Writing on the Rails 

Live, from a train in the northern plains

We're somewhere east of Whitefish, Montana, and it's snowing. There's just the slightest frost on the pines -- the green and autumn-gold pines that climb the hills into the clouds. A thin layer of fog, a single-track road, a horse camp by the river, and the train swaying along at 40 miles an hour. Is there any better place to be than the mountains in the fall?

I slept last night about as well as I can on a train. When Mr. NRA moved, there was nobody next to me, so I kicked up both leg rests and made a little bed, just big enough for me to curl up on. The trouble came from cramps and various body parts going to sleep. I woke up at some point with my right hand so asleep it was all clawed up and hurt like a bitch. I got up to stretch my legs somewhere around Spokane, but our eager-beaver coach attendant busted me for being in my sock feet.

I woke up to an announcement from Mona Lisa (which turned out to be her real name) that the cafe was open "with tea, coffee, breakfast items, and also beer and Bloody Marys for those of you who need an eye-opener." Soon came the announcement that we were 30 minutes west of Whitefish and breakfast was being served in the dining car. I ate with an old guy from "all over the place -- I live in Phoenix this year" and a consultant from Long Island. All three of us were in the midst of at least month-long trips.

They just announced 10 minutes to Browning, Montana. We're east of the mountains now, and the sun is out. We're into the brown grass, rolling hills, see-forever country, where brown-and-white-striped wheat fields go all the way to the horizon.

The coach attendant is in her happy mode. She's going through with her push vacuum cleaner and just told the man across from me that he was "a beautiful man" because there was no garbage at his spot. She vacuumed my area without a word.

There are, as always, Amish people on board. Perhaps they're Mennonites; I can't really tell. All I know is that I've never been on this train without seeing them. This time it's a mother and two little girls, and the girls look not only like identical twins but like they were cloned from their mother. It's hard not to stare when they walk by.

It's turning into a beautiful day of train travel: high thin clouds, the train doing about 90 miles an hour, the view infinite. I have seen coyotes and beaver ponds, and off in the distance a thunderstorm brewing. The two guys I ate breakfast with have pretty much bonded. They went off to the smoking car after we ate, and in the last few hours I've seen them several times with beers. Every time they go by my seat, they're laughing, and every time, they yell out, "Oh, hey, it's our buddy from breakfast!" I think they keep forgetting where I'm sitting.

We just stopped in Havre, Montana, for a service stop. The Empire Builder is always in Havre for at least 45 minutes, and Mr. NRA knew it well and was excited about it. "Just enough time for a cocktail," he said with a wink. As soon as the train stopped, he was off into the cold wind with a tug of his hat. There are several bars right across from the station: a casino advertising live poker, a sports bar, an Eagles Club, and he went into the casino. When he came back, he had a big, dumb grin on his face and he was carrying a grocery bag with a 12-pack in it.

I needed to make a phone call, and I wound up in the Eagles Club. The only difference between it and a regular bar was the average age of the clientele, which was around 70. Next to the payphone were a Keno screen and a bulletin board with the word "hospitalized" at the top and a couple of names underneath it.

Havre is a friendly little railroad-and-cattle town. That is literally all there is in this part of Montana -- cattle and the railroad. Havre is named for some French explorer who came through, but the pronunciation of the name is explained in a local legend: It seems two fur trappers were fighting over a woman when one of them gave up and said, "Ah, you can have 'er!"

It's a few hours later now, and I just stepped off for some fresh air in "The Magic City of Minot, North Dakota." I found myself talking to a genuine "trainhead." I asked if he knew how long we'd be here, and he said, without pausing for a response from me, "Oh, about 10 or 15 minutes. The dispatchers have been real kind to us; we're running about 20 minutes early. There was just one slow stretch because of construction. Now they just dropped the blue flag. That means they're done servicing and we can be moved now. See, if the lights along the sides of the cars here are green, it means the brakes are disengaged and we're ready to go. The engineer can look in his mirror and see all the lights on the train. They turn yellow in turns because they apply a little brake. Well, here comes another freight train we'll have to pass later. Our speed limit is 20 mph higher than theirs, you see. I love the trains."

"Me, too," I said, and I meant it. And then the lights all went green, the conductor called "All aboard," and I came back here to my seat to do some more writing.

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