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.

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.