Posted by: cousindampier | 5 June 2015

The Great Road Trip, Part I

Somewhere in Wyoming

Somewhere in Wyoming

From a distance, Whitefish, Montana looked like a town out of Austria or maybe Switzerland, a mountain town built on the curve of a lake, three or four rows of small peaked houses just as white as the snowfields in the background. The Empire Builder was still far away, moving quickly along a lake, the first time I could remember the train actually feeling like a train, but it was also the first moment I’d been awake since I left Spokane.

The sun was rising but the clouds were risen – illuminated with lines of pure white light in the sky, white snow on the ground, white ice on the lake. The inside of the train was dark and this only amplified the brightness outside and suddenly we were passing through a canyon, or between two hills but it looked as if the earth was dragged out and these were man-made and the train is forced through as if driven by a hammer, the speed picking up to get through it as quickly as possible and then the angelic scene outside is gone and I am in Whitefish.

The colour changes to brown. The railyard is like railyards everywhere, part storage, part dump, a place to be only if one is arriving or departing or picking up. We’re stopped for a few minutes so I step off the train into a pool of cold air, crisp but heavy. I step off mostly expecting a panoramic vista of mountains and snow, but all I see are some trucks and cars and the station itself and a long concrete platform.

It is around 7 in the morning, and I’ve been on the train since 1:30. I’m headed to Williston, North Dakota.


When I arrived to catch the train in Spokane, the station was dead, almost post-apocalyptic. I’d arrived about ten minutes before the train was supposed to leave, walking through the automatic doors without a care in the world, walking into a lobby of sleeping people and luggage. I only felt a rush when a station attendant found out where I was headed and quickly informed me I was likely to miss the train – it was sitting on the tracks as we spoke.

The train sat on the platform, idling, like a sleeping animal, quiet and unmoving but snoring, ready to awake. If the station seemed post-apocalyptic, the platform made me feel like I was the last human alive on the whole planet. I started walking down the empty platform, trying doors and finding them locked, generally feeling that if the rest of the world were to suddenly cease to exist, I might never know.

An attendant got off near the front and walked down the platform towards me, the only other person in existence at that moment. Politely telling me that I was lucky – they were waiting for a few minutes – she handed me a card with the Williston tag written on in sharpie and told me to grab a seat where I could find one. Climbing the stairs, I found one of the last set of double seats open, stashed everything up above, leaned back, and went to sleep.


After a quick breath of air in Whitefish, I went back to sleep, waking somewhere in Eastern Montana. A few hundred miles later I awoke again, arising as the sun was starting to settle for a new day. The car I sat in was only half full, mostly men, each one claiming two seats to himself as he stretched out and tried to sleep. A couple watched movies on laptops or phones, and everyone looked like they were headed no further than the oil fields.

The Amtrak line from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest is known as the Empire Builder. It runs 46 hours from Seattle to Chicago, one train passing in each direction per day. As I sat in the observation car and watched the sun begin to blend in with the green and yellow fields to the west, I liked to imagine the name had something to do with Manifest Destiny, something like connecting Montana the Northwest to the rest of the United States. I later discovered it was named after a railroad tycoon who helped form the Great Northern Railway.

The land was property as far as I could see, a landscape of rolling hills broken up by property lines and fences and sets of trees. I sat in the observation car and watched the sun move and listened to the women behind me. All were beyond middle-aged, and at least two of them were sisters, discussing their mother. They had the same gray wavy hair, and their faces sloped down into similar points, chins and noses. The talk of mother gave way to knitting patters and other things read in a magazine, and then the first reservations for dinner were called, meaning it was 5:30, and one of the women left to go to her cabin.

I sat sipping coffee and watching the sun play with the clouds for a long period of time. Property had disappeared, and the window revealed hills, those farm hills which roll and rise but never at too steep of an angle, covered with yellow grass and brown mud, all of it a museum behind a moving window. The sun sunk lower and lower and eventually the sunset became one where the clouds are the last mirror, keeping the day around for as long as possible before the old age of night sets in, but I leave before it is fully gone. Everyone likes to watch the sun set, but nobody likes to watch it disappear.

Sunset over Montana.

Sunset over Montana.


There is no intercom announcement as we pull into Williston, just a blue-shirted conductor in a fleece walking through the train announcing that we have ten minutes to go. The hidden shadows on the seats begin to move and suddenly guys with big shoulders and bearded faces stand up and put things in packs. They’ve all taken this trip a few times – one guy brought pillows and a blanket to sleep his way through and as the conductor walks through, they all perk up, phasing from rest to activity in a few seconds, putting things away and jackets on and beginning to line up at the stairs to get off the train.

We all want to get off the train. Fifteen hours of movement has brought us nearly halfway across the country but it is still fifteen hours in one place, walking from seats to the observation car, muscles sore from inactivity. The idea of getting off the train and doing anything is a pleasant thought, and I think this for a minute as I set foot on the concrete ground. The train station in Williston is dark, dimly lit by the lights of the town, a mass of people moving around. There are more people getting on and off than at any station so far, and just moving through them is a stop and go mess and I find myself wistfully thinking about how much easier walking through the narrow corridors of the train were until I see Curtis, waiting for me at the end of the platform.

Curtis is a few inches shorter than myself, around six feet tall. He’s got shoulders and a chest which make him look invincible, and when he smiles, his eyes narrow like something mischievous is about to happen. His black hair is nearly always just a little shaggy, hanging over those eyes and he gives me a hug as we walk to his car, asking about the ride over, and we start to drive through Williston.

“There.” He points to his left as we leave the train behind.

“What is it?”

“Those are the two strip clubs.”

Leaving the Amtrak station, they are the first two places you see crossing into Williston. More importantly, they are the last two places you see before you leave.

We head through the main drag of the town, Curtis pointing stuff out as we go, telling me about his hitch and the changes to come. The price of gas has dropped off a cliff in the last six months, and some of the rigs are winding down, disassembling and locking up shop until the price rises again. Guys are losing jobs left and right, transferring to other rigs or heading home. Curtis isn’t one of them, but even he is faced with cuts – no more meals provided in the man-camps where he stays, and he has to bring his own bedding. Williston at night is a few blocks long and low, two or three story buildings sticking out like skyscrapers. It is light, brilliantly lit for a moment and then we’ve passed through, suddenly by a massive parking lot and a big box store and Curtis is saying “well, if we want to stay we need to get a hotel” and I’m answering back “to hell with it, let’s drive” and we start out of Williston, back west towards Montana and as Curtis is driving he turns to me:

“Hey, want to see my rig?”

We start cutting down county roads, back roads, Curtis pointing out the miniature signs with his rig number on them, B22, Bravo-Deuce-Deuce. It seems as if we’ve left earth, left all people behind and we are stuck in a black ocean with the only lights those from his little Nissan, except in the distance there are radio towers which are brilliantly lit with white light, all the way up but they aren’t radio towers, they are oil rigs, the derricks little lights of civilization in the vast nothingness that makes up western North Dakota.

All the rigs seem forever away and we never seem to get close to any of them because of all the turns we take. We start circling around one, spiraling closer, that lit tower hovering to the right, and then we’re there, driving in the lot next to it around to the back side as Curtis points out the different features of the rig – where the mud gets displaced, where he works. It looks like a chained mythical beast, muscles straining as it pulls a drill up and then pummeling it into the ground again and if let loose it would destroy everything around it and begin to roam the earth.

The derrick is bright, lit all the way up, and everything around it is darkened, some lights here and there but that derrick dominates everything at night. Lit up with the night sky as background, it would seem to point the way to the sky, but sitting in the car, staring at it, it is the hilt on a sword, pointing the way down into the black gold which rests underneath.

We stare at it for a while, Curtis with pride and myself with awe. We see only one man, grabbing stuff from his car, and otherwise it seems as if the drill runs itself, and then Curtis bids it farewell until the next hitch, and we’re off, Curtis knows the way, back to Montana, back to Miles City and I-25 south and Denver.

Bravo-Deuce-Deuce, as taken by Curtis

Bravo-Deuce-Deuce, as taken by Curtis


I wake up somewhere in Wyoming. It’s 2:30 am. I’d managed to stay awake until we made it to Miles City and then south to Wyoming. I wanted to stay awake, keep conversation going so Curtis wasn’t faced with five hours of night driving alone, but I’d caught a head cold the day before I left and all that sleep on the train ride had not cured it yet. The last thing I remembered was pulling over at the Wyoming border, three semi-trucks pulled off to the side of the road around a green sign that said nothing fancy, just ‘Entering Wyoming’ where we stopped and stepped into the cold night to take a picture with the sign. We hoped it was the first of many pictures featuring welcome signs.

We’d agreed on splitting shifts, about four hours driving each, and as we pull off and fill up and use the restroom I take over, 130 miles from Cheyanne, 250 from Denver. The road was empty, maybe straight, maybe narrow, too dark to tell and with Karouac blaring through my brain and Curtis sleeping in the seat next to me, we made south through the beautiful nothing that is Wyoming at night.

* *
Dawn broke around us as we crossed into Colorado. As it did, our dream of getting pictures of the welcome signs drifted from dusk to night – the Colorado sign was well placed directly in front of an entry ramp to the highway, with little shoulder to stop on. We flew past and into the daylight.

Day begins as a halo which creeps higher and higher into the sky. We are embarked on the New Great Road Trip, the kind where we look up the closest coffeeshop and discover it opens at 5am all while zooming along at 70 miles per hour; where you pull over in a stripmall and open a door to a Starbucks with warm heat, soft music and $2 coffee and where you book a hotel room from your phone as you do so. On one had, all we have is the stuff in the car – the road is life – but while we are driving through Wyoming at 2 am and arriving in Denver along with the dawn, we also have the ability to post whatever kind of image online we want. We are disconnected because we choose to be, except for the ways in which we tell people where we’re at.

We pull off Colfax Avenue in Dever, into a long, thin parking lot. Shutting down the car which as driven four states and thirteen hours, we walk into a reception area and lounge which is big enough to seat a couple dozen people. The guy behind the desk probably just wants us out of his lobby and lets us check in early for no charge, and we somehow manage to shower before closing the curtains tight and sleeping until the afternoon.


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