All aboard the Empire Builder! Chicago to Seattle (Part 1)

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I sat there in the dark bus at 2:58 a.m., not ten minutes into the trip, my feet already freezing from a floor AC vent blowing frigid air, rain pounding on the windows and thought to myself, “Why do I do this?”

I deal with fear a lot at the beginning of trips. Little nagging moments that I push through because the tickets are booked, I’m ready to go, and backing out isn’t even an option.

Just because I travel all the time it may seem outwardly like I’ve got it all together. But I have real struggles just like anyone else goes through. Fear of the unknown. Wondering if I’ve made the right choices. The loneliness that comes with leaving friends and family behind.

I’m not immune to those things because I travel. I do think traveling forces me to have more mental muscle though. I’m given opportunities to face fears, conquer doubt, and physically and mentally force myself forward all the time when I travel. Especially because so many of my travels are alone. I have to be strong because I am the only one who can be. The constant shaping provided by experiencing new things has definitely helped me create the woman I am today.

Still, sometimes, far from the comfort of my warm bed, I wonder … “Why the hell am I doing this?”

Is it because I have something to prove? Is it because everyone else I know can’t and I’m showing off? Is it because I feel like in order to live a fulfilled life I need to always be going, always moving, always seeking adventure? Is it trying to make up for all those years spent living in one place? Is it because — as I’m often jokingly asked — I’m running from something?

The truth is I don’t completely know yet. Many times I’ve wished I were “normal.” Happy to stay in one place, to develop friendships, be a part of a community, and live a simple, peaceful life. I’ve never stopped to think about what my lifestyle is like for my family. Do my sisters ever wish they had a regular older sister who lived in the same city and went out regularly for boozy brunch or dropped by mid-week just to hang out?

Or what is it like from my mom’s perspective? Dropping her daughter off at a Greyhound station entrance at 2:30 in the morning with 8-10 “shady characters” lurking out front talking and smoking. What is she thinking on her way home? If I know her she’s praying hard.

I’ve never stop to think about this before now. So now, I’m feeling a little guilty, like I really should have before now. While I don’t understand the stationary lifestyle, surely they don’t understand mine either. I don’t even understand it sometimes.

When it comes to travel, yes it’d be nice to have the money to travel in style. Rent a car to drive to Chicago and drop it off. Or fly the quick trip for that matter. And in time that day will come. But I can’t put off travel while I wait for more money. I’m alive now, today, and I can’t tell what the future will bring.

I end up in some pretty unique situations sometimes. Some pretty shitty ones to be honest. But I find that I rarely remember those times afterward, having found something new and discovered something along the way that made the whole thing worthwhile. Even those uncomfortable events themselves eventually become funny stories. And those stories get funnier the further out time gets.

So if I remember this moment at all … someday it’ll be just a passing moment on the way to a greater good. The mild discomfort traded in for another unforgettable experience.

The bus driver just turned the heat on. It’s getting better already.

* * * * *
The rest of the Greyhound bus ride was pretty uneventful. A passenger would say they were getting too hot and the driver would turn the AC up, then another passenger would say they were too cold. The hot cold pattern continued all the way to Chicago prompting me to plan on definitely wearing jeans next time despite the comfort of my leggings.

People got on and off at various stops. I was extremely fortunate that no one needed the seat beside me. I had my small carry-on suitcase and backpack wedged in the seat next to me and if someone had needed the seat I’d have been in an uber tight squeeze. I can’t relax when my luggage is stored out of sight underneath the bus. I’ve known people to have their luggage taken from busses/trains and I don’t want to risk it.

I fell asleep sometime between 4:30 and 5, sprawled across my suitcase in the next seat, my feat hitched up against the footboard in an attempt to keep them above the cold current of air sweeping along the floor.

A bump in the road or something startled me awake and I sat up realizing there was daylight. We were somewhere in Indiana and it was around 6:30 in the morning. Try as I might I couldn’t go back to sleep so a combination of reading and work got me through the next four hours and into Chicago.

The temperature had dropped abruptly from when I boarded the bus in Columbus. At 3 a.m. it had been in the 70’s with a light breeze. Now at 10:30 a.m. in Chicago it was a whopping 44 degrees and raining with a nasty bitter wind which rendered my umbrella completely worthless, inside out, and ready to abandon at the next trash bin.

This trip is supposed to be one of reasonable restraint, both in budget and in eating but upon realizing I was going to have plenty of time to get lunch in Chicago I rejoiced in finding a Giordano’s Pizza nearby. This chain holds a special place in my heart. Not only is the pizza incredible, but on my first major trip I went there with Faye (my college roomie) and her parents. They drove us to Chicago, we had dinner at Giordano’s, then Faye and I flew out the next morning (my first time ever flying too!). From Chicago to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Madrid to begin our study abroad program in Bilbao, Spain.

Today, however, I wished I’d passed. The one trouble with Giordano’s is that the pizzass are so huge you can barely manage more than a slice, two at most. Without any one to share it with (wa wa waaa … ) I had to settle for the 6-inch individual pizza. Now I have had good ones before. But it was clear that here, in anticipation of the lunch rush, they just had a bunch sitting under warmers ready to go. Not cool for someone who eats Giordano’s approximately once every 3 years and was really looking forward to it.

After spending another hour or so working I bundled up and braved the chilly weather for the walk to Union Station. Unwittingly I had picked the closest Giordano’s that was open and thus had to pass Union Station on my way to it. Now, it was just a few quick blocks back and fortunately the wind had died down considerably in the time that had passed since I’d sat down for lunch.

Union Station was incredibly impressive to walk into with its massive pillars and intricate ceiling work. The sheer height of the ceiling combined with the old wooden pews makes it feel like a church or cathedral and I was surprised by the hushed tone inside. I’m sure it gets quite busy sometimes but at mid-afternoon it was pretty empty.

In trying to prep for my trip I’d read the few blog posts and forums I could find regarding Amtrak and quite a few slammed the service levels provided by staff. Perhaps it was my determination to keep an open mind or perhaps I was mentally willing them to be excellent so I could write about the positive side, and as I’ve found more times than not, you get what you expect. I had friendly, pleasant service my entire Amtrak experience … I would even say that some were quite enthusiastic. What can I say? Perhaps my optimism brings out the best in people.

I walked up to the circular Amtrak rotunda in the middle of the station, smiled at the elderly man with an Amtrak uniform on, declared myself a first time rider and told him that I’d printed a ticket at home but didn’t know if I needed to do anything else. He kindly checked my ticket, gave me a boarding pass and pointed me toward the most convenient seating area near where we’d be lining up, and let me know my train would be called around 1:45.

I sat next to a Hispanic woman who only knew a few words of English, but between that and my broken Spanish we figured out we were on the same train but she’d be getting off somewhere before Seattle. She offered me some of her bottled water and fruit and I thanked her but patted my own bag saying that I’d packed plenty of water and snacks myself.

I watched her bags for her while she went up to the same man who’d helped me and they spoke rapid fire Spanish that I couldn’t keep up with. I worked for the next hour then asked her to watch my suitcase while I went to get a program and ask the same Amtrak worker if he could explain the stops to me. A tip I’d read online was to get off at some of the stops and buy water and snacks for cheaper than on the train. I have plenty with me (including alcohol which I’ll be cracking open just as soon as I finish writing up the days events so far and go explore the observation and lounge cars) but I will want to get off the train and stretch my legs.

Almost right after that our train was called and we lined up behind a little sign that said simply, “C.” A man stood in front holding another sign with a number on it and as soon as we were lined up we were told to follow him. He led us deeper into Union Station, then deeper still, then to the right, then the left, before turning us over to another man by stepping aside and making a sweeping gesture of the hand that meant, “Keep going my little ducklings, fly, fly!” (Or maybe I just made that up.)

Anyway, (service aside) here is where I would suggest that Amtrak could mightily improve the logistics of their boarding process! As Papa duck waved us past he shouted at us above the noise of the trains, “Tell the man where you’re going, he’ll tell you what car to go in.” And he just kept yelling that every few people or so above the din of the noisy trains parked nearby (do trains park?).

The poor woman I’d sat with didn’t speak English so she had no idea WTF was going on. She got up to the guy, he asked her something, she told him something, and he shouted a number in English. I was next and hollered “Seattle” over all the clamor. He shouted back “Car 8” and I started down the alongside the train.

My first thoughts, “Holy moly this thing is huge!!!” I got out my camera to record the din and the humongousness (yeah, not a real word) of the train and the process of getting to it.

By the time I finished recounting what happened on video I realized I’d forgotten to count. A skinny foreign sounding guy stopped me and asked basically “WTF had just happened …” I asked if he was going to Seattle and he said yes. I shouted “We go to Car 8!” And he nodded and went off apparently happy with my explanation. I was now following him as I had no idea what car I was at … it seemed like I’d been walking forever; surely I’d passed 8 of these cars no matter how monstrous they were. I was still following foreign guy when I heard someone right behind me say “Seattle, yes.” So I abruptly about faced leaving “foreign guy” up to his own devices and got behind that family in line. I checked with the next Amtrak person I saw and he said, “Yep. This car goes to Seattle.” A family was milling about stowing all their baggage and I squeezed by them and headed on upstairs.

I huffed and puffed my suitcase through the narrow staircase. The upper level of the train was mostly dark and I couldn’t decide where to sit. (We were still inside the station so there was no outside lighting.) I started toward the front of the car before realizing it was almost all Amish people and I thought better of it and turned around. I have nothing against the Amish, no in fact, I was protecting them from me. Me and my stretchy yoga pants, my stash of alcohol in my suitcase, and my propensity for sprawling all over any square inch of real estate available at bedtime. They don’t need to deal with me.

I moved further back in the car, decided on a seat and threw my stuff down before realizing there were two kids ahead of me. Probably 6-8. No thanks. I moved even further back in the train getting the next to last row — on the right side of the train, ready for the amazing views I’d been promised after reading other blog posts.

Within 15 minutes we were moving. I felt like a kid as the train started to move. A grin broke out across my face and I excitedly tried to capture the feeling of the first hesitant turns of the wheels on video. I felt the loud and clear answer to my earlier question before dawn had even begun to break on this day … “Why do I do this?” I do this because it’s liberating! To step out of your comfort zone and experience something new. Really, truly, how many of us push ourselves to experience something completely and utterly brand new?! How many chances do you have to do so as an adult?

The conductor came through scanning our tickets. Then the coach attendant assigned to our car came through writing down seat assignments. They place your destination and the number of passengers in your row on a card above your seat to keep track of who is going where and how many seats are available for more passengers coming on. So mine says SEA 1. They warned us that in order to allow families to sit together they might ask singles to move to sit with other singles but so far we haven’t been close to filling up.

After those two came by the “dinner director” came through asking each party if they would like a dinner reservation. You choose from a specific time available to go down to dinner. I believe the sleeper cars get to choose their reservations first so by the time they get to coach you take what’s left. I hadn’t even gotten my bearings yet and the man came by right as I was trying to take video of something outside the window so I shook my head no before I even realized what was going on. That’s alright though as I didn’t want to eat both nights on the train anyway. It’s pricey for train food and I’ve heard the meals can be hit or miss.

We rolled through the Chicago streets, then the outskirts, then empty fields of Illinois, before moving into Wisconsin. The scenery wasn’t anything spectacular. I grew up in the Midwest and numerous states look virtually the same. The lakes of Wisconsin do make me a little nostalgic though.

I spent a week with my friend Jenny at her cabin learning how to water ski, being shown around the Northwoods and drinking with locals down at a couple of dive bars. I came back a few years later for her wedding and hopefully I’ll go see her again this summer. Wisconsin has it’s own special kind of beauty. (And of course my man crush JJ Watt is from here.) Having lived in Florida for 8 years though I have to wonder … am I destined to see sticks and debris in any body of water as alligators for the rest of my life? Probably.

I have to admit I’m deeply enjoying the train ride so far. The legroom is unreal. I’m used to flying Frontier or Spirit and having to splay my legs in a very unladylike like way in order to fit into the seat. I seriously don’t know how anyone taller than me fits. Here, I have two power outlets right beside my seat giving me juice for my phone and laptop whenever I need it. The tray table extends comfortably for typing at the computer. The seats recline and have footrests as well as a reclining extension to the chair. The windows have curtains. It would be slightly less comfortable if someone were seated next to me but I’m hoping to make it through tonight and tomorrow night without that happening.

The train is very relaxing. Without having to worry about driving, I’m free to work, read, write, or just stare out the window. And while the scenery isn’t anything I haven’t seen before its interesting to see it in a new way. Cutting through small towns I’d never catch a glimpse of from the highway. On the top level of a train, much higher up then in my tiny car. It’s very peaceful, the quiet only broken by the station agent calling out the next stop or the occasional roaring whoosh of a train headed in the opposite direction. You can see much more than you would in a car if you just take the time to look. Wild turkeys picking their way through stalks remaining from whatever crop was last planted … which makes me wonder why the field wasn’t replanted for this spring. A tiny bird dive bombing and chasing a huge bird across a grassy field. Two deer darting away into the trees, presumable warned off by the noise of the approaching train. An ATV vehicle, rider in camouflage gear, breaking out of a thicket of woods and turning to follow the tree line around an empty field.

At 5 p.m. Central Time I lost all connection, wifi, phone, 3G, LTE, whatever, as we approached Columbus, Wisconsin. Oh well, it’s kind of nice.

I went and explored the observation deck and cafe. The observation deck was pretty crowded and while I did like the seats facing straight out at the huge windows, it wasn’t worth it to have strangers so close on either side. Plus the seats didn’t feel as comfortable as my own seat in coach. I’ll try it again tomorrow for a bit. Hopefully we’ll have sunshine tomorrow. It’s been cloudy and intermittently raining ever since Chicago. I sat for 5 minutes, took a few surreptitious pictures (trying not to seem like I was creeping on people) and ventured on, taking the narrow stairs in the middle of car to see where they went.

They led to the cafe car which I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes in due to the overwhelming smell of cardboard and greasy, microwaved food. The car had a close, cramped feel compared to every other car. The ceiling felt lower and the sides oddly felt as if they were closing in even though there were plenty of windows on either side, but the large banquets might have contributed to the feeling.

I wasn’t hungry, even less so after watching the gentleman in front of me take his two microwaved pizzas (ugh!) and head back to his seat, but took the opportunity asked the lady running the cafe desk if she had a paper menu. She did not but there was one posted and I took a picture. Drinks were relatively even to airplane prices so I have back up if I run out but I think I came pretty well stocked. She was friendly but tired, looking forward to her break and pleasantly let me know that the cafe would be open until 10 p.m. tonight if I needed anything else.

Back in my seat, I busted out my coffee cup and mini boxed wine, a Vendage Merlot. I’d only ever gotten little bottles before but these do the trick. About the same quality stuff you’d get on an airplane. And the $3.99 at Walgreens sure beats the $7 for a little bottle here on board. All caught up for awhile. Look at that … I’m all caught up on writing so far. Time to look out the window a while.

* * * * *
This just happened right behind me (my thoughts included):

What I thought was a dopey teenager: “Hey man, do you like drive the train?”

Amtrak guy: “Ah, no … I don’t drive the train.”
(How could he … he’s standing back here in our passenger car??!)

What I thought was a dopey teenager: “But you like work here? On the train?”
(He’s wearing a uniform that SAYS Amtrak on it and he’s ON the train! At this point I’m thinking OK, a really dopey teenager about to ask a question about whether trains actually have some one driving them. No harm, no foul.)

Amtrak guy: “Yes, I work here.”
(He’s being so patient … he also sounds wary … like me.)

What I thought was a dopy teenager: “Okkkkay kewl.”
(Yeah, I spelled it like that. He said it like that. At this point I half turn to see who the hell this person is. Imagine my surprise when it’s a grey-haired dude at least in his mid-40s! A total stoner!!!)

Not teenager —> stoner: “Because like there’s a lot of Amish on this train and I, like, I never seen an Amish person before. And I’m just wondering like why this train … like you know … is it something about this train, the Empire Builder … or like (unintelligible) … ?”
(At this point I’m braced for completely insensitive disaster to break out. My ears are perked as hell and I’m straining to listen.)

Amtrak guy: (calmly) “Oh yeah. So actually there are several big Amish communities in Chicago and (unintelligible) and so a lot of Amish will ride the trains back and forth. They really, really nice people.”
To my ears, I thought he sounded relieved (like me) that the guy wasn’t going somewhere weird with this.

Not teenager —> stoner: “Yeah riiiiight!? They’re so like so respectful maaaaaann … like respect! And the little kids dressed with their ties and shit … yeah man … ok cool … awesome … thank you.”
(I think he meant suspenders … I hadn’t seen any ties … )

Amtrak guy: “Yeah certainly no problem.”
Dealing with passengers on the train is probably a lot like teaching middle school. You have no idea what any given f’er is going to surprise you with on any given day.

And to think nobody is protecting the Amish from that guy. Oh dear. I seriously feel like he stumbled right off to go strike up a conversation with the next Amish person he found. Full of “dudes” and “respect” of course.

* * * * *
I spent several hours reading and watching the landscape roll by. I thought I wouldn’t be able to get out of the train and set foot on the ground in Minnesota until we reached the St Paul/Minneapolis stop around 10 p.m. Shortly after crossing into Minnesota however, we stopped at a town called Winona, Minnesota and were able to get out for about 5 minutes. So now I can add Minnesota to the list of states I’ve been in. I plan to hop off for a bit to do the same in North Dakota and Montana, two more new states.

Coming back on board I started to get ready for bed. I cannot explain enough how awesome it is that the passenger load is light on this train, allowing me and most of the people around me to have two seats to themselves. I reclined both seats, put out both footrests, and got my suitcase down from the rack above to rummage through for a few things. Then, I kept it on the floor with my backpack on top of it. Their height together matched that of the footrest, basically allowing me to have more solid space to rest my feet on. I lounged here for the next hour reading and watching the last of the sunlight dying out over the Minnesota landscape. It’s lot more hilly/mountainous than I thought it would be. My entire knowledge of Minnesota comes from John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers crime series’s — of which I have read every one.

We stopped for about 30 minutes in St. Paul/Minneapolis around 9:45. I got off the train, took a quick video and got back on and ready for bed. Lots of people got off the train at that stop, virtually ensuring there would be plenty of room for all of us remaining. As I got back into my car I noticed that all of the Amish people in my section appeared to be fast asleep. I’m sure their lifestyle lends itself to “early to bed, early to rise.” Back at my seat I took out my contacts and put on my glasses, watched fireworks going off somewhere in the city, then unpacked my eye mask, and as we started to roll out of the city, put it on and tried to sleep.

It’s funny how you don’t notice the movement of the train as much during the day, with all of the visual input. There, in the absolute dark, I felt the pitch and roll of the train and we made our way further into Minnesota. I slept decently considering where I was, stuffed into two seats in coach on a train. I tossed and turned a lot, mostly comfortable, but my hips would hurt after awhile on whichever side I lay on so I would turn to the other. At one point I thought I found the Holy Grail position. On my back, head with neck pillow against the window, lying completely on the seat with my knees forming a pyramid. I fell asleep pretty comfortably that way only to wake up an hour or so later with my knees locked up. Still, I’ve slept in many worse conditions. I have a couple of new ideas to try tonight. I was inspired by observing some of the other passengers who slept in this morning while I was up at 6 a.m. getting coffee.

I didn’t bring a blanket with me on the trip, something I would do next time. The only small blanket I have is my near and dear Ohio State Buckeyes throw blanket given to me one birthday by my friend Jenny. I love that blanket and I really didn’t like the idea of bringing it on the train. I felt like I’d probably want to burn it after. The train is a lot cleaner than I’d wondered about but still, I just wouldn’t have ever looked at the blanket the same way. I wore my sweater to bed and tucked my North Face fleece jacket over my legs. All in all I was pretty good but tonight I’ll dig out my extra pair of socks as my feet tend to get cold.

This morning I awoke just before 6 a.m. Central time. There was no fighting it so I got up and got myself together. Re-did my bun (though it survived the night well), attempted to do mascara with the aid of the selfie side of the camera, and changed shirts at my seat. As most girls can, I can do a shimmy shirt change without showing a thing, but I did hurry up and get this out of the way before the man across the aisle awoke and wondered what the hell I was doing. After finishing up a makeshift “train version” of freshening up I went off in search of coffee.

There was no one else in the cafe car and I spoke with the the café attendant for a few minutes. A quietly pleasant woman, she seemed quite strong and resilient in the face of an upcoming 18 hour shift! We chatted about her time working for the train company, her home base in Chicago, and some of the many places she’s traveled to. She likes the job and recommended it. My friends had always told me I should be a flight attendant but I just don’t like flying that much. Now train travel, I totally could have done that. It never occurred to me. It’s funny how certain experiences are simply just off your radar because you’ve never been exposed to them.

She talked about how some people as far away as St Louis commute on the train daily into Chicago to work. That blew my mind. It’s something I’ve simply never been exposed to. Another man came down the stairs … probably also in need of his early morning coffee fix and so I said goodby and headed upstairs to the observation deck.

Here I spent some time texting a couple of friends, Instagramming and reading. I’ve never used Instagram stories as much as I have this trip. It’s amazing how videos can capture so quickly and succinctly little moments the would take a long time to write. I’ve hesitated to use video because I think of myself as a very private person and also, like many people, don’t like the way I sound or look on video. But I started having fun with it and thought “the hell with it.” I’ll always try to be as careful as possible, not broadcasting my location in most situations or giving too much detail but its fun and I’ve gotten great feedback from people who have been following along! One of my friends, Dan actually lived in Winona, MN for a few months so it’s great to see people connecting to the places I’m going. When he left that comment on my Instagram it was such a weird feeling. One of “Wow, this little town where I actually wondered, ‘Who are the people who live here?’ when I was at the station, actually has a real life connection to someone I know!” Not to get all hippie and whatnot but it was a very connected, small world feeling.

The windows in the observation are great but the chairs are unmovable, you can’t swivel them at all and some are quite close to the next chair. I enjoyed the first hour or so up there in the relative quiet but as the morning went on the car filled up and I retreated back to my seat.

We stopped in Minot, North Dakota for about 20 minutes and I got off the car and officially set foot in North Dakota for the first time. It was chilly, though not as bad as Chicago yesterday and I poked around inside the station momentarily (the first one I had the opportunity to go inside) and then chatted with my train car attendant before returning to my seat. I asked him what was underneath the coach cars since we’re all sitting up top. My car and several others have luggage storage and restrooms down below but some other cars have wheelchair access for people who cannot make it up the stairs. Sleeper cars have cabins above and below.

I finished my last book in the observation car so now I returned to writing. I have so much to write about. This trip and mostly getting caught up on trips over the last few weeks. I am still loving being on the train. Today will be the true test. Train-contained from sunup to sundown but I like the feeling. There is nothing to do but write, read, think, and look at the scenery. I know some people don’t like being alone but I could think all day. In fact, I wish I was caught up on everything so I could spend the entire day just looking out the window and thinking. Alas, there is lots to get done. Being on the train is a kind of forced solitude. Everything else from life back home fades away and all I have is what is in my backpack, my suitcase, and the list of things I can get done on my computer. It’s incredible.

I look around and see many people reading, sleeping or watching movies. Train life makes us take a break from the outside world and forces us to relax in whichever way we choose. I can’t imagine any of these people — myself included — spending a whole Saturday at home unapologetically and unabashedly taking an entire day to lounge around doing whatever the hell we wanted. That’s sad. To consider how limited our time is on earth and how we spend so much of it doing things we don’t enjoy.

We’re in Williston, North Dakota now. A place I most assuredly would have never ended up in on my own. It’s been 32 years of life and I’m just now even coming to North Dakota, albeit passing through. The beauty of experiencing new things is just celebrating the small things. Watching people at the station coming down to greet their loved ones. Watching others walk their loved ones to the train. There’s a man in glasses, a black hoodie, and jeans sitting on the concrete embankment to watch the train leave carrying whoever he loves away. They must have found their seats and waved to him from the train car. He jumps off the embankment and runs a few steps forward, standing close to the train, looking up and waving. He takes a few steps away, then a few more, then a few more walking back toward the station, then past it and to his truck. I have no idea who he is or what he’s thinking. He hasn’t looked back once.

Then the train starts to move, and he appears from the side of the truck walking back toward us, searching, looking for the car with his, “whomever” it it. And then … we’re gone, and he’s gone.

I know these moments. Friends, family, long distance relationships. There are so many goodbyes when you live in constant motion. Sometimes the only way to keep moving forward is to deny yourself that glance backward. Sometimes you have to glance backward, in order to renew your courage to move forward.

Part 2