolate roads in any direction out of Havre. There’s no escaping the blowing, drifting snow across icy, lonely roads with long distances between one tiny town and the next. I let my imagination wander to curious memories of road signs reading “Ranch Access” that pointed to one lane tire tracks veering off the highway, crossing a cattle-guard and disappearing into the distance with no buildings in sight. I remember passing the miles wondering who lives there, where’s their house, what’s their life like. Can you imagine trying to find the answers to these questions in the likely event of car troubles in such inhospitable conditions?        

We departed Havre at 9:12 p.m., now six hours and twenty three minutes behind schedule.  We phoned Conrad and Dawn to suggest they’d have time for a late evening nap before heading out to the station to meet us for our unfortunately late arrival in Whitefish at 3:00 am.  We’d call again when we were closer.   We were getting excited as we approached our final destination.   

On this final segment of the trip, the quiet of the night settled in among the passengers. I dosed on and off remembering long-ago road trips across Montana on hot, dry summer weekends, exploring forest service roads leading to remote campsites, with gravel kicking up underneath the truck and plumes of dust churning out from under the tires.  Now it’s the rail line on a frigid winter night, bringing me to a new Montana adventure with the long, mournful whistle of the Empire Builder warning empty cross roads of our passage and echoing through tunnels, chugging along the winding tracks and around every bend through Glacier National Park and over the Continental Divide.


One thought on “The Empire Builder Westbound – Part II

  1. Bill February 24, 2010 / 5:52 pm

    Lin-were you knitting me socks ?

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