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Making Tracks on Amtrak's Empire Builder

Updated on April 12, 2013

All Aboard!


There is something about train travel that is very alluring these days. Perhaps it's the way in which a train allows us to view the world in an ever changing, unclutered way from the luxury of a comfortable seat. Or it could be the fact that while the train is rumbling over miles of track, friendships are struck up (and made) in places like the glass domed observation car, the dining car, or even more likely, the hallways of the sleeping car where passengers greet each other at the coffee station, or on their way to a meal. Whatever it is, I'm convinced that train travel is the best kind of travel because it is a hassle free, much roomier alternative to the harried travel in which we have become all too accustomed. Train travel takes us back to a time when we knew how to appreciate the journey as well as the destination. There is nothing like it, which is why I was excited to take my first trip on board Amtrak's Empire Builder.




Meeting A Real Life Conductor; One of the Benefits of Train Travel

This is Jason Berg, one of the conductors on the Empire Builder.  Jason is a photographer when he's not on the rails, and he contributes to Amtrak articles.
This is Jason Berg, one of the conductors on the Empire Builder. Jason is a photographer when he's not on the rails, and he contributes to Amtrak articles.

A Train With A View

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A lone cabin in Minot, ND.Sunrise on the eastern horizon.Cheese and Wine tasting menu.Frozen River on the TundraThe Start of a New Day.Morning Light Bursts Through.
A lone cabin in Minot, ND.
A lone cabin in Minot, ND.
Sunrise on the eastern horizon.
Sunrise on the eastern horizon.
Cheese and Wine tasting menu.
Cheese and Wine tasting menu.
Frozen River on the Tundra
Frozen River on the Tundra
The Start of a New Day.
The Start of a New Day.
Morning Light Bursts Through.
Morning Light Bursts Through.

Authenticity A Plus

After climbing onboard, getting settled into my room and meeting our car attendant, Gregory, I was thrilled to feel the movement of the train as it pulled away from Union Station in Chicago, and begin to pick up speed. To my surprise (and delight) Gregory soon showed up at my door with a bottle of champagne and a couple of Amtrak specialty wrapped pieces of dark chocolate. He took my reservation for dinner and gave me a verbal tour of the sleeping car before heading to the next room. Since I had two full days of travel ahead of me, I shut my door for awhile and gazed out my window in quiet solitude. One thing I noticed, and always do on the train, is the great expanse of scenery devoid of civilization. There's no people, no signage, no cars, buses or automobiles. Nothing but wide open fields, mountains and sky all the way from one end of the country to the other, and plenty of time to enjoy it all along the way.

Train travel isn't for everyone, and I'd be the last person to tell you it was. Authenticity runs in both directions when you're onboad for several days at a time. You're likely to experience some discomfort at times, and there's always a possibility of delays, but one thing you won't experience is the feeling of missing the journey on the way to your destination. My grandmother used to say it wasn't the easy, good times that made for the best memories in life, but rather it is the difficulties mixed with joys that are most remembered. I find that to be true, which helps me embrace the trip as a whole rather than in segments of what went well and what didn't.





Impromptu Entertainment On Board

A Man With A Harp And Other Surprises

When I fly, I have very few expectations. I know the drill, and the only thing that ever changes is that the leg room keeps getting smaller along with the food portions (if there is any food offered at all). But, from the moment I walk down the station platform in search of my sleeper car on the train, I am swept away by expectation. It's fair to say that I'm not one to sit in my room for the entire trip, never stepping out even for a meal in the dining car. You're more likely to find me anywhere but in my room for most of a day. And, it's due to the fact that I don't mind going to look for my surprises, that I suddenly found myself sitting beside a man playing his harp in the observation car. It was my first day on the train, and the sun was just beginning to set over the western landscape when I entered the car and noticed him right away. A man with a harp is, after all, very hard to ignore. These happy incidences are the very kinds of things that make a train trip so endearing. You'll meet all kinds of interesting people who have all kinds of interesting lives, on a train. Riders create a unique culture of travel that no fast paced airline can produce, or for that matter, reproduce. And, thankfully, it's a culture that isn't camera shy. From authors to national park service volunteers, to musicians, and more. The possiblities are as varied as they are numerous.




Great Service, Friendly Staff

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That's me, sitting at a white clothed table, enjoying the view as I peek at the menu for this special event.   Gregory was our car attendant, and wine officianado for the event.  Our tables were prepared with care.  Look at that delicious cheese!Gregory never stopped smiling.A close up of the crackers and cheese.  All top notch!
That's me, sitting at a white clothed table, enjoying the view as I peek at the menu for this special event.
That's me, sitting at a white clothed table, enjoying the view as I peek at the menu for this special event.
Gregory was our car attendant, and wine officianado for the event.
Gregory was our car attendant, and wine officianado for the event.
Our tables were prepared with care.  Look at that delicious cheese!
Our tables were prepared with care. Look at that delicious cheese!
Gregory never stopped smiling.
Gregory never stopped smiling.
A close up of the crackers and cheese.  All top notch!
A close up of the crackers and cheese. All top notch!

Special Event

Amtrak doesn't slouch in the event planning department either, and the wine and cheese tasting event on the Empire Builder was proof of that. This event was a "sleeper passenger" only service, and you had to sign up early or risk missing out. I had heard whispers, from time to time, on other passenger trains, that such an event existed. But, I was, I admit, a doubter until Gregory put out a sign up sheet. Someone once said that "seeing is believing, but doing is seeing", and when it came to this event, I'm terribly glad I "did it" because the wine and cheese along with the view (and some new friends to share it all with), was so worth it.

The wines were all northwest labels such as Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest. The cheeses were varied, and were almost a meal in themselves. Our car attendants poured while chatting with the attendees. They also prepared a "Jeopardy" style game quiz that netted the winners bottles of fine wine. One participant shared her bottle with anyone who came to the observation car after the event, to sip wine with her and visit. These are the kinds of things that elevate train trips to the level of the old glory days of travel, and why so many people feel the tug to go again and again. I can't think of a more enjoyable way to travel..

Journey's End: A Trip To Remember, An Adventure To Repeat

Making tracks onboard the Empire Builder, all cozy and warm in my little roomette with the pretty blue curtains, means making new acquaintances, seeing new landscapes, and gaining new insights into a more relaxed way of traveling. I can't wait until my next adventure, and even now I'm scouring the amtrak website for my return tickets. Could I fly between Chicago and the westcoast? You bet, and often times I have since it's the quickest way to family and friends who live far from me. But, given the choice, I would book all my trips by train.

As it turned out, the best part of this trip was, ironically, the last part. Our train reached the mighty Columbia River just as the sun peeked over the coastal hills that rose above the clouds like a magnificent backdrop to the city of Vancouver, Washington. Breathtaking views passed by my window, leaving me gawking with each advancing mile. Sadly, it was over all too soon. I could have kept on going, and indeed, I found myself wishing I'd taken the trip all the way to Seattle. My disappointment of journey's end, however, was happily tempered with blissful thoughts of the future. A future where I dared to hope that I might, sometime soon, find my way making tracks once again on one of Amtrak's premier long distance trains, the amazingly wonderful "Empire Builder".

Columbia River Gorge

Early morning views east of the train station in Vancouver, Washington
Early morning views east of the train station in Vancouver, Washington

A Great Guide To Train Travel in the U.S.

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    • pennylu profile image
      Author

      Penny Lulich 4 years ago from Indiana

      Wow! That is so neat. Bellingham? That's at the top of Washington, isn't it? I'm going to have to visit the museum when I'm up that way this summer. Thanks for the info. And, I'm definitely a rail fan too. I Love riding the trains.

    • bn9900 profile image

      Clayton Hartford 5 years ago from Alger WA

      You are welcome, I am what you'd might call a railfan, love trains from a very young age and helped start a railway museum in Bellingham WA.

    • pennylu profile image
      Author

      Penny Lulich 5 years ago from Indiana

      I think I will do that, next time. Thanks. And, thank you, for stopping by and taking the time to read my article and leave a comment.

    • bn9900 profile image

      Clayton Hartford 5 years ago from Alger WA

      I've riden the Empire builder twice and am planning a trip again in the future. Next time travel from Seattle and you have the dining car the whole way as well.

    • pennylu profile image
      Author

      Penny Lulich 5 years ago from Indiana

      Hi nybride! Thanks for taking the time to read my article, and comment on it. I wonder what it would be like to be a young passenger on the train. I never had that experience. Oh, I have to tell you that Chicago is great because they have a metropolitan lounge for the sleeper car passengers. It's quiet and comfortable, with its own restrooms. Coffee, juice, and snacks are set out, and replenished often. Your bags are looked after so you can explore a little of the city (if you like) when there's time. I love departing from Chicago. I hope you can take a trip, one day soon.

    • pennylu profile image
      Author

      Penny Lulich 5 years ago from Indiana

      Thanks for your comments, Jane. I have never been on a train in Europe so that's a definite goal of mine. Sounds wonderful, and I think I too would love to see the misty wilds of Scotland that way. Did you have a compartment on the trains? I sure find that to be the way to go.

    • nybride710 profile image

      Lisa Kroulik 5 years ago from Minnesota

      I haven't taken a trip by train since I was a little girl. I loved it then and I'm sure I would love it now. Thanks for the memories and all the great pictures you took. I'm sure it was serene seeing the country after leaving from Union Station in Chicago.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 5 years ago from Oregon

      How delightful! I was pulled in by the very first sentences, and by your first photo. Train travel has always been my favorite while in Europe because it is the cheapest and most pleasant way to go. One train ride in particular from London up to the misty wilds of Scotland will always stay in my memory.

      Thank you! Lovely article.

      Annie

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