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Trains of thought

Large windows in a train’s observation car make it easy to ponder the passing world outside.

Some years ago, my wife, Bridgit, and I were living in Portland, Oregon, one of the western end points of Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train, whose route stretches from the Pacific Northwest through the Rocky Mountains and across the plains to Chicago. Having both grown up in the Midwest, Bridgit and I had flown or driven between Minnesota and Oregon many times.

Then one day it occurred to me that the railroad ran directly from our new home to the town I grew up in, and that traveling by train would offer us an entirely new view of the country. So we booked a trip, because as travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote, “A train journey is travel; everything else—planes especially—is transfer.”

It was late afternoon when we settled into our sleeping car. At around 5 p.m., we heard a whistle and the train began its slow, forward motion. Behind us, the sun reflected off the glass towers of Portland as it sank toward the hills. The train rocked back and forth as we crawled through town.

We crossed the Willamette River, then moved out into the industrial parks and finally into the Columbia River Gorge. Dinner was served in our private room. Afterward, we walked down to the observation car, which, with its big windows, was like a moving fishbowl for staring at the world outside. It was dark, and we watched the lights of small river towns dance across the water.

Trains have always been part of my life. I grew up in a railroad town on the Mississippi River and the tracks were just a few blocks from our house. At night, I could hear the long, low whistle as the engines came into town, and the clack of steel wheels as they rolled through.

But I didn’t ride trains until I was an exchange student in Italy. From where I lived in Bologna, I could get almost anywhere by rail. On weekends I took day trips to Florence, Ravenna, Parma, and other places. It was the best way to see the country and learn about it.

One day, as the train passed through the Apennine Mountains, I chatted with strangers who wondered where a young American, who only half spoke the language, could be going. Once I told them, they were happy to help me get there.

On the Empire Builder, Bridgit and I woke up in the mountains and went to the dining car for breakfast. Snow covered the peaks, and the sun came up bright red.

Soon we pulled into Whitefish, Montana, where some passengers disembarked to ski. Those who’d forgotten about the time zone change had to abandon their pancakes and coffee and run to get their bags. After breakfast, we went back to the observation car, where we watched ice-choked streams flow over rapids below us.

As the train filled with more people and we began to move again, our car grew louder: a video game beeped, a baby cried, people talked. But it wasn’t unpleasant. We were traveling together, so it felt like we had something in common. We’d been brought together to make the same journey. Eventually, the train came down the mountains and onto the plains.

“Strip farms!” An old man next to me said.  He was a retired farmer from North Dakota. Every so often he would blurt out observations to no one in particular, though I was closest: “Cattle.” “Ranches.” “Horses.”

The land sped by. Between reading books, having meals in the dining car, and chatting with strangers, so did the rest of the day. Our car attendant told us he’d worked on the Empire Builder for 23 years.

We met a biology student on his way back from Hawai‘i, where he was studying a nearly extinct bird; a woman from a Wisconsin farm who was battling colon cancer for the second time; and a retired Army veteran who was convinced we should return to the gold standard and rise up against seat belt laws. 

After more than 2 days, we arrived at my hometown on the Mississippi River and disembarked. But as I look back, I realize a part of me never left that train: After the trip, I felt a stronger connection to our country. The size and texture of it felt more solid.

I had experienced physical facts about the place by slowing down and seeing it up close. But even more than the land, I remember the people and their stories, which were as vast and alive as the country itself. 

Frank Bures is an award-winning travel writer and the author of The Geography of Madness.

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