12 July, 2013

Williston Update: The Boy Out Of The Small Town

It is not down on any map;true places never are. Herman Melville

The train arrived in Rugby two hours late. Since I got to town an hour and a half late, I was not surprised. The Empire Builder has 48 stops stretched across 2,257 miles from Chicago to Portland. That's plenty of space to lose five minutes at a time. 

By the time I left Chicago, I knew there was a chance I'd have to change my plans. I planned this jaunt around a multi-city train ticket. That was cheaper than the USA Rail Pass. But it restricted my movements and tied me to an arbitrarily set itinerary. It became clear pretty quickly though that traveling the way I do requires more adaptability than the exoskeletal structure of an official itinerary. 

For one thing, I'm running low on my road stake. For another, money I was counting on hasn't dropped -- a paycheck to be precise. The situation isn't dire enough for me to be stuck, but it is enough that I have to alter my plans. 

The possibility crossed my mind in Chicago. When I checked with a ticket agent at Union Station, I was told that in order to change my ticket, I'd have to pay $195 -- the cost of a one way ticket from Williston back to Minneapolis. 

9 days in Williston, then a few nights camping in Montana. That was the plan. Moving closer to East Glacier Park, though, I was finding it difficult to find a place to roust. The nearest camping site from East Glacier Park 10 miles away, in Browning. But with the tourist season in full swing, anything short of a roadside skid was more than I could cover or hope for. (Of course, once I looked at the Empire Builder Schedule -- after I bought the ticket -- I saw that the train goes to Browning, too.)

I'd planned enough to have two nights at a motel in Williston, and I've done some preliminary research. A few things were quickly and abundantly clear: most of the motels were full of oil field workers, and the impact of the sheer number of people is not being written about in any real way. 

Sure there's more money. Sales tax money. Property tax money -- though the number of people who have moved to Williston is probably significantly lower than the mass of folks who live here and in Stanley who work at the oil fields and send money home. Downtown Williston is a prime example of a small town in the process of polishing and growing ... more on that in another post. 

But this muckraker's eye knows to look at some other things, too. Like that there are more people putting more wear and tear on infrastructure than there's money to pay for repairs. 

I also noticed that -- other than the armory-- the first thing I saw when I walked up Main Street from the depot was a strip club and two bars side by side, and another building splashed with a billboard listing the 10 Commandments. 

Then there's what you don't see right away. For example, with more people with a pocketful of money and a lot of wear and tear to burn off on the weekend, there's more potential for trouble. 

The good news is I have what amounts to 2 full days here. My train isn't scheduled to leave until Saturday evening at 7:09pm. Even though it's the #8 (eastbound), I'll expect it will run late. 

I was able to change my ticket in Rugby even though I was told in Chi-town that it would cost more than I could really afford. This is the magic that can happen in a small town.

The train depot in Rugby is as historical structure, and the story of the train in Rugby is one about tenacity. One of the bulletin boards on the inside is covered with newspaper articles dating to the 1980's about how the powers that be were threatening to take the train away from Rugby, and how they fought to keep it there. 

When I travel and the more I live, the more I am convinced of a few things:

1. the story of transportation is tied to the true narrative of the country.
2. there are more stories worth hearing than there are mouths to tell them or words to record them.
3. there is something about small town American life that transcends the false narrative of Manifest Destiny. There is something about small town life that is both quintessentially American -- in all it's darkness and light -- and quintessentially human. 

I talked to the ticket agent in Rugby. I explained that I needed to alter my multi-city ticket and asked if there was a way I could cancel the last two legs -- from Williston to East Glacier Park and from there to Minneapolis -- to replace it with a ticket from Williston to Minneapolis. I expected the same answer I got in Chicago.

But he told me that not only could I change the ticket, but that I could end up getting refund.

Why wasn't I told this in Chicago?

Maybe it's because I'm a small town boy, born and bred; but I have been in enough cities to know that, for all their wonder, life, and instant access ... if you can afford it... that they embody a certain cynicism and apathy that people mistake for metropolitan sophistication.  it's the same sort of blasé attitude teenagers affect because they believe it's incredibly adult. 

So much culture -- but the soul is something hard to find in the top layers of chipped paint and cement and steel.

The refund will take a few days to show back up in my account, so it probably won't help me here. And it would be nice if the paycheck I was expecting would turn up before the end of the day. But I don't expect it. I do expect to make a phone call, however, and ask why.

But that's the nature of travel, and the problem of too rigid an itinerary.  Sometimes shit happens. And sometimes you have to work with the shit you've got.