Building the Empire Part III: The Militia are Coming, the Militia are Coming!

(Read Part I and Part II)

Minot, North Dakota sat just on the other side of the first night. Like a child waiting for Christmas morning, I intended to use my impending night's sleep as a shortcut to skip those final hours between where I currently sat, and where I looked forward to being: On a train without Tour Guide Troy. I had national parks, mountain ranges, and states I'd never seen lingering on the horizons, but I can't say I looked forward to any of them with the fervent zeal I was looking forward to Minot and Troy's departure.

The lights of the train shut down and passengers began to settle in for the night, each turning their seat into their own hotel room. The peacefulness that took over the Empire Builder at night was alone worth the decision to ride the rails. Even ol' Troy didn't have anything to say once the lights went down.

But just like all of those childhood Christmas Eves, the ability to actually fall asleep was next to impossible. The next several hours were spent sleeping in fifteen minute increments, upon each awakening thinking we were much closer to Christmas morning than we actually were. I eventually gave up around 4:30am, which is around the time I snapped this photo.


As we moved closer to Minot, it hit me that I would probably never see Dean, or Tour Guide Troy, or anyone on this train ever again. That was a strange sensation --one that I loved and hated at the same time. Not so much Troy because I found him insufferable, but Dean had been a perfectly agreeable companion for fifteen hours and it felt odd to shake his hand and comically exchange "Well, have a nice life" with a smile. But that's exactly what we did.

Minot is a refueling stop, so I had about half an hour to ponder my feelings. Euphoria, at the departure of Troy, and a modest sense of loss at the departure of Dean. I was reminded of Dumb & Dumber's Lloyd Christmas lamenting that his beloved Mary Swanson, after spending all of fifteen minutes in his limousine, "had flown to Aspen and out of his life." I didn't really have much in common with Dean, but I had still spent a small piece of my life with him, and in the confines of a train, where over-dramatic romanticism lives forever, that counted for something. I was sad to see him go.

But not in any kind of lasting way; it was the same feeling you get when you get to the end of a book. You might think about the ending long after, but there is that singular moment of blissfulness as you're actually reading the end. A moment later, it's gone. Maybe I'm the only one who experiences that and that made absolutely no sense to you. If it didn't, I'll make it up to you with this picture of North Dakota and its super bright grass.



As we left Minot I had the seat to myself, finding myself in the same conundrum at each stop: Wanting the seat to remain empty vs. long lost soulmate appearing and sitting next to me. For the second half of North Dakota, the seat remained empty.

Montana came into view shortly thereafter. It was the biggest place I have ever seen in terms of its ability to make you feel very, very small, and very, very unimportant in the grand scheme of life. I appreciated that feeling. It takes some of the pressure off.

We came to a stop (I don't remember which one) and the seat next to me was taken by a woman named Sarah. Unlike Dean who was exactly the person I always thought lived in North Dakota, Sarah was not the person I always believed lived in Montana. She was well-read, not a rancher, and, even if I was slightly disappointed, was not Militia.

Unlike Troy, she offered me some real knowledge of the Montana countryside we were passing through, and only ever told me about it when I asked. Like how in the winter time these open fields drop to about 40 degrees below zero, making them some of the harshest climate in the country. When I sensitively asked what happened to all of the livestock when this happens, she replied: "Exactly what you think would happen; they freeze to death, sometimes freeze to the ground. It's brutal."

She told/showed me where some of the land was operating under the Homestead Act, which more or less is the government telling people,  "if you want this land and can make it better, you can have it." In other words, you can have this land if it doesn't kill you.

I asked about the Militia, as if I might "see one" outside the window like I would a bear or a moose. "Oh, they're out there," she said with a smile, which ironically is the exact response you get when you ask about bears or moose.

I didn't see any Militia, but I did see a whole bunch of livestock. Winter is coming. I hoped they knew that.

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