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May 03, 2009

Views From The Train: "The Empire Builder"

This week, less “talking” and more observing as I share some “views from the train” on my recent ride from Seattle to Milwaukee on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder”.

Sure, it’s two days and nights, but I’m booked in a deluxe bedroom and am anxious to see the upper-tier of states that, to me, have always just been “fly over country”.

Puget Sound: Minutes after leaving Seattle, we run right alongside the beach. I see families walking their dogs, fishing boats brimming with their catch.

Into the Cascade Mountains and Stevens Pass, 4000 feet up, through the longest (7.9 miles) rail tunnel in the US. Still plenty of snow up here, but nothing like what’s to come.

Leavenworth Washington: 15% of the nation’s apples are grown in this one valley and in late April it is awash in blossoms. As far as the eye can see, neat rows of apple trees are festooned with delicate white flowers in the fading sunlight. Oh to be a honey bee!

Two Tylenol PM’s help me sleep. My bedroom is comfy but not for the claustrophobic. The only time I awake is when we’re not moving, stopped in Spokane where the other half of our train, originating from Portland OR, joins us.

The next morning we awake to four feet of snow in Whitefish Montana. After breakfast in the diner, it’s time to explore our eight car train. The sleepless from Seattle are still sprawled across coach seats. As we travel thru spectacular snow-capped peaks, one passenger sits watching a movie on his laptop, oblivious to the scenery.

A retired railroad guy regales me with stories of his days running steam locomotives, while a couple from Fargo ND tries to persuade me that they don’t really have accents like in that movie. Oh yah, eh?

No signal on my Blackberry, but a local paper is brought on board: “The Daily Inter Lake – Serving The Flathead Since 1869”. On the front page, news of yesterday’s amazing spring snowfall is still all too present out the window. On page two, a reminder that Friday is the deadline to apply for hunting permits to take moose and mountain goats.

I venture downstairs for a hot shower as we careen along welded track at 65 miles an hour. Try that on JetBlue!

My radio scanner crackles with automated “hot box” detectors reading off the number of axles scanned followed by a reassuring “no defects” and “temperature 25 degrees”.

Cutbank Montana: population 3171, 25 miles from Canada and a million miles from anywhere. This is why they call it “Big Sky Country”. We’ve gone from the Rockies to the prairies, the snow covered fields merging with the white clouds on the distant horizon. There’s no “here” here.

This is Indian territory, and what’s left of the reservations look like Appalachia without the pretty mountains. Trailers, abandoned trucks, trash strewn about and miles of nothingness. Hardly majestic. Mostly depressing.

In coach there are many Indians, moving across their country. This train isn’t just a land cruise for retirees but a vital transportation link for dozens of small towns long abandoned by even Greyhound.

Montana merges into North Dakota and we look forward to a servicing stop in the “big city” of Minot, population 37,745. While walking the length of the train I discover we’ve been hauling a private rail car, complete with observation platform. Crowds of curious passengers and towns-folk (not to mention a few “foamers”) snap pictures, but the sole inhabitant of the Soo Line business car doesn’t invite us in.

In the diner, a retired Schlitz worker heading to a reunion in Milwaukee (made famous by his suds!) complains he can’t get a beer with dinner. An ex-Canadian Navy guy regales me with stories of his last long-distance train ride… in 1955, on the way to basic training. Chris, our sleeping car attendant, chats with his 20-something buddies by cell phone planning his summer music festival itinerary. One perk of his job… free Amtrak travel.

A restless night and a long detour around still-flooded Fargo ND, we awake in St Paul MN. From here we follow the Mississippi, La Crosse and Wisconsin rivers to Milwaukee where I get off to catch a flight home.

This isn’t Amtrak’s most scenic trans-continental run, but it’s one of the most vital… connecting people to their work, their relatives and the rest of their country. I have a better understanding of the nation’s heartland thanks to this run.

But I’m also glad to get home.

NOTE: For a multimedia view of why folks loving riding the rails, see this link from The New York Times.

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