The Plains: The Great Train Adventure Part II

North Western Montana

North Western Montana (Burnett-Velez)

Something about the wide open space and neutral colors of Montana made me remember myself again. Amidst the joyous chaos of children and marriage, friends and publishing contracts, Facebook chatter and favorite TV shows, a heart and brain can fill up with words and faces and moments that can snatch up whole seasons of your time and you can forget yourself.

Mothers understand this reality very well. Yes, I’m sure fathers do too, and attentive pet owners and small business operators, and people who work for nonprofits, clergy and anyone at all who finds themselves consistently devoted to the care of others. But something about Montana restored my Western sense of space, my need to get lost inside the vastness of nature. Big nature. The kind only the American West can produce. This is where I was born and raised – in the Oklahoma Plains and then at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in southern California. My summers were spent in the high desert of Oregon and its warm sun-soaked Rogue Valley and the steamy outskirts of Houston and my grandmother’s big old house in Oklahoma City and my uncle’s tiny childhood home in rust red Claremore, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Plains (Wikipedia)

Oklahoma Plains


These were my places, the home places that defined me: Oklahoma, Oregon, California, and all the places frequented regularly in between – Albuquerque and Gallup, the Joshua Tree National Monument in Needles, the Painted Desert, that giant crater not too far away from it, the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascade Mountains, Crater Lake, long drives and talks about the Oglala Aquifer and the savior it was to family that had survived the Dust Bowl of the 1930s…You simply cannot be brought up with hours of time to ponder and think and plot and decipher among some of the world’s most beautiful wonders and then, move to the East Coast and forget about it all.

But this is what happens when you go to college, and fall in love and have babies and the babies grow and need good school districts, and the Hot Latin Husband has a stable job and you’re building your writing career freelancing for local East Coast newspapers and magazines. And you sort of try to bury that Western longing for space and nature and look for their substitutes in the best places you can find nearby – the Appalachian Trail, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the Chesapeake, Hilton Head Island, the Everglades…But these places, though beautiful and soul-filling, are still compact and so much smaller than the Rockies or even the San Bernardino Mountains that rarely peak above the smog, but you still try for the reach outward anyway.

Wild Mustangs like I saw in Montana, but failed to capture, befcause they were too fast.  (Wikipedia)

Wild Mustangs like I saw in Montana, but failed to capture, because they were too fast.

Riding through Montana on Amtrak two weeks ago, was like taking a long drink after a 20 year dry spell. “Wait until you step off the train in Portland (our final destination),” I say to the Brilliant 10 Year Old, my train companion. He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and has never been further west than western Maryland. “The air is different here. It’s crisp and clean, and the sky feels bigger. You’ll love it.”

Wind Power on the Plains (Burnett-Velez)

Wind Power on the Plains

He was eager, and believed me, because he couldn’t stop staring at the largeness of the view outside our train window. The atmosphere in the upper half of Montana is called “Big Sky Country” and it sprawls on and on in a series of golden wheat fields, soft rolling plains and high peaked mountains carved by glaciers millions of years ago, and huge cumulus clouds that have the space and time to form into massive continents of white mist and rain and make spectacle of the varying splitting rays of the afternoon sun onto the earth, which is the color of warm caramel. At sunset, the sky, just like every other place in the great West, spreads a red-bronze-pink blanket of fire above the mountains. In Montana’s case, it’s the Rockies, and their snow-capped peaks literally glow against the burst of reds behind them. And all of this is snaked by the silvery ice-logged Missouri River, which winds and twists between hundreds of acres of grazing land for wild mustangs, big horn sheep, and bald eagles – all of which we saw during our travels. Montana reminded me of a northern version of that same Oklahoma in which I was born and spent many a childhood summer. Only, Oklahoma doesn’t have the sheep content of its northern sister, I’m pretty sure.

Scrap Metal Dump in North Western Montana. Always near a reservation. Why? (Burnett-Velez)

Scrap Metal Dump in North Western Montana. Always near a reservation. Why?

But Montana was not all beauty and big tall glacier carvings. It was reservations and broken down trailer parks and BNSF railroad hubs, too. For every wild American horse, there was a huge American scrap metal dump, a 24 hour Casino with a cartoon Native on the sign, and a two hour hotel.

Bear Paw Mountains

Bear Paw Mountains (Burnett-Velez)

On either side of the Bear Paw Mountains where Chief Joseph said his famous words, “I will fight no more forever,” lay two reservations. In one of them, I saw a school with plywood doors and a 1970’s era school bus that banged and clattered as it rumbled down the dusty streets to take children to their crumbling, slanting homes. Pasty colored trailers that looked hardly stable enough to stand up against the wind storms of the high plains, what the locals call “blinders” because they can steal a man’s sight with the sharp cut of the dust and the snow.

Reservation Home in the Distance, North Western Montana (Burnett-Velez)

Reservation Home in the Distance, North Western Montana

And, indeed, some of these “homes” were already half leaning into the ground, but smoke still poured out of their pencil thin chimneys. These were not even like the reservations I had seen in Oklahoma, or other parts of the U.S. These were deplorable, at least, from my trainside window. One of the big industries butting up against, or sitting directly inside, these reservations was fracking. Lots of fracking. From the Dakotas to the Washington border, you see these big cylinders sticking out of the ground and creating strange high metal sculptures that look as though they want to hide, but nothing can kind in the Plains, so they try to steal the scenery instead.

Fracking in Northwestern Montana (Wikipedia)

Fracking in Northwestern Montana

These were sobering images for me, and made me think of my own Native heritage, but being pale enough to have nearly see-through skin, I always push that heritage aside, because I inwardly assume – no one will ever believe this. My blue eyes make me a fake, the kind of fake dark-skinned Indians talk about. The wannbees. Except, I don’t really want to be anything different. It’s just truth – that my grandfather was approximately 3/4ths Choctaw and a tad Creek and Cherokee, too, and I share a strong resemblance to his side of the family, and when I see reservations, I always think of him first, and most often, of my cousins who I actually liked. My admiration for my grandfather is questionable. He kept changing his stories. I don’t know who he really was, but now that he has passed on, I believe I have the best chance of finding out.

I know that he was born on the edge of Choctaw land, and attended reservation schools until his father sent him to a military academy, or so he said. His tales were almost as tall as he was. The one thing he couldn’t lie about was his Native American heritage. It was obvious. Even when he tried to pretend he was “black Irish,” it was obvious that that was a joke and everyone in the room was supposed to laugh. My mother seemed to have taken his cue here. After one too many jokes about her being a “blanket butt Indian” after she moved to Oregon in the 1970’s, she colored her hair red, and since her skin is also fair (not uncommon for Cherokees and Choctaws) she can get away with being “just Irish” now, but smart people always cock their heads at that notion. “And something else, too,” they say when she gets excited on St. Patrick’s Day.

The few times my mother drove my siblings and I out to Oklahoma to meet with my grandfather near his Broken Arrow home, he would always teach me a new Choctaw word and tell me something about his mother, Viola, who gave him his heritage and who supported him by running a small general store in the center of her town. I don’t remember any of these Choctaw words (and they were probably 100% fiction), but I do remember Viola. I have her tea cabinet in my dining room and her table next to it. My grandfather’s father was a Cherokee-Irish bootlegger and had the sharp angular face of a man who had spent more years hungry than satisfied, and that’s all I know about him, though I’m searching for more. But Viola, my grandfather spoke of a lot, and he often ended brief stories about her with, “She was a tough old gal. Had to be tough in that environment.”

Seeing the neglected reservations in Montana bothered me in the way the huge billboards in New Mexico always did growing up. My father (not Native at all) said that’s, because I have “white guilt”, but what I felt was something different. It was more offensive than defensive.

“Genuine Navajo Gifts at Reservation Prices!” the signs would read from the beginning to end of the Nation’s borders. After a while of complaining about it out loud to mother, she’d finally say, “Well, what do you want me to do about it? I didn’t put these reservations here. If you think these ones are rough, wait till you get to Oklahoma. Indian Territory,” she’d say, and I could tell by the way she sighed and shrugged that she was thinking of her father and her grandmother, Viola.

Once I brought the billboards up to my grandfather, when we visited with him in a Tulsa Holiday Inn. My mother never took my brother and I to his house for some reason, but my younger sister, she took there years later. She was much closer to my grandfather than I think I was. I asked my grandfather if he thought the billboards and sale of Native goods so cheaply and so openly was offensive to him in anyway, or if I was weird for feeling weird about all that.

“A man’s gotta make a living,” he said and shrugged. “And people want this stuff.”

“What kind of people?” I wanted to hear him say “white people” because I know he never wanted anyone to see him in opposition to that, but he was so dark and so Choctaw looking, and he never burned in the sun.

“People who like that kind of thing. Easterners and such.”

“Did your mother ever sell that stuff in her store?” I asked.

My grandfather laughed. “Maybe.”

“I remember the candy!” My mother spoke up from across the room. “She sold regular country store things, and she used to let me get a little candy from the store every time we visited.”

“So, no Choctaw or Cherokee things for the tourists?” I asked.

“Honey, aint no tourists going to Antlers, Oklahoma.” Laughs all around. End of discussion. “Your great grandmother was not very crafty with a needle and thread. She had other talents.” White lightnin’, I’m guessing. The family trade.

I have my grandfather’s features, almost completely, but I don’t have his coloring, so I will never have the experiences he had being raised in Oklahoma, on Choctaw land, to a mother who, he said, “Tried to hide her race as much as she could, because it was bad for business, and life in general.”

At the train station in Portland, a handsome African American gentleman struck up a conversation with my son, the Brilliant 10 Year Old, and I. About halfway into our 30 minute discussion about his moving from Tampa to Tillamook, he stopped talking and gave me a funny look.

“Greek? Is that what I see in you?” he asked.

I laughed, because this conversation comes up every now and then, but usually only on the East Coast. “No. But I’m a bit of a mix.” Here, I feel like I always need to apologize for not “being something simple”. It’s funny how a Great Train Adventure can bring all that up for you again, crossing borders and nations within nations.

He kept probing. “Not Italian…not Middle Eastern…some of kind of ethnicity though…”

“My father is Jewish.”

“No. That’s not what I’m seeing. It’s…Native. What tribe are you affiliated with?”

“You mean, you can see that in my face?” I looked around the room like someone had just tipped him off or something.

“Oh, yes. It’s in your nose and chin and cheekbones.”

“I look like my grandfather,” I said. “He was Choctaw, mostly.”

“Yeah. You’re not your average white girl,” he said.

I laughed. “Thank you.”

“And my first clue is that this is true is that you find that to be a compliment.”

“Well,” I said, “I think a lot of white people would like to just be considered people.”

“Ha! That’s amusing,” he said. “Well, you’re more than one people. That’s what I see in your face. You should be proud of that.”

Frankly, I’m thankful not to have had many of my grandfather’s or, especially, my great grandmother’s experiences, and not just because she was discriminated against for being Native and being a woman, but because she lived in some backwoods town in Oklahoma, and that has to be it’s own kind of hell, but that’s another blog post.

My grandfather, K. Fitzgerald

My grandfather, K. Fitzgerald

Me a few years ago (Burnett-Velez)

Me a few years ago

Montana was beautiful. It made me thankful to be an American. I’m sure Canadians can relate to this kind of space and awe as well. There’s something about the beauty of North America that is unique to this continent, and this is the better half of what I felt while surveying the wide open West of my ancestors for the millionth time. But the darker half of my observation finally offered me the words to articulate the feelings I’d always wrestled with. I’m part of several worlds – the white and the not white. I am part of the immigrants of  this land and the Natives. But my connection to the Natives – which is substantial in blood and bone – will always be from the outside in. Skin color still divides America. Them from me. Me from them. Sure, it doesn’t have to, but it does – snaking and winding like the Missouri River through Sky Country, past the Bear Paws and the Rockies and the Great Plains that settle all questions of Intelligent creation.

Sunset at Glacier National Park (burnett-velez)

Sunset at Glacier National Park

The Great Train Adventure Part I: How the Brilliant 10 Year Old and I Rode 7000 Miles in 7 Days From East to West and Back

Monument to WWII Vets 30th Street Station Philadelphia, PA

Monument to WWII Vets
30th Street Station
Philadelphia, PA

It’s good for anyone born west of the great Mississippi to get back home, every now and then, to the wide open world of your birth. It makes the soul sing again in places where the cold Northeast has frozen it over. Recently, I took a cross-country train ride with my youngest son and my father. My dad and I are both Westerners, but my boy is an Easterner. These two dichotomies played out in interesting and beautifully revealing ways during that week long event. I learned more, I believe, about myself, my family, my ancestors, their land, and what “home” really consists of in those few days than I ever have. This is the first part of that story.

My father is leaving his home in the high desert of Oregon for a beautiful, close-quartered Victorian neighborhood an hour north of Philadelphia. I once feared that he’d never be able to stand the claustrophobic world of Pennsylvania cities, but he’s already made himself more comfortable in this new old world than I ever expected. So, when he had a few legal matters to wrap up out in Oregon, he asked me to bring my son along and come out to the West – to the Great Plains where I was born and where my ancestors have lived and cultivated the earth since the Trail of Tears and the years just following the Civil War. Of course, I was born in the Southern Plains of Oklahoma, and not the High Plains of Montana and North Dakota where we’d be traveling, but I knew it would do my heart good to see the great vastness of my birthland once again, even if the colder/more northern version.

We began the trip in Philadelphia, a city I have come to accept as one of my own, in a train station I have come to love as much as Los Angeles’ Union Station. 30th Street Station is a mid-20th century Art Deco masterpiece. It’s wide open and muted in colors, and classical string music spills out into the comforting square-shaped center, so that passengers don’t feel herded and rushed like a load of cattle into various gates when their train departures are announced. It’s obvious that the powers that be at 30th Street value a calm clientele. I’ve been going in and out of this place since the Blizzard of 1993, and I never regret a train to and from it.

Virginia Farm

Virginia Farm

My little one and I, he’s 10, boarded one of the oldest Amtrak cars in working order today – the Cardinal. I chose it over the Capitol Limited, because it promised “a slow ride through the Mid-Atlantic states, up through the very tip of the South, and on to the Midwest until it reaches Chicago’s Union Station.” Since this was an adventure, a train vacation, for my boy and I, we both decided the Cardinal would be a good choice. And since my son, The Brilliant 10 Year Old, is homeschooled, we figured we could take our time. This would be fun.

It wasn’t.

Firstly, it was old as heck, and probably used as a hospital train during the 1861 Battle of Manassas or something. I realize I already said that I knew it was one of the oldest Amtrak trains running today, but I figured that would offer charm and not discomfort. I’m not a picky person, or one to complain. I can deal with a fair share of discomfort. After all, I live in a broken down farmhouse on the edge of a two lane highway in a town that is “new” only because it was built after the Revolution. I can handle “old”.

But the heater was broken on this thing and the temperature rested at, or above, 90 degrees for most of the 24 hours we were on the train. This caused the Brilliant 10 Year Old to become ill, and he tossed his cookies for about 15 hours straight. The porters watched him projectile vomit all over our seats a couple of times and did nothing more than shrug. I guess they’ve seen this before? I busied myself expending an entire bottle of disinfecting wipes on our dusty cloth seats and the crumb-crusted carpeted floor.

No one tended to the bathrooms, and since we were in coach because the sleepers were all full, he had to deal with his illness in bathrooms that had other people’s unflushed, overheated “business” in them, which only made him feel even worse. There’s nothing like watching poo swim in steamy urine while you’re hanging onto a greasy handicap handle in a tight, metal bathroom that’s rolling 80 miles an hour over jagged edged West Virginia coal country.

Additionally, (and this isn’t Amtrak’s fault), the drug dealer who sat catty-corner to us spent a good portion of her time f-bombing her “Granny” on the phone, because she wouldn’t tell her where “Slim was hiding out”. We heard all about Slim’s “high-ass coke” that was left on the Granny’s kitchen counter and how “You’s isn’t suppoza leave you junk out for no goddam cops to find it. Stupid ass…He’s gonna haffa climb on through the winda to get his draws. They parked out in front all days…” It went on like this for sometime, and The Brilliant 10 Year Old finally leaned over to me and said, “I know why Slim ran. He’s just looking for a way out. Poor guy.” The little Amish girl from Reading who sat in front of us cried most of the time, and nipped at some sort of hard looking bread in terrified silence. There were a lot of Amish on the trip.

The loudmouth guy from Long Island was irritating to my son in his sickness, but I liked his stories and constant complaining about snow during winter and people in public. The only issue he presented was the constant roaring snore he emitted whenever his eyes fell shut, which was often, and then he’d go right back to screaming about the price of peanuts and how cute babies look when they’re sleeping, which made the two colicky babies who sat in front of him cry a lot.

“I feel like we’re a raging torpedo of crap and hot vomit,” I said to the nice lady from Kentucky who sat across from us and gave The Brilliant 10 Year Old a box of Dramamine after he puked on her bags and shoes. “I don’t know if children can take this, but you should read it and see if it works,” she said handing the box to me. Sure enough, 2 and up can take Dramamine. I gave him two and he nodded off and stopped puking. Praise be to God.

We were already excited to see Chicago, but by the time we arrived there, The Brilliant 10 Year Old and I high-tailed it so fast out of that boiling turd cooker on rails, that we nearly kissed the frozen ground of Union Station when we were pushed by the desperate crowd onto the platform. We ran into the Metropolitan Lounge, a swank and comfortable gigantic room for first class travelers. They lavished us with porters who took care of our heavy luggage, free wifi, plush leather seats, and free snacks and coffee. The Brilliant 10 Year Old and I found a safe corner and sat there contentedly watching CNN for two hours and working away at the word search book we’d brought along with us. We had high hopes that Chicago trains were of better quality.

Tips for Riding Coach on Amtrak:

Bring disinfecting wipes and antibacterial gel.

Bring Dramamine, pain killers, and ear plugs.

Bring a neck pillow.

Bring a blanket.

Bring snacks.

Bring a few bucks for coffee or other hot drinks.

Bring water and Gatorade or something with electrolytes in it, just incase you’re really entering dehydration hell.

Bring reading material, electronics (you can plug in at your seat), bring headphones, bring games (there’s a table that folds down for each seat).

Look outside, because the inside will be hell if you’re riding the Cardinal.

Next issue of The Great Train Adventure will be Chicago – the Center of It All.

Go West with Bonnie Dodge on the Historical Novel Blog Tour Today!


Author, Bonnie Dodge

Author, Bonnie Dodge

Hello, my dead readers. I know that I have not written much lately, but I’m winding down with the last couple stretches of The Historical Novel Blog Tour. I will return with some of my original work later this week. This week, the wonderful author, Bonnie Dodge visits, sharing her work, her characters, and her attention to historical detail. Read more about her work here. Happy Monday!

A Return to the Caribbean with Eleanor Parker


This week, we return to the beautiful, tiny island of Puerto Rico with historical novelist Eleanor Parker. She is a frequent visitor on the Historical Novel Blog Tour, and I know you’ll just love her work. Her debut novel, A Decent Woman, comes out very soon! Check out her blog at

New York City!


The next stop on the Historical Novel Blog Tour gets off at New York City with Vanda Neveruseit. On her blog, she talks about her work, Juliana, a novel of Gay and Lesbian history. The story is true. The details are fictional, but real people make appearances in this exciting tale of 1940’s New York. Check out Vanda’s blog and learn all about Juliana, a brave and bold character that you will quickly fall in love with.

Northern Ireland on the Historical Novel Blog Tour!


Northern Ireland is the center of the Historical Novel Blog Tour today. Novelist, Diane Ascroft, talks about her move from Toronto to the British Isles, finally settling on a small village in Northern Ireland. The island weaves itself in and out of her beautiful writing. The tour will be with her all week. Do take a moment to check out her blog and share it with your fellow readers and writers. Happy Monday, all!

The Historical Novel Blog Tour Goes to the Mediterranean This Week with Victor Steiner

Viktor with his beautiful family.

Viktor with his beautiful family.

My Dear Readers, welcome Viktor Steiner to the Historical Novel Blog Tour! This beautifully written post will leave you wanting more of his work. Go to Viktor’s blog to discover more about his life as a writer, lover of history, and family man. This is one of my most favorite posts on the tour so far. Viktor opens up about the writing life in a way that I believe is very beneficial for those looking for solidarity. Let’s face it – writing is a solitary profession, but it requires friends, and you’ll feel that Viktor is one of yours when you finish this piece. Enjoy!