The Ground Beneath the Family Tree
Amtrak's Empie Builder carries Kent and his brother to their midwestern origins.
It all began with an epic
train ride to Wisconsin
FIRST OF THREE INSTALLMENTS
By KENT HOLSATHER
It was time, probably the only time that my brother and I would venture back to the Midwest to attempt to locate family roots that were pulled up and moved to the Pacific Northwest 100 years ago.
The timing coincided with our advancing age and a chance to cross off a two-day train trip from our post retirement bucket list.
Our grandparents both came from the Midwest one year apart. Grandma Dorothy arrived from Lennox, South Dakota, in 1914 and Grandpa Henry came out from Cuthbert, South Dakota, the following year with his widowed mother and three younger siblings.
Henry and Dorothy fell in love and were married in Lynden, Washington in 1920.
Although they made two or three trips back to the Heartland over the course of the next 60 years, they never really connected with their geographical past. Whatcom County would be their chosen home for the rest of their lives and they and all of their children would be buried in Lynden.
My grandmother was the last one to pass away--in 1995--but she left the five family trunks intact with a plethora of photos and letters that let us peek into a world of threshing crews, Civil War battles, prairie fires, and horse-drawn wagons that were as common in 1910 as cars are today.
My brother is the genealogist of the family and I fancy myself as the historian in residence, so it seemed logical that we would make a respectable investigative team. We planned our trip precisely. The first two days would be on the Amtrak from Everett, Washington to Minneapolis, Minnesota, followed by a weeks worth of rental car driving to various ancestral spots throughout the Midwest and then a three hour-plus flight back to Seattle from Minneapolis/St. Paul.
We boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder in Everett at about 5 P.M. and were greeted by a friendly conductor who showed us to our roomette, a small private berth that sported two seats that made up into a bed and a pull-down upper rack for a second sleeper. My brother and I are somewhat larger than our graduation weights which made it quite challenging to move around in our tiny cubicle. Through the course of the trip the roomette morphed into a closette as we struggled mightily to navigate around each other to stay comfortable. To people passing by our room, it must have looked like two gorillas fighting for a dropped dime in a phone booth.
The tight room was a drawback but the food was excellent and necessary to keep the passengers happy on a 37-hour trek to the Midwest. The scenery was great in the Cascades as the train passed very close to rivers and streams where we spotted fishermen in waders only a few feet from our window. The Cascade tunnel was great, I guess, since it was completely dark outside for over seven miles and we were eating a nice steak dinner at the time.
We decided to split time in the upper bunk over the course of the two nights of travel with my brother taking the first night in the rack. He was an old Navy man who claimed countless nights of sleeping in tight quarters on board carriers during the Viet Nam era, so I assumed that climbing up into the rack would be a piece of cake for him. I forgot to calculate the extra 48 years of maturity that had been accumulated when I gave him a little push up into the bunk and the hollow sound of his head being driven between his shoulder blades when he met the ceiling of the cabin. To his credit, he didnt yell at me as he would have done when we were younger, but his quiet moaning did haunt me for the next few minutes as we raced through the summer night with the sound of the tracks and the distant whistle of our locomotive edging us into slumber.
The next day we spent looking at the prairie and the little nuances that seem to go undetected from the interstate. We noticed many abandoned farm houses and speculated as to what motivated the families to leave and where they might have gone. When we ate in the dining car, we always had to sit with another couple, which made it quite fun. Everyone was nice to us and everyone had a story which, to me, is the muse of my writing.
On the second night of our trip, the conductor warned us of bumpy tracks ahead, so I made sure that I was secure in the top bunk with a cargo net in place to keep me from rolling out. With ear plugs and a half tab of Ambien, I slept like a baby while the train rocked and rolled.
At 8 A.M. the following morning, we pulled into Minneapolis and procured a taxi to the airport where our rental car would be picked up. The 12 mile jaunt turned into about twice that long as the taxi driver smelled a couple of easy marks and took us a roundabout way that totaled over 50 bucks.
The sitting, eating and sitting some more was over. It was time to start investigating our past as we headed out of the airport and caught the interstate for Wisconsin.
(To Be Contiinued Next Week)
©2012 by Kent Holsather. This column first posted Aug. 13, 2012.
You can comment on this column online. Please address your email message to either "The Editors" or Kent Holsather at : Syndpack @aol.com
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