Go West Young Man... To Seattle!
Join us as we travel from Chicago to Seattle aboard the Empire Builder!
Day Two On the Empire Builder
Perhaps the only thing that somewhat disappointed me on this trip was the route -- and not because it wasn't beautiful. The vistas were incredible. But our trip took place in late September, after the Equinox date. This simply meant that the sun was going to set by around 7:00 pm, and much of the best scenery that might normally be viewed... was going to be available after it was already dark. By the time we had reached Milwaukee, the sun was on its way down. We did get to see much of the fall colors in the valley approaching the crossing of the Mississippi River at La Crosse; we crossed the river in the dark. The train followed the river for a great distance on its way northward to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, but the glory of the river and its accompanying colors was lost to the black of night; much more daylight would have been available had we planned a trip for earlier in the summer.
Overnight on the Empire Builder
Manuel had prepped our beds before we reached Minneapolis and we had opted for retiring early rather than stretching our legs outside the train as it made a thirty-minute or so stop to refuel there. As the train was streaking through the remainder of Minnesota, the gentle rocking brought me the well-deserved rest I needed after a long day with too much excitement.
By about 3:00 am the following morning, we had crossed into North Dakota at Fargo and by 5:00 am we were heading north and west, leaving the lowland plains and entering onto the Great Plains: an amazingly immense stretch of country, reaching from Mexico all the way into Canada and spreading east of the Rocky Mountains like a giant welcome mat. Scoured by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, this vast and treeless area is now as dry as one can imagine, receiving less than 20 inches of total rainfall per year. We were also headed toward an intersection with the very route traveled by Lewis and Clark in 1805/1806. As a seemingly endless stretch of dry and flat grassland passed before us, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to cross this area -- almost totally void of water -- two hundred years ago on horseback. I even allowed my mind to wander much further back in time, several hundred million years, to when this entire area was covered by a shallow inland sea... We suddenly arrived in Minot, a thriving city with a rich history. Also known as "Magic City" (it literally sprang up over night), it was also once home to Al Capone's illicit liquor smuggling operations. West of town we crossed the The Gassman Coulee Trestle and continued our journey across the extensive, nearly flat floor of the former sea, to first Williston, then to Ft. Buford (Chief Sitting Bull surrendered here after the Battle of Little Big Horn), and finally to Ft. Union (near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers) before crossing into Montana at Wolf Point, just before noon.
The Route From Here: Montana, Idaho and Washington
Halfway through Montana, I began to notice a subtle change in the landscape: geologic features called buttes began to appear: isolated hills with steep, often vertical sides and small flat tops, formed by erosion when a cap of hard rock, often of volcanic origin, covers a layer of softer rock that is easily worn away. This is prime territory for dinosaur fossils, although vastly different now from the lush and almost tropical climes that were bounded on the west by volcanic activity. The Hell Creek formation is here on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Past Glasgow and Malta we sped, arriving at the town of Havre, Montana for a service stop at about 2:30 pm. Stepping from the train, we breathed some crisp but warm Montana air; I was still amazed at the relative flatness of the terrain here, so close to the Idaho border.
Our iron steed galloped on, often at speeds that I estimated to be close to 80 mph. This occasionally made it difficult to walk through the dining and coach cars back to the lounge/observation car for a look at the glorious scenery. However, the "drunken sailor" method of walking with feet spread rather than one in front of the other made things easier (as an interesting side note, as far as I could tell, no wait-staff in the dining car ever spilled a beverage -- an amazing feat considering the amount of rocking that occasionally took place!). We passed through Shelby, Cut Bank and Browning, watching as the Rockies began to rise ahead of us: the elevation had now risen to 4655 feet from the relatively low 1547 feet at Minot, ND. At approximately 6:45 pm local time, we arrive at the majestic East Glacier Park station -- unfortunately only for a brief four- or five-minute stop. I wish we had more time here, especially because I would love to have visited the massive and stately Glacier Park Lodge -- built with trees estimated to be 600 years old. A mere 200 yards away, it loomed large in the window of our roomette.
Quickly on our way again, the fading sun of October 1st, combined with the towering Rockies, didn't leave much time for viewing the impressive scenery. Even in the dim light of dusk, the colors are breathtaking and the rugged beauty masks the desolation of the area -- not a place I'd like to be alone after dark! Across the Continental Divide and through Marias Pass (at 5216 feet, the lowest pass between Canada and New Mexico) we glide, arriving at Essex and the Izaak Walton Inn there to drop a few passengers. The inn is a converted old railroad bunkhouse where, without telephones, roughing it takes on a new meaning for those wanting the seclusion. West Glacier, Whitefish and Libby are the last towns on the route through Montana; we are sound asleep when the train slides into Idaho in the black of night -- the moon is new and therefore not visible --just before midnight when we arrive at Sand Point.
It is almost 2:00 am as the train slowly comes to a stop in Spokane. A few small bumps cause me awaken briefly as a few cars at the rear of the train are uncoupled. They will get a different engine and continue southward to Portland. It is not yet quite first light, but I am awake fully now as we pass through Wenatchee. Blessed with rich and fertile soil resulting from the decomposition of lava from ancient volcanoes, this agricultural area supplies over 15% of the nation's apples. Two of our dinner companions from the previous evening depart the train and I wave goodbye as the train once again sounds the now-familiar two short blasts of the horn and we continue on, descending through the lower Cascade Mountains, past rivers and streams and quaint whistle-stop towns where fishing, forests and tourism reign, and then to Everett and Edmonds. We will follow Puget Sound for a long ways before the 605 foot Space Needle signals our arrival into Seattle, the train finally coming to rest just outside Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks.
To some, a forty-six hour journey by train may seem like an eternity. For me, the journey of 2206 miles through seven states passed quickly; from the interesting variety of people to glorious sights to the time spent decompressing, it was lots of fun. But I opened with a reminder that -- at least for my wife and me -- travel is more about the journey then it is about simply "getting there".
If you subscribe to the latter of those two descriptions, then train travel is truly not for you. But the mournful wail of the train's horn, the swaying of the cars, the fine dining, the scenery and the joy of taking our time is what keeps me coming back. My only advice -- at least as far as the Empire Builder is concerned -- would be to book your trip during the summer months so as to take full advantage of the long daylight hours to be able to view the awesome scenery. And if you require a bit of extra space, by all means upgrade to the full room -- it is definitely worth it!
Follow us in Part 3: 48 Hours in Seattle