North Dakota

I wake up in North Dakota, refreshed and well-rested after a good night's sleep,and sweep aside the curtains to find bright sunshine outside. It's a beautiful day, great for watching scenery.

I leave the standard bedroom behind and head to the dining car. At the table is a cheerful early thirtyish woman traveling to visit her brother in Oregon, and an early thirtyish man with his nine year old niece. The man and his niece have a quiet conversation. "Did you take your medicine?" he asks. "Not yet," she says, "but I'm breathing all right." He's very gentle with her, and she is very well behaved. Interestingly, children on trains tend not to be the rowdy sort, perhaps through self-selection on the part of the parents, perhaps also due to the open space.

The steward comes over and loudly tells the man that he must order a meal. "OK, all right," he says. The steward repeats the proclamation before stomping away. Turns out the man had come in last night, wasn't too hungry, and ordered only a snack. Seems a small thing for the steward to get upset over, maybe he hasn't had time to mellow out yet from his previous restauranting experience? (He was wearing a suit rather than an Amtrak uniform.) The table starts making small talk, beginning with the standard conversation opener of why take the train. When the topic comes to the Seattle-Vancouver train he remarks that he can't take it. "Why not?" his niece asks. "Because they don't let anybody into Canada who's gotten into trouble," he says. Felony conviction? He's rather quiet, unassuming, his temper didn't flare up when the steward came to yell at him. Maybe he's not a man you want to meet when he's been drinking. He doesn't say any more about it, so we move onto a different topic.

After breakfast, the niece decides to adopt me. For the next two hours, she takes me forward and backward through the train several times. She's small and I've been riding trains since Monday, so it's very easy to maneuver around tight spots, up and down the stairs. She talks about her uncle: "He doesn't have much money, we visited my grandparents and my parents gave him the money to take me on this trip. We're getting off at Pasco after they split the train up, it's before sunrise, but my parents are coming to pick us up." Her teachers say she's smart, but she doesn't like math, and she's "a tomboy, and all [her] friends think so too." We color, I help her find her favorite crayon which dropped on the floor, we discuss the relative merits of public vs. religious schools, etc.

The train is very full, so she eventually finds a boy her own age to play with. People are quite trusting on trains; random strangers are not treated warily as at airports or in the street, more like people at a friend's party — you may not know them intimately, but if they got invited, then they probably are all right. Long-distance train travel has a middle-class and rural niche which permits this feeling of safety.