Train of Thought: On the Empire Builder
I have always loved the north Montana country; there is no air like it anywhere, nor such subtlety of color, nor such intensity of reflection from stone bulwarks as they rise from the drift of the land. The distance between the ridges, or rises, of the plains seems to me like the descriptions of high seas in the Southern latitudes, the Antarctic seas, miles from one crest to another.
I crossed those high plains on the Empire Builder, and returning to the Western country was gratifying, especially in that luxurious, taken-out-of-time manner. Somebody else did the dishes and somebody else made up my bed as we moved across country. The movie playing in the dome car was North by Northwest, in which James Mason was pursuing Cary Grant all over the 20th Century Limited, or maybe it was the very Empire Builder where I sat in a state of what George Carlin called vuja dé, which means, “I have never seen anything like this before in my life.” The northern Montana plains tore past me in the dark.
Outside the Empire Builder, beyond its glass, were the spirits of the Sioux, the Piegan, the Blackfeet and Cheyenne, and also the ghosts of reporters who took the early trains to come out and report on them. Correspondents from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and The New York World all traveled west with pen and ink, watercolors, and perhaps a sheet of Morse Code, which they might have diligently tried to memorize as the train belted along at an amazing 20 miles an hour.
In researching my latest book, News of the World, which takes place in the American West in 1870, I came upon these reporters’ astonishment that the country possessed such distances, such skies, such rich brown rolling land. The engines that towed them along were steam engines, and their method of reporting back was the telegraph. These were men like Ridgway Glover, a writer and photographer who took the train west on a grant from the Smithsonian and lost his life in the Sioux Wars (his last reports and photographs were never found).
Another fact I came upon in my research was that the plains tribes quickly understood that the telegraph wires were the carriers of information that the army and the settlers needed. The tribes cut the wires, substituted a yard or so with horsehair cord, and put the lines back together so that messages would not pass through; it was nearly impossible to find where the cuts had been made. I imagine U.S. Army scouts on horseback, diligently following the lines across the plains, peering up at the apparently endless wire, trying to find the break. But then the rail lines themselves were the lines stitching the great rolling plains together. The news of the world had to come by train. Out in the distances of Montana move the unseen currents of great and regal cultures—the Blackfeet, the Sioux, the early explorers and the journalists who brought them into print.
I thought of this lore as we moved past towns like Havre and Cut Bank and crossed over the nearby Two Medicine River, each of the names conjuring the aboriginal inhabitants as well as the subsequent population, and I realized that the great high plains are like a slate on which anything can be written—but not for long.