To me, taking a train ride is like both being in and watching a play; with dramatic entrances and exits, lively dialogue, quiet moments of reflection, and a satisfying conclusion. So please join me on a recent trip from Chicago to Seattle on the Amtrak Empire Builder - a tale of 2,200 miles, 47 hours, three time zones, dozens of characters, a host of woodland creatures, satisfying food and drink, and superb scenery.
Friday, August 19
2:20 pm - Chicago, Illinois
Departing point: Chicago's Union Station.
Leaving Union Station, I take a deep breath and tell myself to relax. I'm at the end of a week filled with frenzied air travel in the East and Midwest and ready for refreshment on the rails before business in the Northwest.
I expect to be refreshed when I arrive even though I'll be at work capturing the experience of riding the newly enhanced Empire Builder in words and photos. But it'll be pleasant work — because train passengers tend to be like kids on a camping trip: thrilled to be sharing an adventure.
A big part of that adventure is the scenery — and the Empire Builder explodes with it: picturesque Midwestern forests and farms, the scenic Mississippi, the rolling Northern Plains, Montana's Big Sky Country, exquisite Glacier National Park, the majestic Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges, and the tranquil seascapes of Puget Sound.
Nature is exciting in a soothing way, and, within minutes, the lush woods of Northern Illinois are calming my nerves. Since I've skipped lunch, I'm happy to find a box of snacks in my roomette. As I munch on an energy bar, I leaf through the latest issue of Empire Builder magazine, which gives a scene-by-scene account of coming attractions.
Then my Sleeping Car Attendant, Stan, arrives to explain the features of the sleeping car and to offer me a complimentary glass of sparkling wine.
2:45 pm - Near Milwaukee, Wisconsin
As we roll into Wisconsin farmland, I spot a Golden Retriever lounging in the sun, and it strikes me that I'm finally on the same wavelength.
Our train's conductor, Christine, arrives to check my ticket. We discuss the Empire Builder's revamped equipment, including a new sleeping car design featuring cherry wood accents and blue-and-white upholstery. Then Christine tells me about her job. She says it's exciting every day because "the train is always good for a lot of tearful good-byes and happy hellos."
She explains: "You stand on the platform and see people embracing each other in tears and it's gut-wrenching. But you see them when they get to where they're going, and people step off the train and you see these little kids running and saying, 'Daddy!' and people embracing and kissing."
I want to hear Christine describe more scenes like this, but she has many stops on her rounds, so I reluctantly bid her adieu and return to my reading, absorbed in my copy of Empire Builder magazine. Soon I'm transported back to 1929, the first year of Empire Builder service, and I'm riding a train named after James J. Hill, the "empire-building" founder of the Great Northern Railway, a crucial catalyst to the opening of the West.
Then the dining car's lead service attendant, Randy, shows up to discuss dinner arrangements. He says that a new menu features dishes from the Great Northern Railway cookbook — items such as braised salmon with horseradish and cauliflower puree and a beef pot pie with tomatoes and white mushrooms. Although, as Randy explains, I can order any meal to be delivered to my roomette, I eagerly book a spot in the dining car. It's a great place to meet people.
4:00 pm - Milwaukee, Wisconsin
After working on my laptop computer for awhile, I decide to explore the train before dinner. As I enter a string of coach cars, I see people of all ages and descriptions talking, staring out the window, reading, napping, nibbling a snack, playing cards or electronic games, doing crossword puzzles — you name it. Talk about theatrical color.
The sunny, fun-filled
As I set foot in the redesigned Sightseer Lounge, I enter a sun-filled fishbowl with a panoramic view of the countryside. I see clusters of people gathered around small mushroom-like drink tables. Folks are laughing and pointing to passing attractions as they sip drinks. As I reach the middle of the car, I see lively board games in motion at tables and booths.
I quiz several people about what they like most about the trip so far. The most common responses are: "meeting new people; relaxation; the scenery." Dallas Wireman, a retired businessman from Morro Bay, California, tells me, "If you've got the time, train travel is by far the best way to go."
5:50 pm - Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Twenty minutes into dinner, everyone in the diner is in a festive mood. As I relish a pork shank and a glass of Merlot, I talk to Seattle residents Nancy Buran, her nine-year-old son Eli, and eight-year-old daughter Anna. Nancy jokes that a big benefit of the trip is a break from housework. As she says, "You don't even have to make your bed," her kids laugh. Then they agree that they like traveling on the train better than on a plane because they can move around and make new friends. As if to demonstrate this, they exit to keep a play date with new friends.
Evelyn and Frank Hayward.
Nancy and I then join Evelyn and Frank Hayward, a retired couple from Picayune, Mississippi, for coffee and dessert. We talk about how much fun it is to meet new people on the train.
7:14 pm - La Crosse, Wisconsin
Back in my roomette, I cross the Mississippi into Minnesota and, for a nice, long spell, enjoy a cameo appearance from the bustling river. It's wide at this point and peppered with birds swooping amid barges and other vessels. As I take in the show, I work again on my laptop computer and do some reading.
10:31 pm - St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota
I take in the night air during a 45-minute servicing stop. Strolling down the platform, I meet an energetic Australian who is globetrotting with his wife and sister — and has made a special point to ride the Empire Builder because it's "one of the world's greatest train routes."
This man, Allan Sunderland, says he has traveled trains all over the world, and thinks the Empire Builder scenery is "unparalleled." He says he takes trains as much as possible on his global travels because "train travel is designed for people who are more interested in the journey than the destination. On a train, people slow down and pay attention to each other. By the time they get to their destination, they're good friends."
These are pleasant words to hear right before turning in for the evening. When I get back to my roomette, I see that Stan has pulled down the upper bunk for me. Soon, I'm drifting off into sleep as the train rocks gently and the starry Minnesota sky floats by. [continued...]