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Big Amtrak Trip: Plains, Trains, Rivers

The rail pass experience and wonderful visits

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The Bakken Oil Fields are alight at night time. Western North Dakota used to be vast plains, fields and black sky. Now the gas flares off the oil wells into the far distant horizon, where the black of the sky meets the black of the night time prairie.

I drive from Minot to Bismarck, passing wind farms, a large coal power-generating plant, and cross the great Garrison Dam on the Missouri — oil, wind, coal and hydro, a power generation route.

I am listening to a historical novel about Lewis and Clark’s expedition of discovery, and pass the rivers and sites they named, and places they stayed.

A couple days later the train follows the Mississippi south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the scarlet of maples and deep wine red of sumac adding to the deciduous mounds of color which line the river. Individual trees shade from an undercoat of green, to yellow, to blaze orange, showing off their transitions.

The Columbia River was green and gold and majestic; the Missouri was a cut in the prairie, cottonwoods changing along the river bank; the Mississippi loses most of the evergreens but adds red to the color swatches. The Mississippi is as broad as the upper Columbia, but the shores are smaller elevation lines, even around the La Crosse bluffs.

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The train cuts from Minnesota to Wisconsin at La Crosse, running the bridge that crosses the main channel and sloughs and smaller channels of the braided river at this point. The Mississippi flyway is one of the great bird migration routes.

I see pelicans and other waterfowl, but no great flocks of birds covering the waters as I have in the past. In Wisconsin, in farmers’ harvested fields, I think I see sand hill cranes. The cranes are feeding on a stopover or loading up before they leave the waters of Wisconsin for points south.

The railroad yards in Chicago are vast, huge, a network of tracks. The train moves slowly through the interlaced yards until we pull into Union Station, the Union Station name that covers most major cities’ Amtrak stations.

The Union Station in St. Paul, Minnesota, was a great empty space with some chairs at the far end and enough room for a football practice on a polished floor. Chicago is a busy, crowded station.

At each stop, I have spent two days with a dear friend, friendships from high school or young parenthood. They have become lifelong relationships. It is a privilege of older age to forgive foibles and have been granted it; to reminisce with wry humor about great failed romances or crises of the past; to see toddlers as parents with toddlers of their own. On this magical mystery tour the train trip is a mixed bag but the destinations have been unmitigated delights, honoring long relationships and friendships while we are capable of saying thank you.

I will leave Denver — unrecognizable from the last time I was here, fifty years ago — and head to the West Coast. The Denver Union Station when I was last here, in the 1970’s, was in a seedy part of town. A gin mill nearby was called The Gin Mill. Now, the station is chock-full of upscale restaurants and coffee shops where I can grab a savory croissant.

I expect to cross mountains and great basins, and see almost-abandoned towns with weathered western fronts and cities’ back-sides criss-crossed with railroad tracks and highways and utility lines and factories and grain elevators. I have one foot in Carl Sandburg and one arm outstretched for the not-so-romantic but still romantic railway journey. We have too many songs and poems and legends about getting on the road not to doze off to the clattering wheels and a song dancing in our heads.

I’ll navigate the processed snack foods and pint-sized bathrooms and too narrow and steep stairways and fictional timetables of Amtrak. The journey is from the past to the future, and the longest part of the trip is the trip home.

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