Friday, January 15, 2010

Wisconsin Dells to Seattle: 47 Hours

Can you imagine it? Forty-seven straight hours sliding through the northern Midwest on slushy, snowy metal rails. I boarded the train at 6pm after a fine lunch and two glasses of wine at High Rock Café in the Dells. I highly, highly recommend it. My aunt and uncle saw me off while their sons practiced basketball in the gym across the parking lot.

A bit about the train's setup. There are two levels; the lower one holds staff, baggage, cargo, and a small "lounge." The upper is all passenger seating. The cars are about eight feet wide, each one holds about 100 people. One car, the "Sightseer Lounge," is all windows, and chairs face outward. I spent upwards of fifteen hours there, reading by daylight and chatting to other passengers at night. It's easy and fun to talk with whoever sits down next to you.

I finished By Night in Chile in short order and hope to read it again; I pushed through about 270 pages in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle during the train ride. I like the lack of time and schedule on the train - I can do what I want, when I want, and I rarely glanced at my watch. Time was replete and its passage was relaxed.

The social scene on the train is similarly relaxed. If you're in the Sightseer Lounge, you're game for chatting; if you're in your seat, probably not. Conversations start and end easily, and it is easy to be open and share secrets with strangers; it is also easy to share life experience and give or take advice and opinions without obligations or strings attached. The first night, a group of four huddled around a table in the public lounge, talking loudly and rudely; I found out later they were drinking Michigan moonshine and watered-down absinthe.

Through most of Minnesota, and all of Montana and North Dakota, I was without cell phone service. I sat in the Sightseer Lounge for most of the 13th, watching the scenery go by. The sunrise was generally unremarkable. Same for the sunset. The view hardly changed one iota. There were fields, after fields, after dead fields of what someone told me was hay. There were occasional, misplaced mounds of earth that looked like sand dunes - I think the farmers leveled the land some time back, and the mounds were just excess dirt.

A man in the car stood up and said loudly, "A prayer for Haiti - an earthquake just leveled the capital! . . . .Seattle's next, I bet!" Next to him is a fat man with huge glass gauges in his ears, wearing a dirty black t-shirt that reads "Harley Davidson - United Arab Emirates." I laughed.

This part of the country looks unhappy and unforgiving; the first people to live here tamed it over generations, and the effort was not remotely rewarding or joyful. The land is scraped and scratched by wind and ice. Small towns come along every ten miles or more. In a veritably treeless area, evergreens are allowed to grow on the edges of the town. From the train, I can see no roads into or out of the town; occasionally I can see dirty, slushy roads in between unhappy, weatherbeaten houses. Looking east, below the sun, the sky is an ashen blue.

I remember learning of how towns would compete bitterly for rail tracks to run near them. The majority of places the train stopped in seemed to claim a population numbering less than that of the train's passengers. I wonder what the towns were like a century ago - 1910.

A blind black man pulls out a guitar and begins to play in the lounge. I close my book and listen - he has a deep, gravelly voice that I found comforting. I fell asleep in the sun for an hour or so. I met the guitarist later - Storm, he called himself. He is blessed with five daughters and spends his life traveling to visit them and their children while freelancing as a singer. He told me he gave up money early on in order to find some happiness, and thought I would like Seattle very much.

I spent an hour and a half talking with Hazel. In her own words, she is "four and eleven-twelfths years old," and "has great phonetic spelling." Mawntyn. I complained of my poor cell reception, and she told me she knew a great place to buy a new phone. "Go to Seattle! They have a lot of cell phones there." I laughed. We talked about living underground and on houseboats, and about how kids have fun in the prairie towns (neither of us was very optimistic). Her parents checked on us a few times and played backgammon while we drew and imagined together. I think our conversation really lightened the mood in the car for a while - it warms hearts to see kids having a good time.

What Amtrak doesn't tell you is that in the winter, any sights worth seeing (Glacier National Park, Cascade Mountains, etc) are passed in the night. The dawn of the 14th, I was awake to see the Cascade Mountains almost pressing up on the train's windows. The train was absolutely silent, except for the irregular, beating thuds of the wheels on the track. Seeing the peaks covered in cloud and snow was eerily mysterious. I haven't been in Western mountains in years. I was so happy and excited to see the beautiful, drastic change in scenery! Thick evergreen boughs seemed wet and heavy, weighted down by dew or melting snow. The sunrise flourished briefly in the overcast sky, spreading pink clouds over the mountains. The towns here seem more alive.

We arrived in Downtown Seattle, King Station, at 10:00am on the 14th.


  1. this morning i watched a special on the travel channel about trains!! and i caught it when it was doing the west coast! so i got to see a little bit of what you're life was like! i saw the cars with the HUGE windows and it was beautiful and awesome! and a lot different from when i road Amtrak!

  2. Sounds like a neat experience! It's so rare to travel long distances by train in the US anymore, but that's one thing I've learned to appreciate living in Japan. Admittedly there simply isn't enough Japan to possibly travel 47 hours without having to loop back again, but I love how on a train you're set: bathrooms, sleeper cars (if you're going to be there long enough), food, and then you can just relax, plug into your ipod or people-watch other passengers, and enjoy the scenery. Forget the stress of having to pay attention while driving!

  3. Hey Amy! will you invite me to your blog? I've been wanting some news about JET from you for a while but have been laaazy getting to it. Postcard coming to you soon!