Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Second Sunday Drive, Day Two

North Dakota Ghost Town at Dawn

Прощай, Москва

I had no idea there were so many different songs that say Goodbye to Moscow, but to hear the one I try to quote below, sung by Vera Smirnova, click on this youtube link.

As the train pulled out of the Glasgow Montana station, I overheard people grumbling about being ten hours behind schedule.  Apparently we not only hadn’t made up any of the lost time, but we were falling further behind.  Quite a few people boarded at Glasgow, including a very angry father with four tow-headed boys and a very pregnant wife.  The boys were the epitome of stair-step children.  I’m sure father had reached the end of his rope trying to keep everyone calm during the extended delay.

I tried pretending to be asleep, but that did not keep the conductor from shining his flashlight in my face and telling me that I had to move.  He placed me in the aisle seat in the row ahead of where I had begun the trip, sharing the seat with a man who wasn’t pretending.  He was sound asleep.  Earlier I had heard him talking with his seatmate, a man who had taken advantage of the opportunity to change seats after space opened up in Havre.  (At Glasgow, the conductor moved him, too.)  My new seatmate I understood to be Russian with a very limited English vocabulary.

The sky lightened as we crossed North Dakota.  The scenery outside our windows showed the results of much of the same depopulation as I had noted in eastern Montana.  It also showed small fires burning in the oil fields.  Instead of fires at the tops of exhaust pipes, as I was used to seeing, these fires were at or near ground level.  I overheard many passengers commenting on the ubiquitous flames.

As we stopped at a siding between Williston and Minot, I noticed a castle turret out the side window.  Even though the light was barely suitable for photography, I grabbed my camera to record the scene.  At one time, this ghost town had a very elaborate church whose square, crenelated tower rose above the abandoned buildings surrounding it.

Overgrown and abandoned North Dakota Farm

When the dining car personnel  announced breakfast, I didn’t hesitate to get in line.  Having missed dinner the night before, I was not about to miss breakfast.  Neither breakfast nor lunch required reservations.  Seating was on a strict first come, first served basis.  The waiter placed me at a table with two women, mother and daughter, and a young man then joined us.  The women were from the South, and the young man from New Orleans.  All had traveled extensively.  In this company, I found it amusing that I was the only person at our table to order grits instead of hash browns.  I also ordered a Denver omelet and a glass of orange juice.  The food was good, but not as tasty or as attractively presented as I recalled from my trip on this same train back in 1999.  

I was beginning to get an idea of what had happened to our train.  Should you go to and look for the Empire Builder, you will find that it is listed as both train 8 and train 28.  I wasn’t sure what the difference was, but it turns out that train 8 leaves from Seattle while train 28 leaves from Portland.  They meet and merge at Spokane, and from that point on are essentially one train with two different numbers.  The young man at our breakfast table had left from Portland where the tracks were blocked by a rock slide.  Amtrak put the east-bound passengers on a bus and took them to Spokane.  At the same time, apparently a computer glitch caused a switch to open in the Seattle yard, and the east-bound train   number 8 derailed.  After determining that there was no equipment available in Seattle capable of lifting the Amtrak engine back onto the track, the company put the Seattle boarding passengers a bus as well, taking them to Spokane.  The time it took to make the decision to bus passengers instead of repairing the problem was the beginning of our delay.  (Why does it always seem to take the powers that be so much time to make what should be an immediate decision?  The tracks are blocked—by rocks or by a derailed locomotive, and we have passengers to move, so put them on a bus.  What’s hard about that?)  The next problem, adding to the delay, was that without either train 8 or 28 arriving in Spokane, there was no train on which to put the passengers arriving by bus.  They had to wait at the Spokane depot for the west bound Empire Builder to arrive and be turned around.  I presume that the west bound passengers were all bussed from Spokane on to their final destination, but that is an assumption on my part.  

Another North Dakota Ghost Town
Rock slides, derailments and the need to wait for a train to arrive explained why so many of us waited for eight hours at Whitefish, but why was the train falling further behind?  The daughter at our breakfast table had an explanation for that.  She had been told that according to the agreement Amtrak has with the commercial freight lines over whose tracks Amtrak runs, passenger trains take priority as long as they are less than two hours behind schedule.  Once they pass that magic limit, they have to sit on the siding while any approaching freight train passes by.  I take it as an encouraging sign that there are so many freight trains running these days, but we did seem to spend a lot of time sitting on sidings.  At one point in central North Dakota, the conductor made the announcement that we would be sitting still for the next fifteen minutes while freight trains passed.

Back at my seat, I found my seat mate awake and tried to converse with him.  As I mentioned above, his English was very limited—but not so limited as my Russian.  I can say “da,” “nyet,” and “dosvedanya,” but that’s about it.  There was one thing more, however.  Back in grad school I would join a group of Slavic language students who met outside Wheeler Hall every Friday afternoon to play guitars and sing folk songs, most of them in Russian.  I have an amazing memory for song lyrics, and so I started singing Russian folk songs to my seat mate.  He smiled, and joined in with some of them.  At that point, I had an urge to channel my inner Julie Andrews and get the whole train singing Russian folk songs as a way to get them over their grumbling.

Proshai, podrugu dorogaiya.  Proshai du gainskaiya sembya.
Proshai, Proshai, podrugu dorogaiya, Bog znaiet, u vishyu la tembya.

Or something like that.   I know that Proshai means  Good-bye forever, I’m going off to the gulags in Siberia, more or less, as opposed to Dosvedanya which means Good-bye, I’ll see you soon.  And the last phrase means “God knows if we’ll ever meet again.”  (Bog znaiet is God knows.)

North Dakota farm land with reflections through the train window

We crossed the Red River from Fargo to Morehead, crossing from North Dakota into Minnesota.  At some point, I had lunch in the dining car, but I don’t remember exactly where we were at the time.  My seat mates were an older couple from Rochester, New York, and a young woman who didn’t have much to say.  Although we tried to engage her in conversation, she rarely spoke more than a word or two at a time.  The husband of the couple, however, was very gregarious, and he and I talked of many things—“cabbages and kings, shoes and ships and sealing wax and whether pigs have wings.”  Well, maybe we didn’t go that far, but we did discuss the Rochester economy in light of Eastman Kodak’s collapse.  We also discussed travel by train and by ship.  We agreed that travel is always an adventure, and that there was no point in complaining about things like travel delays over which we had no control.

Night was falling by the time we reached Minneapolis, and the rest of my journey was in complete darkness.  I didn’t see any of eastern Minnesota or Wisconsin as we traversed the entire state.  At 3:00 a.m. the train stopped at the Milwaukee station, and I grabbed my bags and left the car I’d been riding in for the last thirty-five hours.  We were now thirteen hours behind schedule.  No one had boarded the train at any station since Minneapolis—at least none that I noticed—and I have to assume that they were so close to the train’s final destination, Chicago, that they found alternative means of transport rather than waiting around for a train that might never arrive.

Stepping out of the station, the air was warm and humid.  For the first time since I boarded the train in Whitefish, I felt warm.  I looked unsuccessfully for a taxi—What???  They don’t hang around the train station at 3 a.m.???  An Amtrak security guard offered to call one, but suggested that it would probably take them over an hour to pick me up.  He asked where I was going, and I told him the Ramada downtown.  He laughed, and asked me to follow him.  After walking to the end of the station, he pointed up the hill toward a red sign.  “Ramada”  My hotel was two blocks away.  I retrieved my checked baggage from the station, and walked to my hotel, where I checked in, got to my room, and slept.

And the evening and the morning was the second day.

A prosperous North Dakota farm

No comments: