Steaming Through the American Flats

By: Dan Trew

Dan Trew-First Image MW

My first real train ride occurred with much less fanfare in my head than those commuter trains I had been riding so far. With my bulky bag checked, I carted myself over towards the sleeping car that would be my home for the next few days. My initial thoughts were “this is cozy.” Not in a disparaging way, but in a perfect size for what I needed way. I plopped down in one of the facing bed/chairs and tackled the most pressing issue first: taking off my shoes, which was a delightful bit of business.

With my feet free from their utilitarian oppressors, I was set to figure out the little bits of my new home. The number of little pull tabs and buttons delighted my inner four-year-old. I checked the function of everything I could find; switching my lights from day to night, to off, to day, to night, and back again to day, twisting the temperature control knob and deciding that it did less than nothing to the air temperature entering the room, fighting awkwardly with the reclining bars on my seat, and trying in vain to tuck away the curtains so that I could maximize my view. About the only thing I did not fiddle with in my fit of experimentation was the call attendant button. I may be a small child at heart, but I do not mess with that.

It did not take long for me to become properly settled into a comfortable position. My first actual train meal wasn’t for several hours, so I had no reason to move around too much. I was also keenly aware that as the light faded, I would have plenty of time to read and do things that precluded looking out my moving window to the world. So look out I did. Infill is not as intrinsically interesting as a natural wonder, but it does provide for adequate reflection that just outside of my self contained world, was an entire landscape of people moving about their day-to-day while I was leaving every aspect of that behind. I would catch 3-4 second glimpses of life transpiring: people pulling into and out of drive ways, a group huddled and preparing to fix a flat tire, kids leaving school, driveways in mixed states of plowed and people attending them, and a menagerie of other routines.

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Slowly the suburban landscape filtered out into longer tracks of farm land and fields. The world was comprehensively flat. Not in the same awe inducing nothingness that is West Texas, but definitely the Midwestern flair that gives flat some character. The odd rolling hill or carved river bank being thrown in to keep cartographers honest. Light fades fast when there are no obscuring mountains. It was a little surprising to see the world change from the golden hues of sunset to just plain dark in a matter of moments.

I had chosen my dinner reservation to be just a little after sunset. Assuming that I would not be able to see anything, I might as well go eat. My first dining companion was on his way to North Dakota to begin a season working in the oil fields. Our conversation was stolen between bites of steak and mouthfuls of chicken, and as my partner had a sizable head start of his meal I was soon left by myself to finish dessert.

I returned to my room and prepped my accommodations for the sleeping configuration. My two reclining seats folded down further and met together to form a spacious bed. During the day, I had kept my room temperature set to cool things down as the sun was directly shining into my window. As night fell, I tracked the outside temperature to slightly negative degrees. I figured this would be a good time to turn the heat on. A few hours into my evening, I was wide awake and moderately cold. My air vent was trickling a tepid flow into my room, not nearly enough to counter the freezing cold that was radiating from my window. I raided the top bunk of its blankets and put on my jacket.

Waking to the very flat light emanating from the eastern horizon, I looked out upon the continued expanse that was the last bit of North Dakota. Within a few hours I was in the boundary of Montana, not that I would’ve been able to tell the difference at that point. It would be several hours yet before I would get a hint that I was no longer in the same, slightly rolling but mostly dead flat, region of the country.

My breakfast was spent in the company of a nice German lady who previously worked as a programmer for the government, but now does abstract art and travels for a living. She proved to be much more vocal and also greatly wanted to share her positions on everything from the definition of art to ISIS. A much more entertaining dining guest she was.

After my morning dose of all things opinion, I found my way to my home at the back of the train. Once there, I elected to spend the day gazing out upon the world through my window. Smaller towns entered and exited, but by in large, the biggest actor on my stage was the expanse of thin, windblown snow. It covered the world outside in a veneer of white.

By the time lunch rolled around, I was sufficiently satisfied with spying on the seemingly endless array of small farming establishments and curiously developed suburbs. My meal companions this time around were still oil field workers, only they were headed home instead of to work. Following my meal, I whiled away the time enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of train travel.

Dan Trew-Third Image MW

When the first mountains started to peak up over the horizon, the Sun was stretching towards them. By the time my metal home reached the foothills, the sun had descended well past the tops of the peaks, and darkness had settled across the plains. My crossing of Glacier National Park was made in a complete night, and while the sky was a deep black, the mountains had a slightly lighter tinge of grey from the snow.

A number of hours later, a conductor politely knocked at my door and let me know my stop was only a couple of minutes away. I packed up my things and prepared to end the first segment of my rail adventure.

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