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

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

Through America's Backyard on the Empire Builder

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Saturday, August 20

7:19 am - Rugby, North Dakota

As I wake up, I see sunlight washing across hay bales in a misty field. I wonder where I am — and get an instant answer as we pull into Rugby, North Dakota, the geographical center of North America.

Australians Allan and Christine Sunderland enjoying a North Dakota breakfast.

After breakfast with my new Australian pal Allan and his wife Christine, the three of us get off briefly at Minot, North Dakota, to say hello to Gary Stenehjem, a retired music teacher who visits the Empire Builder regularly with his dog Marty. As we talk, our service attendant, Randy, comes out to offer Marty a treat from the kitchen.

9:15 am - Stanley, North Dakota

As I arrive back at my roomette, I see a mother and daughter playing a card game in the roomette across the aisle. I say hello, and meet Jean Sage and her 10-year-old daughter Christine. They're from Plymouth, Minnesota, and headed to a Glacier National Park vacation. It's Christine's first ride on the Empire Builder — and she's beaming.

"The train is fun," she says, "because you can look out the window and see where you're going and everything around you. It's fun sleeping on the train, too." Then her mother adds playfully, "And waking up and wondering where you are!"

Both Christine and I harmonize a laugh.

11:30 am - Wolf Point, Montana

Trails and Rails moderator Pat Torgerson busy describing historical highlights.

Just before lunch, I visit the Sightseer Lounge, where I discover a broad cross-section of people absorbing comments about the passing sights from Pat Torgerson, a National Park Service "Trails and Rails" moderator. She's discussing details about prairie flora and fauna, Wild West battles, Native American sites, Lewis and Clark landmarks, and, of all things, an annual stampede that takes place in these parts each July.

Enjoying the experience are Minneapolis denizens Debra Stowe and her 11-year-old son Ryan. Notes Debra: "You always hear about the vastness and the greatness of America, but when you're out in the middle of it like this, it takes your breath away. We saw a deer this morning, and jackrabbits and tons of wildlife on the ponds and the lakes that we went by. It's absolutely gorgeous — and we're not even in the mountains yet!"

1:30 pm - Malta, Montana

Sue and Bob Mensch.

I lunch with Sue and Bob Mensch, from New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, and Nate Hershey, a social worker from Indianapolis. All three are bound for Glacier Park — the Mensches to visit their park ranger daughter, and Nate to meet friends for a vacation.

Nate explains that his friends are flying out, but that he's taking the train for its contemplative value. He observes: "On a train, you can look out the window and see hundreds of stories going by. I see someone get out of a car in Montana and wonder, 'What's this person's life like?' That gets me thinking deeply about my own life."

4:00 pm - Near Havre, Montana

Kathy and Jim Haft enjoying wine and cheese — and good company.

I join a group of first-class passengers in the lounge car for a wine and cheese tasting featuring, appropriately, Wisconsin cheeses and Washington State wines. I run into Debra Stowe again, who's sitting with Jim and Kathy Haft, from Winnetka, Illinois. They're on their way with their three kids to visit friends in the Glacier Park area.

"I haven't taken a train trip since when I was a kid, when I used to go with my dad on overnight trips," says Jim. "I wanted to take our children on a trip and have them experience the same thing. So far it's been great."

Kathy interjects, "We didn't bring any electronic games, and not one of the kids has been bored for one minute!"

A Monopoly game in the Sightseer Lounge involving (from left) brothers Jay and Alex Haft, and Ryan Stowe.

The key reason for this is a lending library of popular board games now available on the Empire Builder. At that moment, in fact, the Haft boys are in the Sightseer Lounge with Debra's son and two other boys they've just met, playing a spirited game of Monopoly.

After the wine tasting, we all head down to watch the game. Debra says to me: "It's ridiculous for a long trip to bring along a board game like Monopoly, but for Amtrak to have it here is incredible. The great part about having games is that they're an icebreaker for the kids to get to know each other."

5:22 pm - Shelby, Montana

I have dinner with a family from Madison, Wisconsin — Rob Lynch, his daughter Katy, and his son Ryan — as the train crosses the continental divide with the Canadian Rockies as a backdrop. We trade notes on all the interesting people we've met so far on this trip, and the name Nate Hershey comes up. It turns out that the two youngsters had already befriended Nate.

Indianapolis social worker Nate Hershey.

Fast forward three hours — and the Lynches and I bid farewell to Nate as he exits at the West Glacier, Montana, station, one of three stops within Glacier National Park.

In the meantime, I've been in the Sightseer Lounge with other passengers "ooohing and aaahing" our way through the wonders of Glacier National Park.

Imagine... Douglas fir trees reaching to the sky. Mountain goats perched on cliffs. Lush wilderness as far as the eye can see. Hawks circling in the air.

It's a woodland paradise.

8:56 pm - Whitefish, Montana

Writer Lorian Hemingway, a big Amtrak fan.

We have a 20-minute stop, so once again I'm out schmoozing with passengers. On the platform, I get talking with a woman bedecked in Native American jewelry who tells me she's returning home to Seattle from a business trip to Key West, Florida — and that she's taken Amtrak nearly the whole way! I ask her what she does for a living and she says, "I'm a writer." When I ask her name, she replies, "Lorian — Hemingway." I say, "Any relation to —?" And she says, "Yes. I'm the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway."

And, as it turns out, a devoted Amtrak passenger. She tells me that traveling by rail helps her sort out ideas related to her writing projects.

But for anyone, she says, rail travel is a healthy move.

"Americans are desperate to slow down and connect with each other," she says, "and they can do that on the train." [continued...]