Take me back to the railroad track and the sounds inside my mind
Where rusty wheels and steel rails still whine
Where I can hop that 909 and go back in time some time ago
Just let the whistle wail and take it in slow
-“Train Song” by Mandolin Orange-
Just a couple weeks ago, I returned from a trip across America by train. It was everything I imagined a 10 day trip across the country could be…flying to Chicago, meeting up with my dear friend Stephanie, spending a few glorious days exploring the Windy City, traveling 8 hours by train to Minneapolis, MN through Illinois and Wisconsin farmland, spending two whirlwind days in a delightful, bike-friendly city that was remarkably like a Midwestern Portland, traveling by rail for 20+ hours across Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana, stopping in Glacier National Park for a night, and finally arriving in Portland after another 18 hours of travel. Phew. I am tired merely reading the description I just typed.
It was wonderful traveling by train. We got to see the country roll by, see cities evolve from countryside and towns, got to talk and eat and read and write, without exerting any energy to operate a vehicle. It was quite the way to see America in a stripped-down light, mile by mile.
What follows is an excerpt from my travel journal, which I kept to document my experiences on the train. I hope to share more musings in the coming months, as I reflect on my most recent train journey. The moment I deboarded in Portland I was itching to get back on the tracks, so I hope to plan many more train trips in the coming months.
This morning I awoke to the conductor’s voice declaring it to be 7am and the dining car was open for business. The night had gone by fairly well, me curled up in the seat sideways, my small limbs allowing me to sleep with my earplugs and eye mask intact, aware of the rocking and persistent roll of the train as miles melted away. As I slept the hours away, I shifted from side to side while we crossed Minnesota and North Dakota, speeding through tall grasses and darkened skies. Awaking, my tired eyes blinked away a slightly restless sleep, my blurred vision privy to a lightening sky, pink and golden with morning, flying by the windows across the aisle and above me. I stayed in a horizontal position for awhile, enjoying the warmth of my blanket and the softness of my pillow, letting my body wake up for the next hour as I watched a frost-strewn ground roll by.
At Minot, ND, I de-trained, breathing in chilly morning air and squinting away the golden light of the morning as it dusted my eyelashes. I spoke briefly to a man who was en-route to Portland, my city. And as I know very well, also a city packed with rail lines. On my way to and from work, I trundle across either Streetcar or MAX tracks on my bike. The rail culture of Portland was the sole reason of his trip across the country on the Empire Builder- to ride more rails, a true enthusiast of anything with steel wheels and steel rails. I could raise a glass to this, as I have eagerly enjoyed this trip so far- and I have been on this train for almost 24 hours!
Right now, we are only a couple hours away from our destination near Glacier Park, MT (Essex, MT) and the Izaak Walton Inn. All day today, we’ve traveled through the flat prairie towns of North Dakota and Montana, passing small towns that sometimes contain dirty, rolling rivers, junk yards, and a few dirt roads, horse & cow farms, some trailer parks, and a smattering of local establishments. Some examples of our train stops include Rugby, ND; Wolf Point, MT; Malta, MT; and Shelby, MT. We’ve also been able to observe wildlife that have seemed unfazed by the puffing hunk of metal roaring by. Red-Winged Blackbirds, Geese, Swans, and mustangs running through the fields of waving yellow grass, their manes rippling in time to the wheat in the breeze.
When I close my eyes, I can see myself in this train car from afar, sitting still yet moving steadily by at 50 mph, gazing out large windows as the landscape moves by in strips like a film negative. And the train itself- rattling across the country every day- maybe even four of them on the rails at once, their lights illuminating the farmland or prairies of our country as inhabitants sleep cramped and tucked up in their seats. Insomniacs pace the coach and observation cars, a Heineken in hand, engrossed in late night conversation. Some of these communities we pass may be bothered by our progress through their town, or maybe reassured by the regularity of these trains in their everyday schedules. Twice a day. Every day. One going. One coming.
From the vantage point of this train, we’ve seen cities evolve, growing out of Wisconsin farmland and forests one building and suburb at a time, until we find ourselves staring up at a Milwaukee, WI or St. Paul, MN skyscraper. These cities seem to be isolated when we visit them by air, dropping down from the sky into the heart of it all. But from the train, we can see that they actually grow gradually out of the plains and other undeveloped land that surrounds them. And we travel with ease between these landscapes, just as a bird can fly without borders or fences restricting their sky travel. We rarely get to see the land as it transitions geography from undeveloped to developed and train travel presents us this perspective on a silver platter.
I am also reminded of the makings of this country- from Lewis and Clark to the Oregon Trail to the building of the railway system, we have constantly been seeking the allure of the West and its wide open lands. The contrast is great between the wide open lands and plateaus rising like tables, or snow-capped mountains erupting from the soil dramatically. And we can see this history from here, from our vantage point in the observation car as it takes us back in time. While eating processed train food and listening to our iPods, we can gaze out our windows and see the past rush by in the wind-swept grass, as the ponds ripple down below us.
Note: The song that I quoted above is written by young and up-and-coming folk duo from North Carolina, Mandolin Orange. Below is a beautiful video of their song: