The Empire Builder Redux ~ Chicago to Fargo



I don’t need to worry about Chicago.

We arrive mid-morning, passing through the industrial south side, the rust and decay, the hard edges of shipping and steel, and the Empire Builder toward home does not leave until 2:15.

That has an odd ring, I think. Toward home.

Every trip has a denouement and this one is just beginning. I am already on the familiar ground of my own history.  I grew up in a northside suburb of Chicago.  I have walked through this station a hundred times.  Two blocks to the north, at what was then called Northwestern Station, the commuter lines deliver or pickup those who do the daily commute. Union Station, this station, was on my walk to the university where I was a student and in winter the shelter here was welcome.

Even today, I would not be surprised to see an old high-school friend, though they might be surprised to see me. The highways between here and home are as familiar as old clothes.

With time to spend, I wander the station, eat an Italian Beef sandwich (a nostalgic favorite from Chicago’s west side), bask in the grandness of the space.  This, I think, is what a train station should be.  This is the aspirational definition. The tall and vaulted ceilings, the staircases, the doorways into corridors that lead to tracks, the whole feel is enormous, which is exactly right for long distance rail.

This is a place that celebrates anticipation. This is the place where the universe begins.



Queue the theme music.

An announcement in the Metropolitan Lounge says the Empire Builder is ready to board so I gather my few things and head to the platform.  And there she is, standing by the door to my car, smiling.

Linda King!

She looks at me and I can see the thoughts race across her face.

I know that guy.  Who is that guy? How do I know that guy?

A pause. We stand there, smiling at each other.



We almost hug.

“I have stories to tell you!” she says.

“I do, too!” I say.



Back on a Superliner, I climb up the steps and head to my room.  Same one as before. My room! I know where everything goes.  Lord, I think, this feels good.  I don’t unpack too much, though.  I’ll be getting off again in the middle of the night.  But I do go to the end of the car where the orange light on the coffee pot is bright.

Still in the station and half an hour late, no one minds.  This is the American rail, heading out from Chicago toward the Rocky Mountains. Preparations take time.

I listen to Linda give the orientation speech. Hey guys, is this your first time on the train? She explains the bathroom, the dinner reservation system.  Breakfast and lunch, she says, first come first serve. For dinner you need a reservation. She explains where things are in each room. The same conversation, room to room to room, day by day by day, full of smiles.

A voice on the intercom lets us know this is a sold-out train. Every seat is filled.




We get underway and Linda stops by quickly, all smiles.

“It’s been ten days since I saw you,” I say. “How many times have you made this trip since then?  What have you been up to?”

“I’ve made the trip once since I saw you, but guess what?  I got rewarded!” she says.  “This position gets to be my regular position.”

“Congratulations! When did that happen?”

“This is my first trip as a regular position.”

“No longer on call?”

“Now when I go home, I’ll have five days off, then back on the same route with the same crew and the same rotation. It takes five years to get this status.”

“Are the trips really all that different?” I ask.

“Not really, no,” she says.

“Remember Paul and Edith?” I ask.

She hesitates so I show her a picture.

“I remember them!” she says.  “They were great!”

I tell her about Dan and Paul duct-taping Josh’s door, other passengers listening as well, and she can’t stop laughing.



I’m telling Linda stories from the other legs of this trip. Have you ever had a stowaway? I ask.

“Hmm,” she says.  “I have.  Not really a fare evader, though.  Just someone who went off to a part of the train where he wasn’t supposed to be. It was one of my first runs as a coach attendant, on the Coast Starlight out of LA.  I was in charge of two coach cars. Each attendant has to be in charge of two coach cars.

“How many people sit in one of those?” I ask.

“About 65 people each.”

“So, you’re in charge of 130 people?”

“Yes.  And that trip was busy. I was pretty new.  We had people wander off into another coach car and decide to sit there without telling us.  We don’t really babysit, so when we tell them, hey, we need you to stay in your car, we’re just going to leave it at that. Then we were off-loading people from one designated car.  When the train started moving here comes this passenger running to where the conductor and I were standing, yelling ‘This is my stop, you didn’t tell me.’ He had a ticket and everything.  But he’d just gone off to a car that was empty, by himself. I felt so bad.  During that time I was really sensitive and I thought it was all my fault.  I felt I just ruined this man’s trip and I started crying.”

“Have you had anyone try to sneak on board?” I ask.

“I have! In San Luis Obispo, I was working in the sleeper car and this homeless man came close to me and then got on the car.  He was wandering around and I told him sir…”

“How new were you at this time?” I ask.

“I was brand new.  It was in my first three months.  I told him, Sir, you need to get off this train! What are you doing? He started yelling at me, cussing at me, and the passengers were like Do you need help? Do you need help? The passengers were saying this!”

“This is coach? I ask.

“No, this was a sleeper!  Downstairs. I ran toward the conductor because he was outside by the engine. He came right up to the man and I guess he’d already dealt with this type of passenger, so he managed to get him off. That was my first weird experience.”



“What you need to understand,” she says, “is that 99.99 percent of the passengers are wonderful.  A lot better than the airlines.  They are people who want to be on the train, who really love being on the train.  But that last little bit, those people are always there. I was just talking with Marcelo—he’s going to be one of the servers in the dining car today—and he said he recognized me from the LA to New Orleans route.  He was just telling me that he was off work for six months.  I asked him why and he said because…”

Linda’s voice goes down to a whisper.

“…a passenger punched him. I said why did he punch you and he said ok, he was working coaches and needed to wake passengers up to let them know, hey, we’re fifteen minutes away from your stop. Get your stuff ready. This passenger woke up angry. And he just punched Marcelo in the rib. Marcelo said he was in shock.  He didn’t know how to react. And so he asked him, ‘Why did you punch me?’ And the passenger said, ‘because I felt like it.  Because you woke me up. Now I want to kick your…”



Things I did not take a picture of:

  • A junction box labeled Seminary.
  • A sign that says Trains make America Great.
  • A backyard filled with children waving at the train.
  • A bar near the Wisconsin Dells, a back porch facing the tracks. Twenty people or so, waving at the train.
  • A little girl, first maybe second grade, playing with what I assume is her brother or a friend in a front yard. She turned and blew kisses toward the train as we passed.



The conductor comes on the intercom to tell everyone that this is a family train and if you’re using abusive language then you will be put off the train. Somebody back in coach, it seems, is using foul language.

A few minutes later, the conductor and the assistant conductor go running by my room. The conductor says, “He picked the wrong day to mess with me.” The assistant conductor laughs the particular laugh that comes before trouble.  Here comes a moment, I think.

Part of me wants to dash after them, camera in hand.  Another part of me thinks that might escalate the problem. Besides, these are my last few hours and the countryside is beautiful.  I decide to wait.



In Wisconsin, there are deer cantering next to the tracks. Two men fish from a small boat under a bridge.  The shirtless one stands up as we pass and waves at the train.  A golden haze hangs over the river on this hot, humid summer afternoon turning into night.

At Tomah, Wisconsin, the train makes it usual stop. A number of Amish get off. Just before the stop, though, the conductor is called back to the lounge car again. Linda tells me there is one person who is causing problems. I feel the train move forward one car length and then stop again. It’s easy to guess what’s happening.



Standing near the exit doors, and more importantly near the coffee, I’m talking with David Pryor, the conductor for this leg.

“Somebody causing problems back in the lounge?” I say.

“Not anymore,” he says. “He’s been removed.”

“Tell me the story?”

“He was an issue before he even got on the train.  He was loud because the train was departing late. We went back there and explained.  We apologized. I said ‘Sir, I don’t know if you heard earlier when I made an announcement, but just because we’re late does not give you carte blanch to act crazy aboard the train.’ Well, I’ve had three more complaints since then. I went back there.  The only reason I was hesitant to put him off then was because he was with a young lady with a six-month-old baby. I did not want to put them out.  I gave her the option to continue to travel without him and of course she said she didn’t want to.”

“What did he say at the first warning?” I ask.

“F bomb.  He was dropping F bombs from the beginning.”

“Was he smashed?”

“He was drunk. He was a drunk passenger. I gave him the opportunity, more than once, to go back to his seat and sleep it off since he was traveling with somebody.”

“And the somebody wasn’t trying to mediate the situation?” I ask.

“Well, they got into an argument back in coach, in their seats.  That’s why I was called back there the last time, and that was it.  I have three hundred people on board and I’m not going to let those two destroy it for everybody else. Especially since I warned them about three times.”

“Was she being loud, too?”

“No, no, no. She was being an absolute gem and I hated to put her off.  That’s why I offered to let her ride with the baby. She kept saying over and over how sorry she was. She was argumentative with him, which is understandable, but…”

“Your authority is to put him off the train.  Do you have to put him in the care of someone else?” I ask.


“But do you have to?”

“I’ve been here for thirty years. Back in the day I could put them off right at the crossing. But what I usually do in a situation like that, when they get out of hand, is just what I did. I gave them more than enough chances. But then it just got totally out of control, and once other people started complaining…”

“What if he refuses?” I ask.  “What if he needs to be physically pried out of his seat?”

“That’s why I called the police. When the couple started arguing back there in their seats, two people came up to me saying ‘Please move me, I can’t take it anymore.’ That was all she wrote.”

I ask about the story I heard in the southwest, that sometimes the police don’t show up.

“The police came right away.  I’ve been here long enough; I’ve had my share of police disturbances. Majority of the time, they’re there.  Thankfully, the most I’ve ever had to wait was five or six minutes. Most times they come right away, the moment we call. Especially tonight.  He was right at the station.  He must have been right in the area. Because I turned around and he was there. And the guy was dropping f bombs with the police. The police guy said, ‘Yeah, I see why you want him off.’ The guy was dropping f bombs with the police.  We just had to do what we had to do.”

I ask about security.  There are no metal detectors for boarding trains.  Europe has had its problems.

“That’s just the thing,” he says.  “There are no metal detectors.  So you really don’t know what people could have on them.  Any time a person poses a threat like that, and they’re drunk, that’s a double liability. Off the train they go.  I’m the type, I always want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  I want to see them continue with their trip.  It’s a train. I want you to have fun. But everything done in moderation.  He abused it. He was warned three times, before the fourth time when we put him off.”

“I heard you say wrong day to mess with me.”

“Yeah, we left 45 minutes late.  But you know, that still isn’t bad. Right now, I’m thinking about people who have to make connections in La Crosse, to get on a bus.  I’m thinking about a room back here that’s double-sold.  I’ve got other things to think about.  So for that to come on in addition, that’s what I meant by wrong day to mess with me.  When people applaud, that’s the validation. When you come back upstairs and everybody gives you a round of applause, you know. It’s not the kind of round of applause I was seeking, but it’s validation you did the right thing.”



I do not get a picture of:

  • A woman outside, twirling in a wedding dress for pictures as the train goes by, the sunset behind her.



We cross the Mississippi River and I smile thinking about crossing it just a few days ago in New Orleans.  Now we are back in Minnesota. We pass Winona, Red Wing, St. Paul.



Linda comes by and asks if I want my room changed over, the seats made into a bed.  I tell her no.  I’m getting off the train in the middle of the night, and if I were to go to sleep I would likely miss my stop.

“No,” she laughs.  “We’d make sure.”

We compromise.  She lays the seat flat but does not get out the sheets and pillows.

“I’m jealous,” I say.  “Tomorrow morning, take out coffee at the water and fuel stop, then the long high plains, then the Rockies.”

“It’s never the same,” she says. “It never gets old.”

We say good-bye and good night.



I watch the sun set, and then my own reflection in the window glass before I turn off the light.  When I cannot see anything outside at all, I watch a moving map on my phone, a little dot chugging along the black line of the railway.  It’s not nearly as straight as I thought it would be.



I try to sleep, unsuccessfully. I want, just once more, to feel that rock of the car and hear the whish of crossing bells. I want to wake up under that window again. But I also don’t want to miss anything.

I get up, pack my bag, pour fresh coffee, go exploring one more time.

Approaching Fargo, I meet a new conductor and we get to talking about The Russian.

“I’d like to meet him someday,” he says.

“Why is that?” I ask.

“I speak Russian.”



At home in Fargo, I am the only person to get off the train.  Down the platform, I can see a handful of people get onboard the coach car.  No one boards the sleeper.

It’s been raining for the last several hours and there is a fog around the station.  A good fog.  Just right for the moment. This is what a passenger train should look like in the night, I think.  Quiet depth.  Evocation. Intrigue. From here—everywhere.

I stand on the platform, my bag at my feet, camera in hand, looking at the train.  The whistle blows and I almost leap back onboard.

Then the doors shut.  The Empire Builder heads west into the night.  If there is such a thing as grateful longing, it hangs in the air.


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