Adventure on The Empire Builder

Further adventures of an AFS student

If you’ve read other posts on this blog you might think I manage all sorts of public transport with a reasonable degree of confidence. It hasn’t always been like that. I don’t get to use public transport much, here in my hometown. There isn’t a lot of it. And mostly I don’t need it. The shops are  a five minute walk from my house, the gym and the supermarket are three minutes by car.

Back in the December of 1975, when I had to catch a train from St Paul to Breckenridge, Minnesota, my hometown for a year, I’d only ever been on a train once before.

I was seventeen. I was an AFS exchange student, in the class of ’76. I’d spent a few days after Christmas with friends of my Dad’s in St Paul.  And I didn’t know there are certain skills that are useful when it comes to using public transport. Such as having a basic understanding of where you’re going, how long it will take, and how to tell when you’ve arrived.

The Empire Builder is one of the great classic train journeys across the US. In those days it ran between Seattle, Washington State, and Chicago, Illinois, and it stopped at 2:30am in Breckenridge, Minnesota. Breckenridge was, and still is, a very small town. I don’t imagine many people caught the train there. From the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St Paul) it was a four hour train journey, a little more than 200 of the 2300 miles between Chicago and Seattle.

After the weekend, which had included visits to shopping malls, riding around town and admiring houses decorated for Christmas, restaurant meals, my first art house movie, and learning to ski by the light of the moon, I was weary.

Christmas decorations - 1975

Christmas decorations – 1975

Nevertheless, as the train left the Twin Cities it occurred to me that for the first time in six months I was on my own. And best of all I was travelling across the prairie, in winter, in the dark, late at night. I was exhilarated – to start with.

About an hour into the journey the train stopped. There was no announcement identifying where we were or, if there was, I didn’t hear it. On my only other train journey I’d been with a group of school friends, in New Zealand, in country-side that was very, very familiar. On that trip it was straightforward – our destination was the end of the line. Not much thinking involved there.

I realised, as I tried to figure out where exactly I was, that unless I fancied eating breakfast in two days time in Seattle, I needed to suss a few things out.

Seattle did have its attractions: the hills, the Pacific, the forests. I imagined it would be more like home in New Zealand than the prairie that stretched around me in all directions. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to end up there by mistake. I knew for sure it would be a mistake that would land me in a lot of trouble.

My fellow passengers were all sleeping. The guard was no where to be seen. Now, thinking back, at that point on the trip I don’t think I knew there was such a person as a guard.

My intelligent, and oh-so-achievable, solution was to stay awake. Awake and watching for each station until we got to Breckenridge. Simple.

The train trundled on through the night. Towns, even farms, were few and far between. Occasionally, lights from farm houses twinkled like stars, lighting up the snow for a moment or two and then they were gone. Sometimes we’d pass a stand of trees – recognisable by a deepening of shadows against the sky. Whenever we approached a road crossing the train gave a warning toot that sounded more like a wail.

I gazed into the night and I fought with sleep. I stretched, I counted farm lights – that was futile in the extreme, there weren’t anywhere near enough to keep me on task. I tried scaring myself silly with thoughts about what could happen to me in a strange city with a grand total of ten dollars in my pocket – anything to stay awake. I stopped short of waking my fellow passengers.

Fatigued from the activity and excitement of my few days in the big city I didn’t stand a chance. Not against the unrelenting sameness of the countryside and the gentle rocking of the train. As the Empire Builder rolled on and on across the state I fell into a deep sleep – the sort of sleep that’s the privilege of the young. These days sleeping while travelling is best described as dozing – that half waking, half sleeping state that renders you as exhausted as no sleep at all.

If my memory serves me correctly, we are discussing an event from thirty-nine years ago, it was my host sister who drew the short straw of collecting me. At 2:30am she waited for me to disembark at Breckenridge train station in the below freezing cold of late December. And she waited some more. Until, eventually, the train rolled out of the station on its way to Fargo.

I can imagine the panicked, maybe somewhat annoyed, drive home to deliver the news to my host parents.

Now, having raised my children, having from time to time looked after other peoples’ children, I can imagine only too well the sinking feeling of my host parents when they got the news their exchange student was lost.

But, Munro, my host father, was never the sort to be paralysed by worry. Oh, no, not him. He was up, off, and out in his pick-up truck faster than you can say: Jill’s lost somewhere in America.

Folks be warned: This is one of those don’t try this at home stories. A story that, although I know to be true, seems unbelievable.

Munro, my host father, alone in his pick-up truck, raced along the highway parallel to the train. Flashing his lights and honking his horn. Until, eventually, the train driver had to pay attention. Maybe the driver was bored and wanted a break. Maybe he was just the curious sort and wanted to know why someone would be driving along the road at nigh on 3am creating so much racket. Maybe he thought this lunatic was going to drag him off at the next crossing.

Whatever it was, the train driver stopped the train.

While I was sleeping, my host father brought the Empire Builder, one of the great trains of North America, to a halt.

My host father - the  stopper of trains

My host father – the stopper of trains

I woke, not to the announcement that we’d arrived at Breckenridge, not to the bright lights of a station, and the familiar face of my host sister, not to the business of disembarking in a dignified and, oh so grown-up, manner. No, I woke to the graunching of train brakes and a man, who turned out to be the guard, walking through the darkened carriage with a torch and calling my name.

I did get a telling off and fair enough. But it was half-hearted. I’m pretty sure Munro was rather pleased with himself.

Tell me, what are your favourite train journey adventures?

11 replies »

  1. This is a wonderful read Jill, and dare I say, so funny. Probably not for you being as you were probably in complete panic mode, but what a wonderful caring host father Munro was to get in his pickup and actually stop the train because you were still on it.

    The only example I can give you is when I fell asleep on the circle line on the London Underground once. I’d had a tad too much to drink and slept on the train for three hours, ending back at exactly the same stop when I woke up. I could not understand why I was still at the same station yet my watch was telling me three hours had passed. Then it clicked, and I quickly got off and decided to walk home to clear my head.


    • Hugh, that’s so funny. And quite an adventure – of a different sort. The sort that I imagine comes from being completely familiar with the business of public transport – oh, and fond of an ale or two. I”m assuming it was ale or maybe a whiskey or three?


      • It was a few too many cocktails as I had been to a works Christmas party. Fortunately it was held in the afternoon, but I must have looked quite a sight to all the Christmas shoppers and tourists, with dribble all down my work suit. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the sentence “Jill’s lost somewhere in America”. As I anticipated that the story turned out well, it made me laugh. Your host father sounds like a special man indeed.

    When I still lived in Europe I took the Eurostar train between Paris and London all of the time. Once it broke down and we waited for hours upon hours. I ended up having a lovely chat with the man next to me, sharing life stories with an intimacy one can only have with someone you know you will never see again.


    • Ah, the Eurostar! I’ve caught it twice and what an amazing experience it was. Those conversations always seem to be memorable, don’t they. I recently had a similar chat with a woman on a plane. The landing was aborted at the very last minute, the weather was wild, the plane was bouncing about in the air from the cross wind, the pilot was unsure whether traffic control would allow another attempt. In those few moments the woman and I swapped life stories and philosophies, which helped us both to stay calm, I think, as we faced the outcome together. In the end we got down without incident. I’ve never seen her again.


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