Around the U.S. By Train – Part 10

During the night, the Empire Builder angles across Minnesota, crosses into North Dakota for a wee-hours stop in Fargo, then swings due west. When I awaken, we’ve just left Devil’s Lake and are rolling along at a steady pace.

We’re passing through grasslands now, with the terrain mostly flat, but rising and falling occasionally in gentle hills and shallow valleys. There’s standing water in some of the low spots, evidence of recent rains, with small brown ducks paddling contentedly. Dozens of red-winged blackbirds are flitting around and, halfway to the horizon, small herds of prong-horned antelope stop grazing and stare as we rumble by.

The breakfast menu in Amtrak’s dining car is pretty much the same here in North Dakota as it was in Georgia, with a Greek omelet featured as the morning special. That’s my choice again today, although grits are no longer an option this far north.

Every five or six minutes we pass a solitary farmhouse, each with clusters of trees on several sides, clearly planted to break the prairie winds. There are small herds of cattle grazing on grass that’s thick and green from all the recent rain … no doubt the same rains that caused all that flooding south of here, not to mention yesterday’s long bus ride.

Every dozen miles or so, we pass under power lines strung between metal towers that look for all the world like skeletal giants, marching beyond the horizon. What must it take, in both money and effort, to bring power to these small isolated farm houses?

This is America’s breadbasket with vast fields of grain on both sides of the track. Every town we pass through has towering grain elevators standing next to the tracks and generating startling echoes as the Empire Builder clatters by.

As we slow for a stop in Rugby, North Dakota, the train passes a large self-storage facility. Apparently, even here in this rugged land of bare essentials, folks have more “stuff” than they need or their homes can accommodate.

Back on the open prairie and still heading due west, the Empire Builder charges into a heavy squall, with dark clouds obscuring the horizon and rain, evidently mixed with some hail, hitting the roof of the train with a crackling sound. Ten minutes later, the storm has moved on, and now we’re running through occasional splashes of sunshine.

Not all of this trip is fun and relaxation for me, however. I’ve been commissioned to write an article for Grand magazine, suggesting that grandparents consider taking their grandkids on overnight train trips as a way to show them the country and treat them to a special adventure. To that end, during this entire trip I’ve been looking for a grandparent doing just that … someone on whom I can base my story.

Today, at lunch in the dining car, I meet a delightful lady from Chicago who is treating two daughters, one daughter-in-law, and seven grandchildren to an overnight ride on the Empire Builder and a week at Glacier National Park in Montana. Eureka! I have hit the mother lode!