Reading on the rails

Through the Bozeman Pass, Montana, Northern Pacific promotional poster from late 1930s,

Through the Bozeman Pass, Montana, Northern Pacific promotional poster from late 1930s, via Google, no restrictions.

We’re in eastern Montana, the train swaying along on tracks that cut through endless miles of rangeland. It’s an unusual color here –green– after heavy spring rains. Ducks gather in puddles and the sagebrush looks out of place with bright grass surrounding it. A dirt road parallels the train tracks and we’ve just passed an abandoned grain elevator, its boards warped and gray. On the other side of the train are a couple of old concrete foundations but as far as I can see, and it is a long way, there are no inhabited buildings.

This train started in Chicago yesterday afternoon and so for most of us on this train it’s our second day of captivity. I’ve been walking up and down along the four coach cars to see what it is Amtrak passengers do when they’re on a long train journey. (I can’t report on the passengers who have berths as I’m not allowed in their end of the train. A recent announcement suggests they will soon be having a wine and cheese tasting. I could do that too, if I bought a little bottle of wine and a packet of cheese and crackers in the lounge car. It would be overpriced but far less money than the sleeper car passengers pay for their trip, at least triple the amount the coach passengers pay.)

For coach passengers the number one activity seems to be napping. The train moves in a lulling fashion that is very soporific. Also, the coach seats are just uncomfortable enough that it’s difficult to sleep deeply at night so that makes daytime naps an easy option.

The second most common diversion is smart phones. We have no cell service out here so passengers must be playing games or reading old messages. A young teen across the aisle from me has a little smile on her face as she busily types on her phone. Other electronic gadgets come in a close second. Some people are watching movies on their ipads or laptops. I’ve noticed a few games of electronic solitaire and one older woman was using an electronic reader with the print in a large size.

But what about old-fashioned paper BOOKS? I’ve done my survey three times and I have to report that book reading is, well, not in style on Amtrak. Each coach car has 65 seats and almost all of them are full. The highest number of book readers I’ve found in a coach is four. Most coaches only have two.  In the lounge car, a place with big rounded plexiglass windows and slightly softer seats I saw more than four books but only two people were actively reading them.

Photo: Martin Pulaski, via Creative Commons, some restrictions.

Photo: Martin Pulaski, via Creative Commons, some restrictions.

And what kind of books are these westward-bound travelers enjoying? One mother-daughter team each had a copy of one of THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. I saw a hardback copy of the new Dan Brown book. Someone had a thick paperback of one of the GAME OF THRONES books, someone else was reading WORLD WAR Z and I saw Bill Bryson’s IN A SUNBURNT COUNTRY, which I believe is a travel book about Australia. I also saw a thick guide to the National Parks (does that count as reading a book?) and THE TIGER’S WIFE as well as a hardback of the complete works of Sherlock Holmes. One teen girl in the lounge was totally engrossed in a Young Adult novel that my young adult son would call a “pink book,” something girly and romantic. I saw a couple of older women reading the older woman equivalent of pink books.

It is a bit discouraging for me as a book reviewer. I wonder if this is a fairly typical slice of the American reading public. If so, I should stop trying to publish a book and maybe focus on screenplays. Or maybe I should design a more comfortable pillow that wraps around the neck for sleeping in an almost vertical position.

We’re now getting close to Havre, Montana, our next smoke stop. It must be difficult to be a smoker on this route as the smoke stops are few and far between. (Sometimes a desperate smoker will light up in a bathroom but the smell is easily detected. The conductor warns that sneaky smokers will be put off at the next station.) A muddy river meanders by the tracks and a group of beautiful horses stands in the corner of a pasture. There’s a cluster of beehives behind a little ranch, the buildings painted a neat white with green trim.

If I’m honest with myself, I’d say my major recreational activity on this long trip has been looking out the window. I love the way the country changes, from the deep leafy green of the east to the flat farmland of the Midwest and then the wide-open spaces of Montana. I’ve only read two books and a magazine so far. I read an entire issue of HARPERS, something I almost never have time to do, and a short anthology, NORTH COUNTRY REFLECTIONS. The other book was even shorter, a book I needed to read for a book review, THE ALLURE OF THE DEEP WOODS, Backpacking on the Northville-Lake Placid Trail. (To give myself credit, I also wrote the review.)

I still have time left to dip into the other two books I brought with me—Herman Melville’s short stories and a book about Hawaiian ecology by a biologist friend—but I certainly won’t finish them. After Havre we get close to the mountains and then looking out the window gets really interesting as we approach Glacier National Park. Books? I’ll save them for another day.

  1. Betsy Kepes says:

    Hi– This is a long overdue reply to Tundra Woman. I’ve been away from a computer most of the summer so my apologies.

    Your question– is it worth the splurge to buy a berth when crossing the country on Amtrak? My answer– if you are a light sleeper, yes. If you enjoy a bit of chaos and can fall asleep in an almost vertical position, no. It is MUCH more expensive to buy a berth (cheaper if you share it with someone) and I’m such a stingy traveler that I prefer the coach seats. If you’re lucky you’ll snag a window seat and an aisle seat (but not if you travel in the summer– the train is almost always full then) and sleeping is much easier.

    Whatever you decide, Tundra Woman, I would definitely recommend the trip, especially the train from Chicago to Seattle or Portland, the one called the Empire Builder. It is such a fascinating journey, to watch the country change. I’ve also taken the train to Santa Fe, New Mexico– another great ride– and New Orleans. The New Orleans journey, starting in Chicago, was a bit disappointing because much of the time we were along the Mississippi River it was night. Still, another fascinating journey.

    Happy Travels!

  2. Yes, please keep your observations coming!
    My dream trip now is crossing this country on Amtrack. I’ve seen it from 30,000 ft. for most of my life and now, I want to see it “up close and personal.” Despite being a huge reader, I’d be looking out the windows at the landscape during day light hours. Books etc. would be my option prior to going to sleep for the night.
    I’d love to have a berth-if I’m gonna splurge, why not?! Can you speak more to these kinds of accommodations?
    Many thanks for sharing.

  3. Betsy, your description of train travel makes me envious! Even though I am someone who feels incomplete without a book at hand, I wonder if I would be spending much time reading on that train. A trip like that is the closest thing we have to a journey these days, a discrete time apart from the daily grind that awaits at the end of the ride. I think it would be difficult to pull myself away from the thrill of irresponsibly staring out the window.

  4. Lucy Martin says:

    Love reading these. More please!