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There are 45 station stops on the Empire Builder — the most of any Amtrak route.

The Empire Builder operates daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland and was named for James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railway.

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Unexplored Points of View

High Plains and Headspace on the Empire Builder

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"I still carry binoculars," Darryl said. "You get very good thunderstorms. The most beautiful sunsets are in Montana because you can see forever."

Dancing at the Oasis Bar & Casino, next door to the lumber store in Shelby, MT.

Out in the hall, a door slid open and closed and the scoop rattled in the bucket of ice.

Darryl and I studied a tiny house that sat all by itself, a speck on the horizon.

"You ever read In Cold Blood?" Darryl asked.

I shook my head, "No way."

"I would have me some vicious dogs on my land."


At 3:00, I joined two-dozen sleeping car passengers in the Dining Car to for a wine and cheese tasting focusing on wines from the Columbia Valley. The young man seated across from me obviously didn't subscribe to Debra Franke's vacation mantra. Gregg Zart glanced out the window, to our table, to the vase of flowers, over to the next table, then back out the window in a split second, smiling all the while. He was plugged in, amped up, and warp speed.

"I wake up like this," Gregg said, by way of introduction to everyone at our table — Debra, who had an uncanny ability to materialize by my side in the Dining Car, and a sweet faced young man who introduced himself as James. Gregg paused for a second and added, giddily, "I just signed a year-long contract with CNN."

Manny and Carol Diaz grow cabernet and chardonnay grapes in Cloverdale, CA.

As Darryl poured the first wine of the day, a chardonnay from Yakima, Washington, Gregg recounted his move to Williston, North Dakota in 2012, the state's latest oil boom, and the town's Wild West atmosphere. He had begun posting reports on YouTube shortly after he arrived in North Dakota —"It's sink or swim in Williston. First night there, I slept in a dumpster" — and almost immediately, his posts began attracting a larger audience than family and friends.

Over a Pacific Rim gewurtstrameiner, James volunteered that he was heading to Alaska for three months to visit a special friend. He'd worked extra hours so that he could make the trip. "Time off," James said, "is underrated."

Darryl presented a bottle of cabernet sauvignon with orange and purple horses on the label and Gregg explained what was missing in Williston (housing and women), the potential of the Bakken field formation to produce oil for 20 years and the controversial practice of hydraulic fracking. He'd also just come up with his new tagline: "What do you think?" he asked, "‘Rockin' the Bakken and makin' the bacon.'"

Maybe it was the malbec, but we toasted Gregg's new tagline and his new career. The rest of the Dining Car — everyone who wasn't seated with Gregg — was finishing up a trivia quiz and Darryl offered a bottle of wine to whichever couple in the car had been married longest. A man across the aisle raised his hand, "Fifty eight years, yesterday." There was widespread applause. Some even offered to help the winning couple celebrate their anniversary with that nice bottle of malbec. If Darryl hadn't shooed us out, we all probably would have stayed straight through from the wine tasting till dinner.

Glacier National Park, east of Essex, MT.

Late in the afternoon the train began climbing through the Rockies and Glacier National Park, wilderness so dazzlingly beautiful that it was impossible to do anything other than sit and stare. We crossed Two Medicine Bridge, 215 feet above the water, and snaked along the Flathead River. The sun broke through the clouds to reflect snow–covered forests, meadows, and mountains. In the Observation Car, a Trails and Rails volunteer described local history — the highlights and low points of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Chief Joseph and the Battle of Bear Paw, the one hundred sixty wind turbines in Glacier Wind Farm, and the one hundred fifty four degree temperature range in Cut Bank — from forty-seven below to one hundred seven. Passengers lingered near the windows till the sky grew dark and the stories finally came to an end.

The next morning, I opened my curtains to full sun on red cliffs above the blue Columbia River. Still in my pajamas, I grabbed my camera and tried to capture the overload of color and light. Twenty minutes later, I finally paused for coffee. Gazing past the river, I spotted a sharp white peak hovering half way between the horizon and the sky. I squinted in the glare, then flipped through the train schedule. Mt. Hood. Nothing I'd seen in the past two days had been quite so surreal or compelling.

Two hours later, the Empire Builder arrived in Portland. I chose a bench in front of Union Station and stretched out to wait for my connection. Eyes closed in the sun, I considered the different wildernesses we'd just passed through.

"Have you been to North Dakota?" someone asked. I raised my head. A few feet away, a man in a leather coat, white ball cap and sunglasses was smoking a cigarette and talking to someone on his right. "Looks like a nuclear bomb went off," he said, "No trees. Just a bunch of dirt."

My thoughts wandered back to what I'd seen of North Dakota — oil wells, trailers, freight cars filled with pipes, a lone coyote. The fellow had a point, I realized, but it was only part of the story. Perhaps he'd change his mind if he had a second look.