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Stateside with Rosalea: Portland to Milwaukee

Stateside with Rosalea

Portland to Milwaukee

By Rosalea Barker

Somewhere near Cut Bank, Montana, I swear I heard Napoleon cussing in my ear: "What the hell was I thinking?" The Empire Builder train I was on had just passed a Harvest States grain truck and a shed belonging to the Oil Field Lumber Co.

The resource-rich land I was passing through is part of the vast Louisiana Purchase, made in 1803 by Thomas Jefferson. The purchase effectively doubled the size of the fledgling country known as the United States. With the ink barely dry on the agreement, Jefferson established the Corps of Discovery. The purpose of the Corps was to find a direct and practicable water route across the continent, map the geographic features, record the natural resources, learn about the native people, and establish an American presence.

Known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the exploration took several years, beginning in St Charles, Missouri in 1804. In large part its success depended on the help given it by Indian tribes along the way and, in particular, Sacagawea is credited with securing passage through much of the western-most territory into Oregon Territory.

I flew up to Portland, Oregon, to begin my trip. Portland is famous for its mass transit, and at the airport a Max light rail train was waiting to take travelers into the heart of the city. By chance, I only had a $20 note to put in the ticket vending machine for a day pass and it returned me 17 golden dollars - the ones with Sacagawea and her child on them. One light rail change later and I was out at Portland's Lewis and Clark memorial and its nearby 1906 statue (by Alice Cooper) commemorating this woman and all the pioneering women of the United States.

The Empire Builder passes through the fabulous Columbia River gorge in Washington state. Though the water is now tamed by a number of dams and the legendary Bridge of the Gods is long gone, it is still spectacular scenery - a landscape moulded by glaciers, volcanoes and plate tectonics. The river is used for transport and for recreation. The Bingen/White Salmon area is one of the greatest places for windsurfing in the United States.

Overnight, the train passed through the panhandle of Idaho and I awoke the next morning in Montana, which lives up to its name. The peaks still had some snow on them, and one rock face close to the tracks was covered in moa wire to prevent rock slides. The forest here is of mixed colours and shapes, not like the emerald green, fish-scale forests in Oregon and Washington. Daisies and lupins are all that's left of the summer wildflower season. At 10 in the morning we pass the obelisk that marks the continental divide. >From here on, the rivers will be draining towards the Mississippi River instead of into the Pacific Ocean.

We're not far from the Canadian border, and at Havre - with its statue of US-Canadian co-operation - some Border Patrol officers board the train to have a look around. Also boarding is a teenage girl with what looks like all her worldly possessions. She sits next to the middle-aged man behind me who tells her the story of how in 1933, in Havre, people like his father were so poor that they began to talk of getting guns and shooting all the rich people. The only thing that stopped them, he said, was a huge fire - "the biggest in the world" - which everyone had to turn their hand to stopping. I suspect the only thing on fire was his pants.

Later in the day a couple of National Parks Service rangers set up in the observation car to tell us about the Great Plains and the life there before and after settlement. There is something very touching about looking for the deer and the antelope at play, imagining the herds of bison that used to be there, and seeing someone driving along the nearby highway with her hand up in the air to catch a cooling breeze. The ranger points out the black and red rocks - lignite and scoria, which is clay baked hard and red by the fires started in the lignite by lightning strikes.

We pass through fields of wild rice, white American pelicans winging their way beside us. Other fields have oil "horses" in them. North Dakota is hummocky with water in almost every dip. The big red sun starts going down and at the stop in Minot one of the rangers reveals an awful truth to me about a certain big green bug. Bugzilla, as she calls her modern VW, doesn't have an engine in the back! (Shows how out of touch I am, I know!) The car is unusual enough around these parts, she says, that if it's not in the church parking lot on Sundays friends call up to see if she's ill. She passes on her mother's secret for getting porcupine quills (the major source of decoration before the French fur-trappers' beads came on the scene): you throw a blanket over the prickly critter and then quickly lift it off taking the quills with it.

Just after midnight, we pass through a station with a sign saying "Welcome to the geographical center of North America". It is Rugby, North Dakota, which prides itself on the fact that it doesn't have a mall. Someone has created a homemade US flag in lights for their window and folks are sitting out on their porch watching the train go past. A wee bit up the road, a brightly lit tow truck is stuck in a ditch. Someone on the train wonders aloud why the town has such a strange name - perhaps everyone there plays rugby, she says.

Minnesota is red. I wake at 6 in the morning to a bright red ball of a sun, a bright red barn and one red car following another red car on the flat, flat road. Just outside St Cloud we pass within a file's throw of a Mt Eden-like prison and I wonder at the subtle torture of hearing a train whistle blowing from inside the jail. Minneapolis-St Paul is the first big city since Portland. It's on the Mississippi River, where dozens of riverboats and barges are moored.

At noon we're in Winona, and the train is so long and the station so short that we have to make two stops to unload passengers from different carriages. We hold up the traffic for some considerable time because of that. At nearby La Crosse, my guidebook tells me, the Mississippi is twice as wide as it is in Minneapolis-St Paul but it looks narrower to me until I realise we're going from island to island in the stream. Altogether there are five strands of the river here. We are in Wisconsin, passing through pretty wooded hills and flat pastures, though I fail to see the cows that produce the state's most famous product - cheese. I do however see some examples of something else the state is famous for - weird roadside fibreglass statues.

Three hours later, we're arriving in Milwaukee on an approach that reminds me of coming into Auckland from the south by train, complete with a brief whiff of a Southdown Freezing Works aroma.

[To be continued....]

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