Question: How many days does it take to go from Canton, New York to Missoula, Montana on public transportation?
Answer: I don’t know as it’s been three days and we haven’t gotten there yet.
OK, that’s not exactly true. We’re now in Whitefish, Montana and will take the bus to Missoula this afternoon, making it a three and a half day journey. It does take fortitude and patience to use the American system of public transportation to get from one rural place to another rural place but it is an exciting challenge, too.
Our first bus was the one many people in the North Country know, the bus from Potsdam to Syracuse. Whenever I take it there is an Amish family or two, a few college students and often a couple of military personnel. On Monday afternoon it also had a chatty driver with a broad downstate accent, a man who shared his bag of Hershey kisses with those of us near the front of the bus.
The Syracuse bus and train station is new and finally has wi-fi. For years people who asked about it were directed to go to the mall, a ten-minute walk away. We used our layover hours in Syracuse at the mall to buy some work clothes, eat at a Chinese restaurant and revise our Verizon cell phone plan. I am not a fan of malls but they certainly have everything in one spot.
Amtrak arrived from NYC before 11pm and less than an hour late, superb by Amtrak standards. And there were enough empty seats that Tom and I could sit together, another plus. I claimed the window seat, rolled up my fleece jacket for a pillow and leaned against the glass, asleep in minutes. It helps when traveling by bus or train to be good at sleeping sitting up.
In the morning I saw our fellow train travelers, people of many colors and sizes. We all wandered up and down the train, laughing when a lurch of the car sent us careening down the aisles. We weren’t as happy when the train pulled into Chicago four hours late, but the conductor insisted we were held up along the way as we waited for delayed freight traffic, a not-our-fault plea.
Tom and I had just enough time to rush through the gorgeous old Union Station, a place of white marble and a high dome, to buy more food for the rest of our journey. On days when the train isn’t as far behind we’ve walked out to Lake Michigan and gone to museums. Too bad but at least our train west was leaving on time and once again we’d scored two seats next to each other and away from screaming babies and talkative drunks.
The Empire Builder train travels the route from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Oregon and has a luxurious two level design. Passengers in coach get wide seats that lean back and foot rests that pop up, as well as bathrooms on the lower level and a dome car with seats and tables. Our train was completely full so it was a long moving party of 400 people heading west.
When I take Amtrak I always bring more books and more writing work than I can accomplish in two days, forgetting the soporific effect of the jostling train and the irresistible appeal of looking out the window at the world passing by. Life in coach is mostly a series of naps interrupted by forays to find water and food. I don’t know if it is the same way in the sleeper cars, though passengers there get three meals a day with their much more expensive tickets. They don’t have to bring aboard big coolers of drinks and food (as a Mennonite family sitting in front of us did) or choose over-priced junk food from the lounge car.
It is fascinating how the land changes as the train heads west. After the Rust Belt, Wisconsin is green and hilly then the Mississippi River appears with islands and a wide, swift current. By the time it is morning we’ve made it to North Dakota, a place of huge fields of corn and soybeans. In June, it has ephemeral ponds where ducks and pelicans nest. Even wide-open eastern Montana is still green in early summer though it won’t be much longer.
Everyone wants to be in the dome car when we finally get to the Rocky Mountains but the view is also great from the passenger cars and we watch big rivers of white water below soaring peaks. The train is slow as it pushes over Marias Pass and then speeds up a bit on final hour down into Whitefish, Montana. Our friends Suzanne and Richard wait for us at the beautifully restored train station and as much as riding the train is an adventure, it is wonderful to touch ground and sleep in a horizontal position for a night.