Ice capped mountains race by, in the distance, framed by the train’s picture windows, as a 6’3″ blonde teenage boy passes by, easily balancing his way down the aisle of Amtrak’s Empire Builder. I glance back out the window, my camera “at the ready” in my lap, but out of the corner of my eye I see another young man, of similar stature, headed to the observation car. This teen’s identical twin is right behind him. The group of brothers is trailed by several older gentlemen in Boy Scout uniforms, along with close to a dozen others in their group, lugging coolers and large bags of food.
It must be lunchtime.
The Boy Scouts of America are headed west, to Glacier National Park, MT. They will be exiting the train at my stop, in East Glacier, then hiking and camping for several days, making their way up to the Canadian border. They will be carrying all of their gear on their backs, putting years of scouting skills to the test, and certainly building lasting bonds. The three brothers have put years of hard work and study into their scout projects. For now, they are just looking for a place to spread out their lunch, to fill their growling bellies.
My trip had started in Chicago, at Union Station, just a couple of blocks from Giordano’s famous deep dish pizza. (Note: the Chicago chain has recently opened a new location, just a bit north of my Ohio residence, between a large fashion mall and several blocks of strip mall retail, but I’ll reserve the cheesy indulgence for trips back to Chi-town.) I’d driven to Chicago from Columbus, OH, parked in the driveway of my childhood home, then Ubered downtown, to the train station. My current home town is without a rail system, but I’m from Chicago, where the train is both a launching point for interstate travel and a means of daily transportation for many.
I’d made numerous commutes by train, between Chicago and Milwaukee, WI, where I attended college, but this time the train would continue out west, for a week of mountain biking. I’d pushed my bike through the train station, along the full length of the train, down a rather dark tunnel, to the sounds of other trains preparing to pull out of the station, or slowing to a stop upon their arrival. Friends had helped hand my bike off to the porter, lifting it high overhead, to be stowed in the luggage car. Thanks to Amtrak’s new “roll-on service”, the bike wouldn’t need to be disassembled and boxed. Loaded down with a week’s worth of gear, in duffel bags and large hiking backpacks, it was time for my group to find our seats, for the 30 hour trip across the country.
In the seat in front of me, a middle aged woman was traveling solo; she was very anxious about where the train was headed. Minutes earlier, the train on the next track over had slowly pulled away. That train would make the quick trip to Milwaukee, a land of beer and cheese, and back. Amtrak personnel had been explicit about where each train was headed, but this woman could hardly stay in her seat. She flipped her waist-length red hair to one side, then the other, then back, as she repeatedly looked up and down the aisle, asking other passengers where they were headed. We reassured her that she was on the correct train. Still anxious, she raised her voice to the entire train car. . . “This train is stopping in Columbus, WI, right?!” Yep! . . . three long hours from now.
Not long after the train pulled away, a family of 4 passed down the aisle, with the pre-teen daughter muttering under her breath: “I wish we were staying out here in coach, instead of our sleeper car – it looks like a lot more fun!!” I chuckled. Her Mom turned to me. “I told her she’s appreciate the private room when it was time to sleep,” she said. We saw them again, later that evening, and she seemed to be enjoying the hot meal that was served in the dining car, included with her 1st class ticket.
The staff on the train works hard, for up to 6 days straight, transporting and tending to a forever changing population of passengers, who might be on the train for two stops, or two long days. From the moment you enter the train station, until you pick up your bags at your destination, there are dozens of workers in the background, doing their part.
At dinner, Camille kept service running smoothly, and kept a smile on her face and ours. Telling jokes, and teasing our friends in 1st class – telling them how appreciative we were that our bill would be charged to their room – she clearly enjoyed her job as much as she wanted her customers to enjoy their meals.
A few cars away, Gina pushed her colorful reading glasses up the bridge of her nose. She wanted to be sure she handed out the correct change, down on the lower level of the observation car. The Boy Scouts were drawn to her snack bar area, tucked away from the busyness of the other passengers.
Gina kept an eye on them, along with all the other teenagers who found their way down there, for chips, Cokes, and microwaved pizzas. She considered them good company, and was playful and forgiving in her occasional reprimands – “Keep the noise down!”, “Make room for others!”, “Pick up that trash!”. Occasionally, she also had to reign in the boisterous (drunken?) energy of some of her rowdier adult customers.
It doesn’t take long for the eclectic mix of train passengers to become chatty, sharing travel stories, and life stories. A few seats away, one passenger has pushed his bright red, “Beats by Dr. Dre” headphones up to his temples, to better hear his neighbors. They are talking about the Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain and Slab City, out in the California desert. He seems interested in visiting this area, which they describe as artsy, full of hippies, and weathered by time and the elements, but he explains that he’d likely fly there. With 14 years in the Air Force National Guard, he is a first-time train traveler, and says he’ll cross it off his bucket list, and go back to flying from here forward. The conversation turns to his military service, and I return to my book.
Getting off the train, for a quick stop in Winona, MN, a woman is chatting with me about how the train will, in fact, leave without you, if you’re not back on the train in time. “Smoking Stops” are periodically announced on the train’s intercom system, as well as marked, by hand, on train schedules, posted near the lower level exit doors. Warning signs make expectations clear, insisting passengers not open windows or doors while the train is in motion, presumably in an attempt to blow smoke. “Remember the days when this was the smoking car?” one passenger asked his companion, passing through the observation car, “Boy, I spent a whole lot of time in here!”
The smokers are joined outside, on the platform, by families who need young children to run about, to let off some pent up energy. There is also an occasional speed walker, and a small group of folks doing calisthenics, attempting to burn off energy for themselves. On the way back onto the train, I’m cautioned that “they’ll kick you off,” if any sort of disruptive activities are reported. A seasoned traveler explains that her mother was “good for that” – for getting people kicked off for being drunk, loud and belligerent. I suppose we’d better be cautious.
Later that evening we shared drinks with two stand-out characters. Sitting at a table alone, down in the lounge area, was a woman traveling home from Washington, D.C., having just wrapped up her participation at a medical conference. She was there in an unconventional role, as a spiritual advisor, medium, and spiritualist. The conference addressed community stigma and prejudice, and she worked with medical staff, teaching them visualization methods, to promote arriving at amicable resolutions, in situations teeming with diversity.
She was on the train because she is the survivor of a traumatic brain injury, and flying is quite uncomfortable, when it is possible at all. We noticed that she was wearing a 40th anniversary Star Wars jacket, from “Hot (Fuckin’) Topic”! Her displeasure with the political climate in D.C. was evident, and she hesitated for just a minute, to make sure she wasn’t offending anyone within earshot. Then she really let loose!
At the table across from her, also by himself, was Martin, a recent college graduate. He was a theater major, and not at all shy about making new friends on the train. For graduation, he’d been gifted a 6-day train trip, from Orlando to Washington, then on to Chicago, across to Seattle, finishing in Vancouver, Canada. He was traveling coach, so he would not see a bed for quite some time, but he didn’t seem to mind. There was a smile on his face every time we saw him.
Martin was on the trip of a lifetime, meeting new people every day, and seeing the true diversity of this country, and its people. “Your dream comes true! Love you!” is the comment that kept reoccurring on his Facebook page, in response to his photos, expressing the sentiments of his extended family.
The Virgin of Guadeloupe had been slipped into Martin’s bag by his Mom, as a small means of protection on his travels. Our D.C. Friend, who was traveling home to rural MN, had been given a USA T-shirt, to wear to the Nation’s capital. Outside of Minneapolis/ St Paul, she explained, it “gets redneck real fast”. Her spiritual nature might not be appreciated in her home community, so she was glad to be on the train, meeting a more diverse, and open-minded population.
Back upstairs, a dozen middle-aged women walk by, wearing matching T-shirts, with uplifting text: “Good Times + Crazy Friends = Amazing Memories”. I learn that this is the mindset of so many passengers on the train. A long-haired, free-spirited, soul had boarded the train late the night before, and slept in the observation car, when he couldn’t find an open seat without disturbing sleeping passengers; he was in positive spirits the next day, ready for the next adventure.
We chatted about his 13 colorful tattoos, the hours that went into their completion, and the stories behind them. When volunteers from the Trails and Rails Program of the National Park Service, were giving a presentation on the train, he listened eagerly, leaning forward to peer out the window, in hopes of catching sight of some wildlife. (note: the volunteers were based out of the Klondike Goldrush National Historical Park, in downtown Seattle) He told me of his travels to New Orleans, his home in the Bronx, recent visits to Texas, Hawaii, and now Montana, for a friend’s wedding. He’d toured Yellowstone, and was now continuing to take the scenic route, returning home, pretty much out of money. “It’s a great way to wrap up travel,” he said, with a big laugh.
Also listening to the presentation, 3 generations of Oregonians asked pointed questions, and followed along with the volunteers’ narrative, with their area map open in front of them. What a great way to introduce the next generation to the beauty of the parks!
In fact, there were so many kids on the train, and they behaved pretty well the entire trip, finding all sorts of ways to entertain themselves. They read and drew the landscape, played Uno, war, and solitaire, worked on puzzles, and slept. It was pretty impressive to see so many of them not pressing their noses against a phone, tablet or computer screen.
While the motion of the train lulled many of the adults on board to sleep, a cheerful 6 month old was wide awake, and full of giggles, playing in her father’s lap. Thirty hours is a long time on the train, but the interactions a witnessed were worlds beyond what I’ve experienced on any airplane, or in the lobby of any highway rest stop. As we approached East Glacier, we listened carefully to the overhead announcements, for instructions on a smooth exit.
There’s a bit of anxiety exiting the train, double checking that we have all of our backpacks, bike bags, and duffels, looking under the seats one last time, for loose books, charging cords, and snacks. There’s extra pressure, once on the platform, because of the need to retrieve our bikes. Five cyclists, five bikes. We’re set.
Gathering ourselves together, I notice that the Boy Scouts are a bit scattered, searching about the platform, and questioning the location and availability of their rental cars. They were supposed to have 2 Chevy Tahoes, but none are available. There is also tension, because it seems that one of the boys’ backpacks was never loaded onto the train in Chicago.
In typical Scout fashion, the Troop Leaders resolve that this is not going to ruin the trip for anyone. Between all of the other scouts, they will be able to pull together plenty of supplies, clothing and food for the unfortunate scout. Arrangements are made for a replacement vehicle, and a couple of the Scouts wave to us bike folks, as we toss our last items into our “sag wagon”, a white Chevy Tahoe. We hit the road towards our hostel, breathing in mountain air scented by native pine trees. (To be Cont.)
Join me on my next adventure,
Union Station: http://www.chicagounionstation.com/
Glacier National Park: https://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm
Amtrak Empire Builder: https://www.amtrak.com/empire-builder-train
Boy Scouts of America: http://www.scouting.org/
Beats by Dr. Dre, available at Macy’s: https://m.macys.com/shop/product/beats-by-dr.-dre-ep-headphones?ID=3408463&pla_country=US&CAGPSPN=pla&CAWELAID=120156340010348379&CAAGID=40729787927&CATCI=pla-68239316146&catargetid=120156340011503389&cadevice=m&cm_mmc=Google_Mens_Accessories_PLA-_-Men’s+Accessories_Headphones+-+GS_Beats+by+Dr+Dre-_-163693015336-_-pg128528_m_kclickid_37677d12-757f-47ca-9951-28d41be1ef38&trackingid=417×128528&gclid=CLShjqvF79QCFRCQaQodXjQJxw
Trails and Rails Program of the National Park Service and Amtrak: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/amtraktrailsandrails/index.htm