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Happy Train Day!

May 9th, 2009

empire-builder-montanaI really like riding trains.  When I was a kid, my family made several long trips (to Seattle, down the coast to San Francisco, to New York) by train and I had remembered them fondly.  I’ve also heard horror stories of non-working restrooms (actually, most of the bad stories involve restrooms in some way).  But I wanted to have that adventure again and a few years ago, I decided to visit my cousin in Salem, Oregon, and travel by train.

I started out in Akron, Ohio (you can’t do this now, the nearest train station is Cleveland, but they have long-term parking, so it’s ok) and went to Chicago.  The train station is very close to Michigan Ave., so I never mind the lay-over (it’s usually at least a couple of hours, they don’t send out that many cross-country trains anymore).  They have enormous lockers for luggage - it’s easy to store stuff and go out for a meal, etc.  On my trip, I called my friend Cathleen, who only seems to see me when I’m waiting for my train connection, and we went out for Chinese food.  It was like stringing multiple vacation destinations together!

After I caught the Empire Builder for the trip west, I was seated in a car with other people headed for Oregon.  They try to separate out the long distance vs. the short distance travellers.  Amtrak going west has double-decker cars that include larger restrooms.  If you want a sleeper, there is a shower and all of your meals are included.  I ate in the dining car quite a bit.  The food is good and you eat family style (ie with random people - no seat wasted) so you can have interesting conversations.  It’s not terribly expensive, but I did take fruit and peanut butter along for snacks or light eating.

I was on the Empire Builder for 48 hours.  We went through some of the most beautiful country the US has to offer.  From Chicago to the Wisconsin Dells, the Minnesota prairie, stunning fields of sunflowers in North Dakota, mountains and rivers in Montana and Idaho and on into Oregon.  The train travels into Glacier National Park and stops at the lodge, which was originally designed as a rail stop.  Porters still come up from the hotel to take luggage from visiting passengers.  For long stretches of the trip, Park Rangers ride in the observation car and gave presentations.  You could also watch movies there at night (on these average-sized TVs hung from the ceiling).

The best part of the trip was how relaxing it was.  I read two books (which I exchanged for different books at Powell’s in Portland) and was able to enjoy just sitting and staring out the window at the scenery.  I didn’t have any trouble sleeping, but I’m not very tall and now, I might splurge on the sleeper.  I managed to keep clean and changed clothes daily (I even changed into pajamas at night).  Most of the people in my car were traveling through, so we were familiar with each other and it was very convivial.  Going by Amtrak made the journey part of the adventure and I had a very nice vacation.

My next goal is to take the central route across the country and then go up the California coast (which is supposed to be beautiful).  Happy Train Day!

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