Florida to Oregon by Train: Final days
I woke somewhere in North Dakota, the waning gibbous moon looking at me across patchy snow-covered plains. The sun was slowly turning the eastern sky behind us orange and yellow; I pulled some levers under the seats in my roomette to slide them up out of “bed mode” and back into seats, then looked out the window for a while. I'd tell you what was on my mind, if those thoughts happened to be in English — but they weren't, so all I can say is that it was a very pretty morning.
I was compelled to record my view out the window on Snapchat, save it, post it to my “story,” and then upload the same video to my Instagram “story” as well. Despite the horrendously slow and glitchy experience that is recording a video in Snapchat, for some reason I compulsively engage in this pastime while traveling. I even took a selfie (or four, before I got it right) for my innumerable (7) fans back home. Then I went for some coffee.
After some time I went to lunch in the dining car, and was seated with a girl who also happened to be going to AWP. We had a nice conversation — the kind where your food gets cold because you're both spending more time talking than eating.
At the Havre, Montana stop, US Border Patrol got on board and strolled through the observation car. There were three agents, and for some reason I suspected they weren't looking for illegal Canadian immigrants. After about 10 minutes, the train rolled forward a few more yards, and a conductor informed everyone that they were finally allowed to get off the train. It really warmed my heart to see these officers exert their authority in an otherwise peaceful mode of transportation (that never crossed an international border). Intimidating lawful citizens making their way from one place to another keeps this country free and secure, amirite?
Maybe it's better to travel to places you don't care about if you plan to get any work done. Even going across the plains of the northern US is endlessly interesting, because your mind can wander wherever it pleases. You don't have to focus on keeping your car on the road or any other pressing task — you can notice the fields and trees and birds and sky.
You can notice people in cars following alongside the train — passengers who seem just as interested in us as we are in them. You see more deer, just grazing in open fields. Yet another freight train passes by, slowing your train (they always have priority). You realize there are entire locales that don't have paved roads — having grown up in the suburbs, this is truly startling. You see old wooden buildings that have given up their youthful fight against gravity, but still stand, if hunched only a bit.
The barren landscape reminds you of Iceland or Hawaii — well, the trees are similarly lacking, but there's more grass. Did the animals eat all the vegetation before it grew tall, or was it always this way? I'd later ask an older couple this question, both of who grew up in South Dakota — but they said that's just the way it's always been.
Take the barbed-wire fences out of your view, and you see almost what the people before the modern age must've seen: land that extended out into oblivion. No wires running from house to house, no mechanical beasts speeding across the plains, no far-off sounds of drilling operations. Especially coming from the east coast, the west is a foreign land, though a beautiful one.
I timed my dinner reservation badly, getting to enjoy only a few minutes of Glacier National Park in the observation car before I was summoned to the dining car for the train's final meal of the day. But just before it, I enjoyed a conversation with that older couple from South Dakota.
The conversation was struck up by me sitting nearby, some exposed feet among us, and a joke about my own smelly, but enclosed, feet. We talked about the scenery, hiking, the great outdoors; about raising kids and travel; about the barren plains and my Wikipedia-based knowledge of what happened to all the trees in Iceland. Between various discussions, we all sat in silence, just looking out the windows, huge snow-capped mountains drawing nearer.
At dinner, I was sat at a table with another writer heading to AWP (coming from New York City — it seems she and I had similar ideas) and an older gentleman who used to work for Amtrak. Again, the conversation was lively, thanks to its three willing participants.
Open-mindedness is a funny thing, in that it both enriches your own life and can infect the people around you. In my younger days, I made it a point to dislike “small talk.” I wanted deep conversations, man. I didn't want to be one of those shallow people that only talks about TV and the weather, man.
What I was missing in high school was the experience of being out in society, in all kinds of situations in all kinds of places around the world. When you're sitting at a table with two strangers on a mode of transport that offers movement in only one dimension, small talk is both necessary and natural. Actually, compared to many other social situations, train small talk is quite enjoyable. Besides the endless scenery to comment on, you all agreed to the same sort of deal before getting on board, making commonality easy to find and “shallow” conversation effortless to carry.
If any kind of situation was similar enough, it'd be the conversations you might have with strangers while hiking. Here, it's just less about the weather (or how far until...), and more about why you're there in the first place.
After dinner, I returned to the observation car. It was dark enough that the reading lights inside the car outshone the snow outside, so I sat down, put on some music, and tried to make out the scenery between staring at my own reflection in the window.
Then, after I hadn't seen anything outside for a while, I went back to my room and straight to sleep.
When I woke, I'd traveled another hour back in time, to Pacific time. But I'd apparently slept in a bit, too — it was kind of light outside. I got a coffee from the sleeper car, where it was free, instead of the cafe car. Then I went to the observation car and looked out at what I'd later learn was the Columbia River Gorge.
While sitting there, I thought the train engine sounded an awful lot louder — and the horn closer. I looked to the closest end of the car and saw that, hey, the engine is there now. As the crew had prepared us for the night before, the train had split off in Spokane, Washington, with one part heading to Seattle and the other to Portland. The Seattle folks took the dining car with them, but we were fortunate enough to keep the observation car.
Later, after I'd put on my headphones and some other people sat nearby, a lady went for the engine-facing door of the car, arms loaded with snacks from the cafe. She pressed the “open” button probably 20 times before someone told her that the engine was there now, and she finally looked up to read the sign.
“Oh, I went the wrong way!” She said.
It does get disorienting. But on a train, at least you know you can't get lost for too long before you realize you just need to go the opposite way.
This was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip. For the whole morning we followed the Columbia River westward, going through tunnels and around bends that would reveal new waterfalls, maybe Mt. Hood, a new dam or bridge, or morning fog hovering in the nooks of a cliffside. The sun started peeking above the mountain tops, casting long shadows along the steep cliffs. Traveling through there was like watching a movie put on by nature (and many of my fellow travelers were pirating her work, no doubt Snapchatting it to their voracious audience).
I could've sat there all day. Unfortunately, I knew I had less than three hours before finally arriving in Portland. I had to start mentally preparing for the week ahead, and to once again drive, instead of ride.
As I packed up my 60-pound backpack and gathered my things, I was already regretting having booked a flight home, instead of the train. We were getting close; I was trying to figure out how much I should layer up — I hadn't been outside on solid ground for a few days. I looked up the general directions to my hotel. I figured I wouldn't do too much research, and just wander like usual when I arrived.
Still, it was a great trip that felt like a destination in itself. I know I'll be making this journey again someday.