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Spring Break '97 - part 3
The Hi-Line

After being overwhelmed by the magnificent scenery of Glacier National Park during the trip up Marias Pass, I fell asleep for the trip down. The train continued to glide around curves, through the wet snow that was piled on trees and to the side of the tracks.

I woke up to a partially blue sky. I could look to the west and see the mountains, shrouded in mist like something out of a fantasy, but then crane my neck around the edge of the container, into the wind, and see the expanse of the plains and a bright blue sky.

When I turned to look again behind the train, I saw a full rainbow to the northwest.

I remembered that I had been this way before, as far as Shelby, MT, as I watched the town of Cut Bank slide by. Most of the time, though I did not spend watching scenery, I was working.

Specifically, I was trying to get all of the slush out of the well car, by kicking it to the two little holes in the back corners of the car, and then stomping it through. This took quite a bit of effort, but it was definitely a good thing.

Even though the blue sky and sun breaking though promised a warm spring day, the pocket of warm air seemed to end quickly, and the day chilled. The floor of the well froze again, and the remaining slush became ice. My blanket and some of my clothes were wet, and I tried my best to hang them out to dry.

Due to my previous encounter with the bull in Spokane, I had become a bit wary, even in this sparsely populated area. Twice, though, I saw a Jeep Cherokee (this one purple) in a close proximity to the tracks. So, I kept out of sight.

The train shot through Shelby, MT without stopping. The last time I'd been this way, I'd rode a grainer from Whitefish, and then gotten off in Shelby, when it turned south towards Great Falls. When I found out that I wasn't at a crew change, I panicked, but then found out from a nice lady in the crew office that the #1 (a TOFC/COFC) would be coming through at dawn, and I ended up catching that.

So, east of Shelby, I finally had entered new territory for freight train riding, even though I'd rode this way on Amtrak when I was a kid.

It's pretty boring. I just hung out and worked on cleaning the ice and water out of the well until Havre, MT, the next crew change after Whitefish. The train stopped in the yard, and the power was cut, and I laid low in the well and read. I had bought James Lee Burke's "The Neon Rain", at the used bookstore in Missoula before I left and it was just starting to get interesting.

Two hours later, I was still sitting there. The sun was at just the right angle to shine on my face and hands while I sat in the well. A rainy, dreary, morning had turned into a beautiful, if a bit chilly, afternoon.

The power had been cut, and then reattached, and the train moved ahead about a quarter mile, then cut again. The first time, I think, was for refueling and engine servicing, then the second time was waiting for Amtrak #7 to get out of the way. The passenger train passed right by me, but I didn't show off and didn't get any waves.

At about 3:30 pm, 12 hours from Whitefish, my train headed eastbound again. The wind cooled me off quick, and I ate a dinner of sardines and bread, and drank wine while I watched the sky darken to a plum shade, napping intermittently.

It must have been dark when we ran through Glasgow, the next crew change, and I was asleep for it.

When I did awaken, my blanket had frozen into something that resembled a topo map of a barren landscape, and all the slush I'd been through had had introduced a bit of water into my boots. My water bottle was frozen except for an egg-size space of liquid in the middle, and even the wine had turned to slush (That's 40 proof!) I checked my thermometer, 7 degrees F!. I had not expected this cold. I stood up and hung onto the vertical closure bars of the container and ran in place for a hundred count. My feet were numb and the pounding shot rivers of pain up the back of my legs.

I must, I thought, as I saw the mounds of drifted snow whizz by in the pale moonlight, be in North Dakota.

Chapter 6 - Turning Southward
view from train The train had stopped on a passing siding, and it was quiet. I stood in the well, breathing the frigid night air, and wonderering when the sun would come again. The night was clear, and the moon and the stars shone bright, out here in the middle of nowhere. There was snow piled high all around the tracks. When the train started moving again, I ran in place for a while to warm my feet back up, took a last gulp of wine, and tried to sleep again, to make the dawn come faster. But my blanket was frozen, and so was the floor of the car, and it was damned uncomfortable!

When dawn finally did come, we were rolling steadily through farmlands and prairies. I did not know where I was. The last crew change I had seen was Havre, and it was only a little over 12 hours later, so I figured the I was still west of Minot, North Dakota.

The sun was peeking through, though, so I felt warm enough to will my fingers to unzip my pack and get out the rail atlas. It didn't help. I was lost. Fortunately, on a train, you almost always end up somewhere.

It was now Monday morning, and I was watching the milemarkers count down from 100 or so, figuring 0 would be Minot's Gavin yard. But the next town was Casselton, ND, A full half a state east from where I thought I was and only 30 miles to Minnesota. I guess I had slept through Minot during the night.

It might have been obvious, though, if I'd thought about it. Every time the train crossed a road, it was at an angle, meaning it was travelling southeast, and not east.

We rolled into Fargo in mid-morning, and then across the state line into BNSF's main yard at Dilworth, MN. We only sat there for a little while before we were off, headed for the Twin Cities.

I could still see a lot of snow piles alongside the tracks, but the sun and the gradual change in latitude were warming my body and soul.

During the rest of Monday, it got warmer. There was less and less snow along the tracks, and more and more signs of civilization. The tracks follow U.S. Highway 10 a lot of the way, so when I felt daring, I got up and watched cars and trucks.

I calculated my arrival time in Chicago to be sometime Tuesday, and I was making pretty good time. I read my book a bit, with my water bottle stuck down my armpit, in hopes of thawing it.

It was around 5 pm when I started to see the outskirts of the Twin Cities area, and before long, the train had stopped in Northtown Yard. It sat there for a while, long enough for it to get dark. Then it rolled on, and I stood up, in my well, and watched the numerous yards roll by.

After Northtown, but still in an urban area, the power got cut, and I started to worry. What if this was just a Minneapolis train and wasn't going to Chicago? I sat and waited. Finally, we got aired up again and took off.

I stood at the edge of the well and watched the buildings and cityscape of St. Paul, Minnesota, glide by as we curved faster and faster out of the city. I took it all in, until we were away from the Twin Cities and rolling along the river. I opened a can of chili and ate it with some cheese and finished off my wine. Then I slept. When I awoke, the train had left the banks of the Mississippi, and was now rolling eastward across the Illinois prairie. The sky was clear and dawn was just beginning to break. In a few hours, I'd be in Chicago!