Empire Builder Minneapolis/St. Paul to Everett, Washington
I can't think of anything I'd rather do on any given night in Minneapolis/St. Paul than to climb aboard Amtrak train #7 around 10:30 PM, holding a first class reservation. Parking is within 30 or 40 feet of the entrance, and there's no hustle and bustle such as is always present in air travel.
At Midway terminal, you are greeted by tenured Amtrak employees who know there stuff and get right to it. Coach ticket holders await the train anywhere they like. First class passengers, meaning those holding bedroom accommodations get a secret punch in code which allows access to a track side addition complete with Martha Stewart magazines and coffee. The code hasn't changed in two years. Amtrak claims that new security is in place post 9/11, including the need for a photo ID check, but all I needed was a large audible kerplunk of cash at the counter for my tickets. I guess I fit in to the class of wasp Americans that look too benign to cause any trouble.
The ride out of Midway terminal is nothing special. You can feel all of the switching and track routing that it takes to get out of a major yard. And there's the occasional freight rumble doing it's doppler shift off to the side.
Very shortly out of MSP the train picks up speed, with the constant long, long, short, long of the engine's horn, as there are many grade crossings for the next 30 or so miles.
This section of track, from MSP to say....500 miles west, is particularly rough, and feels as if it is traveled 20 miles an hour faster than the rest of the westward trek. Not much sleep had on the first night.
Tip # 1
If you book early enough and have a chance of picking your room, pick a bedroom near the center of the car. These rooms give smoother rides, it's a fulcrum thing, being centered between the wheels. Riding at the ends of the cars can be noisy, that is if you find clickety-clack noise a problem. The end rooms also jostle a bit more due to the fact that the adjacent car is pulling your car up and down. There are several websites which will show you all of the bedroom locations. You can even view 360* what you're getting into. Check out one of my favorites, trainweb.com.
Tip # 2
Avoid the upper standard sleeper room # 1. It's right next to the communal bathroom and can be quite noisy. A little known fact about Amtrak is that they use small nuclear devices to flush their toilets. You get the feeling that you should press the flush button and duck and cover. Very noisy.
I remember the good old days on the Pullman sleepers when you could see the ties speeding by underneath you when you flushed the toilet. I still have a stainless steel sign hanging in my bathroom that reads, "Never flush toilet while train is standing in station.". Which is just one more reason why it's dangerous to walk along railroad tracks.
I fondly remember the large bathrooms on the Southern Crescent coach cars during the sixties. There was almost always a porter in attendance, to make sure that you had a fresh towel, a shoe shine, or whatever else you might need. These were truly great times for rail travel in America.
I'll also never forget many a night spent in dining cars after hours. Since my father had climbed the corporate ladder with the Southern Railroad, from spike driver to an executive position as head of safety, all of the train employees knew him well. So they allowed me to loiter in the dining car until the wee hours of the morning. All of these folks were black. It was just the nature of the game in the sixties in the South. And they all had wonderful stories to tell. Without a doubt I have not found such kindness and acceptance on any rail journey since. And I do miss the stories.
Sorry, I digressed. I was talking about accommodations. The family bedrooms are a nice step up from the standard sleeper. It's nice having a window on either side of the train. This is accomplished due to the fact that the family bedrooms are located downstairs and at the end of the car. The only setback for me, and it's a big one, is that the windows are smaller, and I spend most of my time glued to the window. These are the handicap accessible rooms.
If your finances are intact, always spring for the deluxe bedroom. While they are the priciest accommodations, they are well worth it. A large couch and chair surround the window. A vanity area is located on one side of a wall that combines a toilet and shower. While for some, such as the elderly, it might be a plus to have a toilet so close, I have to admit it's strange showering in this little enclosure. RV folks will feel right at home here, but some might find it difficult to maneuver with soap and shampoo in such tight quarters.
Which brings up a sub-tip. Let's call it Tip 3a. Warning! This bathroom is very narrow. Wiping one's posterior might be a challenge for anyone pushing the scale. I think this is something that should be addressed in Amtrak's sleeper literature provided within each unit. How to wipe your fanny in an area of 12 cubic inches or less, without calling the attendant for help. If in fact the latter is done, I would expect the tip to be much greater for the porter at the end of the line. Evidently this is not a regular problem, as I don't ever recall hearing that Amtrak had to use the jaws of life to extract someone from their bathroom. It could be a corporate cover-up, Amtrak's dirty little secret.
If you have deep pockets, book two back to back deluxe bedrooms. They have collapsible walls between them. Unfortunately, this doesn't double the bathroom size, so stay vigilant on that left hand wiping front. Although pricey to say the least, this dual deluxe combo is almost like having your own office car, without the upkeep.
North Dakota comes off as a land in search of a reason for existence. I'm reminded of the Randy Newman song, you know the one, only instead of short people it's, "North Dakota got no reason, North Dakota got no reason......" Just east of Williston, the south view from the train reveals a small community obviously growing smaller day by day, or is it hour by hour? Embedded in the center of this village is a ghost town of sorts. You get the feeling that the entire village just gave up. Check please, in unison, choir-like.
In the center of the town is the bell towered church, with no remaining window glass and a sharp prairie breeze blowing right down the hallowed aisle. What was obviously the town's schoolhouse is a block away, as well as a dozen other once important but now grayed out buildings. All losing their chinking and stature.
Maybe being the exact geographical center of the United States weighs heavily on the social psyche. Was it this exact geo-centeredness, combined with one of those planetary alignments that happens every 50 years or so that caused an entire town to throw in the towel? The stress and strain from the commitment of pretending to be a viable social and civic ideal finally snapped en-masse, possibly even triggering some local landslides that are visible in this area. Cut Bank's strange topography could be due more to social fatigue rather than to natural environmental influences. Who knows?
Three words come to mind while passing through Western Minnesota, North Dakota and Eastern Montana......bleak, bleak, and bleaker. An occasional antelope herd boinging off in the distance is cute, but is swiftly followed by several hereford carcasses lying close to the track, bloated and picked at by vultures and field mice. I guess if I had 3,000 head of cattle to look after, I might lose one here or there also. I'd like to think not. The way I operate, all 3,000 would have names and nice places for me to tuck them in each night. OK, I like animals.
Why is it that the flared metal scoop at the front of trains is called a cattle catcher? Do they want us to imagine the cow being gently swooped up and deposited safely by the track? It should be called a cattle bludgeoner. Or a hereford hammer.
Everything here is so colorful. There's beige and off-beige. Semi-beige and almondish beige. Excepting of course during the winter months, all ten of them, when the beiges succumb to an off-white and semi-white and a brilliant white. If you like the design themes of most condos on the market since the early nineties, you'll love North Dakota. Christopher Lowell's hell.
The visionary behind the Empire Builder, or should I say the Empire Builder himself, James J. Hill, was hell bent not only on building this railroad without the normal governmental aid, but he was also determined to see that the entire route was settled. Hill sent his men to Europe with beige pictures trying to lure people to migrate. His plan worked, as a matter of fact you might say that it worked too well, as over six million Montanan acres were grabbed up in just two years. The ensuing erosion due to bad farming practices and heavy winds blew away most of the soil causing wheat production to collapse. Many of the people who migrated to and settled the lands along the route ended up losing everything and were forced to leave.
As I looked out over the windswept landscape, I felt as if I were pulled into the drama revealing itself to me. I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the struggle I saw from the three by five foot picture window afforded me by Amtrak. There was an entire homestead, with home, barns and other out buildings, complete with a windmill, falling to the ground, evidently worth nothing. All turning back to prairie dust. Who was the last person to lock the door? Or did they even bother? Who finally cursed their heritage and ancestors because of an idea whose time never quite got here? An idea now proved unlivable, as well as un-sellable. Just a bunch of tumbleweeds piling up against dilapidated buildings and a fence row. Did they curse James J. Hill?
Even North Dakota's tourism commercials offer glimpses of the rampant hopelessness exuded around every beige bend of track. "Come visit North Dakota! We have golf!" Uh, OK....so does the rest of the northern hemisphere, or the world for that matter. "And we have significant historical things like some guy carving a huge stone thing believed to be the likeness of some Indian guy or something. It will be done in two to three hundred years. Did we mention that we have golf?"
In truth, and to pre-answer some of the narrow retorts common with a travelogue of this nature, I'm commenting on train track proximity stuff here. Sure there are truly nice things to see off of the beaten path in Western Minnesota, North Dakota and Eastern Montana. Such as the burial site of a true American hero, Sitting Bull, and the place that Custer was last seen standing. But that's not my focus here.
North Dakota has recently been whispering some separatist/secessionist rhetoric. It would seem that they've suddenly come to terms with the fact that they don't like being called North Dakota, due to the snowy frozen anus-retentive attributes that are clearly time proven, but hopefully overlooked by anyone deciding to visit here. They would now prefer to be called simply Dakota. There are those who are actually trying to push this through legally.
North Dakotan lawmakers seem to think that we would then think of them for golf or huge stone Indians or golf, instead of the bleak, bleak, and bleaker beige antelope runs that boing across the state for hundreds if not cazillions of miles. This monumental name change thing might make sense to those poor folks living in the beige-white geo-anal-retentive center of the universe. If they succeed, this would make South Dakota...uh what, South of Dakota? What kind of esteem demotion would that be? South Dakota doesn't have that much stature to begin with, so it certainly can't afford to lose very much.
In the Western parts of North Dakota, the occasional oil derrick can be seen pumping away on the plains. And although oil prices have skyrocketed over the last decade or so worldwide, it doesn't seem apparent that the Upper Midwest oil fields are pulling in sheik like profits. If in fact they are, they hide it well. Frugal, thrifty millionaires here. You would never guess it with all of those mobile homes.
Heading further west, the Missouri river bottom finally gives some relief to the barren landscape. Some black hills are introduced to the beiges. Far off buttes and constantly altered tree groves give one a glimpse of a still meandering river bed, one that's changed it's fickled mind for millions of years. Sometimes this way, sometimes that. Then back this way again.
Wolf Point, Montana
Wolf Point Montana gives one hope that things will be changing soon. But the hope is quickly shattered. Wolf Point's largest building is the Bingo/Casino Hall. After staring out of the train at Wolf Point for some time, as this is a service stop, I realized that if I lived here, I too would be in the Wolf Point Casino, hoping against hope to hit it big and move away from here. Maybe even a decent bingo purse could get me closer to South of Dakota.
The previously mentioned bleakness of Minnesota, Dakota and Montana forced my mate and I to move the cocktail hour up by several hours. As a matter of fact, I think it was moved to just after breakfast. I can't remember. And my head still hurts.
The wildlife here is amazing. I'm not talking about the antelope here, I mean in the bar car. You get all kinds on Amtrak. As a matter of fact, if Amtrak is serious about turning it's financial situation around, it will have to move into the twenty first century and attempt to relate to the younger crowd in coach. The following are a few suggestions to Amtrak's management:
Offer tequila shooters in coach 24/7. $3.50 per shot.
Single hitters in coach. Domestically grown, $5.00. Sensemilia $10.00.
Prozac or other anti-depressants should be handed out for free during the previously mentioned beige travel route.
Most tattooed/pierced contest in lounge.
Just west of Wolf Point on a grain bin, the graffiti reads, "Debbie loves Chris, but Chris thinks Debbie is too easy!" Is it because of Debbie that the few remaining holdouts stay here?
As night is well upon this westward train, my mate is convinced after just a few minutes in the upper bunk of the standard bedroom sleeper, that it is only fit for farm accident victims, those poor souls who've tried reaching in to free that snag in the hay bailer only to realize a little late that they shouldn't have worn the jacket with the tattered long sleeves. She incessantly complains that there is no place to put her arms. I console her and sympathize with her plight as I drift off to sleep in the much larger lower bunk.
One thousand three hundred and seventy miles west of Chicago is Havre Montana. The town's name rolls off your tongue like you've had five too many scotches, which was probably an understatement for me at this point. It's halfway to the coast. It would seem to be the launching place for Middle-Easterners intent on harming America, as border patrols are everywhere. They cruise the train up and down looking suspiciously at everyone, kind of gestapoish. I kept expecting one to lean over to me, all dwarvish looking in forest green, to say...."Your papers please! Schnell!" The Canadian border is only a handful of miles away at this point. Maybe they're actually looking to bust senior citizens returning from Canada with affordable prescription drugs?
We were told by train crew that a few weeks prior, an Arab had been caught trying to board the train with no papers and $40,000 in cash. Maybe he was going to Williston to buy land. A forward thinker.
Another problem that has arisen in our small standard sleeper is that my mate is complaining that in this 3'6" by 3'6" space, my flatulence is out of line. Is flatulence ever in line? She goes on to state that her occasional accidental passing is acceptable, kind of warm and soft. I disagree. Are there different acceptance levels concerning the ownership of flatulence? Is our own relatively benign, while others patently offensive? Why do they serve chili con carne in the dining car? Couldn't this lead to dangerous methane levels in coach cars? As a matter of fact, could the serving of chili con carne in the dining car be the real reason that Amtrak is hovering on the brink of bankruptcy? Hmmm.
Between about 1350 and 1500 miles into the trip things start to get a bit exciting. Off in the distance, totally dependent on the weather, you may start to glimpse some towering snow covered peaks. It was at this point that I had such a soul stirring empathy for our forefathers and foremothers and foresiblings creaking along in their prairie schooners. Imagine if you will, passing through the aforementioned bleakness, only at speeds somewhat slower than the 100+ miles per hour that Amtrak is providing us. Say maybe one mile per hour at the absolute most. Dry gulch after soggy creek, mud hole after sandpit. With plenty of flatulence here as well, because it's usually biscuits and beans.
It doesn't take much imagination to sense that this would have been an extremely stressful ordeal, crossing the plains, dealing with beige overdoses without mental health facilities, booze, or narcotics, all the while facing the possibility of running headlong into Blackfeet Indians who are rightfully becoming less and less enamored with schooners and white people and their flatulence.
OK, here's the really exciting part of rail travel in North America. When the train gets way out of town, as only trains can do, you can get into some areas of the continent that haven't changed in thousands of years. It all has to do with the very nature of railroads. The railroads got their pick of lands heading west. They found the mountain passes and the fertile river valleys and the most spectacular spots to capitalize on nature's grandeur.
So, when you get way out of town, really far removed from civilization and away from the farm and ranch roads, look down by the tracks. Look very closely. If you take your time and study, you will start to see the unmistakable signs of wagon ruts permanently carved into the hardpan. This is so cool. You can see the ruts traversing streams and laboriously scaling creeks and riverbanks. These are the actual routes used by settlers heading west over a hundred years ago. These ruts will probably be here for centuries to come, due to the fact that so many prairie schooners have passed over the same spot, compacting the ground further and further. Now why is it that the wheel ruts would be in the same place over and over heading west? You have to get into the mindset of a pioneer.
Imagine that you pulled up your roots in Kentucky, which by the way, is on the edge of the wilderness, but getting more and more crowded all the time. You've convinced your family that the flyer you read in town extolled such virtues of the vast, unsettled territories lying to the west that you felt you really needed to do this. It's where you all really want and need to be. The promised land, free for the taking. Utopia.
So you sell everything, lock, stock and barrel. OK, you keep the barrel, that will come in handy on your journey. And you keep a few of the stock. A dairy cow would be a nice thing to have on your journey. You buy a schooner or renovate a farm wagon, and provision it to keep you and your family comfortable for .....how long? You can't really say for sure, because of unknowns such as weather and swollen rivers and creeks and equipment breakdowns. But also, few who successfully complete the journey west rush back with maps and travel guides. It's a long way back as well.
Back to the question of why all of the wheel ruts are indelibly etched into the landscape? Again, enter the mindset. If you were heading west with your loved ones and everything you owned strapped to your 19th century SUV would you suddenly decide to head off to the north? Leaving the path that has been followed by so many brave souls before you? No way. As a matter of fact, if you look at the terrain, I'm sure you would agree that it would be terribly foolish, even possibly deadly to stray even a few feet off of the accepted route. Who knows where it will lead? Into a forty degree ravine full of wagon wheel eating granite shards? A seemingly peaceful creek crossing that is actually forty feet deep? I don't think so. Go with the flow. Remember what happened to the Donners when they tried a shortcut recommended by Lanford Hastings because he believed it would shave some three weeks off of their journey? The term "having a friend for dinner" took on a whole new meaning.
Now back to the glimpses of the mountains you would have seen after weeks on the trail. White-capped peaks start to flaunt their prowess halfway through Montana. This was probably a bit exciting to the wagoneers at first sight, something different. Are we there yet might have been shouted by the young ones. But days then weeks go by, moving ahead ever so slowly, all the while the icy tops of the mountains loom ever larger the closer you get. This spectacle is even dramatic at one hundred miles per hour on train #7. I can't help but imagine that the tension would start to get a little on the heavy side and self doubt on the ridiculous side. These mountains loom large, to say the least. They are impressive and yet frightening for twenty first century travelers. Lord only knows what feelings they invoked last century.
Back to the twenty first century. Going through the Rockies by rail is about as fine an experience as can be had on this planet. Whether it's through the States or the more northern route through Canada's majestic counterpart, it's an experience that everyone should get to have at least once in this lifetime. For me, it borders on an addiction, but a very pleasant one. As far as the Empire builder goes, enjoying a 22 ounce porterhouse or perfectly cooked salmon, and a glass of Chardonnay on calm track while pushing higher and higher up Glacier Pass is an experience that I find hard to believe that only rail freaks like myself would find unforgettable.
At least that's how I felt until the lady in the booth directly behind us, who couldn't believe that her steak was taking twenty minutes, continued to shout at the dining car attendant about how extremely high her first class ticket was, and that she was expecting much more than this. This lady would have ended up bleached bones a hundred years ago. Way too soft for this country.
As any railfan knows, dining on Amtrak is always a communal experiment. You will be seated with whomever shows up just before or after you. Diner beware. You will hear all sorts of stories and be paired with all sorts of individuals. The social elites dine with the outcasts of society. It can be fun to watch. On this particular journey, my mate and I were seated across from a drunken duo from coach, yes, I'm sorry to say, from coach. They were heading to a Mariners/Yankees game in Seattle. Try as they might, and swilling down vodka tonics that the dining car attendant was nice enough to dumbwaiter up from below, they couldn't convince my mate or myself that we should start living our lives in pursuit of a Yankees pennant. They also implored us in their shnocked state to come and visit them in Kalispell Montana. I haven't made those arrangements yet. Maybe if the Yanks win next year.
The food on board is actually quite good. Breakfast is pretty normal fare with something for everyone; French toast, omelet, steak and eggs, eggs Benedict and some lighter offerings such as bagels and cereal. At a high of $7.00 for the steak and eggs, there's no room for complaining about prices here. First class travelers eat free.
Lunch also offers something for everyone; burgers and cold cut sandwiches, soup and salad just to name a few. And for veggies there's a garden salad that works well.
Dinner is actually above average considering that your restaurant is chugging up a mountain grade many hundreds of miles from anything even remotely civilized. Steak, baked chicken or salmon, with a host of wines and beers probably more reasonably priced than your local pub. The desserts that follow are tasty. Cake, cheesecake and pies with or without ice cream. Especially nice is the turtle ice cream cake. Ummm.
During our dinner, countless calendar scenes file past our dining car window like a travel promotion slide show. Deep, dense forests. Opal trout streams. Trestles a few hundred feet over pristine gorges. Dense dining companions...uh, I already mentioned that earlier.
Then the train chugs to a stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This is Essex Montana. Being that it's late April and around 8:00 pm, there's still time to gawk at the surroundings. This is the only flag stop on the entire route. People are picked up and let off to visit the Izaak Walton Inn. Miles of cross-country skiing and awesome views abound here.
The inn is touted in Amtrak literature, boasting of six hundred year old logs, but it looks a little tired from the rail at a distance. I'm sure it's another experience worth having. I've read accounts that convince me of such. Being that it was built by and for railroad workers, I'd bet that's it's up to snuff inside. If it's anything like other railroader built buildings I've had the pleasure to stay in such as Jasper Park Lodge or the Banff Springs Inn, I'd stay there anytime.
Just after the Walton Inn, things change direction, literally. It's a subtle distinction at first. Just a short while ago, there was a raging, even rampaging river of glacial melt coursing off eastward, dragging boulders and full grown trees in it's path. This same tumult slowly starts to lose it's aggression and then is finally a creek and then disappears altogether. The continental divide. The summit passes without any fanfare save for a small sign visible from the south side of the train on the highway which shares this route through the pass.
Then, in reverse order, a small watershed appears, and it becomes obvious that this crystalline stream is becoming deeper and more active, only it's running west. This realization is accompanied by a few more ear pops, as it also becomes clear that the train is slowly descending. Glacier Park has quite a few mountains with living glaciers, and the runoff rivulets, creeks and rivers have an opalescence that is indescribably beautiful.
Nearing bedtime, day two. I feel the need to break a story that will undoubtedly grab headlines on Fox and the Drudgereport. Why is it that Western Minnesota, North Dakota and Eastern Montana are for the most part slept through on Amtrak? Why is this portion of the trip usually during the wee hours? Why do we see Glacier in daylight?
It has to do with a little known fact that Amtrak practices geographical prejudice. Beauty bias. Domain discrimination. They will not admit it, but they will lull you to sleep over long expanses of prairies, and enliven you during to die for views. Hell yeah Amtrak, go for it! Anyone that fails to sleep or drink through North Dakota will probably need psychiatric help come Glacier. On board counselors might be called for.
After dinner, my mate and I have a heated discussion as to why I feel that she should sleep once again in the upper bunk, in case there's a propane tanker truck stuck on the tracks during the night, directly in the path of our speeding train. I explain, even plead with her that the upper bunk would be the obvious safe place to be under such conditions. I further explain that I'm only thinking about her safety and well being. I also point out that it's warmer up there, as heat rises. She's not buying it, and I'm exiled to the upper berth with no place to store my arms for the night.
The stovepipe of Idaho comes and goes without fanfare at nearly midnight. I can hear my mate sleeping soundly in the lower berth with no concerns of propane tanker trucks, with her arms placed comfortably near her upper torso. I'm jealous and wonder aloud how I lost out on that safety issue as I roll over onto my now bluish arms.
Breakfast in the dining car while traveling through the heart of Washington State's Apple country, complete with spring blossoms is yet another excellent photo op. And the trip along the Columbia river, along the same north side of the river route that Lewis and Clark first trekked is thought provoking, to say the least.
It's hard to write about a rail journey like this. There are so many subtle details that one sees at first as almost inconsequential, but later, these same recountals take on a much higher meaning. Seeing a house sitting all alone in the middle of the prairie, twenty miles from a neighboring house, literally hundreds of miles from a small town might not seem like much at first. It's only when you put yourself into the mindset of the person that originally homesteaded that land, a hundred years or so ago, that the significance is realized. To live out here in such isolation would not have been very far removed from Alexander Selkirk's experience on Juan Fernandez Island. The real Robinson Crusoe.
I found myself questioning my physical and mental fortitude while looking at the scenes going by. Am I made of the kind of sinew necessary to hold up to the rigors of complete and total isolation and hardship that were endured by countless numbers of our ancestors who plodded this journey before us? I'd like to think so. How many vats of scotch would I need? Did they have Thai sticks back then?
Seeing the thousands of greenish hues exuded from the rainy forests of Washington state, where there seems to be something growing on every square inch of space gives one hope that we haven't screwed things up too much, ecologically speaking.
The trail for me ends in Everett Washington. I'm off to explore the Cascades for few days, then back on the Empire Builder for the return trip. There and back again.
As I write this, it's now Fall of the same year that I made this trip, 2002. I just got off the internet booking the same trip for my thirteen year old daughter and myself. She came into my office last night as I was writing this story and told me about how she was studying tectonic plates and volcanoes. I asked her if she would like to go and see a volcano up close and personal. She laughed and exclaimed that the upper Midwest doesn't seem to be the hotbed for volcanic activity, at least according to her science book. I asked her if she'd like to see Mount Saint Helens. She is beside herself with excitement. Deluxe bedrooms there and back again, so I don't have to worry about anyone's arms in the upper bunk. Life is too cool. So is train travel. Enjoy it while you can. I do.
My only hope is that future generations can experience these same routes for years to come. It's our country's heritage and foundation. And if you lose your foundation, cracks are sure to show up everywhere. I don't mean by high speed rail either. Let's leave it just as it is, please. Let us watch future generations gawk out of a three by five window at antelopes and bingo halls and buttes. Even if it's all beige. It's a good thing. Not many things better in my book.