Corona Chronicles – Ghost Train Part 5 – Is it Safe?

Sleeper bed on Empire Builder
Night on The Empire Builder

Fro…to and fro…and… Daphne slowly opened her eyes.  She felt for her phone. It was 6:05 AM.  She turned over and opened the curtains.  The train had stopped at a station.  It was still night but she could make out some one story buildings and little houses in a row.  The houses were covered in ice and the ground with snow.  Siberia? No, the sign read “Devils Lake, ND” with no apostrophe.  Cold place for devils, she thought.  Bet they leave for the winter and head south.

She laid back down and decided to wait until sunrise to get up and at ‘em.  She had slept well and felt good.  She took a deep breath and the air smelled… fresh.  She remembered being sick the day before, but feeling better when she went to sleep. She remembered waking up around 10 PM and peering out at a city that must have been Minneapolis.  She had tried to stay awake long enough to say a silent “Hello” to all her relatives both alive and buried there.  Almost all her father’s family had lived, worked, and died in the Twin Cities. All except Aunt Hannah.  And many summers were spent at the lakes north of the city with these aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.  It’s where she learned to fish and to water ski a bit.  She remembers the leeches that attached to her legs and her uncle burning them off with a cigarette lighter.  That was when everybody carried a cigarette lighter.   They ate a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  They got lots of mosquito bites.

Her Dutch grandmother was super smart and spoke five languages and should never have married a farmer.  But she did.  She would take us on hikes and no hike was just for fun.  It was to learn something.  But Daphne thought learning was great fun.  Always did and still does.  Her grandmother would make them march in single file behind her like a bunch of ducklings.  Grandma would sing, “Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It’s off to work we go.  We’ll have some fun and then we’re done.  Hi Ho!  Hi Ho!”  They would collect leaves and then go home and put them on paper and name them.  Maple, birch, pine, oak…. They’d collect rocks and bugs and then have root beer floats.

She was sorry she missed most of Minnesota.  She would have liked to have seen the giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, if they were still around. She would have like to see Big Bear Lake and Green Lake. She would have liked some flap jacks.  As she passed over the river and into the dark country she would have whispered about another legend:

By the shore of Gitche Gumee

By the shining Big-Sea-Water

At the doorway of his wigwam

Hiawatha stood and waited

La la la la, la la, la la

Hum, hum, la la, hum, hum, hum.

I am going, O Nokomis,
On a long and distant journey,
To the portals of the Sunset.
To the regions of the home-wind,
Of the Northwest-Wind, Keewaydin.

Hum, hum, hum, hum, la,la,la,la.

To the land of the Hereafter.

 “The hereafter?  Not so fast,” she said to herself and leaped out of the tiny bed.  She was very much alive and feeling pretty wonderful.   She had made it into what would have been Day 22 of the quarantine time in New York and this would be Day 1 of quarantining in Montana when she got there that afternoon.  A new dawn!  A new chapter!

She wriggled out of her night clothes and into her day duds.  She got out her makeup and slapped it all on in record speed. Then she crawled over the bed, opened the door and jumped into the hallway.  She literally skipped down the hall and over to the coffee stand where the big pot was waiting for her.  She poured herself some hot black coffee, dumped two creams in it and headed back to her room where she plunked herself down in the seat at the tray table.  She eyed the chocolate cake and scarfed it down with a big gulp of water.  Then she turned to the window and contentedly sipped her coffee which was the best coffee that she ever had.

Soon Marilyn appeared and asked Daphne how she felt.

“I feel great this morning, Marilyn. I have to admit that I didn’t feel very well last night.  I was a bit queasy and didn’t eat much.  I think it might have been motion sickness or something.”

“Could be.  The end of the train always sways a lot more than the front end and we went through some winding spots.  The worst tracks though are in Ohio.  But there are some doozies along this one too.”

“The air smells a little better too,” she said to Marilyn.  And to herself she said, “and less like being stuck in a can of Glade room deodorizer.”

“I want to be safe, but might have cranked it up a bit high for you,” she admitted.

“We’re all trying to figure this out, “Daphne said and then ordered a big

Breakfast on the Empire Builder
Breakfast on The Empire Builder

breakfast of sausages, potatoes, scrambled eggs and a croissant! And apple juice.

After breakfast, the train made a “fresh air” stop at Minot, North Dakota around 8:30 AM Central Time.  Daphne climbed down the stairs and on to the railway platform and watched as other passengers further up got out to walk about.  It was cold.  It wasn’t supposed to be this cold.  She had read it would be at least 54º in Montana.  But it was at least 20 degrees colder here. Two local rail crew walked by.  The woman had on pink Carhart overalls.

“My husband would shoot me if I showed up in pink overalls,” Daphne remarked.  “He’s not a violent man.  But there are limits.”

Marilyn laughed and said Daphne sounded like her sister who had upped and left Chicago to be a writer in Hollywood.  Everybody thought she was crazy, but after a while she had sold a story.  She followed her dream said Marilyn.  That was a nice story.

Daphne continued the small talk by mentioning to Marilyn that Minot was the home of a big air force base that occasionally was in the news.  Back in 2007 seems that a plane took off with 6 nukes and landed in Louisiana. Oopsy!  Flying over the U.S. with armed nuclear missiles was evidently a big no-no. Something to do with a treaty with the Russians. And it shouldn’t have been in the news.  Did Marilyn know that if North Dakota and Montana were countries that they would be the 4th and 5th largest nuclear armed countries in the world?

Marilyn said that she would rather not know any more about nukes.

“Okay,” smiled Daphne, “But they also have seen UFOs here, I hear.”

The whistle sounded and it was time to get on the train and Daphne noted that it seemed like not a minute too soon for Marilyn.

Before settling in Daphne decided to take a long walk to the  observation car and see whether that would be a good place to….well…observe North Dakota.  With scarf over her nose and mouth, she pin balled down the hall and through the coach car and into the Sight.  Nobody was there.  It still felt too ghostly to stay, so she ricocheted back towards her car.  A guy in coach asked her the time and she said thru her scarf that she had New York time of 10 AM and he said that would do.   She bounced back through the halls to her room and plunked herself back down in the saddle.  She took out her notebook and settled in to watch the world go by.  She decided that she was Lady Eve of Frafraton Abbey heading west where Lord Rodney and her trusty steed King waited for her in Montana.

And what a strange world it was.  Almost totally desolate of humans but filled with wild birds.  There were mostly ducks and geese, hawks and some she couldn’t recognize.  There were marshes and wetlands.  She hadn’t thought of North Dakota as being wet.  Montana was considered high desert with little rain.  But this land was filled with water and ice and snow.  It felt like Siberia.  But then Daphne had never been to Siberia.  She’d been to Scotland, but it wasn’t like Scotland.  This place was very very flat.

Suddenly she had had enough of nature. She went on to the Amtrak app to look at the stops in Montana.  She discovered that she had made a slight mistake.  According to her calculations, if she got off at Malta (not the Mediterranean island where they shot “Gladiator” but the Montana town) instead of Havre, she would arrive one hour earlier and it would be a 20 minute shorter drive for Clay from Big Twig, as Big Timber was affectionately known.  She quickly called Clay and caught him feeding the cows.

“I’ll check to see if I can get off  this train early, Clay, and call you back,” she cried with excitement.

Then she ran down the hall to find Marilyn.

“Could I get off the train a stop before Havre?  At Malta?” she asked.

“Yes, you probably can, but I’ll have to ask the engineer,” she warned.  “I don’t think we are scheduled to stop there.  We aren’t stopping much in Montana.  He needs to know because if he is going to stop, he might need to go on a slightly different track as he approaches (or something to that effect as Daphne was only half paying attention).”

Marilyn hurried away and in a few minutes, she was back with news that they could stop in Malta.

“You can usually get off early.  If you get off past your stop, you’ll just have to pay more,” Marilyn added.

Train travel is very sensible Daphne thought to herself.

She called Clay with the good news.  He would start out in about a half an hour; around 9 or 9:30 Mountain Time.

“Do you think they’ll stop you since you are crossing county lines to pick me up? she said.

“I think they have better things to do,” Clay replied, “And it seems like essential travel, don’t you think?”

“Yes, I am very essential.  Well at least to you, me, and maybe the cat,” she reasoned.

“I better get going,” he laughed, “See you in a few hours.”

Daphne hung up the phone. (She still said that although you don’t hang up phones anymore. You shut them off). Then she started packing up her things.  She brushed her teeth and packed up the toothbrush.  She then sat down to get ready for the next bit of this strange journey.

Marilyn appeared for the lunch order and Daphne chose a cheeseburger and sparkling soda  to be served around high noon (Mountain Time).

The Bakken
Williston Station

Around 10:30 Central Time, the scenery began to really change from ranches with cows to ranches with cows and oil rigs.   She could see plumes of smoke in the distance and soon there appeared large warehouses that said “Halliburton” and large storage tanks and more smoke and haze.  They were in the Bakken and approaching the oil and gas city of Williston, North Dakota.

Daphne had heard tales of the hard and dangerous work that happened here in the Land of Fracking.  Many men and some women from Big Timber had gone to work there.  It looked rough, cold, and hard.  The train passed a long bunch of small cabins all together in a row.  That must be a “man camp”, she thought to herself.  It’s where the men who worked in the fields lived.

After Williston the terrain slowly changed back into ranches and there appeared strange looking rock formations.  Maybe this was where the dinosaur finds were.  It looked like a good place for dinosaurs.  It would be nice to spot one.  Even if the time machine was working, it didn’t really go back that far. Soon they entered Montana . Her window still faced North and the country was pretty flat with lots of cows.  If she looked to the South though the door, she saw lots of cows and it too was mostly flat but she could also see a bit of mountains.

Somewhere after Wolf Point and before Glasgow, Daphne began to have a bit of apprehension about getting off the train and being interrogated about where she had been and where she was going and did she really qualify as a Montanan?  Was there a test involved?  When she first moved to Montana over 25 years ago, one woman told her that she would never be a Montanan even though she married one.  Some Montanans had this bogus qualifier that you had to be there at least for three generations before you could get the Montana Badge of Authenticity.  It was no use pointing out that just like their ancestors, people all over moved from one place to another and that three generations ago, the Indians were wondering what the hell these people were doing putting up barbed wire on perfectly good open range.

At the time, Daphne thought that the woman’s remark was very unfriendly and not at all like the Midwesterners or the New Yorkers she had lived amongst.  She would have liked to say to the snotty gal, “Au contraire, what makes you think I want that label if it means being anything like you?”  But she didn’t say anything at the time.  She just looked puzzled.

And there were enough nice ranch wives around when she first moved there that the transition was pleasant enough although it did require learning how to bowl and reacquainting herself with Jello salad with things in it.

She went from apprehension to a strange calm tinged with excitement.  She was going to be with Clay and in a safe place.  She would have somebody to chatter at and talk with.  And for all its quirks, Big Timber had many facets of what would be considered “home” like familiarity, a good watering hole, and a few friends.  It had  important places like Costco and Deb’s Gourmet Cellar.  It had a walk to the top of the hill for a good view of the Crazy Mountains.  It had the mundane like washing the windows, cleaning out the freezer and feeding the cat.

Darn it.  As she looked out the window at Big Sky country, she realized that her emotions had gone up and done on this journey just like her stomach.  And she had a feeling that for quite a while this was going to be the state of things.  This was the new normal. One day she would feel safe and the next day everybody was going to die.  One day it looked like there might be a new world and not a return to normal (that wasn’t all that great for many.)  And the next day, the end of times was looking more likely.   If ever there was a need for some anchor, it was now.  And that’s why she was pulling into a little town in northern Montana.  But she also hated to say goodbye to the Grand Duchess.

Marilyn knocked at the door and roused Daphne from her thoughts.

“We’re pulling in to Malta,” she said as she and another conductor, who she had not met, took her two bags.  She sensed a bit of apprehension from them too.  Would we be greeted by the military?  Would there be a showdown at the OK Corral.  I took one last look around the room.  Then we made our way down the winding stairs and I slipped Marilyn some more cash and said “goodbye” and “thanks”.   The train ground to a halt and the conductor got a step for me and off the train I went on to a deserted platform.

The wind was blowing hard and nobody was around.  The station looked closed.  And there were no troops to be seen anywhere.  There was nobody.  No sound but the wind.

And then there he was.  Her rancher.  Her cowboy.  An anchor to her helium balloon.  He came up from out of nowhere and nodded to Marilyn and the conductor.  The conductor nodded back and then signaled to the engineer.  Daphne stared at Clay and smiled and sighed.  By the time she turned around to say one last “goodbye”, Marilyn and the conductor were gone and the train was already chugging up the tracks.

There was not a kiss.  There was not even a hug. (Clay later explained that he was worried that he might give her the virus even though Sweet Grass County had not one case.)  But he did look deep into her eyes, but from three feet away.  How very strange. Clay picked up the bags and brought them to the car and stashed them in the back and got in the driver’s seat while Daphne got in the passenger’s seat.  This was not like the old western where Gary Cooper would sweep up his sweetheart in his big Montana arms and carry her to the buckboard, she thought. Sigh.  This was love in the time of Corona.

As they pulled out of town, Daphne smiled and chattered away for awhile. She told him about the Grand Duchess and the Ice Palace.  She talked of Devils Lake and Big Bear Lake and Lake Erie.  Then she fell silent.  No more pretend for awhile.  No need.  They had a long road ahead of them.  Literally a long straight road that stretched to the horizon.  3 hours and 40  minutes. 235 miles past the Missouri Breaks and through Deadman’s Basin and the Judith Gap.  And it was real as was this virus.  As they looked at each other and then far ahead, the scene was more like the final shot in “The Graduate”.  Just like Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman, Clay and Daphne stared straight ahead into the unknown.  What next, they thought?

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