In the 60s I took the Orient Express from Paris to Athens, sitting up in a compartment for six days while people got on the train in Italy, heading home to Yugoslavia with livestock. I have ridden the Shinkansen at 220 miles per hour from Hiroshima to Tokyo with splendid views of Mt Fuji out the window. My wife and I have taken the overnight from Paris to Hamburg to visit friends.
Like everyone we know, the idea of train travel elicits a feeling of nostalgia, excitement, mystery, luxury and adventure. We first thought about taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostock, but at our age, it seemed more daunting than we could manage. So we came up with the idea of traveling by train from Boston to visit our son and his family in Seattle. That, we thought, would be cool.
It turned out that the track from Boston to Troy, NY was under repair, so they put us on a bus. The Red Cap–”BG”–who accompanied us to the bus stop was a really interesting guy who was interested in and knowledgeable about, among other topics, the life of Winston Churchill.
Unlike the bus, a train is not entirely classless. Money, like most things in America, dictates the circumstance of travel unless, of course, you get on in, say, Minot, North Dakota and get off four or five hours later in some little town where your company has sold an industrial refrigeration unit that needs repair. We talked to a few people who found the train a convenient way to do short run business. One guy, a Trump supporter, was traveling six stops to watch his kid play baseball.
The run from Troy to Chicago cuts through the populous back yards, hoot hoot hooting its way through rail crossings, past factories and warehouses along the veins of America’s bedraggled, fading working class economy.
We had a beer and a wine in our room in the sleeper car, then went to the dining car. “Dining” would be a minor exaggeration. What was available were a variety of boxed microwaved offerings such as one might expect on a cross-country plane trip. Plane trip…ah yes, because the new president of Amtrak used to be the president of Delta airlines and he seems determined to see “food service” as an opportunity to cut costs. West of Chicago, the traditional dining car remains for the time being, with tablecloths, silverware and prepared meals. Sadly, this is under review by corporate management.
The porter came through and made up our beds for the night with an upper berth for which I drew the short straw. After a little whiskey on ice, we went to bed and fell asleep to the clickety-clack, clickety-clack repetition of wheels on steel. As the speed picked up, the rhythm changed to clickety-clickety-clickety.
In the morning, the loudspeaker announced breakfast in the dining car with offerings one might expect in a mid-priced hotel: yogurt, cold cereal, breakfast sandwiches and the like. Bondholders would be pleased at the frugality; the lumpen proletariat will eat what they are served. The staff, however, was terrific, well aware of management’s dismantlement of 75 years of a tradition that customers have long expected.
The remains of the morning saw the remains of the Rust belt: western Ohio and Indiana. The train was stuck from time to time waiting for freight traffic. BNSF and other major carriers have Washington lobbyists to make sure the Department of Transportation gives them track priority over passenger trains. The freight traffic and rail yards are truly impressive. In major cities, there are often 20 or 30 tracks holding trains a hundred cars long filled with oil, coal, flat steel and containers.
We passed through Elkhart, Indiana, home to the largest center of RV manufacturers in the country. We passed parking lots filled with many hundreds of RV s. We passed parts yards filled with axles or raw materials such as aluminum sheets. We hoot-hooted our way through the rail crossings with commuters waiting to continue to work. Then finally…a rural respite.
In a while we came to Gary, Indiana, a place largely abandoned due to modern economics: steel dumping by China, environmental restrictions, and the advance of industrial technology and robotics. Everywhere there were vast rusting industrial complexes abandoned next to mountainous slag heaps of coke and coal. It is a place, like Detroit, that has left working class families destitute, angry Trump voters.
By noon, we pulled into Chicago, the king of the Midwest, with its access to the Mississippi and the Great Lakes…an economic center for commerce, finance and the arts.
Chicago is the jumping off point to the West. Its cavernous station is being restored to its Art Deco past and offers its Amtrak long-distance passengers a private lounge with free snacks and soft drinks, showers, and comfortable seating for passengers awaiting departures for points west. Again the Red Caps were polite and helpful, with electric carts to take us to our accommodations in the sleeping car. We were surprised and dismayed to see people walk away without tipping them. These trains are staffed by working people who serve food, set up the beds at night, serve drinks in the bar, offer room service…working people with kids to educate and mortgages to pay. Yet so many customers rich enough to take this expensive journey leave nothing on the table after meals or in the rooms that have been prepared for them.
We left Chicago in the afternoon headed for the Pacific on a three-day, two-night trip that took Lewis and Clark two years.
The Midwest is exactly that: a place in the middle that is a visual transition from commercial and urban environments to the Great Plains west of Minnesota. That evening’s dinner was a pleasure. No more microwaved food. There were tablecloths and silverware, excellent service, and an expansive menu. We sat at a table for four, meeting new people, exchanging our stories of destination, family, work, and even politics and the American scene.
The American scene: why we did this in the first place. We are experience junkies looking for a fix. My wife…a writer. Myself…a photographer. And this trip meets our criteria because we have no idea what to expect.
After supper we sat in the observation car with drinks from the bar and visited with strangers. Just two weeks from the solstice, there was a long slow decay of light to darkness.
The porter had come through and made up the beds. We sat in our compartment drinking whiskey and wine and talking about what we had seen. Always clickety-clickety-clickety until we were sidelined for yet another freight train. It was a nice sound to sleep to, hypnotic. We slept through multiple stops to discharge and take on passengers, and were surprised to wake to the endless expanse of the vast American prairie. Wheat, corn, soybeans, wheat, corn, soybeans. A yellow field of canola. Two trailers with seven abandoned vehicles. A little town with abandoned brick buildings and streets perpendicular to the tracks and a sign that read “Opioids. Don’t Ever Start”.
This prairie stretched endlessly with great similarity, except for the occasional butte that rose up a mile away or some large swampy sloughs filled with ducks. There were herds of cattle, mostly beef critters, and power lines slicing across the landscape. In North Dakota, the oil patch was everywhere with big concentrators flaring off the gas and hundred-car trains snaking through loading platforms.
We stopped in Minot to take on fuel and water. The Minot News Reporter says that in May they averaged 1.3 million gallons of oil a day. I couldn’t help but think about the fact that Minot is usually the coldest place in the country in January and February. Sometimes the weather will report “It was 34 degrees below zero in Minot this morning” and I wonder why anybody would live here just to grow wheat, soybeans and corn in June, especially now that Trump has ruined all the markets for these products and farmers are going bankrupt in record numbers.
Before Minot, we went through Rugby which sports a sign claiming it is at the center of the continent. It’s a hell of a long way from Boston and a day and a half from Seattle.
How can we not think about a wagon train here 200 years ago? The vast prairie takes two days to cross by modern transportation, but wagon trains taking weeks to cross, always in search of food and water for themselves and their animals, resonate as we watched the often monotonous landscape slide by for hours on end at a modern speed.
In the Dakotas we passed through Indian territory, places of trailer parks and other signs of economic turmoil and depredation with abandoned vehicles.
And on into Montana. Much the same as the last 24 hours, still east of the Rockies. Big Sky country they call it, and by gosh it is! Friends who grew up in the West say you can watch your dog run away for three days. And I believe it. The eastern part of Montana, like North Dakota, is still part of the prairie that feeds the world (or at least until Trump destroyed the agricultural market with his tariffs). This vast North American resource runs more or less from west Texas to Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada. This simple fact means that crop maturity moves from south to north, allowing migrant labor and machine harvesting to move with predictable demand.
The train is the path to market, moving commodities to domestic processors at the coast for international distribution. Even now in June, last year’s soybeans, held in huge silos that dot the landscape, are loaded onto hundred-car trains that are shipped off to pig farms in Tennessee and tofu makers in Japan.
Sitting in the observation car, we began to see the change in the landscape as we moved west. It was more irregular, less predictable. The afternoon light took away the flatness and started to describe a place that will build to a crescendo that is the Rocky Mountains. This whole section of track, from Kalispell, Montana west to the coast, was built by Asian immigrants who often died from diseases they had never been exposed to, or from accidents that caused mortal injuries. Today there are still cemeteries with graves marked by Kanji texts.
West of the Rockies there is still a vast, flat plain, some of it high desert. We worked our way up into the Cascades at dusk, and were reminded of the Donner Party, trapped here in an early-season blizzard with great loss of life. We missed seeing most of this terrain because we were asleep when the train crossed the high passes over the Continental Divide where the watershed drains into the Pacific Ocean.
In the morning, having slept on mattresses we moved to the floor of our room to avoid another night of claustrophobia, we were awakened by a loudspeaker. “This is Patty in the dining car. We are now open for breakfast. Please come on up and put your name on the waiting list.” Early as it was, we added our names, and forty minutes later we were breakfasting at a table with two young people from Germany who were embarked on a bicycle trip that would start in Seattle and end on the East Coast. They were teachers with the summer off. They had biked the Alps, they told us, and seemed undaunted by the prospect of the 8000-foot passes through the Rockies.
At Spokane, our train was split with some cars destined for Portland, Oregon and our section traveling on to Seattle. We wandered down out of the high desert, through mountainous terrain crowded with Sitka spruce and pulled into the station at the other end of America from where we started. Apologies to Lewis and Clark…we had taken the easy route.
As we stood outside the station waiting for our son, the two teachers came out and climbed onto their pack-laden bicycles headed east where they, too, had started out four days ago. They will reach their destination sooner than a Conestoga wagon. They waved goodbye.