Thursday, September 25, 2008
On the Empire Builder
The original Empire Builder was the old robber baron, James J. Hill himself. Hill opened the northern route of the Great Northern railroad to the Pacific Northwest in the latter part of the 19th century. Today's Amtrak route from Chicago to Seattle is named after him and follows virtually the same route. Due to air fare jumps, a chance to road trip with colleagues, and my general aggravation with flying I decided to take the train back to Minneapolis from the deadly boring trade show in Chicago I had attended. The Empire Builder would make the trip in about 8 hours. I got the roomette sleeper which allowed me to work offline on the laptop, read, snooze, lounge, and savor the bottle of wine I picked up before I left Chicago. I had my 6'4" frame sprawled out, papers, books, and laptop strewn around on my little desk, and no fat guy wedged into the seat next to me dueling me for the armrest. Shoes off, feet up, and I was livin' large. It would be a pretty damn good trip.
Not having to wait in the security line like sheep at the slaughterhouse was gratifying as was walking on to the train with my shoes on, boarding pass not in hand, laptop in its case, and a breathtakingly sharp jackknife in my pocket. A person could wander the length of the train or sit in the observation car and chat with fellow passengers. It was definitely a melting pot and everyone seemed to be a a good mood. I talked with a fellow who had boarded in upstate New York on his way to Seattle; he seemed a bit toasty and had two days to travel yet. I discussed jazz and writing with a woman on her way to St Paul and sat across from a couple Amish girls quietly whispering back and forth. Two Native American guys were were heading to Spokane on their way home.
For supper a time slot is selected and a table for four was filled up with the first four people that show up. A couple train travelers I know considered this to be the highlight of their trip, meeting new and interesting people. That scenario began well when I was seated with a couple older ladies from Williston, ND. We chatted about mutual North Dakota experiences and connections and then they seated the fourth person at the table; The Babbler. She was one of the dullest human beings I've ever seen outside a funeral chapel and every sentence began with "my son" or "my daughter". Anything that was said, any topic that was introduced, could be linked to the life experiences of her offspring and it would be related to us in a voice that sounded like Alvin of the Chipmunks would sound had he taken some heavy amphetamines. I began to throw out more and more unusual topics, just to see how she could link them to her son and daughter and one of the ND ladies picked up on the game. "You ladies were in Milwaukee eh? Hell of a thing with that Jeffery Dahmer, understand he was bludgeoned to death in prison". Babbler: "My daughter was in Milwaukee, working on her Masters". Next attempt: "What do all the Russian-German people in western North Dakota think of Putin and the Georgia thing?". Babbler: "My son was in Russia presenting a paper". Damn! After The Babbler effortlessly tied 3 or 4 more remarks to her amazing youth, I excused myself and headed back to the compartment to polish off the rest of the wine and watch the Mississippi River glide by the window.
Amtrak is on the upswing and I'll most definitely ride the train again. There have been some great improvements in both equipment and staff since I last rode from San Antonio up to Tyler, TX although we haven't caught up with the European or English trains quite yet. It is a very amenable way to travel however and a fine way to thumb your nose at the airlines and all the humiliating and unnecessary bullshit they make you endure for the privilege of sitting in their arid, disease ridden cabins in their ergonomically abominable seats. As mentioned in a previous post my father used to say, If the tail's red, take the train instead". Dad, I finally followed your advice this time and it worked out pretty well.