I swear this is the way it begins.
A man in a Day-Glo orange shirt, and a woman in a floral print dress, walk into the waiting room of the Amtrak station in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Their roller bags get stuck in the door.
Somewhere between middle-aged and old, they pause once inside to gather themselves and he surveys the room. In a loud voice he calls, “All Aboard!”
There are others here before them. Two gray-haired women, one in sweats and the other in leopard print, both wearing glasses, hands folded politely in their laps, sit at opposite walls. Another man and a young woman hold their two very young daughters, maybe five and six years old, sleeping in their laps.
No one looks up.
I’ve been here a while myself. This is the start of something and I want to see the waiting room fill, want to know who else will be riding this train. A number of young men, tattooed, wearing oil-stained clothes, heading for the oil fields in Williston have been trickling in. I knew they would be here and thought they would be rough, foul-mouthed, ignorant and ready for a fight. Full of hubris and vinegar, the whole cliché. But every one of them is polite. When they speak to the stationmaster, they call him sir, speak softly with their questions.
One very large man, bald, the kind of guy who fills a room just by breathing, comes in with an equally large woman who looks like a Hawaiian matriarch. They find seats and he hugs her. Then he hugs her again. Not sexually. Just lovingly. And she smiles when he does.
We all find spaces to wait.
The man in the orange shirt and his wife walk to the ticket counter. On the other side of the Plexiglas, the stationmaster waits, expressionless.
“This is our first time on a train,” the man says.
The stationmaster nods.
The woman says, “We don’t know what to do.”
~ ~ ~
Every now and then, when a person is very young, a dream gets lodged in the back of the brain. The dream could be to become an astronaut, a race car driver, a surgeon. Sometimes the dream is more trophy driven, like climbing Mount Everest. Sometimes the dream is closer to home, like owning your own business. But some dreams are different. They are dreams of attitude instead of accomplishment, bound up in history as well as desire. And for a great many people, these dreams include trains.
To ride a train has always been to embark on an adventure. I’m not sure why this is. Clearly, the tracks go someplace where people have already been. There have been surveyors, railroad construction workers, men and women laying out the services both at the destination and along the way. It’s not as if anyone boarding a train is heading for undiscovered country, Terra incognita. But boarding a train is, for everybody, an act of leaving home. And it’s not just leaving. It’s joining. It’s stepping into something huge. Even if all you’re doing is stepping onto a tram at some large but forgettable airport, the doors open, you step inside, the doors close, and something in you recognizes you’ve somehow wound up inside the bullet. The rush begins. You do your best to hang on.
Trains have always been romantic. Whether it’s the trans-Siberian railway, the trans-Canadian railway, the Orient express or anything else, trains imply the kind of mystery and intrigue nearly everybody finds alluring. An overnight train carries James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago. We share the image of the steam locomotive pumping smoke into the air. We share the mythology of great train robberies in the American West, in England and in Asia. We are captivated by the speed and shape of bullet trains in Japan.
I don’t know when, or exactly why, but a long time ago I got a particular idea about riding a train. I’ve been on trains before. The fast train from London to Paris. Slower trains from London up into Scotland. Commuter trains in the suburbs into Chicago. Subways in New York and Hong Kong and everywhere else. But I’ve never been on a train for more than a few hours. Once, a great many years ago, when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, my parents rode the train from Kansas City to Chicago and I have vague, fleeting memories of that trip. A curve in the route. Fields out a window. I believe we had a sleeper compartment. But I don’t remember that trip in any way that lingers or is substantial.
I’ve heard the stories about the Great American trains. These days they are all part of the Amtrak system, but they have names, romantic names, names that inspire and call. Empire Builder. Coastal Starlight. Lake Shore Limited. The particular idea I had, the question that stuck itself in the back of my hopes, was what would happen if I were to board a train in Fargo, where I live, and not get off until I ridden all the way around the country? I looked at the maps. Fargo to Seattle to Los Angeles to New Orleans to DC to New York to Chicago then back to Fargo. I could ride down to Florida, but that would require turning around and riding exactly the same rails back up into Virginia. I could head northeast out of New York City up through Springfield and Boston but once again I would have to turn around and repeat the journey back.
As a photographer, what would I see? Beyond the cliché, art deco interiors, elegantly dressed men and women, what would I see out the window? Who would I meet and what stories would they tell me? I have driven through every state in the country and most of Canada. I’ve seen that landscape from a car. But a car requires attention to the road. A driver cannot linger in appreciation of a field, a mountain, a sunset, a river, if destination is the goal.
I am just over 60 years old now, at a time in my life now when dreams are important. Not because they’re going to set a course for who I wish to become but, instead, because if I don’t act soon it will be too late. To ride the passenger rail all the way around the country, even for somebody my age, sounds cool.
So, I got my act together, took the leap, purchased the ticket. I set a schedule which would keep me on the train as much as possible. Ten days, I discovered, to get around the country. Of those ten days, four nights would be a in a hotel because the train schedules would not meet up, one route leading to another, in a way that would allow me to stay on the train.
What would I learn about our country sitting on the inside of a train looking out at the landscape racing by? As a photographer, it’s an interesting proposition. Normally the photographer is still and the subject is moving. This would be the reverse. The landscape, whatever that may mean, would be stationary. Inside the great romantic notion of an American railway system, I would be racing by the landscape.
I packed my bag.