I’m in Chicago and it’s close to midnight late in November in 1978. The air is raw. There is a sleety mist falling and I haven’t eaten anything since leaving Syracuse early that morning.
I am fleeing across the country, jobless, broke, and emptied inside. I want to put a continent between me and my broken heart, but somehow, it is following me. “Stay!” “Stay!” I say, as if I were talking to an uncomprehending dog, but it just drools, looks at me with brown glazed eyes and won’t leave my side.
There is little that so perfectly captures this experience than a train rattling through the wintery night, with its distant points of light and the Doppler whirr of clanging bells as we pass a grade crossing.
The Twentieth Century Limited had once been a great route on the New York Central line, driving north along the Hudson from Manhattan and turning west at Albany, passing Utica, Syracuse, Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland and Toledo on its way to frozen Chicago. It had been the train of movie stars and tycoons. The route no longer exists, replaced by Amtrak’s luxeless Lake Shore Limited.
But as I ride the train, in its last days and paying the minimum fair for a seedy coach seat, it is more like a linked chain of crowded, smoky Greyhound busses, rattling along from one decaying rust-belt depot to the next.
There is a lot of talk of the romance of rail travel, but we should remember that romance is not born of ease and indoor plumbing, but of struggle: The most memorable times in our lives are those we survive, not those we glide through.
So, it is one of the travails of train travel that you are at the mercy of inconvenient schedules that are never met, coaches that are always either too hot or too cold and bad tracks that jerk you awake as you try to grab a few winks leaning awkwardly across two seats.
I am in Chicago between trains, with a ticket for the Empire Builder, which will take me the rest of the way to Seattle, crossing the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains along the way.
In the meantime, I’’m walking the block around Union Station looking for a bite.
What I find is a lonely kiosk, spewing steam, where a man is selling sausages and sauerkraut. He is getting ready to close up and I’m his last customer.
The sleet darts like needles through the cone of light under a streetlamp and I’m shivering by the time my boarding call echoes through the station like plainchant in a cathedral.
The Empire Builder I enter still is decorated with the orange and green of the long-gone and multiply-merged Great Northern Railway and each coach is painted with oval-and-bar animal paintings of the Kwakiutl Indians. Here a beaver, there a raven and there a killer whale. It is a train with character.
It is dawn by the time the train reaches St. Paul and I step out on the platform to stretch my legs. It is cold but dry and I’m surprised by the comfort. “Don’t stand there too long in your shirtsleeves,” the conductor warns. “The temperature will fool you: It is 14 below zero.”
For the next two and a half days, I sit, squirm, fidget and fitfully doze as I ride the Empire Builder across the broad portions of the continent. I talk to my coachmates, but most of them only stay on board for a few stops as the depots tally up: Red Wing, St. Cloud, Fargo, Devils Lake, Minot, Williston, Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Cut Bank.
But there are rewards paid for the suffering.
You can never see the expanse of the nation better than through a train window. From the air, you see what looks mostly like a huge map, with rivers and interstates. From the car, you see the consumer culture of Burger Kings and drug stores. But from the train, snaking its way through the unprogrammed portion of the country, you see the farms, the factories, the land and its people.
Across North Dakota and eastern Montana, the land rolls like a seaswell and we see no roads, only wheat. Houses blip by only once every few miles. Only the moon is less populated than the American West.
It is night as we pass the Glacier National Park.
But when the train pulls out of Cle Elum in Washington and begins climbing the draw up the Yakima River, an elk stands on the side of the canyon, no more than 15 feet from the train window. Steam blows from his nostrils in the cold air and he watches the steel pass, with faces in its windows, each with a heart, swelling or drained.