Monday, February 04, 2008

Chasing Happiness

A couple of weeks ago, I overheard talk about the Whistlepigs having a CD release party on Groundhog Day. I was at a supper meeting to plan the 2008 Forget Summer Arts Festival (great supper, and I have a new resolve to get the Festival website updated, along with many other things to do, but first - first I have a story to tell). As you may have heard here, I am a great fan of the 'Pigs. Still, Minnesota is a fair distance away from here, even at the closest corner, and St. Paul is double that. I felt a brief twinge of envy towards the folks who were planning to go, and then I got on with my busy-ness.

Then came the cryptic two-line email from Fred, with the subject line "PS...", suggesting that if I caught a ride with the folks from Forget, I could stay at his place. Garth, who knew nothing about the CD release, and didn't remember a guy named Fred, found that an interesting email indeed! After we sorted that out, I got to thinking - I could meet Deb! A few messages and phone calls later, Deb was planning to come to the concert, I was scheming to get out of directing band rehearsal on the eve of Groundhog Day and playing the organ in church the morning after, Garth was resigned to his fate of taking the kids to all their activities for the weekend, and I was getting excited. I had left a somewhat awkward message on an answering machine in Forget, inviting myself to catch a ride, if that was okay . . .

Monday morning I found out that it was not. An extra passenger just didn't fit with the travel plans, and I admire those folks for saying so! I quickly withdrew my request and wished them a good holiday.

Still, there was no denying I was disappointed.

I may have a little stubborn streak somewhere.

Next thing you know, I'm checking bus schedules. I know there's a bus that runs south from Winnipeg - what was the company name, again? Found it, no, that bus gets in too late to catch the show. Maybe Greyhound? Ooh, closer, but still too late.

Train? I must be crazy. But there is that Amtrak line across North Dakota - yes, I must be insane, but, but . . .

Well, this will be a long story no matter how I tell it, so I'll cut to the chase and tell you I bought a train ticket. It was too late to have the ticket sent out to me, and the quiet little station I chose (Stanley, ND) doesn't have a ticket office, so I got a boarding code to let me buy my outbound ticket on board, and prepaid a return ticket which I would pick up in St. Paul.

Fred assured me that there would be concert tickets at the door.

Deb told me about some restaurants where we might meet.

I checked out St. Paul city bus schedules online, and printed off a map of downtown attractions like the Science Museum and the library. My train was scheduled to arrive early Saturday morning, giving me the whole day to poke around and then find my way to the vicinity of the concert. My return train departed late in the evening, so I wouldn't need to stay with Fred - I could just sleep on trains, both ways! Very efficient, I thought.

There were some minor worries, still, like whether I would have trouble at the border crossing with the brand new document requirements, and whether I could sleep sitting up, or whether I would snore. Still, things continued to come together for me. The weather forecasts for North Dakota were warmer than here, so my truck should start okay for the drive home. Ruth was willing to contort her weekend plans a bit so she could take my place as band director Friday night. Brian gave us a U.S. road atlas, which he had picked up for our summer trip planning, and I noticed the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, right next to my route to Stanley - maybe I could see some sharptail grouse on a lek!

Friday morning, things started to shift a bit. Ruth couldn't make it to the band rehearsal after all. Oh, well, they'd manage. I finished my packing, discovering a forgotten favourite T-shirt that would be perfect for comfort layering for my train-sleeping outfit, and remembering a wind-and-rain-proof shell that I could wear over top of my warmish coat if it was wet in St. Paul. I planned to leave my really warm clothes in the truck, and just carry a small backpack on the train, so when I reached the city, I could look like a local student instead of a vulnerable tourist. Which book to take for the train? I settled on Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos by Bruce Sanguin, with the striking cover design of a delicate frog, balanced on a stem, circumscribed by an expanding spiral. I had a library book I wanted to read, but having lost a library book on a plane once, I decided to leave it at home. It was James Bonnet's treatise on writing great stories, with the flaming pencil on the cover and the title Stealing Fire from the Gods. Little did I know, fire from the gods was already on its way: I would have no need to be stealing it.

Just a few things left to do - buy an inflatable neck pillow, and get some spare house keys made for Ruth and my parents.

Then came a call from Amtrak, saying there were avalanche conditions farther west, and my train had been turned back. The replacement was running about six hours late, estimated to depart from Stanley not at 8:11 p.m. as I had expected, but around 2:30 a.m. instead. Call for updates, they advised me - they didn't want me waiting in the cold.

Suddenly the thought of a quiet little station in a small town was not so appealing. Would they open it for an off-schedule train? Would there be anything open in Stanley at 2 a.m.?

A Google search for Stanley gave me a city website that was not responding, and a lot of these useless directory sites that list every named community in the nation and offer nothing but advertising. Paging through the Google results, I noticed a link for "Great American Stations." A great station? In Stanley? Intrigued, I clicked through and found a picture of a low wood-frame building beside the tracks, with a gravel parking lot in the foreground. Great, indeed. Perfect, as a simple, uncrowded place to catch a train in the daytime; but somewhat daunting as a place to wait in winter in the wee hours.

I recalculated my departure time, and called my parents to say I would come to band rehearsal after all, at least for the first part. I finished the last of my preparations, finding a neck pillow and also a slim wallet that would fit in the zippered breast pocket of my fleece jacket. I figured a person couldn't grope around there without waking me.

It occurred to me that I should clean my truck, to make sure there weren't any hayseeds for the border officials to object to. But first, since I was feeling weary enough, I lay down to get some of the rest that I had planned to get on the train.

I couldn't sleep, but I stayed flat on my bed and rested, stubbornly.

Just before dark, I cleaned the truck as well as I could without washing it and having the doors freeze shut. I checked the train status again. Now the estimate was 3:13 a.m.

At band practice, Lorraine heard my plans and declared that she hadn't been that young in a very long time. She said she knew where her prayers would be directed that night. We had a fine rehearsal, and I was given the leftover cookies to take with me. (We always have cookies at band rehearsal. If you live anywhere near here, you should come.)

When I got home, I found out the train was running even later. How could this be? Shouldn't it be making up time? With a three-hour drive between me and the station, there were too many uncertainties - road conditions, problems at the border, and always, the status of the train - and yet, I didn't want to end up shivering for hours by the tracks in Stanley.

I knew I should get some more sleep before leaving. Could I trust my alarm? I remembered a friend who is always up late. His phone was busy - tied up with his dial-up Internet connection, no doubt. I sent him an email asking him to call me at 11:30, and went to bed.

At 11:30, the estimate for the train had moved even later. My friend listened to my worries, told me I was the craziest friend he had, and agreed to call me again at 12:15.

When I answered, he said "You didn't sleep, did you." He offered to drive me down to Stanley. And pick me up again. No, said I, firmly - two trips in your gas hog instead of one in my little truck? No. We talked about places he had seen in North Dakota, like Lake Sakakawea that winds all the way from Williston to south of Minot. Finally I decided the train status seemed to have stabilized: it was time to go.

I sent an email to Deb, letting her know my train was much delayed, but since this whole thing was a crazy jaunt anyway, I was going through with it.

I left Arcola at about 1:30 a.m., feeling oddly alert. My friend had told a warning story about falling asleep behind the wheel, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that my sleepless resting had done me good. I was growing excited again, although I did calculate mileages in my head and figure out that this joyride - just the driving part of it - was equivalent to five weeks' worth of my trips to Carlyle for the kids' usual activities. Could it be worth the cost?

I took the shortest route, on the smaller roads, and I had them to myself. I didn't see another vehicle until I reached the highway near Bienfait, where the clouds from the coal-fired power plant loomed high in the darkness, lit from below. Before I pulled onto the highway, I used my cell phone to check the train status once more. It hadn't changed. I hoped that would hold, since my phone wouldn't work once I crossed the line.

I had no trouble at the border. The officer's voice had a hint of incredulity as he asked me, "Where're ya coming from?" and "Where're ya going?," but maybe it was just his way of amusing himself through the long and mostly empty hours of the night.

Speed limit 25. Oh, yes, that's like 40 where I come from. All my worrying had cost me some sleep, but it had sure etched the route map into my mind. I found my turns just like I'd been there before, and often. South of Bowbells, I noticed grassy ditches: there was almost no snow at all. A little further, the land began to roll a little and the lights of farmsteads thinned out to nothing on the west. That must be the Missouri Coteau, I thought, and Lostwood N.W.R. Not much farther now.

After a while I began to wonder where Stanley had got to. Shouldn't I see lights ahead?

It took longer than I expected, but Stanley did come into view at last. I passed an imposing brick building that must be the county seat, and then the street plunged into a railway underpass. Glancing quickly off to the sides before they rose out of view, I caught no glimpse of a station. When I emerged on the other side, I stopped right there on the empty street and craned my neck each way.

After a moment of doubt, I spotted it, just like in the picture on the Internet, except half shrouded in darkness. There were a couple of trucks parked by its wall, looking like work trucks that stayed there a lot. Other than that, the parking lot was empty.

A pay phone? Nothing obvious in view, so I pulled into the parking lot to take a look around.

I had never been at a train station before, except once in the vast marble hall of the VIA rail station in Regina, where I found out that I had misunderstood the departure time of 12-something a.m., and come to catch the train a day late. That was years ago. VIA doesn't run through Regina anymore, and that great station is a casino now.

Next to the parking lot, chained off from it, was a lighted area of concrete level with the tracks. I guessed that might be the place to board. From there I followed a narrow gravel walkway between the tracks and the station building. There were some lights in an office, but no-one inside; and beyond that, a door, through which I saw a lighted waiting area.

The door was open, and the interior was warm. With rising confidence, I strode past empty ancient benches of wrought iron and green-painted wood, around a corner and down a silent hallway, following the signs to the ladies' room. Reckless, maybe, for a woman alone, but I needed that room.

Later I explored the waiting area. There was a bit of literature and signage, but not so much as a note to tell me the status of my train. I found some baggage tags and learned that even my carry-on bag should have one. I made a trip out to my truck for a pen. Still there was no-one around.

Walking back to the building, I heard a whistle off to the east, and saw lights begin to gleam along the rails. I had barely stepped inside the waiting room when the freight roared by, shaking the walls and the ground, cars flashing and gone again at the window. Catching my breath, I realized that I had never been so close to a moving train. Well, sure, I'd ridden antique steam trains at low speeds in heritage parks, a couple of times. This was as different as my truck from a tricycle.

When I got bored and walked outside again, there was a car in the lot, and I could see a woman around my age, talking on her cell phone. I longed to ask her whether the train status had changed in the last few hours, but I thought she might be frightened if I approached her car. I walked past, nodded at her, and she smiled. I continued onto the bridge over the underpass, so I could look down the street. What would a pay phone look like, here in North Dakota?

Back in the waiting room, I tried out the benches, and let my gaze wander over the details of the room. It was old, and worn in places, but not uncared for, painted a neutral shade on the wallboard panels (asbestos?) and green on the wood trim. Outside I had noticed neat and solid modern metal roofing. Still, there were signs of frustration, literally: the office door had stick-on lettering that said "SECTION HEADQUARTERS / IF THERE EVER WAS," and above that someone had added with a marker the prefix "EX." There was a piece of equipment on a counter, with lights to indicate "charging," "fully charged," and "defective." That last one was the one that was lit.

I noticed a dark beige plastic box high on the wall, with a slim cable coming to it, and below it, a rectangular section of wall that had missed out on the most recent coat of paint. I had found my pay phone, or the traces that were left of it.

A woman stepped into the waiting room, saw me, and asked "Do we know the time yet?" I assured her of my ignorance. She told me she was going for a large coffee - would I like one? - and not to let the train leave.

I was outside again when she returned, and we could hear a whistle in the distance, this time from the west. She and her daughter went inside, while I waited and watched. The whistle came closer; light gleamed along the rails, and then the triangle of headlights came into view. At first I imagined the train was slowing, but then suddenly it was blazing at me. A freight! The thought hardly formed in my head before the wind blasted in my face and the engines roared by. I stepped a little further from the tracks, fearing flying objects, and marvelling at the enormous momentum of the train.

"You survived that!" she grinned at me, when I stepped back into the waiting room. I found a bench and let her conversation with her daughter wash over me. She was going to Minneapolis, picking up a brother-in-law along the way, and staying for a while to help him find his way in the big city. He had been a farm boy all his life, she said, and didn't know how to be safe in such a place. Now his wife was in hospital there.

I wondered if I knew how to be safe in St. Paul.

Our train came at last, a great tall silvery thing, with windows far above us. The conductor sorted out which three of the four women before him were boarding, and sent us on. Every bit of it was new to me: the vestibule with racks for baggage, and nearly hidden in a corner, the narrowest stairway I had ever seen, but quite comfortable to climb, turning twice and bringing us out on a dimly lit aisle above, where there was seating just like on a Greyhound bus, only far roomier. Hesitantly, I chose a seat rather close to the woman who had waited in her car, but not too near, so as not to seem pushy. The other woman had disappeared somewhere behind me.

The train was rolling. The conductor appeared and started the paperwork for the woman near me. I dug out my boarding code and ID and waited. Another man spoke to me from behind, asking if I was buying my ticket on board, and turned away, saying he would let the conductor take care of that. I didn't get a good look at him, but he was one of those people who just feels comfortable and reassuring - not too tall, wearing some sort of uniform, but instead of the fancy hat that the conductor wore, this man had a toque.

I signed for my ticket, took my receipt, and settled in. The woman near me appeared to be a seasoned traveller, pulling out a blanket and getting comfortable, but I was happy with my own preparations. My loose-fitting cotton clothes were perfect, my neck pillow yielded gently with the rocking of the train, and my fleece jacket kept me cozy while my warmish outer jacket covered my legs. The other passengers were quiet, the lights were dim, and I slept.

I was vaguely aware of a couple of stops, but I knew we had a long way to go before I should worry about missing mine. I did take notice when a young man took the seat across the aisle from me. He deposited his things and went off somewhere, leaving me to observe with fascination his bundle of diamond-willow walking sticks, some beautifully finished, others in various stages of carving. A dream-catcher dangled from the bundle.

He returned, arranged a couple of pillows that he got from the train car attendant, and went to sleep.

Somewhere along the way, I went for breakfast. In the dining car, I was seated with two men, one a nervous-looking man about my age, the other older, personable, questioning the first about his journey through the mountains to get to this train. When avalanche conditions had stopped his train at Whitefish, the passengers had been loaded onto buses - three buses, full - and driven around to Havre, to meet the train we now rode towards the east. As his story unfolded, I learned why our departure time had grown steadily later. The buses were caught in a snowstorm on mountain roads. To make matters worse, in the bus our dining partner rode, the defrost was not working, and he and other passengers stood up next to the driver and wiped the window with whatever cloths they could find. He saw the driver talking on a cell phone, trying to find out how to fix the defrost, holding a flashlight and looking down at the controls while discussing the problem, and still driving all the while through the storm. At one point, the driver gripped the wheel and said, "Oh my God, I can't see!" They stopped briefly, and when they tried to start again, the bus slipped sideways. Backing up cautiously, the driver got them back on the road.

The older man beside me laughed, gently, shaking his head. "So that's where you were when we were sitting in Havre, wondering 'Where are those buses?'!"

Mountains seemed unreal from where we sat, swaying above gently rolling fields and pastures indistinguishable from the landscape of home. The man who had survived them excused himself to retreat again to his sleeper. A woman took his place, and the man beside me quizzed her. He guessed - correctly - that she was a teacher, but he didn't get the details quite right. She taught English as a second language. We talked about the places we came from, the frustrations of politics, and the populations of hares on the prairies. Lingering over coffee after the teacher left, the older man offered advice about riding city buses in St. Paul. He thought I should take a cab rather than walking from the train station to the nearest bus stop. "How much luggage do you have?" he asked. Just a backback, I told him. "Oh, you're fine. For the daytime. But at night, after the concert, you should catch a ride or get a cab."

I paid for my breakfast, trying not to look puzzled over the all-green American money, with its one-dollar bill looking hardly any different from the five, the ten, or the twenty. Back at my seat, I discovered that I could zip the hood off my coat and use it to cover my eyes and leave my nose clear for a very comfortable doze.

The train was motionless when I heard the announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have had a crossing accident. There were no fatalities, but we have to wait until the police come so the engineer can give his statement." Gradually, over the succeeding hours of our journey, I heard bits and pieces about what may have happened. A man driving a pickup truck had not noticed the train. He would have driven right in front of it, except that he heard the whistle and turned aside a little, hitting the side of the train instead of having it hit him. No-one was hurt. The train had taken a full two miles to come to a stop.

Later, as we passengers got to know each other, we started wondering if we recalled a bit of a bump or a lurch, one that stood out from the rest of the little bumps and lurches along the way. I remembered a couple, but I couldn't be sure that either of them was the one.

The young fellow across the aisle hadn't even heard the announcement, so the whole thing was news to him when people started discussing it again. Again the train had stopped, and not at a station. The Grand Forks station was just a few hundred yards behind us, and we were enjoying a view of impossibly flat bare fields and an industrial park. Why had we stopped this time? Why was the power going on and off? Had the accident damaged the train?

Eventually they told us that the air brakes were locked up, and they were working on the engine to fix the problem, and they had to turn off the power at times in order to do that.

Bored and restless, passengers drifted into the sightseeing lounge, and traded stories. Some went downstairs to see what they could find in the snack bar. "Sorry folks," said the attendant there. "I'm shut down while the power is off."

Where I come from, nobody would turn away customers over a little problem like a power outage. That's what a pad of paper is for.

We gazed at the industrial park, and introduced ourselves to our neighbours, and shared little pieces of our lives. The dining car was serving lunch, and we wondered how they were doing it, when the snack car couldn't sell us a bag of chips. Another announcement came: they were unable to repair the engine, so they were going to change that unit out, but they had to find a place to leave it. We wouldn't be rolling again for a while yet.

The young man across the aisle from me began to realize that he wouldn't be home in time for the SuperBowl. I repeated a joke I'd heard in the sightseeing lounge: we wouldn't be home in time for the election. The woman in the seat ahead, the one who had smiled at me from the parking lot in Stanley, turned around and joined the conversation. Slowly, bit by bit, the young man's story emerged.

He had boarded the train in Rugby, a couple of stations after us. He used to ride the Greyhound, but having had enough of that, he had decided to try the train. They told him to come pick up his ticket before the station closed at 2 p.m. He had a friend drop him off, got his ticket, and settled down to wait for the scheduled departure of 10:30 p.m.

I wonder, now, why they didn't tell him when he picked up his ticket, that the train was late. Hadn't they known by then? Hadn't they phoned me around noon?

Locked out of the station, he waited in the cold. He was headed back to his home in Ohio, not just to see the football game, but to stay until winter was over and the weather warmed up. He was a painter, accustomed to spending the winters doing interior finishes on mansions in Florida. He had a girlfriend now at Turtle Mountain, and he had been content there, except that this cold was too much for him.

At 10:30 p.m. he had learned that his train wouldn't be coming until early morning. He found a bar and closed it down, but back outside in subzero temperatures, the buzz didn't last long. He considered going to the police, because he thought he was going to die.

It was mid-morning when our train finally picked him up in Rugby. Now we were sitting at Grand Forks, less than 150 miles from where he had boarded, and something like 12 hours behind schedule. The woman from the seat in front offered him a cell phone to call his family and tell them not to set out to meet his train just yet. Then she loaned him a book, one of those positive-thinking books that tend to arouse my suspicion.

Presently they backed us up slowly, past the station, across a roadway, and past a fork in the rails. Then we were still again, with the power off.

I borrowed the cell phone, too, and got only answering machines. I left a message for Garth to consider whether I could stay over an extra day, to make my trip worthwhile.

A chill began to creep inward from the windows.

Somebody said, "Hey, look, maybe that's our engine." Off to one side, we could see two train engines moving slowly, presumably the pair from our train, one dead and the other pushing it to its resting place.

Sometime later there was a little bump, and another wait, and then the power came back on. The man I'd met at breakfast, with the advice about St. Paul, sought me out, cell phone in hand. He wanted to help me. He was sure I wouldn't make it to my concert, but I was still hoping I might get there partway through and say hello. He found a printed train schedule for me, and I pored over the numbers, comparing the scheduled time for Grand Forks to the actual time now, and adding the difference to the scheduled arrival for St. Paul. Yes, I might still make it before the show ended.

As we rolled along again, an atmosphere of wry merriment rippled down the train. People traded stories of all the things they were missing - supper dates, parties, the Saturday chores the wife had planned back home. Many plans were already ruined, but at least we were rolling again.

Not for long. The train slowed, and stopped. We looked left and right, craning to see forward or back along the tracks, but saw nothing but a highway and open fields. There was a highway sign, and someone noted that we were only thirty-seven miles out of Grand Forks. What now?

From the sightseeing lounge, we watched someone walking along beside the train, duffel bag over his shoulder, just walking.

An attendant rushed through the lounge, flinging her announcement at us as she went: the operating crew had put in their maximum ten hours, and now we would have to wait about 45 minutes while they brought in a replacement crew from St. Cloud.

In response to our startled looks, she said, "You saw that man walking along the tracks? That's our engineer, walking out on us." And she disappeared into the next car.

I never found out where that engineer was going, walking away from a train on a siding between two fields. I suppose there may have been a car waiting for him, but you can't see ahead or backward from a train car, just miles and miles out to the sides of exactly where you're at.

Some of us started joking about driving the train ourselves. I got in touch with Deb, and suggested that she might meet me at the station to have a drink before I got on my return train and went home again.

We passengers traded more stories, and loaned each other books. Kari, the woman with the cell phone, exclaimed over my book, saying "Frogs come into my life," and writing down the title. I don't remember when it was, but the three of us, Kari and I and the young man across the aisle, got talking philosophy. Kari mentioned a woman from First Class who had ranted over breakfast about how the seven hour delay was preposterous, and more or less complained through the whole meal before retreating to her sleeper again. Kari noted how her own tendencies had changed over time, and now instead of taking a sleeper, she liked to ride in coach and meet people. She tried not to complain, but to be positive, thus bringing more positive into her own life. The young man dug into the book she had loaned him, trying to find where it had said something just like that. I sat back quietly and wondered why those ideas bother me. True, there is power in positive thinking, but isn't there also a need for willingness to face the suffering of others, other humans and other living things? Isn't that what Christ was teaching - a willingness to go where the suffering is worst, and walk right into it if necessary? When does positive thinking cross the line into denial?

Bit by bit, the young man across the aisle told more of his life story, full of betrayal and loss, of suffering on the part of those who have no say, of demands placed on those who have no responsibility, and yet there is no-one else to serve. It was much too personal to repeat the details without his permission.

I never learned his name.

Kari and I listened with growing sympathy and concern. There was really nothing we could do but listen; there was no help or advice to give, just momentous choices that he must face alone.

Finally Kari said, softly, "And I thought you were just a guy going home to watch a football game."

And I thought I had troubles, missing everything I'd come for. It was only a weekend, after all.

The 45 minutes stretched out to something more like an hour and a half. I had to admit that my growing fear was correct: I might not reach St. Paul before my return train left.

Finally our train started moving, and then the announcements started flying. The new conductor would be walking through the train, answering questions. A special Amtrak team would be boarding the train in St. Paul to help sort out connections. Meanwhile, they were calling the First Class passengers to the dining car, and soon they would be calling the rest of us, car by car, for a complimentary supper. Before they finished speaking, the train was rocking hard, making up time.

We were sixteen hours behind schedule.

I borrowed the cell phone again, talking to "Julie," Amtrak's automated agent, trying to find out what I should do. I wanted to take charge of my situation, to do what I had to, to be sure I got on my train for home. The previous conductor had advised me not to get off this train early, because none of the stations would be open. But there was no question now about catching my train in St. Paul: it was impossible.

I got past Julie to a human, and tried to get her to help me. My ticket was waiting in St. Paul, but I needed it a station ahead, in St. Cloud. By this time, our car had been called for supper. I was seated across from the other woman from Stanley and her brother-in-law with the wife in hospital. I apologized for talking on the phone over dinner, and she assured me that I should do what I had to do. She turned to her brother-in-law, telling him I was the one she had told him about, the one who had missed everything.

I broke down. Tears streaming, I argued with the hapless Amtrak agent, gradually realizing that there really was nothing she could do to help me, and she was right - I needed to talk to someone on board. A delicious supper of stew and mashed potatoes had appeared in front of me, and I was struggling to eat it between questions and answers and sniffles and quiet sobs. At another table, I could see Kari, conversing cheerfully, and I felt awful for my little scene. Everyone else was in the same boat, or worse; why was I so upset?

My dining partners left, apologetically, but they were finished and there were others waiting to dine. I hung up the phone and finished my meal, and then set out to find the conductor.

He was a slim, quiet man with eyes partly hidden by his shiny hat brim and glasses. I told him my trouble, and at first he reassured me that the Amtrak team would be boarding in St. Paul, but he stayed attentive as I calmly informed him that I would have missed my return train by then. He promised to write me out a ticket so I could catch it in St. Cloud instead.

Once more I borrowed the phone, and left a message for Deb saying I was sorry for dragging her out of the woods and not showing up myself. I asked her to say "Hi" to Fred and the Whistlepigs for me.

I had a passing train car attendant change my seat check tag from "St. Paul" to "St. Cloud," so they would know to alert me for my stop. Then I slumped in my seat to wrestle with my hurt feelings. I didn't want to be like this. Others were cheerful. I wanted to be strong and gracious.

The young man across the aisle offered that if he were me, he'd blow a gasket. He'd demand his money back.

I didn't know what to say.

As we rolled into St. Cloud, I tried to be in the moment, to just appreciate whatever was in front of me right then. Out the window arose a mountain of logs, higher than a house and longer than a city block. Behind it was another one, and then another. Neat stacks of tree corpses.

Next came a vast and reeking mill, blocking all the light with its steel wall towering right against the tracks, a blank of darkness that dragged on for many seconds, only to be followed by an eerie yellow-lit alley crossed by huge pipes.

And then they were telling us to prepare for our stop, and that there would actually be two stops, because it was a briefing point for the new crew, even though they were already on the train. If we walked ahead in the train, we could get off at the first stop, or if we waited in the rear it would be another ten minutes. I decided to walk ahead.

As I packed up my things, I noticed the CD I had brought for Deb - a Fire Lily CD from way back in 2001, not good enough for my ears anymore, but I had thought she might enjoy a few of my songs anyway. Suddenly I wanted Kari to have it, as a small token of appreciation for all her help with the cell phone, her gentle listening, her sharing about her family and her interest in environment, all the things we had in common. But Kari was asleep.

She was curled up across two seats, peaceful. I could see her bag open in front of the window seat. Could I lean over and drop the CD into it? What if she wakened, startled, suspicious?

The young man was sleeping, too, but he stirred and opened his eyes. I started to ask if he could give it to her, but no, I realized, he was going on to Chicago, and he might be sleeping when she got off. Never mind, take care, I waved at him, wretched. I wished I could give him something, too - something much more than an out-of-date CD of clumsy folk songs. He would be needing more than that.

Downstairs in the vestibule, the man I'd met at breakfast caught my eye across the knot of passengers waiting to detrain, and gave me a startled look. Outside, he learned of my decision, and shook his head. "You didn't even get to meet your friend," he said, and I told him, no, and I didn't get to give her this, either - do you want it? "What is it?" he asked, and took the CD, seeming delighted, giving me his card in return. Then he asked if I drank wine - no - or beer? He had his car, he could take me just around the corner and bring me back in ten minutes. It was just that he was sorry I'd missed my concert.

I thanked him but told him I wanted to just go in the station and sit. And I did.

The building was much like the one in Stanley, but instead of wooden benches there were molded fiberglass seats, each one with its own separate arms, all mounted in rows on steel frames. Nothing you could lie down on. I noticed that some of the seats were up against a wall, where I might lean my head back, but those seats faced away from the front of the station, so I couldn't watch for my train.

I realized that if I had waited in the rear of the train, I would have had ten more minutes to sit in comfort, ten fewer minutes to sit in this place.

It was now about 10 p.m., and my train would be coming at 12:40. Had I ever been so tired? How would I endure the hours of waiting? How would I stay awake? There was another couple waiting, but they were waiting for their son to pick them up. There was a man working in the office, but he soon closed up and walked outside. I followed him to ask whether someone would be coming inside when the next train came. If I fell asleep waiting, would someone wake me?

He assured me that, since this was a crew change point, the new engineers and conductors would be here well ahead of the train, and they would notice me and wake me if I were sleeping.

The other couple waiting talked with me a little. Their son wasn't answering his phone. "He lives on his phone," said the father, perplexed. The son had said something about leaving a car for them, but they had been dubious about that, because it wasn't a very good part of town. They peered out windows, checked around outside, sat and talked some more. Now that everyone had left, they couldn't use the phone in the office anymore. Suddenly the man jumped up. "Why does that say 'Phone'?" I swivelled to see what he was looking at, and realized that the magazine rack behind me was formerly a pay phone cabinet, now just a shelf with the phone gone, but the lettering still there.

I couldn't converse anymore. I crossed to the small area of thin, hard carpet by the doors, and stretched out on it, with my back against a wall, my head close to an office door, my backpack protecting my head, and my feet stretched out beyond the carpet onto the cold concrete. The carpet and the wall weren't much warmer. I spread my coat over my legs, but soon shifted it to cover my trunk, to keep from shivering. I laid my glasses in front of my face, put my zipped-off coat hood over my eyes, and dozed.

The doors opened and two young men strode by me, glancing down with surprise, but moving on into the station where the couple welcomed them. All of them left together, and I dozed some more.

Again the doors opened, and a voice said, "Look what we have here," as slim uniformed legs disappeared into the office.

Once more the doors opened, and a tumult of young men poured through. Were they a bunch of friends? A team? Alumni of a team? The room was suddenly boisterous with testosterone. I stood myself up, rearranging my glasses and coat to their proper places, blinking and leaning against the wall, straightening up since it wasn't a good place to lean, with a framed poster behind me, leaning again, straightening again.

One of the men said something about "seven of us" going to Devil's Lake. I counted, slowly, confirming my suspicion that there were more than seven in the room.

The office door opened again. The uniformed man had shed his warm coat. Very tall and slender in a well-fitting black uniform, with curly black hair and dark eyes, he moved briskly and boldly out among the young men, who now looked short and drab in their casual clothes. I was half dead, and still I was stunned.

He sorted out boarding arrangements for the group. They wanted to remove one name and add another. I watched, blankly. The conductor turned slightly and said, "Are you the one going to Stanley?" I stared, blankly. "Stanley?" he said again.

I may have mumbled something as I moved forward and took the blue seat check tag he held out. I turned it over, curiously, realizing that it was just like the one the conductor on my last train had given me to use as a ticket. Like that one, this was marked "STN" for Stanley, except that the writing on this one was more elegant.

The young men were taking their first ever ride on the train, and they plied the conductor with questions. He explained what to do, where to have their luggage, what would happen when the train came in, and how he would call them to board. I listened in, knowing most of it already, but comforted to hear it laid out.

As the train came in, one of the men turned to me and asked if it was my first time too. I said yes, but then he asked where I was going and I explained that I was going back home. "Oh!" he said, "you lied to us!" I laughed a little, shaking my head. It was all one trip now.

I might have been feeling a little more confident than I had been at 5 a.m. the previous morning, except that this time the train was on the far side of a set of three tracks. I watched closely as the conductor crossed to it, talked to someone, and then turned back towards us. "Board!" he called, beckoning, and we trailed out across all the pavement and rails. His voice followed us inside the car, telling us about the luggage racks and the stairs to our left. The young men wondered if they should keep their bags with them, and I was too tired to explain that it was up to them, whether to leave some on the racks below or not. They dragged everything with them, following me up the stairs, spreading out in the nearly empty car, each of us taking two seats. I had turned toward the rear of the car, knowing that in the cars I'd seen on the other train, the forward seats had been reserved for groups and couples. Not that it had mattered; I had chosen a "parties of two" seat in my uncertainty in the dim aisle at 5 a.m., and no-one had objected. Anyway, the young men took seats all around me, and started talking about their classic car restoration projects and their parties. I heard beers popping. Someone snored in the seat in front of me.

The train started moving. A smell arose and strengthened in the car. "It reeks," said one of the men. "The thing's on fire!" I was thinking the same thing, sitting straight up, wondering where to go, what to do. The conductor had not appeared, and there was no attendant in sight. The smell stayed, but didn't seem to strengthen anymore, and I remembered the reeking mill. Maybe that was all it was. The mill came in sight.

The train slowed, and stopped.

I wondered if this was just another check, related to the crew change.

The power shut off, leaving only the glow from the battery lights in the stairway.

"Oh, sh*t!" I said, audibly.

"This isn't good," said one of the young men, but I was thinking: not again. Not this train too. It's me. I'm sorry!!

It didn't matter. I was on a train facing west. I'd get to Stanley sooner or later. I curled up across the two seats, tucking my coat around me, arranging my seat check tag in my hand where the conductor would surely see it, and closed my eyes.

Later, rocking along again, I heard an announcement that we were about an hour behind schedule, since they'd had to work on the air brakes at St. Cloud.

The seat check tag was still in my hand. I could see one dangling from the luggage rack above me, and I silently thanked whoever had written a new one rather than disturb me by drawing the tag from my fingers.

Later still, stirring around to find a new sleeping position sitting up, I noticed the conductor coming along the aisle with his flashlight, saying "Devil's Lake, five to seven minutes." Just past my seat, he turned back and repeated this. "Did you hear me?" Then his hand was on my shoulder, shaking me gently. "Devil's Lake."

I guess I was more forgettable than he was.

"I'm at Stanley," I called feebly to his retreating back, but he was waking more of the young men, my voice lost among their questions.

I waited for them to leave. I had hatched a little plan to tuck my "STN" tag up in place of the erroneous one for Devil's Lake. As the tumult of testosterone faded down the stairs, an attendant swept by, clearing the Devil's Lake tags. I waited for quiet in the car, then tucked my elegantly written tag in place, wondering if I had it right, since it didn't seem to hold very well. No matter, I still had a spare one in my pocket. Dragging my fingers through my hair, I set off toward the dining car for breakfast.

I dined with a couple from Williston, on their way home from visiting a sister in some place I didn't recognize or remember. We talked about the lack of snow, and how they had a four-wheeler derby at Williston instead of a snowmobile derby. He knew of the Moose Mountains.

Back at my seat, I daydreamed about the conductor coming by and recognizing me, realizing his mistake at Devil's Lake. I imagined him apologizing, asking about my turn around in St. Cloud, sitting down beside me to listen.

His voice came over the speakers, announcing a crew change in Minot. He told us about the extended stop for a scheduled check of the train, and how they would try to get it done more quickly to make up some time. He told us there were soda machines in the station, and pay phones.

I wondered about going to a pay phone, to tell Garth what had happened, since my last message to him had been about whether I might stay over an extra day. Had he tried calling Deb to find out? Was he worrying about me? But I didn't know what change the phones would take, or where I might get it. Still, if I went into the station, I might get to see that conductor one more time.

I stayed on the train.

I heard someone asking a family member whether he had had a chance to get cleaned up a little. It occurred to me that I might do that, too. Exploring a little on my last trip to the bathrooms, I had discovered a bathroom labelled "changing room," with an extra space with a little bench in it, and another room labelled "dressing room," with two stools before a counter with two sinks. There I sat and brushed my teeth in comfort, secure on the stool instead of bracing against the rocking of the train. In the changing room, I traded the comfortable clothes I had dozed and lived in for the past day and a half for a slightly less comfortable but much better smelling outfit.

As I came back upstairs, I saw steep banks next to the tracks. More sandhills? I had been delighted with a glimpse of sandhills somewhere farther east, but these turned out to be cut banks where the tracks crossed through the upper reaches of a coulee before emerging onto the plains above.

Out on the plains, the view stretched only a little way, before it was swallowed in fog.

An attendant stopped in the aisle, looked at my seat tag, and asked if anyone had come for my ticket. I gazed at him, mouth open, fearing for a moment that after all this way, I was going to have trouble about my right to be there. Awkwardly, prompted by his questions, I explained what had happened, and that I had never actually had my ticket, since it had been waiting for me in St. Paul. Understanding, nodding, he finished my explanation for me: "So they just told you to get on, and let's go," and then he was walking away up the aisle.

Not long after, a uniformed man - a conductor, perhaps? - in a toque, not too tall, stood before me and told me we would be in Stanley in a few moments. I gathered my things, accustomed to the drill now, and went downstairs.

In the vestibule, the attendant who had asked about my ticket was waiting to one side, and the man in the toque was at the doorway on the other, with the window open, watching for something as we rolled into the station. The attendant looked at me suddenly and said, "Sorry about your weekend!" I smiled wryly and said, "Well, I got to find out what it's like to ride the train."

"Yes," he said, "and ride it, and ride it . . ."

"And sleep on the station floor for a few hours, and ride it some more," I finished, laughing.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the conductor, if that's what he was, slowly turning away from the window to look at me.

Then there was a voice from outside the train, saying "You don't have any on here," as we rolled to a stop. "Yes, but I have one off," said the conductor. I felt sorry that they had to stop just for me.

Then the door was open, and the little yellow stool was placed on the ground in front of it, and the conductor was telling me to watch my step. "Thank you," I said, planting one foot on the stool and the next well beyond it, striding away, past the caretaker on the platform, around the end of the chain and into the parking lot, heading for my truck. The caretaker asked if someone was meeting me or if I had a vehicle, and I pointed ahead, not looking around. But as I opened the door, I saw the train rolling away, with a window still open, and the conductor in the toque, watching me.

The tall dark one I may remember for a while.

The not-too-tall one in the toque, I will hope to meet again.

I started the truck immediately, and then turned to the task of scraping thick frost off the windows. Suddenly I turned and waved at the caretaker. He waved back, then understood and stopped his truck.

"Can you tell me where there is a pay phone?" I asked.

He looked at me significantly, and gesturing with his hands for emphasis, declared, "There is not a pay phone in this whole town."

I drove around looking for gas, and found some down towards the south end of town. Coming back north, as I emerged from the railway underpass, I noticed a phone-shaped symbol on top of a wooden booth with glass panes. I craned to look at it. I couldn't be sure, but from the shadowless outlines of the glass, I'd have to guess that the booth was empty, its phone long gone.

Driving north in the fog, I thought about Lostwood. If I saw a sign, I decided, I would stop.

I saw several signs, but mostly they were just signs in the corners of fences, with no access trails, or if there was a trail, it was gated and locked. I was struck, though not surprised, by the the thick stand of smooth brome grass (an invasive introduced species) that spread behind the first sign. Idled land, I thought. The worst thing you could do to it.

Later I saw another "Lostwood" sign in front of an area of extremely short grass. Well, that's more like it, I thought. They must be grazing that parcel.

Then, off in the fog, I saw an observation tower. A trail led towards it, but I could see that it was gated off, less than halfway to the tower. I backed the truck onto the highway again, and carried on.

Just a bit farther, I saw one more "Lostwood" sign, this one more imposing than the rest, with an open gravel road next to it. I drove in, and found a small office/public building, and the start of the auto-tour trail, marked "Open May to September." Next to the trail was a large display board, with information about prescribed burning, and racks of brochures. I read about the burning, looking past the display to the hills draped with smooth brome, and wondered how much success they were having with it. I wondered if that very short grass area I'd seen was actually a recent burn. I remembered a conference presentation by a man from North Dakota, about successes with brome grass control on public lands, but that had been using grazing, hadn't it?

I turned my truck around and drove away from Lostwood, drove on towards Bowbells and lunch. But at Bowbells, I didn't feel hungry yet, and there didn't appear to be much of a place to eat, anyway. I munched a package of M&Ms and sipped at a Pepsi I'd bought on the train. Caffeine and sugar, to keep me awake. At the border, the officer looked at my ID, and asked "Any purchases?"

"Half a can of Pepsi?" I offered.

"Have a good day," he said, walking away.

At the first high ground, I tried the cell phone. Garth asked where I was, and asked if I would be stopping to see anything. "What's to see?" I asked, puzzled. He hadn't realized that "north of Northgate" meant I was already in Canada, almost home. He said they would wait lunch for me.

Near Alameda, I watched a golden eagle take flight when I slowed for a better look at him, feeding on something out in the field. It was the best sight of my whole trip.

I came into the house, and Ruth was talking, eagerly, telling me all about their curling competition from the day before. James was in the bathroom. Rather than waiting, I decided to go across the street to Brian's to use his bathroom. My own family hadn't asked for my story yet, but I told it to Brian. When I returned, lunch was still waiting, because James was still in the bathroom and Garth was finishing changing the oil in the car before we ate. Ruth talked curling all through the wait and into lunch. I heard every detail, how they beat out a good team, and an excellent team, and then lost to a team of people that had never curled before. How the games developed, how the deciding shots went, what nicknames their skip earned with his frenetic sweeping of opposing rocks as soon as they crossed the tee line, right out the back of the house, again and again. Garth watched me, quietly, and still Ruth talked. James chimed in occasionally from behind the bathroom door.

Finally Garth asked me how my trip went. I suggested that my story should wait until everyone came to the table.

Somewhere during the telling, I found out that Garth had not checked his voice mail at all. It was perhaps an hour after I got home, as my story unfolded, that he first learned that I had not even set foot in St. Paul.

He was apologetic, disappointed, wishing he had known, because he would have encouraged me to stay over.

Who knows? Maybe Amtrak would have put me up in a hotel. Maybe Fred and the Whistlepigs would have had time to see me on Sunday. Or maybe I could have caught a ride with Deb out to her place, and then maybe there would have been a bus back into St. Paul on Sunday.

Or maybe not.

I was happy to be home.

Update: Where Credit Is Due


Jim said...

Simply breathtaking!

Your story had the hair on the back of my neck standing on end.

This should be produced as a play.

I've had similar experiences traveling with Amtrak, and the Greyhound buses are much worse!

I still love riding the trains but I'm amazed at how much America looks like a Third World Country from the windows of our rail and bus sytems.

Thank for for writing this all down, maybe I can finish my little story about my November train trip now.

I'm glad you're home safe and sorry you missed meeting Deb & The Whistlepigs.

arcolaura said...

Thanks Jim! Glad you enjoyed it. I'm curious - which parts were breathtaking?

I'm looking forward to the rest of your train story.

I hear from Deb that she enjoyed the concert and got reconnected with several old friends there, so that was a good thing. I don't regret the trip, really - I got to meet so many people, and encounter so much that was new to me. The Whistlepigs will be in Forget again this summer, and Deb said she might even consider coming along!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Just wow. What an adventure and what a great telling of it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Amtrak (I wonder if any of their representatives might come across this). But I couldn't stop reading... it sounds like it was very trying, but that you went out looking for a journey and you found it. Too bad you didn't find the destination, but so it goes. Cheers.

arcolaura said...

Thank you - so it goes, indeed. Recently I have been intrigued by the theme of an experience that you wouldn't volunteer for or choose, but that makes you much richer nonetheless. I guess I got one!

Deb said...

I finally made the time to read this (at work, heehee). Well worth the wait! I loved your descriptions of the passengers, the details of the places, and your own reactions to situations. Now I know what you were going through on your end!

arcolaura said...

Thanks Deb! Since I've been thinking about screenwriting, I'm delighted that Jim suggested producing this as a play, but as you noted, much of it is descriptive, my internal responses, and I have trouble imagining the story as a play, or even (wild dream) on screen. It would be a very different animal.

Deb said...

I forgot to add...The Hermit used to live in Stanley, ND! He was working as a tribal biologist for the Three Affiliated Tribes near Lake Sakakawea. That was about 20 years ago, and he said the town was like something out of the 1950's then.

arcolaura said...

I noticed the same thing - the towns look old. Not '50s, maybe, but definitely lagging. Which is fine with me! But it surprised me, because I've heard stories about the immediate contrast as you cross the line, going south, and there is so much more business activity and marketing etc. Not so between Saskatchewan and North Dakota! I did hear that there is an oil boom around Stanley - Kari said the convenience store was selling lunches to workers at 4:30 a.m., and around 6 a.m. it would be packed with people.

DocRoss said...


Thank you for sending this to me this weekend. I had no idea what trials and tribulations you endured trying to hear our concert. All I had heard was that you had train trouble and had to turn around in St. Cloud. Was that ever and UNDERSTATEMENT!

This was a great account of a tortuous journey. I'm moved that you would go through so much in an attempt to come hear our little band.

Say hi to all our dear friends up there for me,

Ross Willits--The Whistlepigs

arcolaura said...

Thanks Ross - I hesitated to say anything about this adventure to any of you, because it would sound over the top, like I wanted someone to feel sorry for me. But now that some time has passed - and I have your CD at last - now I'm just grateful for the adventure and the story I got out of it.

I'll pass your greeting along.

Joel Olson said...

Hi Laura,

I cannot believe what you endured trying to make it to our show! Like Ross, I didn't really know all the details of your train trip, and I was stunned when I finally got the chance to read your account.

Thank you for sending the link through our website; I received a forwarded copy of your email from Ross, and although my computer quarantined the message, I was able to retrieve it and read the circumstances of your unforgettable journey.

And I thought driving to Forget in one day was taxing...

The road to Saskatchewan, at least in the summer, has never been as challenging as yours was to St. Paul on Ground Hog's Day. In fact, our time on the road is usually kind of boring, but I loved being back in Forget a few weeks ago, and enjoyed having time to visit with you, Garth and your kids--and thanks again for the copy of your cd.

You've paid your traveling dues and I hope your next trip to the states is less nightmarish.

All my best,

Joel Olson

Anonymous said...

You are a good writer

Anonymous said...

You are a good writer