Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Riding the Amtrak Empire Builder
Special to Spokesman-Review "Pinch"
By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
March 1, 2010
The lights glowed in tiny pools on the sidewalk, piercing the darkness every few yards or so, reflecting in the polished steel as I walked along the idling train.
Stepping up into the railcar, I stowed my heavy suitcase in the rack and carried my smaller bag up the narrow staircase to the upper level of the Amtrak sleeper car. I scanned the signs above the doors before coming to my compartment. The bed, as the attendant had told me when I showed him my ticket, had already been turned down.
It took me a few minutes to settle in; pulling out my computer, plugging in my phone, gathering all my tools and travel talismans around me. Finally, I was ready. I had everything I needed to work through the night.
I don’t know why I bothered.
Recognizing the gentle lurch as we began to roll out of the station, I turned off the lights and leaned back against the padded wall above the lower bunk. Silently, slowly, my city rolled by. The train going east leaves Spokane just after 1 a.m. and winds its way behind downtown buildings and along the edge of the city. The scene from my wide window is a view I seldom get. It’s funny how even the most familiar landscape changes in the darkest part of the night, in the hours before the sun comes up again. Shadows come out to play, dancing and obscuring the sharp edges of buildings and cars. Streets shimmer with wet and steam rises from otherwise invisible vents.
I’ve racked up quite a few railroad miles, primarily on the East coast and across the inland and pacific Northwest. I love to travel by train. Even if the schedule is occasionally cruel. I love the rhythm. The sounds. The room to stretch out and the freedom to get up and move.
I love the way the world, flying by as we roll along on cold steel rails, is still recognizable to me. The people and buildings in the towns, the cars on the freeways and the cows in the fields are exactly the way they would be if I were there beside them. From the air, in a plane, I look down on a patchwork planet, a God’s-eye view of a relief map of miniature mountains and gossamer rivers threading through the landscape. But from a train window everything is in scale. I am no bigger, nor smaller, than I am meant to be.
Soon, we were deep in the countryside and there were no more lights to catch my eye. No more slumbering towns to wonder about. No more windows to peer into as we moved past.
Rocking from side to side, cradled in my tiny room, I slept. And, when I awoke to the knocking on my compartment door - another civilized habit impossible to imagine in any other mode of travel, it was still dark although I knew the sun was just rising beyond the mountains to the east.
I gathered my things and stepped out into the cold Montana winter morning. And, after a moment, the train pulled forward and rolled slowly on.
You can hear this audio essay at Public Radio Exchange
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and can be reached at email@example.com.