Whoa am I behind! Last week of the journey and according to my blog I’m still in Montana! Let’s get on with it, starting with the tale of traveling from Whitefish to Chicago.
The Empire that has been building across the northern states, beginning in Portland, will be completed when we reach Chicago, 32 hours after my boarding bright and early in Whitefish. I’m savvy enough now to immediately head to the lounge car to grab a table and views of the passing country. I’ll later appreciate just how savvy when I discover that my seat squeaks with the motion of the train, making sleep impossible, making me stab it with my knife to shut it up.
I’m writing away in the lounge car when the volunteer park service docent fires up his commentary about our surrounds. He points out a man fishing, which is actually a log, and an eagle, which is actually a branch. As we pass through the reservation he tells us it’s the Blackfoot tribe, not to be confused with the Blackfeet to the north in Canada. He’ll later reverse this, but in both tellings he’ll note with more than a hint of condescension, that if you want to start a “cat fight”, you should call a Blackfoot a Blackfeet or vice versa.
He gets off in Shelby to go screw up some tribe names and get his ass kicked and two new docent ladies get on. One describes the scenery on a mic that doesn’t work, the other spreads out a ton of pelts on the table and smiles warmly every time I walk by.
I eavesdrop on the first docent chatting with an old dude. First she talks about needing to kill them damn wolves (back in Kalispell trucks sport the bumper sticker “Smoke Two Packs a Day”). The government’s what brought ’em here, and now they’re killing livestock and over-running the place. Folks want them off the endangered species list so they can extinct them. I think most mid-westerners carry a wolf-hating gene that moots any rational discourse.
Sidebar: Where did the train of humanity jump the tracks? How did a life form that evolved with intricate ties within this life support system decide it was above everything else, that everything else exists to feed its appetites, and that it would do whatever it could, not what it should, in a voracious and insane pursuit of gorging those appetites, even at the expense of ruining its, and a million other species’, ability to survive here?
Then they move on to hating on Obama. The old dude says there’s a fella he works with who seems like a normal guy, but you know what? He contributed $50 to Obama’s campaign, explaining this as if confounded by such insanity. But isn’t that the same reaction I would have to finding out a good friend loved watching Glen Beck? Isn’t that the same reaction I have these days to thinking I contributed to Obama’s campaign?
Did you know in the northern states the border patrol gets on and asks people if they’re American citizens? An agent asked this of a little old lady, who politely replied yes. Then he looked at me, at which point I gave him the “just ask me basshole” look. Nothing like the repressive state apparatus to get my ire up. Unfortunately I wasn’t given the opportunity to get arrested for declaring myself a citizen of the whole gawblessed universe.
Miles-long trains of wheat wind through the chaparral. On our train the real fun starts at nightfall. The fires of the oil wells flicker on the North Dakota plains, and workers from those fields board, already drunk and quickly getting drunker. Around the pocket change poker table we become fast friends, along with the other odd folks trainin along. Whiskey hidden in soda sloshes in cups among coins and cards. The attendant sees a heap of trouble but only asks that we clean up after ourselves before retiring and handing the car over to us entirely.
Sheldon, a roughneck from Biloxi who looks exactly like Billy Bob Thorton, passes around Goldschlager mixed with orange juice and good gravy it’s delicious (tastes like Christmas, says the nurse from Chicahgo). Todd, an oil field worker who spends his days tossing around 150 lb. pipes and looks it, gets sadder the more he drinks. He loves the money he gets from the fields though he knows oil is going to do us all in, which he sees as a good thing. Later Sheldon brings out a framed photo of his mother who passed away, in heaven now with his brother, and Todd lashes out about there being no god, old wounds naked if unnamed. He knows I’m a minister and looks at me with belligerent defiance, but I let him be. He bludgeons his anguish and in the end arrives at a certain weary faith.
There’s more to the Todd story, but that story is best told ’round a campfire.
The evening ends in the wee hours, coins all won, new games unlearnable, musician from Eugene strumming some Pixies, Sheldon snuggling down in his jager jacket. We disperse to our various cars to sleep fitfully for a few hours. Early in the morning I’m back in the lounge, enjoying the wide greens of Minnesota, the pull boats on the Mississippi, the cranberry bogs of Wisconsin.
The poker crew filters through, the bond of last night already thinning with sobriety and impending stops. Todd makes a blurry-eyed appearance searching for his lost cellphone before slouching back into his seat, sprawled across the aisle. Sheldon’s still trying to figure out how he’s getting to Texas, since his boss just plopped him on the train without explaining anything. Nurse Chicahgo hops off in Milwaukie. We enter the long underground of the Chicago station, ready for great lakes, great wind, and great piles of meat. Musician Eugene and I shake hands in the stifling heat of the Chicago train station.
I can smell the hot dogs already.