Amtrak ‘Empire Builder:’ Willison ND to Whitefish MT


Williston to Wolf Point
Crossing America’s northern frontier–North Dakota into Montana–calls for musical reinforcement, something significant to underscore the journey. I search through my iPod for Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”–I feel that’s appropriate–but come up with nothing, I was sure I had it. I skip through and settle on “This is Not America”–Bowie–instead. It’s not quite right but it will do.

Sprawled out in a nearly empty carriage, I keep my attention outside and wonder what’s out there.

Car dumps. Abandoned school buses. Baptist church van. Frozen lakes. Wooden huts–huts in the middle of nowhere.

Barely any time passes before we cross into Montana. The time flips backwards one hour and the key change in the song gives me chills.

First time in a long time using train travel and I have to adjust myself to the change. Air travel calls for a neatness–filing yourself into designated spots, formality and stiffness. The train is casual–I slouch across two seats, my things spread all around me.

The music lurches schizophrenically to “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
Wolf Point to Glasgow

A brief stop at Wolf Point–not long enough to snap a precise picture of the <em>Dare to Stay off Drugs</em> flying proudly next to Old Glory and the Montana state flag.

Lunch with two strangers in the dining car; both on three day long cross country train journeys–one to visit family in Phoenix, the other hopeful of finding work in Sacramento. The recession is the fourth presence at the table.

Glasgow  to Malta
If the Amtrak station is indicative of the general condition of the towns they serve, then the past two have seen better days. Wolf Point and Glasgow each came into focus and appeared from the point of view of my carriage as short patches of road, a bar and a couple of shuttered restaurants. The in train guide, however, boasts that this area is in fact rich in dinosaur bones.

Chugging through this big country with PJ Harvey’s <em>Desperate Kingdom of Love</em> in my ear–a song as bare as the country.

Malta to Havre
Sad horses huddled together outside a shed.

Havre to Shelby

Beginning to take the scenery for granted, I take a walk through the carriages, into the viewing car. Stretched out on benches in front of large windows are groups of a type I haven’t seen for a long time–backpackers. Travelling in the US is a private, functional affair–it is rare to see this kind, travelling to travel, travelling with the schedules of public, ground transportation. One has an accordion he seems to remember about only in burst of music. Others around him are huddled over a college paper: “Narrative is Constantly Evolving.”

Shelby to Cut Bank

The anti-meth billboards are multiplying now.

The passenger opposite me finishes Jared Diamond. Pauses for a moment. Dives into Chomsky.


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