Go West Young Man... To Seattle!
It may not have been exactly what Horace Greely had in mind, but had Horace known of the beauty of Seattle and all its treasures -- not to mention the fun of getting there -- he may in fact have coined a different phrase...
It's All About the Journey
One of life’s great mysteries is why, when I tell people – and this includes members of my immediate family – that my wife and I have booked a train trip, the resulting look and general reaction is one of incredulity. After telling them where we have planned to go (this time it was a trip to Seattle), the first question after “the look” is always: “So why in Heaven’s name are you taking a train – doesn’t that take a lot of time – why not just fly?”
Long ago I gave up trying to explain our rationale regarding the fact that it’s more about the journey than it is about anything else…especially the time taken to arrive at one’s intended destination. And so it was the case once again as we decided to ride the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. And as the miles fly past on what is an absolutely stunning first day of October and the incredibly flat terrain of North Dakota is finally ready to give way to Montana, I thought that perhaps it might be a good time to share the highlights of the trip.
A Little Background
I have forever been fascinated by the sound of a train whistle; since about the age of ten, I have known that two long blasts, followed by a single short blast and another long blast, indicates that a train is approaching a grade level crossing. Also known in railroad rulebooks as rule "14L", this is a safety signal used to warn motorists and is blown at every grade level crossing, except where local noise ordinances prohibit it. Whenever I hear that, or other whistle signals -- especially in the night -- I always begin to daydream about the far-off places that trains can go and the places to which it can carry its occupants. As a very young boy, I eagerly awaited our annual trip to Chicago for the purpose of seeing all the incredible Christmas decorations at Marshall Field's and of course a visit to Santa! Now it is to journey to an occasional baseball game or simply for an excursion to a museum or to marvel at the marine life at the Shedd Aquarium.
My first cross-country trip was back in 2000 when we took the California Zephyr to San Francisco. We de-trained in Glenwood Springs for an overnight stay that included an incredibly relaxing soak in the hot springs pool there, as well as a marvelous dinner at a local restaurant and a superb evening at the The Hotel Denver before catching another train the next day to finish our journey. The seats were huge and amazingly comfortable, the scenery jaw-dropping, and It was my first real taste of the fun that is possible when using rail transportation. Although we took advantage of the Amtrak to St. Louis last year (another great ride), I have waited patiently for the next opportunity to cross the country.
We started planning in June of this year and had decided to take the Empire Builder, which crosses the northern tier of states. One of the compelling reasons? Neither of us had been to the state of Washington before and we were both wanting to see first-hand the Pacific Northwest. While trying to determine whether or not we wanted to stop for a night as we had done on our other west coast trip, we decided to upgrade a bit for this trip and selected a "roomette" for our journey, rather than to travel coach-class as we had done previously.
Although somewhat limited in space, the roomette will accommodate two medium-sized adults, offers far more privacy and the ability to covert the two reclining seats to a bed for a comfortable night's rest (a second bed drops from above, bunk-style). Also included are electrical outlets, reading lights, a fold-down table, fresh towels and bed linens, soap and shower amenities, personal service (turn-down, coffee, paper, make-up bed), bottled water and a daily newspaper. The next step up from that option is a bedroom; it will be my option of choice for our next trip -- mostly because it also offers an in-room shower and bathroom facility and a bit more room for changing. Meals are also included -- more on that later...
The Journey Begins
We live only about a mile or so from a Pace bus stop, and decided to walk to it for a bus ride to the Metra station, rather than take a taxi. The weather promised to be non-threatening and besides, we had a lot of seat-time ahead of us; the walk was easy and pleasant on the cool, end-of-September morning as we departed on "leg one" of our journey.
The bus was right on time and we quickly arrived at the Metra Station in Geneva. Leg two was by rail as well, and we arrived at the Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago with hours to spare. Amtrak departs from Union Station -- only about four blocks from Ogilvie -- and we rolled our suitcases along behind us beneath an azure blue sky, wondering how large a crowd would be assembling at Daley Plaza for the Cubs rally prior to their playoff game against the Dodgers... We seized the opportunity to have a quick bite to eat (our next meal -- dinner -- wouldn't be available until that evening) and to take some pictures of the City and of the people taking advantage of a beautiful Fall day.
Descending the escalator to the below-street-level terminal, excitement mounted as we watched hundreds of people scurrying about, trying to locate their departing trains or arriving friends. After a quick stop at the kiosk for our tickets, we passed through frosted-glass doors and into the Executive Lounge (reserved for sleeping car passengers only), where we checked in, dropped our bags and enjoyed the complimentary snacks, soft drinks and quiet television as we relaxed prior to our departure. I was amazed at the number of passengers who were traveling with first-class accommodations -- in the sleeping cars -- but I was soon to discover that the comfort and amenities are well worth the upgrade and the likely reason for the crowds!
Our train was scheduled to depart at 2:05 pm, and promptly at 1:30, we were called for boarding the Superliner Empire Builder to Seattle. The train was a long one but we easily located car # 730 and made our way to room #8 on the upper level. We quickly settled in and precisely at 2:05 pm, after two short blasts of the whistle, our ride to the coast eased out of the station on its long trek west. Our conductor Manuel soon appeared at our door, displayed the huge smile that never left his face and offered two splits of champagne to begin our voyage. We gratefully accepted and quickly opened them, toasted our good fortune and smiled too as the train gained speed and headed north to Milwaukee, the first of about forty stops between Chicago and Seattle. Many times the whistle sounded the familiar two longs, a short and two more long blasts as we sped through the northern suburbs. We were on our third leg, rocking gently back and forth and headed for Seattle! (View route on a Google Map)
Meals on Rails
The opportunities to purchase food on the train are many. There are always snacks, sandwiches, pizza and other goodies available, as well as a wide variety of beverages -- with or without alcohol. but one of the things that had swayed our decision to secure sleeping car accommodations was the fact that meals were included as part of the price.
And the meals were top-notch! We had a choice of breakfast selections -- scrambled eggs, omelets, chef's special or continental -- along with hash brown potatoes and sides of bacon or sausage. Lunches consisted of a sandwich, another chef's special or a build-your-own burger (made with black angus beef), and dinners offered a choice of a flat-iron steak, rock-cornish game hen, baked salmon, vegetable lasagna or another of the chef's specials of the day. All meals also included beverages such as coffee, tea, milk juices or sodas; wine was also available at a very reasonable price.
Considering the number of folks on the train -- both in sleeping cars and coach (the train had been pre-sold out!) -- and the number of meals served, I was truly amazed at the quality of both the food and service. Our meals included the steak, salmon, turkey salad sandwich and both scrambled eggs and omelets; all were served hot and tasty. And since the kitchen/food preparation area was on the lower level of the dining car, the servers were constantly running up and down the stairs, literally hundreds of times per day, in order to get the meals to the diners.
It was the hardest working crew I had seen in a long, long time... and they did it with smiles always on their faces. Incredible! On the second day of our trek, the wait-staff/crew even put on a wine and cheese party, between lunch and dinner services. Their combined service record with Amtrak was a total of seventy-two years! Our conductor -- Manuel Walton -- had been with the company for over thirty years! I wanted to mention his full name because, even though the rest of the staff was smiling, helpful, adept and hard-working, Manuel really stood out as an example. Should you ever have the privilege of riding the rails and Manuel is working that route -- you'll know it immediately and know why Amtrak is quite proud of him and the service he provides to its passengers.
Follow us in Part II: On the Empire Builder -- Day Two