Wishes for the Holidays from the Empire Builder

Where it all Began

As I start writing on this Friday morning in early December, I am sitting somewhat awkwardly sideways so that I can look out my bedroom window at the Mississippi River rolling by while I peck away at the keyboard. It is a lovely, though seasonal morning and I would like to take a walk out there in the sunshine. But I don’t live in New Orleans or Memphis or Minneapolis,  I don’t even live in Winona, Minnesota – though that is the town outside my window. I am on board Amtrak’s Empire Builder on the third and final day of a 2,255 mile journey from Portland, Oregon to Chicago. It is the second time in my life I’ve completed this trip. The first time I was in high school. Right after my dad died, my mother and I went on a four -week long cross country trip, almost all by train and rode from Chicago to Seattle on this train. A bit more on how that experience changed my life later on.


The Eastbound Empire Builder in Montana’s Glacier NP

What strikes me as I think about my second time riding this train and my second time on a multi-day train trip in the last month is how…umm…unusual this makes me. And though my self esteem is just fine, thanks – I don’t really mean unusual in a patting-myself-on-the-back kind of way. I mean it in a quirky – maybe a little weird kind of way. Though hundreds of people ride this train every day – only a fraction ride it from the start to finish and most all of those fall into one of three categories.

There are the train buffs. One guy I met knew the names of the dispatchers in the different towns we were passing through because he’s been listening to them on his shortwave radio –  ummm okay – that’s…cool. Another guy has a replica of the original Great Northern Railway Empire Builder train…not one car – the whole train…  in his model train set at home– nice.

There is also the “flying is unsafe – I prefer to be right here on the ground” crowd I will meet sometimes on these long train routes. I truly loathe flying but I’m not particularly concerned for my safety  -it is purely a matter of inconvenience and discomfort. In fact, as I lay in my bed last night every now and then I’ d wonder – are we going too fast going around this turn and I’d think back to recent Amtrak crashes and our aging national infrastructure. Conversely, my biggest worry on most planes is that my bags won’t fit, which is a pretty frequent occurrence for those of us with no particular airline status.

Finally, and this group is most similar to me in more ways than one – you have older retired people – usually but not always couples. They are going to visit kids or grandkids and they aren’t in any particular hurry so they decide to ride the train. For some these trips are bucket list items, for others they are a fairly regular occurrence. Among the three groups  – I have the most in common with these people. They look out the window a lot. I do too – and they seem pleased by that, which for many people would make this trip torture – there truly isn’t a whole lot to do. – I dig that too.

But there’s a difference for me. For one, I’m not retired and I’m often in a hurry when I’m traveling, mostly to get home.  Beyond that, though, when these folks stare out the window they seem just fine with whatever happens by (and there is a lot – both beautiful and quite ugly.) But I’m looking for something on these trips and it is often hard to figure out exactly what it is. I look for it out the window for miles and miles and I look for it in my mind’s eye as I stare out at brown fields and endless forests. I even look for it in my conversations with fellow passengers. I am far from an extrovert but I enjoy talking with complete strangers on the train and the family-seating style of the dining car provides an easy way to strike up conversation. What I’m looking for, I think, is a sign. A sign that the amazing country I became smitten with on that first cross country train trip with my mom (and earlier trips with my family) and really came to know and fall in love with during two season-long baseball-centered roadtrips as a younger man is still out here. That it is still beautiful, still wild, still varied and diverse and still populated, mostly, by a resourceful, persistent people with big hearts and big dreams.

Sometimes I find it. Glacier National Park on an early winter’s morning was take-your-breath-away spectacular. I have been looking forward to this portion of the trip since I booked it and it did not disappoint. In a more understated way, the lights going on in the farmhouses and ranches of eastern Montana as the day drew to a close yesterday and all the way down from Minneapolis to Wisconsin this morning the view from my bedroom window was compelling both because of the beauty of the river and the industriousness required to build up all the little towns along the route each with their own histories.

But sometimes the sign is more elusive and the search for it more discouraging. As lunch drew to a close yesterday a woman came up to the front of the car to the table next to mine to make change with the attendant. As she looked at the ten dollar bill she had pulled out she read off a note scribbled on it, “Bernie Sanders for President,” she read from it aloud. The attendant regarded her and said, “you know, I like a lot of what he’s saying – I’m just worried about who is going to pay for it.”

His voice, though, didn’t seem like he likes a lot of what Sanders is saying and I turned from my view out the window to see his expression. As I did, I was thinking a bunch of things – Sanders has made pretty clear how he intends to pay for his programs and higher taxes for dining car attendants unless they also run multinational corporations hasn’t been on the list. I’m also recalling that John F. Kennedy didn’t say, “We’re going to put a man on the moon…if we can get a good interest rate on spacesuits.”

But instead of voicing any of those things I made an attempt at humor. “What about Mark Zuckerberg,” I offered, joking – since he’s just publicly pledged to give away 99 percent of his $45 billion in net worth over the course of his lifetime.  “Nahh – he’s just doing that for a tax break,” said the unimpressed attendant – . I turned, and resumed my search out the window and out to the horizon.

Anyone who has read this blog over the last weeks and months knows that I’ve been blaming Congress for the things wrong with this country and imploring anyone who will listen to be more selective in  choosing our representatives in next year’s 2016 election and beyond.  I believe we need representatives who will compromise, work for the public good instead of special interests and fundamentally care a lot more about the happiness and well being of all of their constituents. I still believe those things. But maybe I’ve had it wrong. Maybe it’s not Congress that’s letting us down, or at least not any more than any other group of 535 people. Maybe it’s all of us. Maybe the problem with America…is Americans.

A Wish for the Holidays

That’s a pretty bleak viewpoint for a Friday afternoon as we approach the holiday season. Within a couple of hours I will be with my family after being away for a week and we’re all visiting good and old friends in Chicago. A fun weekend is ahead for me and I hope it is for you too.

And here’s a silver lining for you. If we have become a negative, cynical and distrusting society we surely did it to ourselves and we can change it back. In the weeks ahead let’s try consciously being

  • Open Minded instead of Dogmatic
  • Positive instead of Snarky
  • Hopeful instead of Cynical
  • Trusting instead of Suspicious

And if you have any little ones in your lives you can get help from them on this last one…Let’s believe this holiday season and hope that belief becomes a belief in each other that carries us into 2016 and beyond. I believe the signs are still out there. Here’s to hoping we find them.


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