Rugby, North Dakota, heralds itself as the geographic center of North America, which is only marginally interesting in relation to the travels of the Swedish man seated next to me. An electrical engineer can see a lot of the world, apparently. A few years in India, next door to one of Bollywood’s biggest stars – ‘their Bruce Willis,’ was elicited by the announcement of the movie shown last night in the lounge car. ‘Salman-something. Across the street, people slept under plastic bags.’
He paused an instant, and I wondered what he was reflecting upon. I first guessed the contemplation of a man raised on Swedish social policy, when in reality he may have been remembering a special memory of the place. That memory would be much richer than even the most insightful discussion about how we allow people to endure such hardship so needlessly. Maybe his memory centered on a fascinatingly nuanced meal that came to mind each time India was brought up, or maybe he had had a torrid love affair with the star’s wife or servant or co-star.
‘I drove a tractor-trailer too.’ The words slowly emerged from the older man across the table. He followed each declaration by looking at you to ensure that you both comprehended and acknowledged what he’d said. His speech and manner were those of my father. These men spoke little, neither especially conversant nor articulate, and nonverbal reinforcements were an essential part of any dialogue. Not surprisingly, he grew up on a dairy farm, as did my father, and then spent 20 years doing various labor jobs in Los Angeles.
‘I’ve seen the entire U.S. many times,’ he added with a nearly imperceptible stutter built into his hesitant diction. ‘It was good, driving everywhere.’ I realized he had disclosed that he thought every job he had thus far ‘was good.’ Except for growing up on a dairy farm. He had nothing good to say about that.
He was about to re-engage in his long distance driving exploits. He would be getting off the train soon, in Minot, where he would meet his daughter so he could help her move from the local Air Force base back to New York state. Her husband was being shipped out to Guam to help maintain B-52s. ‘Why not Minot?’ was how one of my university professors used to fondly tease a classmate with his hometown’s slogan. As we pulled into the station, the conductor and staff were preparing to try to thaw the pipes in the train’s toilets. Why not ten-below-zero in March?
It was only at the end of breakfast, and sharing our various travel histories, that the Swedish man discovered that he would not arrive in Portland for another 26 hours. ‘I guess I need to call our office there and rearrange my schedule, and I should call and change my car rental from today to tomorrow.’ After a moment’s reckoning, he added, ‘It’s a big country.’ He looked up from his empty plate and glanced over to share in my amusement. He did not appear at all concerned, merely a little stunned.
Fate would have it that we both had been guests in the same Hotel Europa, in Zagreb, though it was still Yugoslavia when he had been there. ‘We must have had the same salad cart brought to our tables.’
‘Yes, but let’s hope it wasn’t the same salad.’
He seemed a bit taken aback by my remark, which was a simple reflex on my part. We were having less of a conversation than I might have wished for, and merely seemed to be comparing notes.
The fourth person at our breakfast table was a young woman from Wisconsin on her way to ski over Spring Break. In the hour we shared at the table, I recall at least seven times when she expressed disappointment over the news we would be arriving four hours late. For her that emotion must have been preferable to trying to comprehend the circumstances that confronted some poor soul in Dilworth, Minnesota, who managed to leave his pickup truck on the tracks. While he spent his day getting a cast on his broken leg and finding out if his insurance policy was any good, we tried to comprehend how he managed to be thus injured, as no details had been provided by the train personnel.
He hadn’t been in the truck, so what kind of bizarre scene had played out? The young woman’s response to that question was to ask us yet again if we knew – maybe if we just thought it without any basis – whether the train would make up for any lost time. I’m sure it’s a sign of my approaching middle age that I’m losing patience with such helplessness. It’s one thing to have the thought; quite another to impose it upon those around you.
I was grateful to get away from her, but wished to have had more time with the Swedish man. We had managed to preserve a level of reserve such that no names were exchanged. No plans were hatched to convene later in the lounge car over drinks. Instead, I made my way back to my seat, in my appointed car.
Only about every fourth seat was taken, so there was a lot of space to spread out and feel comfortable. An elderly woman had boarded with me in St. Paul, and by this point had built a nice nest for herself a few seats back from me across the aisle. As I got to my seat, she smiled warmly, reinforcing my sense that train travel made for much better connections with fellow travelers. I smiled in my fashion and dove into my own nest of solitude.
Hours passed and the western prairie shivered under the brittle white of sub-zero. The entire daylight hours were spent on the balance of North Dakota and Montana.
It was the middle of the night when the train stopped in Spokane, right on track four hours behind schedule. The train split into two here, with one part continuing to Seattle and the other taking a parallel line into Portland. This exercise involved enough noise and directional change to rouse most of the passengers who were able to sleep in their improvised beds. As I fidgeted in my seat, I could hear a number of people move about, some of whom had just been rewarded after a several hour wait in the Spokane station with the prospect of trying to get to sleep in the gently lurching train.
A few hours later light began to return to the landscape. I awoke to see a coyote moving along the tracks, amid the grey light and patches of snow. The train began to ease into the Cascade Mountains as I became more alert. The trip was nearing its last stretch, marked by a breakfast-time arrival into Wenatchee, which carries the claim of ‘Apple Capital of the World’.
It was a beautiful and serene view, highlighted by a gentle curve of the tracks, which enabled me to see the train cars in front of me as they moved through the curves, and then into the long river valley leading gradually up to Skykomish and then down again to Everett, before heading south along the water’s edge into Seattle.
I had breakfast alone, as it was very early when I went to the dining car, and I quietly took in the scenery and eased into being fully awake. By the time we pulled into downtown Seattle, the sun was out and it was a bright, crisp early spring day. Climbing out of the train after such a long trip felt a little jarring, as if I needed re-entry to the world again. Stretching in the fresh air helped.
‘Vasíl!’ The name called out behind me brought an end to my platform reverie. I turned around to see my elderly traveling companion waiting to embrace the young child galloping toward her, followed by a tall man that I recognized immediately. It had been three years since I had last seen Vasíl, while I was moving my girlfriend at the time, Maria, out of the Northeast Minneapolis apartment they had shared for a year. She was moving to Taos then, and our relationship was ending.
The elderly woman was his mother-in-law. ‘Hello, Vasíl,’ I politely called out after watching the family reunion amid the baggage, ‘what are you doing in Seattle?’
‘Tom, right?’ It took a few seconds for him to process his recognition of me in this new context. ‘Well, I live in Bellingham now, and we’re just down to meet the train.’ He introduced me to his mother-in-law and son, and I smiled warmly at the woman just as she had smiled to her fellow passengers throughout the train ride. After a brief conversation, we all picked up our bags, and headed into the station, the family on their way North. I had about an hour before getting on a train that would take me up to Vancouver for the first time.
©️Thomas Osdoba, 2002