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203 nonfiction The Amtrak depot was cold, which was why I wondered about the young blond woman across the waiting room from me wearing sequined flip-flops, her arms bare. She looked to be the age of the college freshmen I’d taught the previous spring. Wasn’t she chilly in this dank station? I’d noticed her earlier as well, because her sweatshirt and pants were so sharply green that I’d almost had to squint to look. I tend to take note of girls her age, young women with slight bodies and cagey faces, because of how they shock me back to who I was at nineteen. Now, on a rainy September morning, in this featureless warehouse gully of Saint Paul, the girl had stripped down to a thin tank top. How could she be hot in this drafty station, when the heat still hadn’t been turned on for the season? But I forgot about her as we all lined up to board the train. The Empire Builder is the name of this passenger line on the Westto -Midwest route along the northern plains. It runs from Puget Sound to Chicago, stopping on the way in this Saint Paul industrial park. A double-decker Amtrak cruiser with curved and weather-splotched [A map of the Middle West with Insets, Past and Current] Barrie Jean borichººººº Geographical Solutions 204 ecotone observation-car windows, the Empire Builder is not just one train but a fleet of four—two traveling west, two east—passing each other in the long silence of Montana and North Dakota. Narrow headlight beams intersect in the middle of the night on the far western segment of the route, the whoosh of speed catching for a moment in the vacuum of their passing, lives echoing each other in the occasionally lit-up windows , passengers up late drinking or reading or staring out, until the whoosh resumes and the meeting is over with a spark, a clank, a long whistle’s moan into the dark. I always cringe when I hear the stationmaster announce this train’s name. I hate all those parts of American history that are about rounding up the natives and making way for progress. The Empire Builder was the nickname of the nineteenth-century Saint Paul railroad magnate James J. Hill, and this train was named in homage to the roots of development frenzy, when train tracks wrapped the continent in a leash of steel that must have made the old coot lean back in his chair, rub his one good eye, and think, Mine, mine, mine. Yet all Americans, even the most put-upon among us, might have a little bit of empire building in our makeup, some desire to refind the lost parts of ourselves through locating and owning, landing somewhere and inscribing our names. I recognize the baser version of the urge when I come across stuff I want, from a loft with a view in my home city of Chicago to a sweater with a low neckline I know will cause my spouse, Linnea, to kiss my collarbone. Mine. This blank pull of wanting, a desire to erase all obstacles, can reel me into one of those give-that-girl-a-crown-and-a-bundle-of-roses daydreams, the girly version of James J. Hill’s long recline back in a leather chair as cigar smoke forms a crown just above his head. Boarding the train to Chicago, I was trying to pinpoint what it was I meant to regain on this trip back, when behind me someone yelled. “Hey! We need help over here.” I turned to see that underdressed blond girl again. Pale to begin with, she had blanched gray-white, her eyes unfocused, her thin body slouched on the shoulders of two mom-like middle-aged women with hair pulled back into ponytails. These women had probably been looking forward to curling up on the train and sleeping at least until Wisconsin Dells, and now they had this kid—they didn’t seem to know her—hanging off their shoulders, loose-limbed as a straw girl. 205 barrie jean borich The line moved forward, out of...


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