Building the Empire Part II: Yep, That's Still the Mississippi Over There

I am not someone who presumes the worst is going to happen. Sure, I have plenty of those moments when I feel like something is happening that would only ever happen to me, but to take that belief into my day-to-day life is shortsighted. Even in those whackiest of moments, it's hard to argue that I haven't been dealt a pretty good hand in life. This means that when I get on something like a train or an airplane, I don't assume something terrible is about to happen. While those outcomes are a possibility, that possibility is small enough to decide that if you lived your life betting on those odds at all times, your life would consist of rocking back and forth on your bed waiting around to die. I'll take my chances.

Getting on an Amtrak train, though, in the age where we're told to believe everyone in the world is probably a terrorist, is a little disconcerting. That is to say, if you were a terrorist (I am not), the ease with which you could get on board is a bit alarming. I travel light, and as such cram as much into my single backpack as I possibly can. Anything could have been in my oddly-shaped bag, and not a single person gave it a second glance, or a pass through security. Forget post-9/11 paranoia, this just seems like a huge swath of common sense being ignored.

It turned out no one aboard the Empire Builder was a terrorist. I took my seat and watched as the train began to fill. Part of me sat hoping the seat next to me would remain empty, while another part of me romantically hoped for a long lost soulmate to appear and make this train ride the type of transformative moment you look back on as you evaluate your life. As is often the case, the reality was somewhere in between.

"Can I sit next to you?" a middle-aged man asked.

"Of course," I said. "No, go away," or, "Well, are you a terrorist?" just didn't seem to have the same ring to it.

He sat down and we introduced ourselves. His name was Dean and he was heading to North Dakota; I to Portland. He was feeling less-than-enthusiastic about his 15-hour trip, at least until he heard mine was to be 45 hours. Then, in a practical, meat and potatoes kind of way, he said "Well, I guess I don't have anything to be complaining about." We shook hands and I knew I had dodged my first bullet. He wasn't a soulmate, but he was someone whose company I would be able to stomach for the first leg of my journey. 

Our relationship had three stages. The first was silence, as both of us read our respective books. He was reading a novel with mountains and a rancher on the front; I was reading Brian Kenny's Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution. I appreciated not so much the silence itself, but more so Dean's willingness to be silent at appropriate intervals. The type of wisdom where one understands the moments ripe for talk, and the moments ripe for reading books about heroic ranchers and baseball sabremetrics.

The second stage was small talk. I found myself mostly listening as he began to fill in some minor details of himself. He was the exact person I always thought lived in North Dakota. A hardworking, lower-middle-class, conservative who had voted for Donald Trump out of his disdain for Hillary Clinton, but was more than willing to raise his eyebrows and concerns at many of the ways Mr. Trump was conducting his affairs since taking office, eventually arriving at the conclusion that it was all bullshit, whoever was running things. Our discussions led me to start googling facts about North Dakota, which in turn led me to a website full of unofficial slogans of North Dakota. "North Dakota: We Really Are One of the Fifty States" was my favorite one.

The third stage of our relationship was making snarky comments about the guy sitting behind us. This man, we'll call him Tour Guide Troy, was ruining the life of the girl he was sitting next to in the form of ceaseless, directionless, and pointless discourse. For the first eight hours of the trip, this man only ever stopped talking when he made one of his countless trips into the other train cars. He was a veteran of Amtrak, and so took it upon himself to give every possible detail to this poor girl, whose only mistake was making polite small talk as we left Union Station. I was poised to offer to buy her a drink for putting up with him, but I decided the last thing she wanted was for another male stranger to approach her, even if in a joking, lighthearted context. I didn't get the impression she was in the mood.

Troy started by pointing out the window and describing what we were passing. This would have been annoying in pretty much any capacity, but you hope it would be something along the lines of, "Now, this field is where a little-known Civil War battle took place. Not many people realize that the Civil War was fought this far north."

We weren't that fortunate.

"That's Milwaukee over there."

"Now, see that's the Mississippi River."

And two hours later (I'm not making this up):

"Yep, that's still the Mississippi over there."

I was stuck in an untenable position. Do I put in my headphones and fall blissfully into the lonely world of Townes Van Zandt, or do I continue to endure this appalling hostage crisis going on in the seat behind me for writing fodder? The questions one must ponder on a train ride.


Life finds a way to answer your questions for you. As I was pondering, and tour guide Troy went off to another train car, an Amtrak employee came by and the girl asked --begged is probably more accurate-- if she could switch seats. The employee granted her request, so she moved across the aisle and sat with another woman who had extended the invitation. Dean and I continued our quiet barrage of jokes as we turned on our overhead lights and started reading again as the sun went down over northern Wisconsin.

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