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- EMPIRE BUILDER -

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We traveled across the country by train on Amtrak's 'most successful' route, the Empire Builder. After boarding in Chicago we arrived about 2 days later in Seattle, 45 minutes EARLY! Our sleeper car 'roomette' was quite a bit smaller than the Amtrak website graphics implied; we were happy with our cozy, great view just the same. All meals were included with dinner seatings by reservation only.

Classic style transportation across 2000 miles, 2 nights lodging, and 5 nice meals for two people, with 'front row seats' on unbeatable autumn scenery...all for around $540 USD. What a steal!

Empire Builder, IL to WA
from Chicago


to Seattle
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To make our move from Washington, D.C., to Vancouver more memorable, we decided to take the Amtrak train across the country. Driving would take far too long and we'd get tired of sitting pretty fast. Taking a plane flight was quickest but we didn't think it would give the sense of a real journey. So the train it was! Amtrak runs the Empire Builder line that follows the Lewis & Clark trail from Chicago to Seattle. We booked a roomette sleeper compartment more than a month in advance and got reasonable pricing.

Wednesday
We departed on a Wednesday from Union Station in downtown Chicago. Surrounded by more luggage than we could nearly carry, we made our way to the baggage-check counter and dispatched two huge bags for carriage under the train. Because of our sleeper compartment, we got to wait in the equivalent of a first-class lounge that was crammed with people and smelled of stale popcorn and spilled coffee. We found a corner to plunk down our stuff and we began what became a wonderful feature of taking the train--talking to fellow travelers! We met an older couple that were headed out West for a surprise visit to their son in Seattle. They were cattle ranchers in Montana and finishing a full tour of the country.

The boarding announcements were soon made and we hiked along the full length of the train, trying to find our car, #730. It wasn't an obvious label, but soon we found it. We had another curious incident. As we showed our tickets, the attendant said to T, "I moved your seat so you could sit with your family. E, your seat has been changed." Confused, we said, "WTF?" Turns out that there was someone else on the train with the same last name as T, and the attendant thought we were related! Once we explained that as E and T we were related, she corrected the mistake. But it gave us pause.

The whole car was for sleeper compartments and we carefully navigated the narrow hallway on the first level and then muscled our way up what felt like a narrow tunnel to the second level whose hallway was perhaps 24" wide at most. We found our compartment and gasped...it was pretty small! The website and description had led us to believe that we would have a little bit of space. But this "economy roomette" was literally the size of two dining-room chairs facing each other with knees touching. That's it! No room to turn around, no room to stow our luggage! The two chairs "reclined" enough to touch and then became a "bed." The ceiling then folded down to reveal another "bed" with about 18" of clearance. We managed to stow the suitcases with our daily clothes downstairs on a luggage rack, and we then spent 15 minutes trying to get our feet, knees, and elbows inside the compartment. Our train-car attendant, Doris, was magnificent, though, and she confessed that our surprise was not unique. Apparently the Amtrak website is notorious for being misleading. The compartment we had imagined to reserve does exist; it just isn't available on trains leaving from Chicago! The train did include "full bedroom" accommodations which consisted of something more like what we had imagined. After about six hours in our little space, we became sufficiently attached to it and comfortable enough.

The train pulled out of the station right on time and Doris brought by small bottles of champagne and water. We toasted our departure and watched the industrial side of Chicago slip out of sight. As we passed suburbs, we got to peer into back yards and see what real folks were up to. A surprising number of clothes lines, vegetable gardens, and children playing, actually. It was a bit voyeuristic--seeing the back side of homes.

We were well into Wisconsin at dusk and we tried shooting some pictures out the windows of the moving train. Oh, and the windows in the sleeper compartment really made it all worth it. The "cheap seats" in the coach section recline (a bit) and are sort of near windows, but there's nothing like being 12" from the glass and having it span the entire wall. E sat facing forward and T sat facing backward. As twilight swept across the rolling hills, we felt a sense of relief and then peace. We were on our way, we didn't have to navigate, we didn't have to drive...we just got to sit and watch. Although the ride of the train wasn't as smooth and imperceptible as a European train, it was moderately discrete and FAR better than the rough-and-tumble rides we'd experienced on the commuter rails up and down the East Coast.

Three meals a day are included in the sleeper-compartment cost. We made "reservations," which meant the porter came by and asked what time we would arrive in the dining car for dinner. We chose 7pm. The dining car is also only the second level; the first level is the galley and supplies for all food that is served. At the door of the dining car, the attendant directed us to a table for four where we sat on one side. We experiences our next curious incident that I'll call "Brokeback Mountain." We were joined at dinner by..."Ted and Andy." Young brothers of perhaps...18 years old, they told us that they were headed from Illinois out to Montana to go hunting with their relatives. Ted was more talkative and we learned about his high-school interests, his intentions to attend community college, and so on. Andy was nearly silent but did respond to a few questions about the hunting trip; apparently they shoot a lot of deer and cure the venison for jerky and other processed meats (not so good as steak, they told us.) We had a great meal and chatted about life in the Midwest. Andy looked a bit green and Ted told him to head back to the compartment and he'd join him in a moment. After our mississippi mud pie desert, Ted headed off as well. E turned to T and said, "Are they really brothers?! They don't look anything at all alike! And why would two 18-year olds be out taking the train themselves?

We retreated back to our sleeping compartment after 8pm. It was dark outside and the window lost some of its attraction. We had one AC power outlet and we traded between charging our two cell phones and keeping the laptop alive and running. Within half an hour, our exhaustion caught up with us. We pulled the curtains on the window, slid shut the compartment door, and spent 20 minutes trying to assemble the beds without becoming stuck beneath them. We eventually worked out a way for E to take the lower bunk and T to take the upper bunk. The upper bunk came complete with a safety harness that strapped T in so that if the train sloshed around during the night, he wouldn't end up on the floor or in the hallway. The trick to getting in and out of bed was to move slowly and carefully...the humble-and-bumble of the wheels over the tracks made a nice backdrop as we dozed off.

Thursday
T awoke early the next morning with a sliver of dawn gnawing at the horizon around 5am. Carefully extracting himself from the bunk, harness, and compartment, he sat in the "observation car" for about an hour. [The observation car is "all windows" on its second level (a small convenience store "lounge" is on the first level) and has seats and tables for folks to gather and chat while watching the scenery. Its more of a respite for the "cheap seats" than for the compartments.] It was a surreal experience to be hurtling along at 75 mph in a silver bullet filled with hundreds of people and then to see one lonely automobile poking along a country road, filled with perhaps one or two people. The train felt like some large, purposeful beast alongside these seemingly aimless individuals, their headlights picking out their futures only yards in front of them. // We whizzed by roads, farms, and flooded ditches, each briefly illuminated as we went by from the moon. More odd though was when we passed through train depots at smaller towns without stopping. For moments, lights in the town would shine INSIDE the train car, reversing the usual roles of light source and observer.

Eventually the sun started to rise and T sought out a shower as the train moved into the Dakota plains. The train was keeping ahead of the sun, hurtling westward, and as we ate breakfast, the dawn was drawn into an affair lasted more than an hour. There was one shower and four bathrooms on the first floor of the sleeper train car. The shower was empty at 6am, so T stepped inside and found a very small corner shower unit with a hand-wand and some modestly hot and cold water. With a speck of soap and three gallons of water, a shower went pretty quick! The air must have been conditioned to some degree because it was easy to dry off in the very cramped space of the shower stall.

T ate an early breakfast with some rancher/farmers who had brought a GPS instrument from their tractor. We chatted about farming in the modern era and as the false sense of new farm prosperity. Yes, the price of grains is up, but the costs of farming have increased even more, T learned, so that the margin of success was even slimmer than usual. When E joined for breakfast, we ended up sitting with an older couple (okay, yes, we were essentially the youngest people in the sleeper compartments except for the Brokeback-Mountain "pair") from northern Wisconsin. He was a doctor and she a nurse. They talked incessantly but charmingly and we ended up talking with them for nearly two hours from everything from life in Vancouver, politics in the USA, the pace of scientific progress, and free medical advice on various heart/blood conditions in our family history. All the while, they would pass their digital camera back and forth and casually shoot some amazing pictures. At one point, we passed a small radio tower next to a concrete block and everyone but T nodded and said, "Yep, that a silo." Not being a country boy, T has to ask E later on what it was...did they really store grain underground he asked? No, she said, it was a nuclear-missile silo!! Oh.

We passed Minot, South Dakota, apparently a landmark town for many. An old oil town since dried up and now just a depot. But we stopped long enough to walk outside for 5 minutes and for T to try taking a picture of a stack of train wheels alongside the train tracks. It was clear, cold, and flat outside; the perfect northern prairie. As the morning blossomed into afternoon, the plains became rolling and more desolate with the seriousness of Montana. At one point, we passed a small outpost of civilization that was completely dominated by oil wells and big red trucks with "Halliburton" written on them. Heck, even on the side of the water tower! A real "company town," we surmised.

Perhaps the highlight of our trip was the twilight approach to Glacier National Park. We sat in the observation car and watched as the snow-capped peaks of the U.S. northern Rockies swam into view. The sepia tones of the prairie and the big skies of puffy clouds gave way to evergreens, ravines, and a skyline lit be the setting sun. Just at sunset, the sky light on pink fire and flashed across the mountainous horizon with a wicked beauty that was breathtaking. We wanted to pound on the windows and make the train stop so we could simply absorb the view. Chasing the sun now, the sunset lasted a good 25 minutes. But then it fell dark and nearly pitch black as the train tracks became enveloped in steep gullies lined with trees. Every now and then we'd cross a trestle bridge that swung out high above some river.

Our dinner companions on Thursday night were a couple from Puget Sound who ran a vacation rental property in the San Juan Islands. Not the most talkative of folks, we did chat about the weather in the Pacific Northwest and the thrills of living so close to the ocean.

Again, by 9pm, we were tired and it was quiet. We threaded ourselves briefly together on the lower bunk so that we could at least talk by the light of the reading lamp. To really sleep, though, we headed to our separate pigeon-hole bunks.

Friday
Bam, we were on the home stretch! We woke up in pre-dawn darkness and felt the train ascend and then descend the hills of the Cascade mountains. Outside the windows we could occasionally make out some sky between trees, and sometimes even the moon. We ate breakfast and tried to guess when the train flitted in and out of mountain tunnels.

As dawn leaked away, it was replaced by cold mist ooozing around small log-cabin towns and tress with golden leaves. It was beautiful! We sighed as the mountain forests gave way to the final mountain pass and we burst into broad daylight and the descent into the Puget Sound area. The water was glass-like and calm with distant fog allowing islands and shorelines to peek through like ghosts. The train circles around the Sound and we got our first taste of life in the Pacific Northwest...how striking! A contrast to our recent trip to Maine and the northeast, but connected by the proximity to the water and recognition that the ocean controls the weather and the future. Here, though, the docks and harbors had more steel and more arcing lines. In Maine, everything was wooden and painted in faded, storm-blasted primary colors. Here it was more greys and blues and whites.

We had made good time overnight and by 10am local time, we had arrived in Seattle. Looking glazed, dazed, and happy, we stumbled out of our little train-world bubble and back onto solid ground. Our huge stack of luggage brought us back to the present moment...and then it was time to seek our out car and complete the trip to Vancouver.

Rah, rah, the train trip!

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