13.10.16

Notes from the Empire Builder III

[See also, Notes from the Empire Builder I and II.]

Once again I am riding the Empire Builder, but the most beautiful part of the trip, where the train skirts the wide Mississippi through Southeastern Minnesota, falls in October in the dark of night. From time to time, the wide dark river reflects a light or two, and a bridge or a dam will illuminate its width, and I wish I could see it. Is it worse to know it’s out there, to sense it lurking below the rails reflecting the  moon? I prefer Springtime sunsets, yet change is the nature of seasons.

I hadn’t taken the train in a few years, and walking to the bus stop early in the morning felt strange. The familiar land beneath my feet, the bluff overlooking downtown and the river, I know its history, can trace its paths and describe its detailed geology. But soon I would be far from these roots, pushing East into the unknown, vertiginous.

I had forgotten the way the train departs with nary a nudge, no announcement, just a silent imperceptible moment and, seconds later, realization. Its beginning, an asymptotic distinction impossible to notice like the line between two breaths. Instead the trip begins with the awareness that you are already moving. The shifting perspective of the station pillar. The gradual acceleration to an invisible vanishing point. The promise of horizons.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with my mother, and she asked, “Why do you take the train? Is it because of environmentalism? Or because you like it? Or because you have time or because it’s cheap?”

“Yes,” I said. It’s all true.

Really I just like it, but there’s that other stuff, too. An airplane is fast but psychologically oppressive, and it is no exaggeration to say that flight is irreconcilably destroying some of the planet’s diverse life. I try to avoid it, and luckily my work allows me this privilege.

But also I just like the train. It’s relaxing next to cars or airplanes in the way that “magic fingers” massage mattresses in cheap hotels are relaxing. You can stretch out and walk back and forth along a linear path approximately 12’ wide. What else besides a New Orleans shotgun house is this linear? And for a geographer, rail travel offers a special fascination. Rail lines are deeply linked to the historic growth of Industrial America. The first railroad reached Saint Paul sometime in the early 1860s, and for the next hundred years it was the primary way that people traveled to and from my home. Before that, the river; afterward, cars and planes.

[The Hiawatha lounge car in Minneapolis, 1948.]
A century of transportation dominance is nothing to sneeze at, and if you learn about railroads and the economic growth of the Midwest, the geography of the railroad makes complete sense. For a hundred years it would have been inconceivable to go to Boston without first going to Chicago, and indeed that’s exactly what I’m doing. Chicago is on the way, as is Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, and a great many more in-between towns. All of them are all still American places where people live, even places like Gary, Indiana and Springfield, Massachusetts, places that you would never fly to. What a large complex country!

Unlike the Empire Builder, the train from Chicago to Boston has on-board wi-fi, a welcome improvement since my last trip. So I looked it up, and it turns out that, apart from a tiny section near Southside Chicago, the Amtrak follows exactly the route of the original “Lakeshore Limited”, a famous train that began running in the 19th century. I spend some time reading railroad history and daydreaming about what rail travel was like in the past.

The most famous American train, the “20th Century Limited”, also ran this route, making just a few stops along the way. (Not even Cleveland!) The train was designed and marketed for rich business travelers, and its luxuries were famous; it’s where the term “red carpet” comes from. It’s impossible not to imagine the luxury and sigh, the 13 sleeper cars, the elaborate meals, the country’s elite mingling and roaring like a bullet through the night. It was also faster, of course, making the trip in less than 17 hours (versus 20 or so today). But I looked it up, and in today’s dollars the $50 one-way rail ticket amounts to more than $700.

All of a sudden my $100 ticket and crappy microwave pizza doesn’t seem so bad. On today’s Lakeshore Limited there is no pretense of luxury, at least if you’re traveling coach. In fact, whatever the opposite of luxury is, that’s what Amtrak provides.

At some point I find myself drinking a $5 Budweiser, and I’m disappointed that, even on the train, a can of Belgian-owned Budweiser reads “America, land of the free." Later, departing the café car, the America can is in my hand as I look for the recycling bin, the café attendant says “the garbage is right over there.”

For a second I contemplated throwing the can in the regular trash. It’s something I haven’t done in years, and something that my father could never do, even if he tried. I imagine his hand would become physically incapable of obeying their commanding neurons, like the gloved hand of Doctor Strangelove but for recycling instead of nuclear war. Such is the visceral connection between recycling cans and our quasi-environmental psyche.

These little failures expose the vacuum of utopia. Think of the hundreds of hippies taking the train for extensively environmental reasons, and forced to throw aluminum in the trash, the ultimate torture. You’d think some part of Amtrak would be in sync with these translated ideals, but this would underestimate the totalistic extent of the right-wing hatred of rail. (Wisconsin is Scott Walker territory, after all, and I briefly imagine an alternate reality where he had embraced Obama’s railroad, and Wisconsin had set the national standard for modern high-speed railroad transportation.)

Thanks to the right, today’s Amtrak seems without a shred of marketing savvy. The difference between the US rail experience and that of European railroads, which (for all their flaws) seem to be a source of some national pride, is immense. I picture Amtrak as a sink of governmental self-loathing, the cesspool to which bathtub conservatives can point to make the case that government itself is the problem, that collective enterprise is doomed. This train is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I throw my empty America can in the regular trash bin.

[The Adjustable Clamp Company in Chicago's West Side.]
Late at night, an Amish man walks by. I can’t get over looking at Amish people — the hair, the clothing, the language, the gender and family relationships. Much like the Erie Canal or Dakota people or an old brick building in a Northern Indiana town, they persist in the complexity of the present day.

Listening to Coltrane on a train is an exhilarating experience and I cannot really describe the intersectional harmony. But really listening to anything on the train is worthwhile. Fats Domino, Chopin Nocturnes (at night, of course), Bon Iver, Miles Davis, Koerner, Ray and Glover, Hüsker Dü, and even Celtic music. It all works.

Do the Amish know about jazz?

Riding the train you find yourself rocking back and forth whether you want to or not, something about the way that twin rails sit atop wooden ties, the gravity of curving lines. Because of the rocking, there is a trance-like quality, rails rocking you back and forth, as if your body is dances on its own, mindless.

Noted: the thin steel beams they use to lock up the liquor cabinet each night at 11:30 on the Lakeshore Limited lounge car are significant pieces of metal. I’m sure this was a trial-and-error process.

And yet, returning to history, I am aware of how the railroad polluted the landscape one hundred and fifty years prior! The railroad on which I am traveling destroyed the sacred caves of the Dakota people, not two miles from where I live, dynamited for industrial expansion. This very act which I  now enjoy, and nay declare to be the vanguard of American sustainability, was, along with slavery, one of the cardinal sins of the continent. From these trains, whites with guns exterminated bison.

[Mount Greylock in Pittsfield, MA.]
It's a fact that the best time to travel through Northern Indiana is the absolute middle of the night. What could you possibly want to see?

Because it’s all but impossible to sleep on the coach seats if you share them with another, I stay awake as long as possible. By the time we reach Cleveland, I might be the only one awake apart from the conductors, mostly failing to look busy.

As expected, Amtrak wireless is whimsical, almost there for a hot second in the middle of the night. But, no. No. A teasing wisp, the most ephemeral thing I have encountered outside of Civil War ghosts.

The next day I find myself along the far Eastern shore of Lake Erie eavesdropping on a conversation between retired conservative Midwesterners. One, a beleaguered man who hasn’t been on a train since he was 5 years old, is quite disappointed. Talking with him are a couple with a lot of Amtrak experience, trying in vain to assuage his gripes.

“After 42 years, I decided to retire,” says the disgruntled man

“Well, I did 47 years myself,” replies the other, a round slightly more gruntled chap with glasses and a blue shirt buoyed by suspenders. His bottom barely fits in the booth.

“Wow, nobody does that anymore,” says the first. You can tell this is a favorite topic. “Kids today, 5 or 6 years and they’re off to the new thing.”

“So what did you do?" asks the round man.

So far the conversation is a typical rustbelt cliché, Trump coming up alongside head shaking about the state of the world. I prepare myself for some classic tirades about Obama or NAFTA or something.

But then the bombshell…

“I worked for a company that made assembly line robots,” said the cranky retiree.

“Oh really, my nephew does that too,” replied the round man.

The irony of it! The old timers muttering about the postlapsarian rustbelt, yet the classic manufacturing job in this conversation was, not an actual product, but the creation of assembly line robots. A career built on automation itself, robot manufacturing, the one job that puts factory workers out of work more than any other.

They two men agree on two facts: politics is messed up, and assembly line robots are a highly competitive growth industry.

Later the cranky one uses the term “Chinaman” without irony and, at some point, the conductor joins the conversation.

“Did your robots paint the whole cars?”

“Oh yeah. We had a whole division dedicated to GM,” he replies.

When Trump complains that manufacturing jobs are leaving the rustbelt, is he really talking about automation robot factories? I wonder, can they build robots that build robots? (Probably not.)

We pass through Erie, Pennsylvania and the downtown looks like the site of a zombie apocalypse, ramshackle Western Pennsylvania homes rolling by the window, Lake Erie in the background.

The timing for the Mississippi River didn’t work out, but later that evening, the sunset is timed perfectly to catch peak fall colors in the Western Massachusetts mountains. My cheek presses to the window as the train winds along the Mohawk River through the Berkshires.

I went to college near here, and I remember losing my mind that first October seeing the bright red maple leaves falling everywhere on the grass, the soft-focus mountains over saturated and impossibly beautiful. I would pick up the brightest and biggest maples and bring them back to my dorm, tying their stems with string and hanging them from windows. Twenty years later and these are the same leaves.

I should note that the occupational standards on the stretch of train from Boston to Albany are particularly lax, even for Amtrak employees. Hardly anyone leaves their seat, and the café attendant twiddles his thumbs most of the time, reading a copy of Ebony Magazine twice through. He and the equally bored conductors are conducting a hilarious trialogue right out of a Tarantino movie.

“No matter what I do I can’t gain weight. I’m going to put on six pounds. I’m going to do it,” says the short thin one.

“You need steroids,” replies the larger.

“No steroids.”

"You need steroids. You can’t do it, not with your metabolism. You need ‘em, or that powda. It puts the weight.”

“No steroids. I’m gonna work out. I’m gonna put on six pounds. I’m 178 and I’m gonna get to 184. When you see me you’ll say, there’s a guy who has some mass.”

“Hell you can have some of my weight,” chimes in the third guy with the magazine. “I’m trying to take off twenty.”

This goes on for a half-hour until someone somehow is vaguely summoned.

A radio squawks: NO DEFECTS NO DEFECTS AXLE ZERO CSX END OF TRANSMISSION

[A family having an Amtrak Picnic with champagne and tablecloth.]
Later that night, another Amtrak employee ruins my good mood. He had gotten on in Buffalo, and is wearing a bright red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat. At first I am hoping that it’s meant ironically, as in “Make American Trains Great Again” or something.

But no. He’s sits down at a café table with a couple in the lounge car, a black man and a white woman, to talk Trump.

“I don’t wanna breathe bat shit and especially Mexican bat shit, because Mexicans they’re filthy people … Ha! I’m joking around, but still. I don’t trust those Canucks either!”

He goes on about politics today and how both parties are terrible, and how that makes Trump OK. Keep in mind, this is a guy wearing an Amtrak badge who works for Amtrak, so, irony aside, I guess he’s making a fair point.

At some point he takes a deep dive into US political history — “Well, Nixon took the high road” (!) — and the black man across the table from him remains nonplussed.

“It makes you wonder on some of this stuff,” he rambles. “It kinda goes to the politics you have now, because it’s just too bad. Things get better. The economy is going up. The dollar is strong, but they’re saying its inflated. So that’s where this place might be, like a house of cards. So they’re saying, I don’t want to be a conspiracy guy, but this is what’s really going on ….”

When I took this train a few years ago, one of the conductor was wearing an IWW hat, so I guess this makes up for it.


I killed my layover in a Panera Bread next to the Sears tower as wind ripped rain along its massive black facade. In downtown Chicago, they have redesigned the store so that you never have to encounter or speak with another person, and can order your soup and coffee using an iPad and round numbered discs with location sensors.

[The Palmer House Empire Room in Downtown Chicago.]
Returning to the Amtrak lounge, I tried to approach the gate.

“Are you military or a senior? This area is for military and seniors,” the woman proclaimed.

Like many Amtrak employees she was simultaneously officious and playful, and I imagined that repeating this phrase was a pleasure.

When my time came, I escaped the Trump screens of the TVs buckled to the waiting room ceiling and passed through the gate amid the flurry of conductors, porters, epauletted women, many of them people of color. In all its chaos, Amtrak offers a microcosm of America, a sound, flawed system straining for some kind of equity, rooted in an erased past, and stymied by the unabated demands of capital. This train will reach its destination, but not soon, and it’ll be full of character: amish families, a college student lost in a book, British tourists, a hunter, an Asian family, wide-eyed seniors driven in dingy carts complaining about plastic bunks folded against the wall. If you want a real sense of how we are doing as a people, as a government, as a public-private mess, pass by the shiny ad-saturated airport filled with disappointed futures. Instead come here and witness the fair-minded but misguided stuck in a structure they cannot control. This is America's cracked mirror.

Later in the lounge, one of the worst-looking men I have ever seen — crazy unkempt mullet, skin like junkyard upholstery, worn leather jacket, and white-and-black off-brand Zubaz pajama pants accentuated by a front-butt — strikes up a conversation with a pretty college girl in a La Crosse sweatshirt.

“My sister is the leader of Wisconsin,” he says. “She’s the #1 lawyer. She’s in charge of everything.”

“Well how come I’ve never heard of her? I’m from Wausau,” the Wisconsin girl replies, speaking for some reason in a loud almost clownish voice. I suspect she is somehow used to dealing with people that look like this.

“I ran for office twice in Minnesota," the man declares. "I’m getting a free SUV on Craigslist.”

“Craigslist? Isn’t that sketchy?” The girl almost shouts, exaggerating every word.

“I don’t care if it runs or not. I’ve got six Lincoln Navigators,” he says.

[Wisconsin Dells.]
On the Amtrak, absurdity doesn’t escalate linearly. It compounds and eats itself. In moments like this, late at night on the Empire Builder, it is as if a great social dam breaks, releasing the country's kaleidoscopic weirdness.  

Eventually he wanders back to his seat. The La Crosse girl later calls him “zebra pants” to her friends, and seems half-amused by the exchange, half-bitter about having to take part in it.

The absurdity has reached a fever pitch because the thin British guy is here too, a small college-aged man I’d seen waiting earlier in the lounge, alone with a backpack and a bow tie.

Earlier on the train ride I had overheard him with another young guy in a black cowboy hat drinking whiskey, who had asked him where he’s going.

“Oh North Dakota,” he says, British accent glowing.

“Why there?”

“Oh, to take a vacation break. I’m going to this place, Mee-no, or something.”

“Mee-no? You mean Minot? What’s in Minot?”

“Oh I don’t know, really. Just want to see it, I suppose. Have a little fun.”

“You’re nuts, man,” the young cowboy says. “Minot is boring! If you want to go somewhere, get of the train in Saint Paul. Saint Paul is far from Boring.”

[June's, a fire station from 1898, next to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer.]
That last point would please some of my friends, who have launched an ironic grass-roots campaign called Keep Saint Paul Boring complete with tee-shirts, in an effort to encourage more street life in the sleepy city. (On the other hand, the cowboy might have meant “far from Boring, Oregon” which would be accurate as that small town is 1,700 miles away.)

I listen while another young man joins in, getting drunk discussing the (pros and) cons of Minot.

And then this.

“I heard that if you go to small town America and have a British accent, it’s really easy to get laid,” the thin Brit declares. “Like, you get laid right away.”

At first, the thought of a young British man taking the train to Minot, North Dakota for sex tourism strikes me as hilarious, but then I remember that I read about this phenomenon somewhere online. It’s actually a thing. I can only think that it must be pretty boring in England.

“Yeah, you’re gonna get shagged,” one of the men replies in an Austin Powers voice. At some point this second guy decides he’s going to pretend he’s Irish, and adopts a barely-passable brogue.

I spend a bit of time imagining a thin British man wandering alone at midnight through downtown Minot in a bowtie like a Sam Beckett character. The only way the scenario could be improved is if it took place in January.

And that’s why it’s funny that later the two men, the Brit and his new fake-Irish friend, are sitting and playing a card game called “Bullshit” with the three college girls from Wisconsin. The game is perfect, because these two guys are so obviously full of shit themselves, but in the end it doesn’t matter. They flirt and everyone has a great time and the night is just beginning when the train comes to a halt just past the Hastings river bridge.

After a long wait, the conductor announces a tree has fallen onto the tracks, but not to worry because someone somewhere will go out there and clear it away. For the meantime, we are stuck next to the Mississsippi, a mere twenty miles from my house.

“We’re sending out a team of our best leprechauns,” the fake-Irish guy says, and everyone laughs.

“Don’t eat my noodles!” screams one of the women, going to get another drink.

“In rugby you’re not allowed to throw forwards. You throw it this way, backwards,” the fake Irish guy says.

“They don’t let you off the train, health and safety stuff. There might be a big hole or whatnot,” the Brit says.

“They’re out to look at the tree,” a girl named Angela says.

“The tree has committed a crime and we are investigating. I wonder if this is in my jurisdiction…” the Brit says. (I have to admit that even I love his accent.)

The banter grows louder as they start looking at cell phone pictures and discussing the “zebra pants” guy. As someone quotes Borat I decide to pull the plug and take off. Honestly, an exchange program that sends British chavs to rural North Dakota doesn’t sound like the worst idea in the world, even if it stems from hormones.

As I leave, from the corner of my eye, I see one of the girls lean over the table and make out with the Brit.

“What the hell just happened here,” says one girl.

“I have desperately bad breath, because I ate all of those chips,” replies the other.

Eventually the leprechaun crew clears the tree, and the train rolls into Saint Paul an hour late. As I walk the marble floors of the magnificent empty station, my feet root again in firm ground.

[Somewhere in America.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is great, Bill