The First Leg, Portland to Whitefish

A new nervousness and thrill for a new kind of travel on the verge of embarkation – how to pack these bags for 10, 20, 30 hours on board, how to navigate the stations and relate to agents and conductors, who will be traveling with me, what are the timings of arrival, checking in, boarding, disembarking – especially at 4 am in the middle of nowhere Kansas.

Accustomed to the congestion and fluorescent characterlessness of airports and the stress and invasiveness of navigating them, the first step into the Train Station is already a step into new meaning. Even in the youngsters of the West, Train Stations exist in another time – no matter how run-down, there is a presence in the curved wooden benches, the soaring ceilings, the brick and tower. An older way of moving across this open country, connected to it, not torn away and screaming 40,000 feet over it.

I sit on the bench until the Empire Builder, my train for the journey from here to Chicago, is called. Then a friendly and brisk not brusque gentleman with gray beard takes my ticket and points me through the door. I don’t show my ID, at which he doesn’t skeptically gaze. I don’t disrobe or submit my person or possessions to Xray beams. He doesn’t know I have a knife, zippo, and flask of Irish whiskey in my pocket and he doesn’t care – might actually ask for a light or a dram.

Stepping up and into the train, I climb the stairs and find in my coach seat unparalleled luxury! The space, more than a studio apartment in SF. Legs fully stretched out, a seat that falls back into bliss and even kicks up a leg rest along the way. An outlet so I can plug in my laptop and watch The Seventh Seal (old Ingmar Bergman movie that was unfortunately too scratched to watch).

Having finished packing at the hyper last minute, then stopped in to hold the infant twins, Brother MacClanahan conveyed me downtown with me promising hearty lunch for both of us, only to be led in a fruitless circuit of the ghostly downtown yielding, nothing. So before the cars even lurch into motion I spread out on the tray table – down whenever the hell I want it to be – a picnic of apple, cheese, salami.

Exactly on time, the train howls with joy and warning and eases into a long slow run. Anytime I fly I feel that it takes my spirit a couple days to catch up and for me to feel I’ve fully arrived.  But I can tell my spirit’s going to have no trouble keeping up with the train and that I’ll arrive fully there.

The Train Station is a portal to another time, a time of expansion and telegraph, petticoats and holsters, steam, smoke, and slaughter.  It was the rebirth of a destroyer god who demanded temples of steep with an ever-increasing appetite for speed. It loosed machines piloted by men but ultimately beyond their control.  The machines would turn and entrance their captains and passengers, making them hungry for poisonous fruits, demanding more flesh. Feeding on the blood of the poor, as the barons have for millennia, the tracks were laid for these strange beasts to hurtle across the world, blasting holes through rock, blackening air, consuming forest.

But to board a train now feels like a hallowed step back into something more human. To listen to the lonely cry, to watch a whole country pass, to measure a trip in days, not hours. To move and converse with fellow travelers.

So as the Train Station is portal, the Train is vehicle into another country. On it I pass into the place behind what I know. I move through industry, I am part of that line of manufacture and transport, those lines and noise extending thousands of miles. You see underneath the shiny packaging to the grease and grinding gears. You see the faces too exhausted to wear make-up. You see what’s been used and discarded and left to peel, rust, collapse. It’s beautiful and strange.

I love seeing the haunted places, the ghosts of trees and long vapors, the desolation accentuated by an abandoned car, a solitary gull.

I feel I could ride this train forever, that I would gladly allow it to carry me anywhere as I look out at the burnt rock, as we plunge into tunnel and the windows go black.

This is a new geography, uplift and tilt, obvious in great layered slopes of powder-yellow rock. Surge and flow, shatter and explode into river valley, black and jagged rock clawing up hills and twisting into a pale blue sky.

An eagle lifts out of a field, rabbit in its grip.

My hunger is an ecstasy.


6 thoughts on “The First Leg, Portland to Whitefish

    • Thanks Sister Cait! It’s been quite a journey so far, and it’s only been a week! I hope all’s well the Pinole way!

  1. Fantastic, Noel — just got a chance to read it after returning to the southern edge of Wisco post-Cleveland.

    Sorry the Bergman didn’t work out for you..! I love The Seventh Seal.
    Perhaps you can find a friendly incarnation of Death to play chess with aboard the train.

    Best of luck traveling through time…

    • Thanks Nytro. Great to see you in the Cleve, thanks for sharing the curd love.

      So far my game has been poker with oil field workers, who are friendly incarnations of death in a certain sense.

      Good luck with your upcoming adventures – drop a line when you’re working the Gorge, maybe we can do some kite surfing.

  2. Funny because I read through your trip backwards, and now I want to start all over again. The prospect of traveling with laptop, liquor, and spirit in tact are grand indeed. Thanks for the thoughtful read!

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