AWP Trek Part 5: Morning out of Montana

Almost everyone in my car has two seats to themselves, and while this might not be ideal for Amtrak’s bottom line, it’s the closest to paradise I’ll come for 39 long hours. Instead of an intimate co-sleeping arrangement with a massive gentlemen en route to North Dakota’s pipelines, I’ve made a sloppy nest of laptop playing Wes Anderson’s entire movie cannon, plastic bag pillow, jar of olives, journals, glasses, hair tie. If the olives are producing a noxious odor, I’m beyond detecting it; there’s too much competition between liquor, exposed feet, and the steady fart trumpets from people all around me. The jar of the lid captures the scent, or so I tell myself, while realizing that I was destined for train travel, with just the right amount of clueless to time the opening of the jar and the loud fork olive extraction and the messy crinkle-crinkle of my plastic bag pillow to keep rhythm with the person sneezing behind me. We are a factory of sleep disruption, and our song goes: sneeze, crinkle, fwop, tinkle tinkle, cough, click, thunk, crinkle. If the entire car hates us with the heat of a thousand suns, we earned it.

Not that we’re the only pair of dedicated sleep disruption artists. That would be disqualifying the man watching a shoot-em-up action film, speakers blaring. It’s like I’m there, in the casino, angry at Al Pacino. After the conductor comes through and kindly points out the error of his ways, the man says, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone else could hear.” It’s then that I notice the dangling cord, and consider that in this headspace, it’s just as likely that his headset had always been plugged in and the rest of us developed supernatural hearing.

The rest of the train ride is a blur. Memories include excitement bordering on hysteria at being awake for the 6:30am breakfast crowd, which was me and three other people stuffed into a single table by someone whose been angry since 1976. Everyone else was freshly hatched from the comforts of their sleeping cars, including the elderly couple arranged across from me and the surly fellow to my right. He explained that he was accused of theft the previous day when he was trying to purchase a sleeping car, and I was never able to make heads or tails of the misunderstanding, though there was nothing he said that sounded untrue. I’m also a sort to be accused of strange things when in the company of people who brag about being normal and can never consider the shifty-eyed disposition might emerge from someone with perfectly clean hair and filed fingernails…so I get it. Still, I can feel his disdain for me developing with every sentence that leaves my mouth, relating my route to a writers’ conference, the joys and perils of traveling alone. Whatever, I probably sound like someone trying too hard to escape semi-colon existence for an exclamation mark inspired life, but it’s 6:30am. His posture and sideways glances communicate what I’m used to hearing from a certain type, notions that I’m this “little girl” one wide-eyed moment away from an axe murder. The usual underestimation of my own tiny knives. I’ve found that the men most likely to assume this about me have never actually been in an urban environment, and underestimate the value of intelligence in navigating strange spots in favor of pure brawn. The ability to talk another person down or fake a level ten crazy is just as useful as going toe to toe. This is not a conversation we have, but the post script of my head that happens when my computer is in front of me again.

The actual conversation is me guessing one part of the pair was once a teacher, based on the steady expression she maintained through the scenery and conversation loop, learning her husband had been raised on farm work and was once a machinist, daydreaming about their lives, their children, and the amazing scenery likely offered through their daily drives. It was the sort of conversation that happens on trains, a combination of detail and restraint, confession and pause. This, alongside the admission that we’ll all leave the train swearing it’s our last time on a train, because it’s slow and hard on the body, all the while knowing we will definitely be on a train again, awkwardly arranged in coach seats. No matter the discomforts,¬†it seems criminal to just fly over Montana like it doesn’t mean to be there, like those mountains and rivers aren’t something to see. If I could take the whole thing by swingset I would, but until that feat of science, there’s Amtrak.

The breakfast itself is terrible, wads of reheated eggs looking exhausted on a plate that somehow came to $20. The sun revealing green all around us was everything.

Amtrak PDX to MSP Part 4: No sleep

This is how you know you’re in coach on Amtrak: all the neatly closed and coordinated luggage has been properly stowed in sleeping cars. Coach is not a place of matching sets in modern colors, hard-shelled and adorned with stickers announcing far away cities that might not really exist. We are a tribe of borrowers and Goodwill shoppers, garbage bag packers and shopping bag haulers. There is no one in coach in expensive jeans, no skateboards covered in sponsor labels velcro’d to a brand name backpack. It’s men who shoved their personal possessions in a camping backpack and a bottle into a front pocket for slow sipping at each announced delay. It’s women with so many children they haven’t known a private shower or a hairstyle more complicated than a ponytail in years. It’s people who walk on in pajamas and stay that way, and confuse the courtesy of the kind chap selling coffee for friendship; a friendship that is revoked the moment his lunch break lasts a little too long and all the addicts tighten their line formation and bristle. Coffee. This is about coffee. And beer. Definitely beer. It’s people who are accused of things by other people, people who are a bit more tired at 30 than average, it’s people who Know Better Than You about so many things, if you wouldn’t only take the time to listen.

And in the midst of this is me: borrowed suitcase (check). Uncomplicated hairstyle (check). Personal weirdness to account for (check). Mounting exasperation and an inability to complete a sentence (double check).

There are very few women in coach during the journey from PDX to MSP, though two men in hunting jackets and John Deere trucker’s hats have managed to find one. She’s a Japanese tourist with an east facing seat in the observation car, and both of these men are eager to tell her everything she’s not asking about America. I’m seated behind her, barely remaining upright and thinking about disease. The American men are talking about how their parents can’t retire, early careers in dirt bike racing, and why Americans need to repeatedly renew their drivers’ licenses. The Japanese tourist mentions speaking three languages, and one of them tells this joke:

“Someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual. Someone who speaks three or more languages is called multilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language?”

(Pause.)

“An American!”

Lulz all around.

Their conversation is slow and meandering and surprisingly intimate, as each produces a phone full of images of their respective hometowns to best illustrate their explanations of everyday life. I hear her comment that she doesn’t have the same journey that a lot of Americans feel compelled to experience, the journey of identity, because she knows exactly where her parents were born and what place they started from; she knows what village they belong to, what palace resides there, and what it means when the bells toll. Both men are silent at this, out of respect for the truth and the poetic delivery, and I’m thinking about it too, and my own need to inspect my genetics and identify as American plus something else. I wonder if there will be a time in the future with a single identifiable American ethnicity, one that has nothing to do with the Civil War and dates of immigration, and if during this time Americans will be a bit more interested in story, having been freed from the prison of memorized names and dates and graves.

These meandering thoughts sustain me and them until sunset demands retirement to seats for movie watching and pseudo sleeping. There will be no sleeping.

There’s a guy who is sleeping, and every third breath he yells, “whoa!” I got the seat with the light always on. This makes me feel responsible. Somewhere the whole train turned North Dakota, which means it’s occupied by oil men who make Montana snowboarders coy about their drinking habits. Everyone is sick, or at least sick of being on the train, expressed through repeated sighs, stomach clutching, head clutching, groans. We are the unwashed masses, and the smell is real. I steal a fork from the kindly chap peddling coffee to friends that aren’t friends to finish my giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Everyone doesn’t know they’re jealous, but I’m the least sick and the most delicious. The fork makes clink noises against the glass every time it takes a dive. The light is on. Dive. They know what I’m doing. Dive. I’m responsible. Dive.

Amtrak Hellride for the stripes.

 

 

 

Part 3: Montana has us

Once the woman finished her anecdote about bear shit and the obligatory bear shitting in the woods joke, an elderly man in a bright red hat with long white hair (who had been staring at me for hours) finally saw fit to ask a question. That question was: “Is that Yellowstone?”

My brain said, “It’s Glacier National Park” and then followed with “that’s too much work” and so I had no choice but to answer: “Okay.”

“Maybe¬†Middlefort or Middle Fork River?” he pressed. Wait, does that mean he thinks the river is Yellowstone and not the park, or are there two places with the same name?

I try to formulate a word but my chin just rotates in a circle, possibly off my face, and I think about reasons to cry. Some alert young man in the official outfit of snowboarders everywhere explained that the river branches from Yellowstone and runs into Coochie River. (Note to reader: in other circumstances I might see fit to harness the powers of the Google and learn what the proper river names were, but for the sake of this story I think we should all remain on the same confused, sleep-deprived, and desperate level. Remember: there is none of the internets!)

It seemed like I should compliment this young fellow for his knowledge, and so I said, “You know Geography!” Then I decided I shouldn’t talk anymore.

Still, Montana: giant trees and snow and great gorgeous mountain tops. The sky filled with hawks and eagles and blue. Great green stained rivers running a track that defies time. The land seemed strong in a way it isn’t in most other places in America, like it knows it’s going to outlast you and won’t kneel to the demands of industry. If it needs to, it will make the bear shit smell permanent to keep you at bay.

Throughout the train people kept telling me it’s going to get boring eventually, but I couldn’t hear it. Montana let us through, but just barely, and only because we kept to our track even more tightly than the river.