Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Trains nowadays are so quiet that you can barely hear the famous clickety-clack of the wheels gliding on the tracks.  You hear only the conductor’s whistle, the squeak of the joints between cars, the squeal of brakes. The train rocks you; you’re in its care and it babies you, soothes you, makes you feel safe.


The beauty of the train is that where it doesn’t skirt a major highway, there are no gas stations or novelty shops or McDonald’s to obstruct your view of open farmland and grassland. Of course you’ll see cattle, fences here and there, farm houses and grain silos spaced miles apart, but these accouterments of humanity don’t clutter the landscape. They’ve been here for a long time and so seem as natural on the North Dakota prairies as the immense skies that hang over them.

The land opens up like a book and the railroad runs down its crease. From here you can read the text of the country inscribed in curly-q creeks, parenthetical folding hills, ruler-drawn wheat rows and farm houses that dot the landscape like periods. Moving westward through Montana, distant mountains thrust upward to punctuate a geological narrative written across thousands of miles.

The wind here deafens, though it’s only a gentle breeze. The creeks thunder, though they’re mere trickles. Here everything quiet becomes loud. Sounds blossom out of the silence and thereby reveal their full shape and texture.

I like North Dakota because here nobody screams at you. With whom can you be angry when you’re all alone? What is there to hate when you’re surrounded by grassland and bald hills? Hating this place would be like hating a shoebox: childish and useless. The landscape is what it is, but then people are who they are, too, and we hate them even so.

I like North Dakota because here people speak softly, especially when they speak out of conviction. A North Dakotan named Larry raised the possibility of busing homeless people to abandoned military bases where they could make a life. He felt strongly about this idea, however impractical it may be, but he voiced it with such a calm and mild manner that I never dreamed of entering into a heated debate over it.

Elsewhere in the country, on cable news, in magazines, on blogs, Americans are shouting and spitting at one another, whereas here the people whisper to each other across the prairie, knowing that voices carry far in this quiet land, and there’s no need to yell.

This is a hasty impression based on a few conversations and grounded in naive romanticism. I know that, but allow me my fantasies!

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

12 Responses to Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

  1. StrandedMike says:

    I love the way you’re woven together this narrative of travelling through the open country. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts in the days to come.


  2. David Patterson says:

    Beautifully written… and that photograph is to die for!

  3. sameskiesabove says:

    There really is something special about traveling by train. Even during the worst train rides with lurching stops, stuffy compartments and creepy co-passengers, you can always look out the window and daydream the train chugged across the land.

    Fantastic photo too…

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  6. Amy says:

    That is a beautiful photo. Your post reminds me how easy it is to travel from city to city and country to country in Europe. I’d love to take a train to Seattle. 🙂

    • I have yet to travel to Europe. That ease of getting from place to place without needing a car is something I’ve always looked forward to experiencing. As you probably know, train travel in most of the U.S. is slow (like 19th century slow). But the upside of that is that it’s also kind of a romantic experience.

      • Amy says:

        Some years ago, I took a train from NJ to Boston. It was in fall and was so very beautiful. You probably have heard about the Metro in Austin, need more lines.

        • I agree! The first ballot initiative for light rail in Austin (at least in modern times) was while I was in college there, in the early 2000s I think. It has been slow going, to say the least, especially for a city like Austin!

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