Boomtown

The good night’s sleep I was anticipating last night wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped. Not terrible, but I was jostled awake a number of times. At 5:19 A.M. a couple of loud people got on board at Grand Forks, North Dakota and made their way into their roomette just down the hall from me.

“I’LL TAKE THE TOP BUNK, OK?”

“YAH, YOU CAN HAVE IT, I’LL STAY DOWN LOW!”

“BOY, IT SURE IS CRAMPED IN HERE. NOT SURE HOW I’LL SLEEP!”

Oh, believe me. If you try to sleep I’ll be sure that space is the least of your problems.

Whatever. I wake up at 5:30 most days anyway. At home it’s the cat. Here it’s the loudmouths from Grand Forks. May as well keep my usual rhythms. Besides, it could be worse. After getting a cup of coffee I made my way back through a couple of coach cars to the observation car and passed by people sleeping in all manner of contorted angles in their seats and, in some cases, on the floor. The coach seats recline and have lots of space, but at some point you need to be horizontal to sleep well. For all that I have loved in my day on the train so far, it’s worth remembering that I’m very fortunate to be in a sleeper car. Even with the loudmouths.

I watched the sun rise over the prairie for a little while. After a few minutes a rather hard-looking man in his 30s sat down next to me. We made small talk for a minute and then the talk got big.

“So what do you think of the marijuana legalization stuff?” he asked me.

“I’m in favor of it,” I said. “It’s not hurting anyone.”

“Do you think they should legalize hard drugs?” he said.

“I really can’t see anyone having the political will to ever make that happen,” I said.

“Oh, they won’t.” He said. “But I’m asking should they?”

Something in his tone and his look suggested that he had a greater stake in this than mere intellectual curiosity. It seemed like he was looking for validation. I made some non-committal grunts, changed the subject back to the weather and bid him good morning.

Over breakfast I talked to two women from Minot, North Dakota, which we were quickly approaching. They’ve lived there for a long time and make the trip between Minneapolis and Minot a couple of times a year to visit family. Minot and all of western North Dakota has experienced radical change in recent years thanks to an oil and gas boom. A boom which has lined a lot of pockets but which has brought in workers and wildcatters, some just looking to earn a living, others looking to strike it rich. They told me that, as with any boom, it has brought with it a lot of problems in the form of transients and troublemakers, heavy drinkers and hard drug users. Many of them are rootless and work two-week-on, two-week-off schedules, going back and forth between Minot and either Minneapolis or Seattle. Often on the Empire Builder. “Watch yourself in the lounge car later,” one of my breakfast companions warned me. “Sometimes they get rowdy.”

I can’t say I’ve seen any of that yet. But looking out across the rather bleak North Dakota landscape I can certainly see how being here might inspire a non-native to seek out pleasure and excitement however one can. Like most places, including most places I’ve lived, I’m sure it has its beauties and its charms. They’re just not obvious to an outsider merely passing through.

As I write this we’re pulling into Williston. It’s the last stop in North Dakota. We’re close to an hour behind schedule which, based on what I’ve heard about the Empire Builder’s track record, is better than I assumed it’d be at this point. Montana is next. For four or five hours it will look a lot like North Dakota, and I plan to use that time to work on my book proposal. By around dinnertime we should be into some pretty country, including Glacier National Park.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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