I woke with a start in the observation car of the Empire Builder. Checking my watch, I realised I’d only slept three hours, but after my sleepless nineteen-hour journey on the Lake Shore Ltd, the paltry snooze had given me new life. Dawn was streaming rosy shafts of light through the picture windows as I slowly became aware of my surroundings. Morning mists danced around dark trees and the sun burned pink. It was glorious.
I followed the enticing aroma of coffee to the lounge, and as I stood in line to place my order, rumours circulated around me about a mysterious delay. The train had been perfectly on time when I had drifted off to sleep a mere three hours ago. What could possibly have happened? I warmed my hands on the paper cup holding the bitter, dark coffee and came up with possible scenarios that might have happened to cause the delay. A young conductor drifted by and I asked him if we were on time. He confirmed the rumours; we were now two hours behind schedule. I raised my eyebrows and met his gaze, hoping for more information. He took a seat across the table from me and told me the story. Someone had abandoned a car on the tracks overnight. The train had been halted, the car removed and the tracks checked for integrity. My curiosity was satisfied, but we continued chatting, swapping travel stories. He told me of Nicaragua and I shared my adventures in Guatemala. It was a wonderful way to start the morning.
Two hours behind schedule wasn’t so bad, I thought, but when I returned to my seat, the couple across from me were not so optimistic. ‘This is only the beginning’, opined the gentleman, and knowing that he had previously worked on the railroads, I was inclined to believe him. Freight trains get precedence on US railroads. Passenger trains have a slim corridor of opportunity to travel unhindered. Once a train falls behind schedule, it has to pull over and allow any and all freight trains to pass.
North Dakota was very, very flat, but it kept my attention by constantly changing colour, with vast fields of bleached gold, bright green and rust brown under bright blue skies, stretching out as far as the eye can see.
I lost count of the freight trains we encountered along the way, but the two hour delay turned into four hours, then six, then seven. I was reliably informed by my passengers-in-arms across the aisle that one of the freight trains we had stopped for was an empty grain train. There was no cargo on board, but the passenger train was shunted into a siding to let the empty train rattle by before we continued on our way.
I distracted myself with haystacks. Well, they weren’t exactly haystacks. The haystacks of my childhood were piles of hay forked neatly into mounds. Hay bales came later, and they just didn’t compare. At most, a hay bale could offer you somewhere slightly uncomfortable to sit. Haystacks, on the other hand, begged you to jump into them. In North Dakota, I discovered hay rolls and decided they were perfectly useless inventions. You couldn’t sit on them and they were so compacted you would risk an injury if you tried to jump into them.
I returned my attention to what was happening on the train. There was mutiny in the air. Regular stops allowed smokers to hop out onto the platforms for hasty cigarettes, but due to the delay, there was now a further complication. The engineers had now exceeded their shift limits, so the train had come to a complete standstill, miles from any station, while they brought in another crew. There hadn’t been a station stop for almost seven hours and nicotine withdrawal was bringing out the Fletcher Christian in the most mannered of folk. People were pacing up and down the aisles, gathering by the doors and hanging out windows. ‘There’s more of us than there is of them,’ I overheard one girl say. Other people disappeared silently and came back strangely calm. It was terribly exciting. When the train finally pulled into the next station, the doors were almost ripped off their hinges by people foaming at the mouth. The strike of a match; a sharp inhale, and mutiny was averted.
We were now in Montana, but the train was running so late there was little chance of reaching the spectacular views of Glacier National Park before night fell. As daylight dwindled, I settled in for my last night aboard the Empire Builder, grabbing my pillow and curling up in my secret spot in the observation car. What would tomorrow bring?