“Always, when people came into this landscape we call ‘the West’ they brought with them a necessity to imagine it. One of the reasons for this, I think, is simply the vastness. When one looks at the Grand Canyon, for example, it’s endlessly mysterious. You know, you feel the silence coming up and enveloping you, and you know that there are places there where no one has ever been.” — N. Scott Momaday
Over the summer, I traveled from Pittsburgh to Portland by train. The longer part of the journey was on the Amtrak’s Empire Builder route which departed Chicago, climbed northwest through Wisconsin, and then across the northern plains states before arriving in the Pacific NW. I booked a sleeping car berth for the trip, which took 48 hours, more or less, over two nights.
The glories of train travel are less heralded in the United States than in other places, perhaps due to our relationship with time and patience. I expected boredom mostly, or otherwise hoped for deep and involved conversation. In the end I found neither. The U.S. train stations I have been in are grim theaters, the outside classical architecture often giving way to hard plastic seating, harsh lighting, and even harsher food options. We aren’t at our best in these places.
On the train itself there was a smell of cleaner in the sleeping car and from one end a hint of coffee from a coffeemaker that looked like an engine roller. This pushed me to spend time in the observation and dining cars. A group of Amish from northern Indiana, with ages ranging from very young children to older men, were on this run of the Empire Builder. They occupied a good portion of the booths in the observation car at almost all times. At length I found an empty table, but was soon joined by three young Amish men who did not make conversation quickly, although it does seem rude to interrupt people who are staring out at landscapes of nothingness, I suppose. Finally one asked where I was heading (the standard conversation starter on long trains). Their group of around thirty were on the “trip of a lifetime” to visit an Amish community some two hours north of Whitefish, Montana, the eldest in their party having spent time there with as a child before moving to Indiana. One of the young men worked in an RV factory, one was a woodworker, and another a farmer. To the extent that I knew anything of Amish ways of living, this seemed normal to me, except for the RV job.
They asked what I did and I told them I worked for the U.S. government overseas. If belief involves understanding then it seemed to me that they weren’t sure whether to believe my description of who I was. At some point I was obliged to mention my Indian roots, and the young man across from me let me know that I spoke English well. They were content and comfortable soon enough to unpack a board game called Ticket to Ride and happily pressed on after asking me if I would like to play (which I politely declined). I then remembered I was sitting next to the window in the booth and would be trapped watching them play a game that I hadn’t played before. They had clearly played Ticket to Ride many times, apparent from the speed and independence by which they played their turns with very little in the way of conversation. They made no attempt to explain the rules to me, and over time it was if I simply wasn’t there.
The landscape was not boring to look at although I would have trouble describing any particular features. It too was there and not there. I had been warned the most interesting vistas on this route unfortunately happened at night, which sadly was true. I had a glimpse of darkening waters near to the tracks as we made our way into Minnesota, unable to get ahead of the night. So I enjoyed the early morning sunrise most, for from the comfort of my boxed accommodations and through constantly rattling windows the morning light changed the landscape for a few brief moments, adding shadows and illuminating the big, beautiful country of ours and calling to mind stereotypes of heaven and glory.