The Train Across the Top of America

This is a story in three chapters.



The King Street train station in Seattle is not in the best part of town. It’s near the International District and that part of the city has  been in decline for sometime. “Be careful down there,” the driver alerted me as I stepped from the bus at 3rd Avenue and Main in the middle of the afternoon.

Homeless men wrapped in blankets slept on the sidewalk. Groups of young and older men, huddled together in the light rain, drinking  from tall cans of beer in front of a convenience store and cigarette shop.

I was an hour early for my scheduled train. I waited at a tavern a block from the station. I nursed an ale and ate clam chowder at the bar. A college basketball game was on several of the TVs. I couldn’t tell you who was playing.

“You from Chicago?”the bartender asked, eyeing the credit card I had given her.  An image of the city’s skyline under the card’s numbers gave me away.

“Yes,” I said.

“Me, too. Grew up in Aurora,” she said.

“My kids were raised in Naperville.”

“I went to Naperville North High School.”

“Central,” I said.

“I love Seattle. But I’m still a Bears fan,” she said, showing me the big Chicago C on her keychain.

“Heading there the slow way. Train,” I said, as I stood to gather my backpack and jacket.

“Always thought about that,” she said.

“First time. We’ll see.”

This trip was about research, observation, and writing. I’m working on a novel that includes a significant train journey from Chicago to Seattle. My trip, albeit the reverse, was a good way to gather details. I had never traveled this far in a train. Two days. Two thousand miles across the top of America. I needed to know more, to understand it, to understand the people who travel this way—those who live far from airports and cities and sometimes far from anyone else.

I did not sleep well. Going coach was cheaper, but maybe an upgrade to a sleeper car would have been a better idea, although a friend told me it wasn’t worth it. Too cramped. The ride was quiet, even serene and the coach seats are big and roomy, but not made for sound sleep. I awaken several times—1:33AM, 2:46AM, 3:36AM, 4:48AM, 6:10AM. I washed up in the restroom and brushed my teeth. The bathrooms are clean, but small. Bigger than an airplane’s, but just as cold and hard—made of chrome and steel,  an uninviting industrial toilet is the centerpiece.

Sylvester is a retired railroad worker. He started as a laborer, went into management. “I take trains all the time,” he said. “It’s free.”

We shared a morning of coffee and eggs in the diner car with a young couple from Seattle heading for White Fish, Montana to visit family. The couple was smart, friendly. She wore a Google t-shirt with an image of the Space Needle in the background. He wore a Pints of Pasta t-shirt. It had something to do with Portland. I didn’t ask.

“I’m a Native American,” Sylvester said. “I know Montana. Beautiful in White Fish. Skiers love the area. Not a big resort. But still good. I’ve worked this area. Repaired rail here. I know these tracks.”

“What are the people like in Montana?” I asked.

“Good people. Ranchers. Smart,” Sylvester said. “I grew up on a reservation.

“My brother lives here,” the man from the couple said, “and there’s a difference in West and East Montana.”

“Wide open spaces in the East. Big country,” said Sylvester, “but it’s changing.”

“More people?” I asked.

“Yes, but something is unbalanced,” he said. “Last night a train hit a large herd of elk grazing on the tracks. Twenty three dead animals. Too many elk. And too many people pushing them into places they shouldn’t be.”

“Awful.” I said.

“Do you know what happens when a train going 60mph hits a big animal?” he asked. “They pretty much explode.”

The woman from the couple grimaced.

“Can’t even save the remains for meat,” Sylvester said.

A voice over the train speakers interrupted. “Last call for White Fish.”

The couple rushed to grab their luggage and hurry to the train doors, leaving sausage links and half-eaten toast on their plates. White Fish appeared to come up quickly. Sylvester said the train was ahead of schedule.

“Thank you for your time and the conversation,” he said, standing and offering a handshake. “I wish you good travels.”

For two hours I sat in the observation car, writing in my journal and watching Montana go by, arrow straight pines stretching tall into the snowy sky against a backdrop of steep mountains. And for miles and miles, the scene through the large window did not change. There was no cell service. No homes tucked in the hills. An occasional road could be seen, but no vehicles. Not one. Who wouldn’t want to escape here? Who wouldn’t want to find a individualized life in this wilderness?

I rested my back against the seat, placed my boots on the metal rail just below the window and waited patiently for what might come.

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