My suitcase is too heavy. We enter the renovated Union Depot in St. Paul, full of marble and murmurs. The train’s arrival is delayed in strange increments: 10:17, 10:23, 10:41pm. My mother and stepfather stand on either side of me, making jokes and pressing close. Finally, the striped silver cars roll into the station, glistening with fresh rain.
I thought saying goodbye would be easier this year, since we already know what to expect. I still find myself wiping tears from my eyes as I join the stampede of passengers following the employee yelling, “Portland, this way!”
With a friend’s recommendation, I decided to take the train from Minneapolis to Portland on my way back to Reed, a 28-hour ride. It would be a smooth transition, I thought, from my humdrum summer to the busyness of Reed.
The Twin Cities slide by in a rainy blur, and I wave goodbye to the grain elevators that loomed over my childhood. The train is unbelievably chilly; everyone else knew to bring blankets and sweatshirts. I curl up as best I can with my damp raincoat and several pairs of frisbee shorts draped across my legs.
Waking up with the warmth of the sun through the window, I wriggle out of my seat in time to get out in Minot, North Dakota. I step off onto the station sidewalk and admire a broken window, stretch stiff legs, cough as a crowd of desperate smokers lights up beside me. In high school I heard that students usually choose to go to college within 500 miles of their hometown. Looking out at the dry, flat land and dusty storefronts, I’m glad that I chose to go farther.
My phone dies. Places replace time. I stare out of the observation car’s window walls. At some point we cross into Montana. Golden wheat fields reach out into infinity. A ranger dispenses factoids about combines and yearly bushel exports through a microphone. Every once and awhile a ram sprints away from the train.
We roll through Glasgow, Havre, Shelby. Nowhere has a lot of names, and the urban kid in me is amazed that people live so far apart from each other. A woman with wild gray hair snaps pictures of the endless grass and hillocks every few seconds. A man at one of the booth tables unrolls blueprints, squints at them intently, then nods, licks the tip of his pen, and scribbles into a notebook. Most of us stare at the wheat in silence.
I clear my throat and decide to make conversation. The man sitting across the aisle is getting off in Whitefish, Montana. He lives on a mountain near Canada, and proudly proclaims he lives 50 miles from the closest McDonalds. Two days ago, a lightning strike started a raging wildfire that reduced his beloved forests to charcoal. His wife has been posting pictures of the devastation on Facebook.
“Were you visiting family in the Cities?” I ask, looking for something brighter.
“Funeral,” he says.
I venture toward the dining car, stumbling down the narrow aisle and through science fiction doors between cars, ready for a break after three meals of trail mix. I’m seated with two older women wearing name tags and sipping out of plastic wine glasses, on their way to the first stop on an Amtrak-sponsored national park tour. To avoid the usual conversation about pronunciation and origin, I lie and tell them my name is Amy. We are joined by a Danish tourist, Niels, who is blonder than snow and on his way to a solo backpacking trip. One of the ladies, Nancy, saw Martin Luther King give a speech three months before he was shot.
Everyone is looking forward to the Rockies, a promised break from the wheat. Half the strangers I’ve spoken to are on the way to Glacier National Park. A family of three sitting in a booth explodes into laughter as they finish a game of Apples to Apples. In an unusual moment of boldness, I slide into their booth and invite myself into the next round. The two siblings offer grins dotted with braces, and the mother explains how remote their home is in a delightfully strong Minnesota accent.
Sunset paints the east end of Glacier, and I try to absorb the glorious elevation change through the smudged glass. The girl across from me, maybe my age, is patiently spooning pear goop into the mouth of a tiny baby. She kisses the baby’s forehead after each spoonful, cooing and smiling. A glop of goop falls onto the baby’s giraffe print blanket.
“Oh, Vincent, you’ve got to close your mouth after!” She smiles at me. We end up talking for more than an hour. She’s on her way home to Whitefish from North Dakota, where her cousin lies comatose after being critically injured in a boating accident. The driver was the only one on board who wasn’t wasted, yet he sped across a lake in the dark at 60 miles per hour, plowing into a tree. Two of his passengers were killed, two injured.
“I went all the way there to see him, but couldn’t ’cause of infections,” the young mother tells me, shaking her head. “Got to see mom, though. She loves the baby. You’re such a good baby, aren’t you, Vincent?”
The train is engulfed by the dark mountain pass. I get off at the West Glacier stop and stand in a pool of white light, munching on the last dregs of trail mix and feeling the presence of mountains I can’t see.
At some ungodly hour in Spokane, the train splits into two, the front half heading north to Seattle while the rest goes south to Portland.
On the second morning, the sunrise cuts through the window and my eyelids, red and undulating. I rise to stare at the desert side of the Columbia River Gorge, watching the sage brush blur between the tracks and the river.
The observation car is full of new strangers, this time on their way home from vacations in Glacier. The Gorge walls grow taller and acquire strings of windmills along their ridges. A few booths ahead, a pair of young people with dreadlocks and beanie hats murmur about leaving home behind, and getting out of unhealthy relationships, and finding work. They remind me of Reedies.
The Gorge abruptly shifts from layers of sediment and sage to evergreens and waterfalls. We pass Bridge of the Gods, and I get excited. The train, lit by blinding sunlight, is plunged into complete darkness as we enter a tunnel, and then slowly emerges into the light, over and over, like a series of miniature days passing.
Finally we are crawling along a railroad bridge that crosses the Columbia, and I realize it’s the same bridge my friends and I ate lunch under during one of our epic bike rides last year. The views become increasingly familiar. Rocky Butte and the Steel Bridge welcome me as the train rolls into Downtown. I realize I’ve ridden 1,783 miles from home to home.
I step off the train and revel, for a moment, in standing still. The city is familiar and strange, the plants crispy brown from drought. I wonder if my soul is still making its way through Montana. I take a deep breath of Portland air, shoulder my backpack, and make my way toward the route 19 bus stop, dragging my too-heavy suitcase behind me.