Days 1-3 – Amtrak Empire Builder 7, Chicago to Wenatchee



I settled into my sleeping car and was asleep before Chicago disappeared from the train window. I’d picked a late dinner time so that I could get a better view of the sunset from the dining car. To me, one of the great things about traveling solo is that you are not so caught up in your comfortable situations that you miss out on meeting new people. And Amtrak forces people together at meals because getting to know new folks is “the Amtrak way.” It always seems funny to me how reluctant Americans are to share their space with strangers. Are we that distrustful of one another? Or are we that inward a society?

My first meal, I shared with a nurse from Olympia who’d run for public office. She was passionate about the political side of healthcare reform, and I learned a lot about the ins and outs of that from a professional’s point of view. Our other guest was Tony, a high school teacher of English and Sports, traveling from Berlin to visit some friends in the deserts of Washington.


Overnight, as we traveled through Minnesota, my sleep was disturbed several times by ice pounding against the window. The wind blew so hard that I thought the train might flip over on its side or somehow slide of the rails. A few times when I peeked under the curtain out th window, it was a complete white out. But a few times when I peeked out, it was a complete winter wonderland, like the North Pole without a candy cane forest or singing snowmen.


I woke to such beauty out the window, the sun rising over a shimmering lake. I had no idea where I was, since it was to early for them to be making announcements just yet. During the quiet hours on the train, which were 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., the conductors walk the cars and wake people so that they don’t miss their stop.


It was so cold that I went early to breakfast. For a long time, I stared out the window at miles of flat grasslands, covered in small glittery golden pools. I later found out that this was an anomaly caused by excess snow melt. In some of these pools, I watched as otter hunted for their own breakfasts, and in the grasses in between them, I watched as an unfamiliar ferret-like creature bounded toward some birds. And then I saw a few more. Minks! They’d been a huge part of the economy in those parts over a hundred years ago.


I also watched the people inside the car, an smiled when a few others struggled with the community seating situation before I met my own morning guest, Kat, a college student from Port Angeles studying construction management. She was a bit shy at first, but we fell so easily into conversation that the family at the next table thought we were traveling together.

They’d obviously been listening in on our conversation, because as soon as our conversation opened to them, the man immediately corrected a Little House on the Prairie reference I’d made more than 30 minutes before. I’d said that the book had not prepared me for such beauty. He told me it wasn’t set in North Dakota, but in Wisconsin. I haven’t read those books since I read them aloud to my daughter, and I haven’t looked that up yet to confirm. Because of the smirk on his face when he said it, I’m going to keep thinking it was North Dakota. Really, what did it matter? We were on a prairie and it was more beautiful than the books had caused me to imagine.

* * *

When we crossed the Montana border into Mountain time, I was seated in the observation car and ready to see Big Sky country unfold in front of me in all its glory.


I saw my dinner companions from the night before and made two more friends. Jackie, from Medina, Ohio, was traveling with her son to Whitefish to go to camp and visit a buffalo preserve. She’d only recently started camping, after the major changes in her life since her husband died a few years back.

Mikal (mik-ale) and I became fast friends, and even had lunch together a bit later to talk some more. He’s a 20 year-old motivational speaker with an interesting story and a personality that you can’t help but be drawn to. With the exception of his coming from a strict religious family, our youths were similar, and we both had felt the pull to break away from where we were from to follow our own bliss.

From Burnside, MN, he was headed out to Portland to meet his girlfriend for a wedding, and one day, he told me, he’s going to marry this girl and have four kids. Mikal has a lot of travel adventures ahead of him this year: Charlotte, Santa Monica, Haiti, Turkey. In Haiti, he’s doing a mission trip to help provide basic services like clean water, and in Turkey, he’s going tobe helping at a refugee camp for people coming from Syria.

Mikal and I had lunch with a hilarious Minnesotan couple, Linda and Dave, headed to Portland for a vacation. After we talked about snow and heat and humidity for over 20 minutes, Linda told me, “Minnesotans LOVE to talk about the weather.” And then we talked about weather some more. They were thinking of moving someplace warmer now that they’re getting older, but Dave said, “We’ll probably just stay and complain.” Linda agreed.

As my kindred spirit Mikal and I parted ways, we hugged. My favorite dining car worker, Tracy, said, “You’ve made a friend.” I told her I make friends everywhere I go.

* * *

My last night on the train, I had dinner as we were headed into Glacier National Park. The mountains rose up ahead of us out of nowhere, beautiful and terrifying in the sharp angles and cold snow, as if to say, “Look at my majesty.” They can both inspire you and kill you.

My dinner companions were Abdirashid, a young Somali man from Maine, who was moving to Seattle. Also Jill, from Minnesota, a motorcycle enthusiast who owned a bike shop with her husband. She shared her love of bikes with Holly, a native woman from Georgia who was returning to her home in Seattle after being at home for three weeks for a powwow. She’s a paralegal, but also works on language revitalization within native communities. She gave me some advice on how to study native languages for my writing, and pointed out a flash on a hillside to me. It was a Sun Dance tent, and we were in the land of the Blackfeet.


Because I’d had wine with dinner, I fell asleep quickly. But I woke around midnight violently ill. I’ll spare the details, but it wasn’t pretty and I was so hollowed out by 5 a.m. when my concierge Marcella came by to check on me and let me know we were late for Wenatchee, that she immediately was concerned. She brought me club soda and carried my bags downstairs for me, since I was too weak. When we got to the station, she even unboarded them for me.


I was determined to carry my bags, but I took two steps and dropped them again as I lost even the club soda, much to the chagrin of everyone else de-training in Wenatchee. Marcella came to the rescue with a towel so I could clean off my bags and shoes. It was like I was little John on the Oregon trail, dying of dysentery. Only I would make it through to the end of the trail. Eventually.

It took great effort to get my bags to a metal bench less than 50 feet away. The cool metal helped a bit, but Wenatchee’s 45 degrees felt a lot different than 45 degrees in Kentucky, and I was worried about hypothermia. Several rests later, I’d made it to the bus station about a half a block from the train platform. I tried to drink some water and lay down on a bench, but security yelled at me almost immediately. After 3 days on a train and nearly 8 hours of sick, surrounded by bags, I’m sure I looked like a vagrant.

Despite my illness, the beauty of the final miles of my journey into Wenatchee had not been lost on me. The sun sparkling on the Columbia River, the dew sparkling on the starting buds of the apple trees along its banks. I wondered if here was the place in Washington where my kin had come from, this apple capital of the U.S., the place where some had left for other parts, known and unknown, and other had stayed planted.


I thought there could be, on any side of me, someone with a shared bloodline. I would probably not see it, and would surely never know it. As I though about invisible connections, I listened in on a conversation between two men in Spanish. The older of the two was heading north for work, and the younger had just returned to the south. Though they’d never before met, the younger man gave the older one his heavy coat, and wished him good health.


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