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Westward to Oregon on Amtrak’s Empire Builder – Midwest to Northwest, United States

Westward to Oregon on Amtrak’s Empire Builder

Midwest to Northwest United States

Amtrak's Empire Builder
Amtrak’s Empire Builder
My trip began at the Crawfordsville, Indiana train station, which consisted of an unmanned metal hut with about 10 chairs in it. I was boarding the Hoosier train bound for Chicago. I had picked up my tickets for this trip the day before at the Amtrak station in downtown Indianapolis. The train arrived at the station about 10 minutes late at 8:00 a.m. It could be heard clanging and blowing its horn in the distance for about 15 minutes prior to this. Upon boarding the train for the four-hour trip to Chicago, I quickly found a seat in the sparsely populated car. After the conductor came by and checked tickets, I settled into my seat. For the next four hours I watched out the window as the corn and soy fields of the Midwest slowly gave way to the suburban and then urban landscape of Chicago.

After arriving in Chicago at 11:00 a.m., I had a four-hour wait before I could board the Empire Builder. During this time, I explored Union Station, ate lunch and walked outside the train station to watch the boats on the Chicago River, which flows through downtown Chicago next to the train station. At this point, my camera batteries decided to die, so with much frustration I was unable to get any pictures of downtown Chicago.

At 14:15, I boarded the Empire Builder (with recharged camera batteries). Boarding the train brought back memories of a trip that I had taken on the Empire Builder eight years ago during the dead of winter. The farms of the Great Plains had been covered in snow. The train had suffered mechanical failures, such as backed up toilets from frozen water lines, due to temperatures that reached down to -10F to -20F. My most memorable event was going to the lounge car one night after an unsuccessful attempt to sleep and watching a soldier in the British Army play the bagpipes. He then let other people try. I volunteered. I managed to produce a wheezing noise and this was before all the pipes fell off my shoulder and hit a nearby woman in the head. As I was taking my current trip in the middle of summer I was curious to see how the scenery would have changed from my last trip.

I spent all the first evening watching the scenery of the upper Midwest roll past the window in an endless panorama of farms and forests. As night approached, I ate supper in the dining car and then spent a very uncomfortable night in coach perhaps achieving two hours of sleep due to my 6′ 1″ frame trying to sit in a seat designed I am sure for the average 5′ 8″ person. (of course the screaming sick two year old in front of me didn’t help). After finally deciding to abandon my quest for sleep at about 5:30 a.m., I got up and moved to the lounge car with its panoramic windows. After I had regained some sense of lucidity, I realized that the train had not moved in over an hour. There was no announcement as to what was going on. We finally started moving again. Over a pancake breakfast that I ate at a table shared with a priest and an aspiring Army Airborne Ranger, I learned the reason for the hold up. A stowaway had snuck on the train in Grand Forks, ND and had to be removed by the authorities. He apparently was attempting to hitch a ride on the outside of the train to Minot, ND. While this was going on, a car (somehow not seeing the two-story train) ran into the second locomotive on the train (maybe they were also suffering from lack to sleep due to screaming babies and small seats. One can only wonder.) The locomotive apparently suffered very little damage and we were on our way.

Rural North Dakota
Rural North Dakota
The vast majority of the day was spent traversing the great empty landscape of North Dakota and Montana. What on my trip eight years ago had been an endless mind-numbing sea of white was now a combination of browns, greens and reds. Ranches and sunflower fields passed the windows in abundance. The landscape gradually became more barren, rugged and unpopulated. The train made two resupply stops that day – one in Minot, North Dakota and one in Havre, Montana. During these stops, I was able to get off the train and stretch my legs. The train also passed through many small, isolated farming towns. Each one appeared to come equipped with a huge grain silo next to the train station.

During the day I managed to spot a guy wearing the clothes that usually identifies someone going on a long-term trip or adventure (backpack, nylon shirt, the pants that can be zipped off at the knee to make shorts, hiking boots). As I am planning my own long-term adventure I always enjoy speaking to people who are going off on such a trip as it often inspires me when I begin to have doubts. I managed to snag a seat next to him in the lounge car. He was planning on biking from the Portland train station across the coastal range to the Oregon coast and then from there down to California. He was then taking the train (via a different route) back to Chicago. Come to find out, he had not even planned his route out of the city yet! Using maps that he had brought with him, I helped him find the train station and plan a route out of Portland.

Towards the end of the day, the train entered Glacier National Park which I was greatly looking forward to seeing. It did not let me down. After stopping at the lodge to take on new passengers, the train entered a world of tall trees, deep gorges and mountains. To my disappointment, there was only about 1.5 hours of daylight remaining when we entered the park. I spent most of that time looking at the scenery from the dining car as I ate a hamsteak (the same thing I ate the night before as the train appeared to be running out of all the items on the menu). Much to my surprise, I was able to spot a moose drinking in one of the lakes. I hadn’t realized that Montana had moose.

As darkness fell I returned to my seat to try to get what little sleep I could. Much to my delight, it appeared that I might actually have a row of seats to myself that night to try to sleep in. I stretched out in the unimagined luxury that the extra 2′-2.5′ wide seat provided. After getting about four hours of sleep, I woke up at about 2:00 a.m. and wandered around outside at the train stop in Spokane, WA as the train was being split in two. Half the train was going to Seattle and my half was going to Portland.

Mt. Hood
Mt. Hood
After getting about one more hour of sleep, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and went to the lounge car. The half of the train going to Portland got to keep the lounge car while the half going to Seattle took the dining car. I spent most of the morning in the lounge car. The coach car where I had spent two nights began to smell really bad the last day. I believe it was a combination of people not shutting the doors to the bathrooms and just the accumulation of scents from lots of people in a small space for two days. For breakfast I ate a sandwich and free yogurt that the lounge car attendant was giving away. Apparently it was included in the complimentary breakfast provided to sleeper car passengers and some people didn’t want it. The morning was spent traveling on the Columbia River Gorge. First we went through arid Eastern Washington which finally gave way to the scenery that most people associate with the Northwest (big trees and lots of water). It was around this time that Mt. Hood made a cameo appearance. It stood out white and broad against the surrounding brown and green countryside. The train didn’t actually cross into Oregon until we were close to Portland. The train pulled into Portland about 11:00 a.m.

Long distance train travel has its ups and downs. One of the main things I enjoy is meeting new people. Like the group of retirees going to stay at an elder hostel or meeting the guy going on the bike trip. The scenery is also amazing. The only thing I really longed for during the whole 48-hour trip was the ability to sleep in a horizontal position.

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