Fred Frailey Blog

A world dressed in white

  • Comments 52

You enjoy traveling by train in winter. In part it's the comfort of being warm while outside your window it is bitterly cold. Trains aren't crowded this time of year, either, and the introvert in you likes that. Plus, there is a feeling of adventure you won't experience in summer. Who knows what storm lurks in the distance?

The temperature when the Empire Builder leaves Chicago is 17 degrees. The land seems vacant crossing Wisconsin. People are inside, as well they should be in weather like this. Brown stubble from last fall's harvest sticks out of the light cover of snow. Water puddles, frozen over, glisten in the thin late afternoon sun.

You enjoy snow like this, pure white, undisturbed.

At Columbus, at 5 o'clock, a crowd of several dozen emerges into the cold from the stone depot as the Builder comes to a stop. The conductor beams his iPhone on etickets, and people slowly board. At 5:15, the sun is low in the west, filtered through light clouds. Half an hour later, approaching Portage, dusk has fallen. This seems strange, the winter solstice having occurred a full two months ago. And by 6 o'clock, west of Wisconsin Dells, darkness has shut you into your own little world inside the train. No more gazing outside. You look forward to dinner in an hour, and a chance to talk to people. Maybe you're not such an introvert.

The next morning, at 7:30, you approach Devils Lake, N.D., in first light, under a gray sky. Outside, the temperature is 10 degrees. The blanket of snow is thicker.The four-lane highway running parallel to BNSF Railway's Devils Lake Subdivision is deserted. Everyday life in North Dakota seems suspended.

The conductor radios the engineer that the eastbound Empire Builder today is four and a half hours late. Your own train isn't doing so well, either. Like a deflating balloon, it slowlly lost time all night and is now about 90 minutes late. But who cares? You notice that it's starting to snow. Well, let the wind outside blow all it wants. You pick up a book and head for the lounge car. - Fred W. Frailey

  • How wonderful it all must be. Thanks for sharing Fred.

  • Fine writing coupled with good story-telling.  Thanks.

  • Lovely. Makes we want to take some time to do this.

  • DRAT! Stuck behind that Z-CHCPTL-9 all night! Heads Must Roll!!!

  • Nice, Fred.  I'm making that very trip in April.  Maybe the landscape will be waking up by then.

  • Sounds like you need to stop downstairs and pick up a bottle of red wine to go with that book.  Enjoy!

  • Outstanding imagery. It makes we wish that I could join you.

  • Even the ugliest scenery benefits from a layer of fresh white stuff.  Great scenery is enhanced.

  • Fred:

    Now give us a detailed description of the oil related activity in the Williston area.   Where are all these unit tank car movements originating? Ask the train crew if thet know how it is being done and how the Builder is being affected by it all.   I'll be waiting.  Don't disappoint us.  I'm sure you won't.

  • Fred,

    If this is your first trip on the builder, be sure to be awake after Wenatchee; the Cascades from there west are spectacular, and you'll experience of the tunnel.  Happy viewing!

  • are you required to communicate with us regardless of the content?

  • WJM2223, Too much blowing snow to get a close look at the loading facilities, which are everywhere between Minot and Trenton, west of Williston. Most of them (8 or 9) held a train of tank cars being loaded. But they and everything else, including Z trains, stayed out of our way. BNSF has done a good job moving us, particularly since we met or overtook a train about every other siding from Minot to Havre. Still about 70 minutes late, which at this time of year you'd call on time.


  • Seaboardawg, I comment when I have something to say. Tell me, do I detect a whiff of sarcasm in your question <g>?


  • Take no offence from seaboarddawg, Fred. Your blog evokes memories in me racing westbound across Saskatchewan on CN's Panorama in April 1968 in a raging blizzard, snow caking on the end windows of the dome car (ex Milw of course). I was 16 years old, and had been working for CN Telegraphs for just over a year, thus had my first annual pass, which let myself and another CN employee friend travel as far as Winnipeg.

  • I rode the combined Empire Builder/North Coast Limited/Twin Cities Zephyr from Chicago to St Paul in September 1970 (and the Builder onward to Seattle).  Twenty-seven cars behind four silver E units.  We met our eastbound counterpart at speed along the Mississippi.  Onrushing dome cars, as seen through the dome car.  Blurry Kodachrome slides for the record.  Very exciting.  Glimpses of Milwaukee Road's antiquated power along the way, including IIRC (?), FM units.  

    On Penn Central from Buffalo to Chicago I was 16 years old and alone.  But I rode from Chicago to Havre, MT with a bunch of kids returning from a church convention somewhere in the South and became impossibly infatuated with a blond girl who inevitably was going to disembark and board a bus to Choteau, ID.  Funny how you remember that stuff.  Along with those ex-GN semaphore signals dropping from green to red while the lead unit's Mars light probes the darkness ahead.  They turned the heat down in the dome at night (or so it seemed) but did not force you tor return to your seat.  

A world dressed in white