“Great Northern Railway presents, Empire Builders!”
So begins a radio show sponsored by the Great Northern Railway that ran from 1929 to 1931. The show featured scripted scenarios, but really it was mostly an infomercial for Great Northern’s new flagship line, the Empire Builder (the show went on the air even before the train had its inaugural run).
And while almost a century has passed, and while the route is now run by Amtrak, that Great Northern show’s introduction is still the best description of what happens when you’re traveling on the Empire Builder in 2018.
Every episode began with the wail of a railroad whistle, the warning bells of a signal crossing, and high speed chugging that increases in volume until finally giving way to music and then the voice of the announcer:
“Tonight and every night, the Empire Builders starts a happy train-load of people off on one of the most pleasant travel experiences in America, the transcontinental ride from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest via Great Northern. First, a comfortable night’s sleep while your modern Pullman is moving swift up the Mississippi River Valley through the Twin Cities. Then, a day spent, no doubt, in a luxurious observation lounge car, listening to the radio, reading, or watching first the charming lake region of Minnesota and then the wide sweep of the gorgeous plains slip past the car window. Another night without a jolt or a jar as the Empire Builder glides smoothly, swiftly along on the straight stretches of steel rails. And then, the day of days for scenic wonders. First, the 60-mile ride along the southern border of Glacier Park and across the Continental Divide at the lowest pass in the Northern USA Rockies. Then fascinating hours of turbulent mountain streams, placid lakes, far-flung forests, high mountain peaks. You reach Spokane that evening, and the coast cities the next morning after a thrilling ride through the electrified Cascade Tunnel, the longest in the Western world. What a trip!”
After recently taking Amtrak’s version of the Empire Builder, I went back and listened to that old show, and I have to admit, they nailed it.
Just as described above, my travels began in Chicago on the historic and scenic Empire Builder, Amtrak’s most traveled long-distance train. I did little to prepare for departure. Going in blind is my style. I spun fantasies of the bar car, and uniformed bartenders mixing drinks for lively the passengers I’d interview until 2 a.m. (I’m a night owl). After a long night spent with binge drinkers, I hoped for weighted carafes of coffee that can’t topple at my breakfast table where I would interview staff about weird customers. Off hour tours of the kitchen and Q&As with chefs about onboard food preparation seemed like an interesting few paragraphs worth of material. Dressing for dinner was a romantic Empire Builder tradition, so I packed a fitted jersey dress to wear each evening in the cozy wood-paneled, white-linen dining car. I wanted a behind-the-scenes deep dive study of what it takes to deliver a great travel experience from the professionals providing it. The sleeper (ne Pullman) excited me, because I believed it was a place to go for cat napping when the other cars became stale and retiring after last-call in the bar car.
Suffice it to say that over the net two days this fantasy of mine would take something of a beating.
On Election Day, I rolled into Chicago’s Union Station, and passed through an empty hall with ruins of deco ticketing counters. Gazing around, I conjured the ghosts of women wearing hats, gloves, and heels next to suited men in fedoras queued behind grand black-marble, silver-piped stands with impeccably uniformed agents at the ready to offer warm greetings to holiday travelers. OK, not everything lived up to my idealized image: instead of getting my ticket in art deco fantasyland, I was directed away from the cool counters to a small room that was about as retro as an airport rental car reservation desk.
Check in is a low-tech operation, which I appreciated. I gave the lady my name. She found it on a paper passenger manifest and pointed me to the club waiting room for passengers traveling in sleepers.
The whole process was easy. Every question I had was answered before I asked it. Empire Builder was announced. Easily identifiable red cap service—red cap, red shirt, and red jacket—was available for people needing assistance to the gate.
Dan, my room attendant, a real sweet man who has been with Amtrak 30 years (retiring in April), greeted me at the entrance of the Portland car (The Empire Builder divides the sleepers into Portland cars and Seattle cars. Deep inside Washington State, while passengers are asleep, the train splits and the Portlanders take the observation/snack car while the Seattleites make off with the dining car).
“Go to your left, and up the stairs, and to your left,” Dan directed me. “Your room’s on the right.” Sure enough, it was. One half of the car is for little roomettes, and the other half is for people with larger rooms with sinks outside of the airtight potty/shower cylinder. I had a roomette that was only slightly wider than a twin bed, and a bed that was a little thinner than a standard twin. I could touch both walls with my hands, but the high ceilings and large windows opened things up.
I slid the steel-framed, glass-pocket door aside and saw two facing Amtrak-blue recliners that looked like they were pulled from first class on a ’70s Continental Airliner. Each recliner flattened and merged into a bed. Bottled water, a magazine, and a safety card were waiting for me in a pocket on the wall that conceals a table that can pop out into the roomette. The overhead compartment in my squat had a fold-out bunk where the mattress for my convertible bed was stored.
Things felt a little shoddy. The wall button to call Dan was big like something from Mission Control in Houston and sat next to a toggle switch that worked the ceiling or cabin light. Above those were two dials that controlled the music that must have been piped in at some point before headphones, because there wasn’t a jack of any decade.
Avoid looking directly at the reading lights, if you can help it. Lie down or sit facing away from it before you turn it on. I burned my retina for sure. Then I tried the reading light on the panel next to the other seat with the same result—fool me twice. The control panel in the adjacent seat did different stuff. That side had the electrical outlet, and the Superliner Roomette has only one, so bring a tiny extension cord or power strip, because everyone has at least two devices—maybe more if sharing a roomette, which I don’t recommend. Above the outlet was a temperature control dial. I don’t think it worked. I think there’s one Amtrak temperature flowing through the big vent in the ceiling, because there wasn’t a little air nozzle anywhere in the cabin. The temperature was pretty comfortable, though, and there were extra blankets and pillows on the top bunk and more upon request from Dan.
Once we got rolling, Dan came around to introduce Patty, the dining room manager, who took dinner reservations. Dining hours were 5:00-7:15 p.m., and availability was limited, so time choices dwindled as she worked her way through the sleeping cars. After that, I rang Dan for turn-down service, meaning he made my bed. I stepped into the hallway to give him room, and asked, “Can I put my stuff on the bunk?”
“No, the weight distribution up there has to be balanced.”
“OK, can I keep my bed the entire ride, so I can put my stuff at the end of it? Or is that uncivilized?”
“You can have your bed the entire time, if you don’t want the seats.”
Reality began chipping away at my luxe vision before we’d hardly left Chicago, when I discovered that there would be no backstage tours or late-night chats with the conductors, dining staff, or other attendants: union rules forbid interaction with reporters.
I walked into my roomette and noticed Dan had put the sheets on my mattress topper the correct way: feet facing forward to preserve the neck in case of a collision. The legs can fold and collapse, but if feet face opposite the driver, necks break, because the impact forces the body toward the head, which has nowhere to go but into the hard wall behind it. I learned this from my years on the road traveling in bunks on Prevost and Van Hool tour buses, whose accommodations are very similar in size to a roomette, so I was nostalgic and comfortable in my cabin. The bed was long enough to keep my two backpacks on the bunk. At one end of the cabin were two blocky stairs for bunk access. Without a sleepmate, I used those as tables for my laptop and phone, but buyer beware—they were on the opposite side of the roomette from the plug.
There was one bathroom at the end of Roomette Row and more downstairs where there were racks for carry-on bags. The bathrooms were the regular airplane fare, but with potable water, and I never had trouble finding one to use. An ever so slightly larger one contained a shower with a curtain and shower head dangling from a cord. I opted out of showering the two days I was on the train, although I brought flip flops, which is imperative when showering behind strangers. Showering without soaking the clothes for changing seemed precarious and walking around the halls of my car in a towel felt like a no-no. I packed a towel, but there are plenty on board—two on the top shelf of the sliver of closet in the roomette that fits exactly one heavy coat.
I fired up my laptop and pressed the Dan call button for Wi-Fi access. “There’s no Wi-Fi on this train,” he said. What? Trains in the Northeast corridor where I live have Wi-Fi, so this was an unexpected hitch. I paired my phone and laptop, and once we got through the Badlands, my network provider juiced my computer.
With spotty service, I headed to the observation car, which was a continuous arch of windows with vinyl booths and melamine tables for playing cards. Matching individual chairs faced outside on either side of the car. Here again my fantasy unraveled a little. There is no designated bar car, no bartender mixing drinks in view. Instead, there is a small staircase that leads to a concession stand selling beer and harder alcohol along with candy bars, nuts, yogurt, cups o noodles, and frozen entrees that the cashier will microwave after purchase. She accepted cash and credit cards, but prices were inflated, so if a Snickers bar is your crave, bring your own. Maybe pack some beer and a flask, too.
Waiting for my designated dinner time, I headed for the observation car. While I watched the landscape begin to shift from forest to the gradual flattening of the vast plains through North Dakota and Montana, I got into conversation with some of the younger passengers. (Note: The cliche about Amtrak is that it's the ride of choice for seniors. Based on my experience, I'd say it's the ride of choice for a lot of different people.) So why were these millennials taking the train?
Some of their explanations were practical: Guitars are not carry-on items on airplanes, so if you check them as luggage, and even if you’ve protected them in hardshell cases, they’re still at the mercy of careless baggage handlers. Same with skis.
A young ad-sales professional attired in his business casual cashmere sweater and shiny brown shoes eschewed Chicago traffic and long security lines at O’Hare Airport, because that nightmare would take almost as long as his four-hour train ride to La Crosse, Wisconsin.
During dinner, I was paired with the sweetest 19-year-old boy who travels 14 hours to Williston, North Dakota to work his two weeks on/two weeks off job in the oils field. Two of his days off are spent traveling, and he usually leaves a day early to be sure he’s in North Dakota well before his string of 12-hour shifts start.
One thing all of these younger travelers had in common with retirees was plenty of time. Nobody was in a real hurry to get to their destination, which is great, because there are often delays. Nobody was bent out of shape. No sitting on the tarmac wondering aloud why the plane was still on the runway. No trains cancelled. Nobody lined up to get rerouted through a different city. There’s something nice about surrendering to time and patience.
On my return trip, I met two women going to see their husbands in the oil fields of North Dakota for a sort of conjugal visit. They complained that the train had been about an hour late as they boarded in one of the plains states where the wind is relentless and undeterred. Most delays were due to freight trains sharing the same tracks as Amtrak. Freight first—follow the money.
I rarely consulted the dots on the schedule to map our progress. Without the distraction of Wi-Fi and cellular service, nobody was staring at phones. People were present, and it felt like a rare space where interaction was even possible. So, with nothing but time, I relied on conversation, reading, meals, and naps.
I’ve spent years riding a commuter train into New York City, and I’ve ridden passenger trains across Europe and Japan, but before this trip, I’d never ridden a long-distance train in America. Quick verdict: I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I was happy with the community dining experience, and to know that meals are included for those who invested in sleeping quarters. Dinner averages about $30 a person when dining a la carte. Six of those would be exorbitant, and I am not sure the food is worth it. It’s good, though. The basics, really: salmon, steak, chicken, and some vegan pasta with soy sausage on the dinner menu. Unfortunately, as Danielle, our waitress explained, their new food distributor had 86’d the butternut squash risotto for good.
Lunch was thin on selection: Hebrew National hotdogs, a goat cheese salad, a hamburger or black bean burger, and chicken. Dessert is also included with the price of private chambers.
Breakfast choices are scrambled eggs, pancakes, continental breakfast, and a quesadilla. I skipped breakfast, because I take some time to get perky and didn’t want to grouse around my fellow passengers. I took the morning coffee Dan brewed for the Row in my bunk, because there's not much to do but be civilized on a train.
I hadn’t taken daylight savings into consideration, so on the outbound leg I missed Marias Pass, which was engineered by Great Northern Railway and hugs the Continental Divide through the Lewis Range in the Rocky Mountains and separates the Lewis and Clark and Flathead National Parks. I caught it on the way back and it was breathtaking.
People were pretty silent through this and Glacier National Park, a destination that long ago Great Northern Railway developed with chalets and motels to create a tourist destination and stops to service it. I now understood the need to pack skis—the area doesn’t look accessible other than by train. It’s as remote as it gets along the U.S.-Canadian border but traveling through the Rockies is really kind of a hushed experience where the majesty of nature requires no vocabulary. Outside the window is an area so rarely seen that I counted myself among the lucky few to have heard the landscape whisper ‘shhhh’ and watched as we all obeyed.
At meal time, diners are paired up. As a lone passenger, I was tabled with couples and individuals I’d never encounter otherwise, and the older, the better. Encountering lives rich with experiences allowed me to travel on a time continuum that shifted with each story told.
There was a lady who had borrowed the thousand dollars she needed for a round trip ticket and was knitting a scarf during her ride as payback. She had lost a son, and the only way for her to get through it was to return to school and get a BA in art at 60 years old: total immersion art therapy. She had been a nurse. Said she was a better mother than wife and had had a lover who drifted in and out of her life for years.
Another couple, octogenarians, had been together 64 years and hoped to die the same day, because neither could live without the other. The man was limber enough at 88 to climb into the roomette bunk they shared. When I found out their round trip across the country to visit a son cost them $2000, I asked why they chose not to fly and get back and forth quickly for a fraction of the cost rather than bunking in a roomette without a bathroom for six nights. It seemed like fun, they said, and then offered me some tips for retirement savings.
I met a man who had never been vaccinated and worried that applying for a job with the federal government might require him to get shots, so he chose the danger of oil rigs instead. He showed me scars on his hands from chemical burns. He had 11 siblings, none of whom had been vaccinated, and two who survived cancer using natural medicine.
Another man, who was 6’6”, traveled so often on the Empire Builder that Danielle knew him well. He said his height prohibited air travel, and retirement left him with many leisure hours to enjoy on trains. He was quite the train enthusiast and invited me to his room to meet his wife who was recovering from knee surgery.
Their digs were deluxe. Fold-out double sofa bed and recliner, so her knee could stay elevated. Plenty of shelf space for clothing, and they actually unpacked like civilized people. To be honest, I never changed out of my sweatpants the entire trip, and I packed for a week! I didn’t wear makeup or change my hair the entire time aboard. So much for formal dining or formal anything for that matter.
Back on my mattress, I spent some time chatting up friends when I had phone reception. Most people with private accommodations spent their time away from the observation and dining cars in their rooms. That was unfortunate. Recent budget cuts eliminated the wine and cheese mixer held in honor of Pullman travelers. Fresh flowers no longer add cheer to the dining tables for the same reason.
We were mostly tucked away except when our three squares allowed us to mingle, and so mingle we did. Sometimes sharing with strangers is the most healing event. I was happiest listening to the stories of others.
Most of my meals lasted an hour and a half, and I only had one less than enchanting encounter: a conversation dominated by a guy who knew everyone in the ’90s grunge scene but whose own importance was so elevated in his mind that I doubted he was important to the scene at all.
As I was rocked to sleep, I stared out the window at the stars. The peace—interrupted only by the frequent PA announcements—was invigorating. I never tired of the easy pace and the opportunity for reflection. I didn’t miss email or text and my little room was a quiet oasis.
I spent the final morning watching the Columbia River Gorge with all the autumn foliage pass. I saw Mount Hood and remembered summers in Portland when I was a kid. I knew when I no longer saw the Columbia River dividing Oregon and Washington that I was home in Portland where my parents and a tight circle of friends live. The Empire Builder dropping me off a stone’s throw from my mom and dad’s front door in The Pearl District was a real treat for this tired soul. A friend picked me up from Portland’s Union Station and dropped me at my folk’s apartment for the most luxurious shower of my life.
A few things to remember when traveling long distance by train. Bring cash to tip. Everybody is to be tipped, and should be, because Amtrak customer service is outstanding. Close the blackout curtains, because a floor show is not what fellow passengers are expecting. Only pack what is necessary. I had too much, even without changing my clothes. Bring Cetaphil towelettes to soothe skin—the air is similar to an airplane’s—and get a good clean wipe down in all sensitive areas. Most stops aren’t service stops, so if you’re a smoker, cut down a little, because the huddle of smokers in the windy plains states looks like a den of crack fiends. But make sure to get out to stretch your legs during longer stops. Don’t forget your power cord, and remember to bring a book, one you can’t put down. I’d do a train trip annually, if it weren’t cost prohibitive. That was the most frequent customer complaint.