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Amtrak’s Empire Builder: 5 meals, 46 hours, 1 grizzly bear and 4 bald eagles
August 14, 2012
So here’s the final tally:
Three elk, a wild turkey, four bald eagles, a grizzly bear, a prairie dog, a turtle, two dozen great blue herons and enough other waterfowl to make me wish I’d brought a bird book.
No, that’s not the quarry from some felony-level hunting expedition -- nor were these creatures spotted while hiking.
Rather, I saw them from Amtrak’s Empire Builder, a 46-hour train ride between Chicago and Seattle.
And the wildlife is only part of the story.
Having driven to the Midwest to visit family, my wife and I and our 20-year-old son boarded the Builder on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Columbus, WI, just three hours after its 2:15 departure from Chicago; it would arrive in Seattle Thursday morning.
Seasoned Amtrak veterans, we’d gone whole-hog on two deluxe bedrooms -- one for Tim, one for Mom and Dad.
Each room has a narrow upper berth and a wide lower bed that converts to a couch during the day. There’s also a chair, with a fold-out table between it and the couch -- plus a sink and a private bathroom with shower.
(Travel tip: Keep the upper berth open during the day to store suitcases, leaving more floor space in the room itself.)
We were called by name from the platform, and shortly after pulling out, our sleeping-car steward came by offering free champagne and saying he’d made us a 6:45 dinner reservation.
For me, few things top the thrill of settling in for a long rail journey, and I breathed a deep sigh as we set out through Wisconsin woodlands.
We’d brought books, games, movies and computers, but -- except for a couple DVDs after sundown -- we rarely needed these. Not for one minute was I bored or restless -- not even while trundling over the wide, flat plains of North Dakota and Montana, which took the entirety of the next day.
In fact, the Builder spends 12 hours crossing Montana alone; yet even here there was always something to see: ranches, rivers, wetlands, tiny towns, abandoned cars, rail lines, granaries, herds of cows and horses -- and of course, the “the big sky” and rolling grasslands so famous in the Midwest.
I also noted a seemingly endless series of bleached-white animal skeletons lying at trackside every mile or two -- no doubt deer or cattle who had tried to beat a train and failed. (Amtrak shares this line with frequent freights.)
And of course there were more notable sights: the broad upper reaches of the Mississippi, whose shore we hugged for several hours toward sunset; Glacier National Park in western Montana, where the train winds among canyons, cliffs and snow-capped mountains, often looking down on the majestic and turbulent Flathead River; and the similarly stunning Cascade Range in Washington -- here the train skirts the roiling Skyomish River and plunges into the 7.8-mile Cascade Tunnel, longest in the United States; and this is followed shortly by an hour or so along Washington’s wave-lapped Puget Sound.
The Builder also passes the Continental Divide, plus the geographical center of North America in Rugby, ND -- and St. Paul-Minneapolis, which lies exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole.
It runs daily in both directions; the eastbound Builder leaves Seattle at 4:40 p.m. and Portland, OR, at 4:45 -- and the two halves join in Spokane. Westbound, the train splits at Spokane, with the last several cars heading south to Portland while most of the train forges on to Seattle.
The Builder is Amtrak’s most popular trip, carrying half a million passengers annually and covering 45 stations -- more than any other train in the system.
It was named for James J. Hill, one-time president of the Great Northern Railway -- the road under which the Builder initially operated at its inception in 1929.
Hill’s nickname stems from the fact that his railroad linked the Great Lakes with the Pacific Northwest; many of the towns along the line sprang up precisely because of rail’s arrival in the late 1800s.
Take Williston, ND, for example -- an oil-drilling town where the conductor urged us not to debark since there are “no hotels for a hundred miles in any direction.”
Dozens of oil workers joined us here; one ahead of me in the snack-car bought four Coronas with his lunch. An hour later, an announcement expressed concern over too much swearing in the lounge car -- though the P.A. worded this somewhat comically by asking folks to tone down their “profound language.”
More successful was our cheery lounge attendant, who often urged riders to come down for meals and drinks, though she wryly insisted she wouldn’t sell Play-Doh or gum because “90% of the population cannot use either of these products responsibly.”
The lounge sells an array of eats for coach passengers, while those with sleeping-car accommodations get all meals free in the dining car. The Builder’s food was abundant and superb, its energetic staff laboring with heroic efficiency to get 118 of us in and out for all five meals.
Sleeping-car passengers also enjoy a wine-and-cheese tasting on the second afternoon, followed by a short trivia game with bottles of wine as prizes.
Though the Builder ran 60 to 100 minutes late along most of its route, we arrived in Seattle an hour early on the morning of the third day; I stepped off fully refreshed and relaxed -- like I’d already had the best part of my vacation.
That never happens when you come by car or plane.