We leave Seattle in the afternoon, but the sun is already going down as we pull beyond the city limits and leave the West Coast behind.
It’ll be dark as we pass through Everett and the eastern edge of Washington, which is a same since it’s absolutely gorgeous there. The upside is, the mountains of Montana greet me with the sunrise.
We’re out of cell signal for quite some time, but it doesn’t really matter because we’re traveling through Glacier National Park, which is easily some of the most spectacular views in America.
I share a breakfast table with Becky, a trim older woman whose silver ponytail is streaked with discreet flashes of pink. She’s headed to Chicago, like me, having just left her new grandbaby in Oregon. This is the first grandchild she was able to see “when it’s brand new,” she tells me. She was in the military for a long time and was deployed when the others were born.
Becky has hot tea and scrambled eggs with some bacon. I go for the omelet with peppers and onions. She’s on her way east to visit her daughter. She’s trying to see all of her kids before she ships back overseas to Afghanistan. Becky isn’t in the military anymore. She tells me she tried being retired for six months and then went back to work.
She has a house in southern France now, halfway between her work in Afghanistan and her kids in the U.S. When she bought it, the realtor told her the house had been “lovingly restored.” She laughs, wryly. “Six years later, I’m still working on it.” Becky, like many others I’ve met, wishes the trains in America were as efficient and widespread as European trains. She also mentions her excellent health care in France. “They come to your house!” she tells me, “And send me postcards when I’m due for shots.” She asks me where the observation car is and when I see her later, she is there, gazing out at the landscape.
The views are something to behold. When I woke up at 6am, we were going through a tunnel and so it seemed magical when we emerged and a mountain burst into view, cliffs lined with snow that was brilliant against the pine trees. The lighting was too dark to take a picture and somehow that made the view more precious to me, because it couldn’t be captured or recorded and so the memory was mine.
The Empire Builder route is the second longest of my trip, taking about 45 hours when all goes well. It will end up being the longest leg, though, because a freight train broke down and we had to hold in Essex, Montana, for over an hour. This was the view out my cabin window.
When you come down from the peaks in the west, much of Montana is flat. We pass miles of unbroken, shorn fields. East of Shelby, I see an enormous skull and bones painted onto the side of a barn. “Meth, not even once,” it says. “Meth kills.”
Very few people show up for lunch service. It’s quiet and mostly empty. I sit across from a guy named Matt who’s headed to the oil fields in North Dakota. Matt is a well tester. He lives in Oregon and prefers to ride the train to his worksite. “It’s much safer than driving,” he says, “Especially in the winter.”
A few years back, he slid off of I90 and totaled his truck. Now, he takes the train. You must make a lot of money in order to make this commute worthwhile, I say. “Better than I would make in Oregon,” he answers.
Matt was an Army brat, growing up (his words, not mine). He and his family lived in Naples, Italy, for six years but he doesn’t remember much of his Italian vocabulary. He moved around so much as a child that now the constant travel from state to state doesn’t seem to bother him.
I tell him that part of my mission is to show people that you can talk to anyone, even if you might disagree on politics. That people are just people, no matter how far you travel. “You think?” says Matt, chuckling.
There are a number of oil workers on the train. I share a dinner table with two more. They both tell me that when they first arrived in North Dakota, Williston was “a cowboy town.” They tell me stories of wildness and violence in what was a small town. Two men got into a fight outside a store, one man says, and one of them pulled knife and tried to cut the other’s head off. The younger man beside him describes an argument in a bar. “One of the guys went out to his truck, grabbed his sawed-off shotgun and waited for the other guy to come out,” he tells me. “He nearly blew him in half.” Neither of the victims survived.
“They didn’t want us here,” the younger man says. “They didn’t like outsiders. Now the town is huge and nobody cares anymore.” They both have families at home and ride the train to commute.