The Empire Builder

Image © Callie Hirsch. All Rights Reserved.

The Empire Builder was scheduled to leave at 4 p.m. from Seattle. Prompted by the last-minute realization that I might want to eat, I’d bought a box of Annie’s granola bars, now wedged in the bottom of my backpack alongside a handful of Jack Daniel’s minis and a bag of Washington cherries from my friend Meredith, with whom I’d been staying. I grabbed a few pairs of clean underwear out of my luggage, stuffed them in the pack between my journal and toothbrush, and walked a few rows to coach seating.

En route to the station, Meredith had taken me to an exhibit of Mick Rock’s photography at the Museum of Pop Culture, featuring enlarged black and white prints of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed in their young-and-wasted days. One image showed Bowie reclining, eyes closed, in a train’s sleeper car; the caption noted he was terrified of flying and preferred to traverse the U.S. by rail. I remembered reading somewhere that during his “Young Americans” era, Bowie subsisted on only cocaine, peppers, and milk. I considered the scattered snacks in my backpack. If being glamorously hungry on a train was good enough for David Bowie, it was good enough for me. I found an empty pair of seats and looked out, forehead pressed against the cool window, as the summer sun hung low over a deep blue sky.


I had recently completed a writing residency in rural Washington. I opted for an adventure on the way home, instead of another cross-country flight. While planning the trip, I imagined the tidy confinement of a sleeper car, a cozy compartment of my own from which to stare out the window wistfully and think about America and myself. When booking tickets, I learned that a sleeper car of one’s own for the 2,206 mile ride from Seattle to Chicago cost nearly a dollar per mile—affordable only to the David Bowies among us. I settled for a seat in coach at $180. Certainly less cinematic, but I’d still have a window and the same endless expanse of track to peer out from. The landscape began slowly rolling by as the train pulled away from the station. In forty-five hours, I would arrive in Chicago on the Fourth of July.


I was thirty-one, untethered to any responsibilities other than my part-time job back in Boston. I didn’t have a salary, a house, a car, a marriage or kids. My most valuable asset was a bike. A fourth grader I’d worked with, who’d pressed the back of her hand to my forehead when she worried I was sick, asked about school shootings and told me she was afraid to go to high school. I attended protests on Sundays and made micro-donations to the ACLU, and ignored the nagging sense of futility of it all. My long relationship with someone I loved constantly teetered on its edge, about to break, before righting itself, only to falter again. The New England winters never really seemed to end, only to break for a quick recess.

A fourth grader I’d worked with, who’d pressed the back of her hand to my forehead when she worried I was sick, asked about school shootings and told me she was afraid to go to high school.

I was getting older and the sea levels were rising, two catastrophic processes that showed no signs of abating. Time seemed to be running out—for a habitable world, and for my own life to become something great, something intentional. I was waiting for something to happen: a flash of inspiration or courage that would change my life; vindication of every choice I’d ever made by way of a book deal, freedom from all my obligations toward capital accrual and any sort of sadness delivered by a surprise inheritance. In lieu of all that, just to shake myself loose from the usual, I put myself on a train across America.


The Empire Builder embarked on its inaugural journey in 1929, running from Portland or Seattle to Chicago. Every year, it delivers thousands of passengers back home, or carries them away, to some other far-off destination. In the summer months, the train employs Park Service rangers to narrate the sights from the observation car. They act a bit like baseball announcers, offering play-by-plays of the natural and cultural history of the landscape while passengers watch from panoramic windows that curve up to the roof and ask them questions about birds. Bill and John were both middle aged, dressed in starched khaki uniforms and each simultaneously exuded a staid professionalism and a giddiness that this was their job. Bill was mustachioed and heavyset, John was trim and British. As the train curled alongside the Puget Sound away from Seattle, Bill noted that we might catch a sighting of a cormorant, seal, or orca out of the train window. Hopeful, I scanned the water for movement. I didn’t see any charismatic marine mammals, but knowing they might be lurking beneath the surface of the water was thrilling enough. Further east in Sultan was the site of “Woodstock before Woodstock,” the 1968 Sky River Rock Festival, which featured the Grateful Dead and Santana. We continued to Wallace Falls (“higher than Niagara Falls,” said Bill), and onto Index, Washington, site of a gold boom in the 1880s. We raced into the new Cascade Tunnel, (“the longest tunnel in the lower 48!” chirped John). The rangers made a brief reference to the Chinese workers who had built the rail and blown out the mountain to make way for the tunnel we were riding through. Later, reading up on the train line, I learned that the Chinese laborers were treated as expendable, sub-human, as they worked to build the rail that would render the West traversable for the first time. By then, I was familiar with the process of reorienting myself to far darker truths than the ones I’d been taught as a child.


Three weeks earlier, I’d stared out the window over my residency desk, taking in the cold late spring of the Washington mountains. The residency was housed in an empty elementary school that was abandoned decades ago, after the local mines went bust and the town’s population plummeted. I had a chilly eight-hundred-square-foot classroom to myself to sleep and write in, not far off from the writer’s garret I’d dreamed of as a kid. Next to the main building, an abandoned courtyard with a faded mural of Pacific Northwest flora and fauna led to an empty, echoing gym. Between writing sessions, I ran laps in the gym, which smelled of fresh varnish, as if it had been recently prepared for a basketball team that would never return. I marveled at and delighted in the desolation, hoping that this place, completely detached from any reality I’d ever known, would draw something indelible from me.

Each day as the morning fog burned off, hummingbirds fluttered in the huge pink blossoms outside of my window, treading in the air with a sheer will I couldn’t begin to relate to. Logging trucks rolled by my window at regular intervals. On my second day in town, while mailing some postcards, I was bitten by a gray Airedale Terrier named Shadow, who sunk his teeth through my jeans and into my calf. “Shadow! Shadow!” its owner called after it while it charged at me. My shock was mitigated by the rueful acknowledgement that I couldn’t last long in Trump country without being attacked. The bite was shallow: I recovered quickly.

Mostly, I was glad to feel fully removed from my usual routines, the trodden paths between work, the grocery store, the coffee shop and the bar, the alarms set and the snooze buttons hit. The air itself felt wider here. Alpine goldenrod burst from the damp green expanse of earth, dotting the endless untrammeled landscape like dappled sunlight. In the evenings, the sky over the Cascades seemed to ignite, streaked with wisps of neon orange and pink. On a few nights during our stay, our daily word count goals nearly reached, the other writers and I ambled down the hill to the Headquarters bar for a beer, where our faces were the only unfamiliar ones among the other patrons in this town of two hundred. Shadow barked frantically from a truck in the parking lot. We joined in on karaoke and fended off advances from the local guys at the bar, who didn’t know men can’t approach strange women in public anymore.


I envisioned my train ride home as an extension of the residency: I would ride the Empire Builder in an attempt to access some truth that remained unknowable in a mode of stasis. I would wriggle free of the confines of American adulthood and learn something new. As the Empire Builder barreled across Eastern Washington, I thought again of David Bowie, his young, free image suspended in the amber of black and white photos, unencumbered by the particular darkness of this moment. I wondered if listening to only David Bowie for the remainder of the summer would successfully transport me even partway out of the current era, and solve at least some of my problems. I could attempt to crawl out from under the long moment of cultural weight that threatened to crush everything in its path by living vicariously through the freedom and freakiness of David Bowie. Maybe he would shift my mood and reveal some truth, teach me something eternal that I was too blocked, scared, too earthbound to realize on my own. That night, as darkness fell outside the train, I settled further into my seat, poured a whiskey nip into a can of seltzer, and cued up a David Bowie album on my iPod. We were heading east, away from the setting sun and into the night. The first few chords of “Rebel Rebel” rang in my ears like a language I’d learned a long time ago, somewhere far from here. “Hot tramp, I love you so.” I looked out the window, up at the stars, as the dark trees rushed by beneath them.


The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of John and Bill’s broadcast from the observation car. I laid across the two plush seats with a travel blanket and pillow, which served as a sufficient bed. I lifted my eye mask and checked my phone. It was 7 a.m. White summer sunlight poured in through the wide windows. I sat up and stretched myself awake; we were in western Montana. I walked through a few cars to the back of the train and bought a watery coffee from the snack bar. A short staircase led me to the observation car on the train’s second floor: I had come to absorb John and Bill’s geography lesson in person. The observation car was laid out like a diner, with fiberglass tables and vinyl booth seats. I slid into a booth and looked around. Most of my fellow travelers up here were a bit older than me, enjoying the trip with friends or partners. They looked clean and less rumpled than I felt after six hours of sleep across two seats. John and Bill were relaying an amusing anecdote of a cargo truck losing all its corn and bears happily discovering the spoils months later. The corn had been fermented in the interim, conjuring a satisfying image of a group of intoxicated black bears. Drunk bears, I scribbled into my notebook.

As the train skated along the southern edge of Glacier National Park, mountains loomed outside the north-facing windows. “Make sure you take a look at those glaciers,” said Bill. “They won’t be here in ten or fifteen years.” I looked for them; squinting and finding nothing, I wondered if they were already gone. Bear grass, lily family. Continental divide. Wild horses, I wrote down, trying to keep up with the rangers’ narration, while I kept my eye on the horizon, searching for those horses.

Outside of the large windows, the sky was endless and blue. For ten years I’d been steeling myself against the moment when life becomes more about remembering to buy dish soap than noticing the steady rate at which the clouds move across the sky on a bright summer day. Lately, the days seemed to rush by faster than I could account for them. I would get older, and the ice caps in Glacier National Park would disappear. The earth and I were both expiring by the moment. I thought about how the train was built in the twenties, when the country’s era of cultural expansion and establishment as a global empire were still ahead of it, a distant glowing dream. Now the country and its future seemed to be crumpling as quickly as a leaf in a fire. The empire was being hollowed out and sold for parts. At a nearby table, a man in a cowboy hat from Grand Rapids, Michigan, talked to another passenger about his career selling corporate office furniture. Who does life in America actually work for, I wondered. My attention drifted skyward again. “I had so many dreams,” cooed Bowie. “I made so many breakthroughs.”


East of Glacier lies Blackfeet Nation. A group of middle-aged women with highlighted bangs joined my table as I looked out at the reservation. I worried they might ask me if I knew Jesus, so I busied myself with my journal. Larger than Delaware, the reservation is a vast expanse of land, with a population density of three people per every square mile. The sun’s reflection in the fields, dark green, like an ocean, I wrote. Further on, piles of discarded mattresses, tires, and washing machines formed small mountains, like an art installation implying the general mistake of humanity’s place on the planet.

The next day was the Fourth of July. I looked out at this expanse—an unmistakable totem of a people successfully colonized, brutalized, and all but exterminated by the U.S. government. A woman at my table remarked: “It doesn’t look very nice.”

The reservation disappeared behind us and we forged ever onward through the empire.


Bill and John departed the train once we reached the middle of Montana. I soon realized why: there’s nothing but the mostly featureless, flat expanse of the Upper Midwest for the remainder of the ride.

I left the observation car and walked back downstairs to my seat in coach. “How far are you going?” asked the girl on the other side of the aisle. I told her I was flying home to Boston after the line ended in Chicago. “Take me with you!” she pleaded. Her name was Cassie and she’d been visiting her brother in Seattle, as a trial run to see if she should move there. She worried it was too expensive and was headed back home to Minot, North Dakota. She’d taken courses at a for-profit college, and was on the hook for thousands in debt. She really wanted to be a baker, she told me. “I just want my life to mean something,” she said.

My neighbors were all younger than me and traveling by rail for the utility of cheap travel, not in a misguided bid for some epiphany cruise. Two sisters from Washington, wrapped tightly in blankets and neck pillows, were taking the train all the way to New York to see Times Square. The younger sister made sandwiches from bread and peanut butter they’d packed, as the older sister touched up anime drawings on her iPad. A hiker on the Pacific Coast Trail had abandoned the route because he’d run out of money and spent the last of it on a ticket home to Minnesota. He’d do some more construction work until he made enough to return to the trail. “I can’t wait to get back,” he said with a far-off look in his eyes. Cody, in his early twenties, was working a low-level tech job in Seattle but couldn’t afford the company housing and was going home to his parents’ in southern Illinois. “It sounds dumb,” he said. “But I’ve been reading The Secret and I really believe that you manifest your reality. I know this is not a setback.”

My neighbors were all younger than me and traveling by rail for the utility of cheap travel, not in a misguided bid for some epiphany cruise.

“Why didn’t you fly the whole way if you could afford it?” one of the sisters asked me. I didn’t tell her I was hoping to have some revelations about the nature of life and America while barreling through land my body had never been in before, in a steel container with five hundred strangers. Or that I was thirty-one and felt like I hadn’t done anything new in a while and just wanted to sit by myself while being propelled through the top of the country while staring out the window at mountains and corn and communing with the train-riding spirits of Anne of Green Gables, Sister Carrie, the brothers from The Darjeeling Limited, and David Bowie.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I just … thought it would be fun.”

She didn’t seem convinced, and turned back to her iPad.

A few hours later, as the orange sun sneaked below the top of the windows, we stopped in Minot. “Good luck!” I called to Cassie as she pulled her suitcase off the rack. She turned around and waved. That night, the pink sky softly reflected in the wet fields of North Dakota. It was a vast scape of subtle, quiet beauty, still light at 9:30: the land itself blushing. What gorgeous country, I wrote in my notebook, that I would be afraid to set foot in. The conservative politics, the oil boom that begat a violent crime boom, makeshift towns populated exclusively by men. An empty stretch of land punctured by oil rigs, the extracted material the only point of value for American earth. The election the year before seemed to cleave the country in two by way of a million little fractures. We seemed less willing to admit that those cracks had always been always there.

As a kid, I spent my summers on a New England beach. Every Fourth, we’d watch the Americans defeat the British in Revolutionary War reenactments, an enduring, simple fairy tale we loved to watch because we were the good guys. Here in North Dakota, the beauty of the summer sky mirrored in the fields, both ordinary and breathtaking, called to mind Alice Walker’s evergreen truism: “I love this land. I’m not crazy about the nation.”


I awoke early again the next morning. It was July fourth. The sky was the light gray of a windless and humid summer day. We were in Minnesota now, winding through small towns, rushing across the Mississippi. Beyond my window, Independence Day 5K racers bounced along in American flag capes. Through Wisconsin, the landscape remained wide with the electric summer green of grass and trees until the terrain slowly became more dense with houses as Chicago grew closer.

That night in the airport, I charged twelve-dollar beers to my credit card while waiting to board my final leg home. I wouldn’t get the bill for a while. I flipped through the notes I’d taken on the train ride; I hadn’t come up with much more than a few scribbled lines about the plants and animals along the route. Nothing had been revealed to me about America other than that it was too vast—in its violence and beauty—to see, even while staring at it. I watched through the airport window as fireworks soared over the city, in the middle of a country that now seemed bigger and more unknown to me than it ever had. “We live for just these twenty years / do we have to die for the fifty more?” crooned David Bowie breathlessly as the sky lit up with red, white, and blue.

Emily May is an essayist and visual artist based in Austin, Texas. She studied environmental philosophy at the University of Vermont, and has been a resident at the Vermont Studio Center and the Mineral School. Her recent published works include “Diary of an Anxious Malcontent,” a literacy narrative about the intimacy of journaling, and “Agee in the Backyard,” an essay about James Agee and female friendship, both published at Entropy Magazine. Emily’s work is centered around class, education, feminism, late capitalism, and opportunity. She sings Warren Zevon at karaoke and incriminates herself on Twitter @l337tween.

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Issue 14

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