Riding the rails


Life Moments column
By Christine Bryant

I crossed an item off my bucket list a couple weeks ago, journeying west via passenger rail.

I’ve ridden an Amtrak train before, but not cross-country. It’s something that appealed to me – seeing a part of the country I had never experienced while looking through panoramic windows.

I embarked on my trip at Union Station in Chicago with Seattle as the destination. The Empire Builder is known as an iconic train for Amtrak. It allows you to see some of the country’s most stunning parts, not easily or even impossible to be seen by car, including Glacier National Park.

Since returning, I’ve had a handful of people ask me about my experience. The trip has been on their bucket lists as well, though they have been unsure of whether the added trip to Chicago to catch the train is worth the experience.

I most definitely say “yes,” and if you’re thinking about it, do it sooner rather than later. The current administration is proposing to defund Amtrak’s long-distance routes, which means this could be the end of the line for the Empire Builder. It’s an unfortunate end for more than just the travelers who love taking the transcontinental route.

As my attendant on the train mentioned at various stops along the way, many residents of small communities rely on the proximity of the train for transportation if traveling by car isn’t an option. Not even Greyhound comes their way.

For just over 2,200 miles in just under two days, I traveled across the country with strangers, yet left the experience feeling fulfilled I had accomplished something, even though all I did was step foot onto a train.

If you’re thinking of taking the Empire Builder or any long-distance train, here are a few things I learned along the way.

•Invest in a room. Riding the Empire Builder is more than a mode of transportation, especially if you’re traveling from Chicago to one of its endpoints, either Seattle or Portland. The duration of the trip is two days, but that spans over two nights. If you like a little privacy and need to lie flat to sleep, you’ll want to invest in a sleeper room.

•Know your limits. When I traveled on Amtrak, I stayed in what’s called a roomette. It’s the size of a closet with two chairs. Those two chairs then fold down into a bed. If you have someone with you, there’s an additional bed that drops down from the ceiling. This type of room is more expensive than buying a coach ticket, but less expensive than getting a bedroom, which includes an in-room sink, toilet and shower. Because of this, bedrooms are larger in size.

Different trains that journey to various parts of the country have versions of this. For instance, some roomettes have a toilet as well. On the Empire Builder, there’s a larger family room available that makes traveling with young ones or several adults easier.

This is where knowing your limits comes in handy. If you get a roomette, you can still take a shower and go to the bathroom; you just have to share accommodations with others in your car. If you don’t particularly enjoy public restrooms, like me, this can be a challenge. The train bathrooms are similar to an airline bathroom.

•Don’t bring food, except maybe snacks. If you stay in a sleeper room, you’re provided with bottled water. You can also purchase drinks and even beer in a small store located in one of the cars. I found that your attendant (every car has a personal attendant) will get you what you need. Those who work on the train are incredibly accommodating.

There’s absolutely no need to bring food unless you want to bring your own snacks. The food served during meal time was incredible, and if you purchase a sleeper cabin, it’s all included in your ticket price. So indulge in the salmon or item you may only order during a special occasion. It’s worth it.

•Don’t be afraid to have a conversation. Everyone is in the same boat as you. Most of the people on my train were couples or singles traveling alone, yet during meal time, you get seated with at least one to two people you don’t know. I was surprised how many people weren’t from a community along the route. Many had traveled from the South to experience the Empire Builder.

•You have options. If you have a sleeper, and don’t feel like conversing with strangers, you can eat your meals in your cabin. Your attendant will bring them to you, and even set up the little fold-down table for you. You can also hit up the little store that sells hamburgers, pizza and snacks, though you’ll have to pay separately for those items.

•Don’t – I repeat – don’t miss your train. Throughout the journey, the train will stop to pick up or drop off passengers. During some of those stops, Amtrak allows you to step off the train for a few minutes. Sometimes you may even get 45 minutes or so to explore the area.

Do not lose track of time. The train will leave without you. I asked my attendant how often this happens. He replied, “more than you would think.”

•Keep your eyes peeled. I saw lots of deer and birds, but while in Glacier National Park, I also caught a quick glimpse of a bear. You never know what you may see. Which brings me to …

•Don’t overpack. You don’t need to bring tons of books or magazines, and you don’t need to download movies on your phone or iPad. During daylight hours, you’ll be hard pressed to take your eyes off the window. By the time night rolls around, especially if you’re heading west and racing the setting sun, you’ll be ready for bed. The sunrise comes early the next day as well.

•Travel during the summer. Amtrak runs year-round, but in the summer, you have more daylight hours, which means you get to see more. However, winter views can be just as breathtaking.

•Expect the unexpected. I was surprised at what ended up being some of the most beautiful parts of the trip. Sure, Glacier National Park and the Wenatchee National Forest (in Washington) were two of the most beautiful parts of the trip. I expected that. But what I didn’t expect was how pretty Wisconsin was, or how cool it was to ride along the Mississippi River. Though many parts of Montana were flatter than expected, it’s hard to get past why they call it “Big Sky Country.”

•Take it all in. As I rode the train, I realized how big – and small – the world is. Out your window, everything seems so incredibly grand. I even thought to myself at one point that if you’re looking for isolation, views from the Empire Builder provide many options. I then realized, however, that most of the neighbors – even when they’re miles apart – probably know one another better than I know my own neighbors who are just feet away.

And yes, they really do yell, “All aboard!” when it’s time to board the train.

Christine Bryant is a Messenger staff writer and columnist.

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  1. What a nice, informative, experience that was; written so interestingly too. I could almost see the sights about which she was writing. Thanks for sharing your time aboard the Empire Builder.


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