All aboard the Empire Builder! Chicago to Seattle (Part 2)

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This post is a continuation from Part 1.

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We continued on through North Dakota and into Montana. I was amazed at the land during this part of the trip. Talk about wide open spaces! I had the Dixie Chicks playing constantly in my head against my will.

Parts of this country can be so crowded yet in these parts there’s just so much nothing. Long flat plains ranging from beige to tan to taupe to brown. You can look as far as the eye can see and, aside from the power lines, see nothing indicating any presence of human kind.

Other times the train would run alongside a road, chasing a floating cloud of dust until we came alongside a pickup truck speeding as fast as possible on its way through nowhere. Cars virtually didn’t exist. Only pickups.

At one point I thought I saw a lone antelope but we passed so quickly I talked myself out of it wondering, “Do we even have antelope in the US?” Hours later I saw a group of three and thought, “Well then, I guess we do.”

The small towns we stopped in looked like throwbacks to another time. Untouched by many modern updates they retained an old time-y feel, some complete with hitching posts out front and a never ending patina of dust covering everything.


Finally, in the afternoon, after an entire day of flat and brown landscape, mountains appeared on the horizon. They were so small at first, just a series of jagged bumps breaking up the flat horizon. Eventually, they came closer, and closer, and closer, until we were swallowed up in a landscape so completely different from before that it was hard for me to wrap my head around.

I found myself taking way too many photos and videos, feeling powerless to stop even though I knew there was no way for me to truly capture the awe and amazement I felt. I forced myself to stop and just look out the window and think. Just think and feel.

I wondered a great deal about the types of people who settled this country years ago. The type of people who traversed the long, flat plains in wagons, probably thinking they were near the west coast, then finally happening upon the mountains in the distance. Coming closer and closer, thinking WTF?! (Or whatever the pioneer version of WTF was.)

I wondered about their fortitude and resolve to keep forging ahead up and down these incredible valleys, gorges, and densely packed forests. I imagine they often had to go miles out of their way in order to find (and sometimes create) passable routes. I could help but feel guilty sitting passively on the train, rolling smoothly along with nothing to do but sit back and admire the view. Me, who was horribly out of breath walking up the stairs at Hoover Dam. (Ok, who am I kidding? I sometimes get out of breath at way less than that.)

I feel like people were made out of different stuff back then. Modernity seems to have taken our sprit of adventure, of forging onward, of toughness and resolve. We sit around complaining of boredom, aimlessly swiping through various apps on our phones, becoming softer and softer with each passing moment.

I felt awed and shamed by the wild and rugged beauty I was passing through, and the knowledge that, if it weren’t for others going before me and laying down these tracks I wouldn’t be on the cushy train now, cruising along in peaceful air conditioned comfort (typing away on my MacBook).

After awhile my dinner reservation was called and I went one car ahead to the dining car. Tables are filled up with sets of strangers, kind of like on a cruise. The banquets hold four so they’ll put two and two couples together, or several singles and a couple and so forth. I got the happening table — meaning I was at a table with four singles. We were all from different places with very different backgrounds and stories so it felt very hostel-like. One girl, Sarah, was writing a book and traveling as a part of the Amtrak Writer in Residency program.

After dinner and a stop in Whitefish, Montana — where it was still absurdly bright out at almost 9:30 in the evening — I returned to my seat to watch the last of the light dying out. The darker it got, the more restless I got and I poured myself a glass of wine and made my way over to the mostly empty observation car. I sipped and thought and sipped some more, marveling at how long the fading light still let me make out shadows of the mountains and trees we were traveling through. I wished the timing was different, so we could go through this scenery all day. It seemed such a shame … to spend all day in the flat empty brown spaces and to now be missing out on all this beauty overnight. Oh well, such is life. (Or the train schedule anyway.)

I went back to my seat and tried to stay awake for the single train stop in Idaho so I could add that state to my list but to no avail. I nodded off — although still thinking I was awake. A bit after we were scheduled to stop, something must have awakened me. Not realizing I’d been sleeping, I checked my watch, concluded that we must not have stopped there for some reason and gave up and “went to sleep.” I learned later from the coach attendant that we had indeed stopped, so I realized that while I thought I was awake I must’ve been completely passed out.

The next morning the sun was out in full force. I awoke early (as I had every day on the train) and started to head to the cafe car before realizing it was no longer there. The train ended with my car. The rest had been disconnected and attached to another train in the middle of the night; those cars were headed for Spokane Washington. While I was trying to figure out what to do about coffee (it’s hard to think without coffee), Sarah from dinner the night before showed up. She’d been on her way to observation (the upstairs part of the cafe car), before realizing it was gone. She graciously showed me where coffee was in the sleeper car and then we had breakfast together, paired with a friendly older couple from Birmingham Alabama.

The scenery continued to be breathtaking. Mountains, valleys, wild rivers and so much green in the trees offset but the frigid snowcapped mountains.

At one point we could see Mt. Rainier in the distance dwarfing all the other mountains. Then, suddenly we broke out of the mountains and ran alongside Puget Sound all the way into Seattle. The change was abrupt. We were in the mountains … then all of a sudden we weren’t. The wide flat blue of the sound, miles of skinny, rocky, dark sand beaches, and scores of people out walking with morning coffee, many with happy dogs in tow — a stark difference from the wild and remote wilderness we’d just come through.

At one point I thought I saw a bald eagle flying in the distance … a large bird with a white head but once again — like the antelope — I talked myself out of it. Not even 20 minutes later I was looking onto the rocky beach below the train when I looked straight into the eyes of a large bald eagle perched on a huge boulder. He was staring directly at the train, (into my soul?), head cocked to the right, beak slightly open, with an indignant look on his face that seemed to say, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing cutting through my territory?”

I glanced around quickly to see if anyone else had seen the magical moment but no one in my immediate vicinity seemed to have. What a moment! I’d seen bald eagles in the wild twice before while living in Florida close to the Everglades, but never one a mere 15 feet away sitting still.

The train came closer and closer to the station and I got sadder and sadder. I really did not want to get off the train. It felt safe and warm and comforting. Now I was going to have to get off, to explore a new, unfamiliar city on my own, yet again, to go do things! But all I wanted was to stay in my seat: sleeping, thinking, reading, writing.

Life’s not really about what we want though is it? Life happens, and we have to get with the program. So we rolled into King Street Station and though I took my time gathering up my things (I was the last one in the car) I eventually exited the train. I said farewell to my friendly coach attendant who was standing just outside the train as passengers disembarked. I then turned right, took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and marched off before I could think about it.

One journey completed. Another just beginning. It was time to explore Seattle.