Travelog Part 2 – adventures on Amtrak

This is what I remember about Havre, North Dakota. On the second day of the journey a man, whom I thought was Latino sat about 2 rows in back of us. He wore a cap the whole time (so did Duane) and his eyes had a way of boring through mine whenever we passed in the aisle. His intensity made me uncomfortable. At night, he had called someone on his cell and his voice was loud, like cell phone conversations often are, so I knew he was not speaking Spanish. I had no idea what language he might be speaking. I only knew that I was irritated because he was talking so loud and he had more than one conversation and one was very late and woke me up. The next day we stopped in Havre, near the Canadian border and the border patrol came into our car. Duane had gone out to stretch his legs and when he came back he said it was only our coach they went into. Two officers went about the car asking people about their citizenship. They did not ask anyone to show their ID except this man. He said he was from India, but he lived and worked in the U.S. and had a work visa. His papers must have checked out because they did not remove him from the train. My theory is that someone complained about him and thought he was a terrorist or something or just didn’t like the way he looked. Was it a good thing or a bad thing that the Border Patrol questioned him? Should I feel safer or less safe?

At a conference back in Portland a couple of weeks later, I find out that the Border Patrol is the largest armed force outside of the U.S. Army.

Minneapolis-St Paul—the train station is a long way from downtown. We can see the tall buildings from where we sit on the tracks. Here is where we meet up with the Mississippi River. We watch it from the lounge car. The river is wide, wide. Or is it high? Trees are standing in the river as if they had stepped down off the banks and gone wading in the shallows and the water is a scant few yard from someone’s trailer, from someone’s house and it all glides by us, soundlessly. “This is the Mississippi?” I ask the elderly gentleman who sits nearby. He agrees that it is. There are more teeth missing from his mouth than are left. His hair is greying, eyes yellowing, and there’s no extra flesh on him. He tells us that he is going to see his son in Arkansas or Alabama, someplace south. He’s on disability now, but he used to drive truck until his back got bad. Spends time with a nephew in Chicago sometimes, and time with his son down south. Another older man sits down near him and I see they both have drinks in hand. When we stop, they are disappointed because it’s not a smoking stop. Then a third man joins them and the three of them drink and talk about long-haul trucking and one of them was a riverman, piloted a tugboat. He talked about ramming a bridge with a tug, just a moment’s inattention at the wrong moment. Though they have had two or three drinks each they don’t weave or lurch any more than anyone else when they leave the lounge car to enjoy a smoke break at the next station.

The train rides along the Mississippi for a long way. Is there anyway to untangle this river from Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain? It is broad and slow and dreamy and it looks like it could carry you away until you weren’t yourself anymore. You know that it is a long snake of a river, that it starts up here, but it doesn’t end until it hits the Gulf of Mexico where the big water pushes back and the Mississippi spreads her fingers and lays down the silt she has been carrying and gives herself up to the power of the sea. The Rockies perform a continental divide, the Mississippi performs a different kind of division. What is on the other side of a river? Towns, cities, separated by rivers try to connect by ferry, by bridge or not at all. They form cultures distinct from one another. A river that is hard to cross–too deep, too rapid, or the too-wide Mississippi makes mythical the other side. Those people on the west bank, those people on the east bank, or the north or the south, depending on the curve of the river, who really knows them? It is not a street we can cross at any corner. Sometimes the river eats away the bank, cuts into some farm or some town and deposits the stolen land on someone else’s doorstep. Maybe it’s witchcraft, maybe it’s bad luck or good. In myth, a river separates one world from another. Whomever returns from the other side, returns as hero. You return from the water cleansed, transformed. The dead must cross the River Styx, the River Jordan to reside in the afterlife. Styx, the river of hate, encircles Hades nine times. So the land of the dead is surrounded by hate, not once, but nine times. But you only have to cross it once to get there. It’s coming back that is hard.

We ate dinner on the train, the night before Chicago, our second night. Our companions that evening were an obnoxious white guy who claims to have an extensive background managing restaurants and bars. With him was a very striking young black woman whom he hit on unmercifully while saying that there were no strings attached to the meal he was buying for her. By the end of the meal he had obtained a phone number from her. I hope she gave him a false number. I think she knew that he was full of crap.

We breakfasted with a man from Whitefish who had worked for the Board of Trade in Chicago where he grew up. He was on his way to join his wife and baby in Chicago and attend his 30th high school reunion. He said that he had left his job with the Board of Trade and gone to live in Whitefish and be a landscaper. He told us about the Union Station in Chicago and how amazing it was. Duane has been there before and agreed that it was stunning. Unfortunately, the old station was closed when we arrived in Chicago and Amtrak trains now debark passengers into the basement of a highrise building. There is nothing pleasant about it. It is stuffy and without any sort of interesting architectural detail or artwork. There are rows of plastic chairs filled with bored people who read, stare blankly, whimper and complain (not just the children), and every now and then the loudspeaker reminds us to be on the lookout for items—parcels or luggage left unattended and not to carry a package of any sort from a stranger onto the train.

We stowed our luggage in a locker. Costs $4 and hour, but the daily maximum was $12 so we weren’t going to be spending a fortune. The Lakeshore Limited, our connection, was due in two hours (it would have been four, but our train was late coming in), so we set out to walk to Lake Michigan. I think we set out in the right direction, but we weren’t sure and we turned back. The sky was really heavy with rain clouds and it did begin to rain. The rain got heavier and there was lightening. We took refuge under an awning of a drugstore. Since the rain did not look like it was going to let up, we went inside and spent way too much money on an umbrella. Even with the umbrella, the rain was so heavy that our pants were soaked in less than a block. We couldn’t find the train station, but did find a Starbucks and we went inside to ask directions and give me a chance to empty my bladder. Duane ordered a latte which turned out to be mostly steamed milk. You could hardly taste any coffee and the color was practically white. The bathroom was locked with no one in it and the baristas did not have a key. So I was dancing by the time we got back to the train station.

Surprise of all surprises, the Lakeshore was delayed in departing. Apparantly the air conditioning in the sleeper car was malfunctioning. So we all had to wait two hours while they tried to fix it and finally abandoned the effort and broke the news to the sleeper folks that they would have to ride in a coach. When we got on board there was a good deal of shuffling to make single travelors move so that couples and groups could travel together. The leg rests did not raise to full position so sleeping was more awkward. That problem and the rough tracks, mentioned earlier, combined to make for a less than restful night.