|Matt's Tips for Long Railroad Trips
So if you thought--like Gene Wilder in Silver
Streak--that taking a long train trip for a couple
of days would be a great way to relax and get
caught up on your reading, you are mistaken.
There's lots to do and see. Here are a few tips
which might help you plan your trip.
1. Go to www.amtrak.com and just look
around. Click on the "Routes" icon to get
an idea of places to go. The site also has
information about specials that seem to be
very popular. I booked my reservation on
the website and had no problems.
2. I'm not saying that the folks in coach are
the wretched refuse of anyone's teeming
shores, but if you can swing it financially,
get something on the sleeper. In addition
to the privacy, you'll have access to
showers, reservations in the dining car,
and a special steward on each sleeping
car who will look after your well-being.
3. Book early. Sleepers fill up fast.
4. What Amtrak likes to call "roomettes" are
great if it's just you or just you and a small
child. If two normal-sized adults are
traveling together, it 's better to get a regular
5. Even if you're traveling coach, eat your
meals in the dining car. The food is quite
good, and as on cruises, you are compelled
to eat with others. Everyone I ate with was
terrific and had great stories to tell.
6. Trains have a bad reputation for being
chronically late. I can't generalize, but my
train arrived in Portland a half-hour early.
7. If you're a smoker, your smoking breaks
are limited to the occasional opportunity
to go out on the platform when the train
is in station.
8. Be open to meeting new people. It 's one
of the best perks of the trip.
9. Generally speaking, "early to bed and early
to rise" is the best strategy for train riding.
I didn't see anyone who looked like Paul
Newman running a poker game as in The
Sting, and the bar closes at 10 pm.
They dim the lights in the coach, and there's
not a lot to see outside in the darkness.
I was generally in bed at ten and up around
six in the morning.
10. Occasionally, a train will be scheduled
for a twenty-minute stop in a city. Don't
plan to take in a lot of sights in that time
period. It's just about enough time to go
into the station and get a newspaper or ice
cream from the vending machine.
11. Regardless of how old you are, you'll
be the youngest person on the train.
12. Don't expect to get much use out of your
cell phone or laptop. (For me, this was one
of the very best features of the trip.)
13. Spend as much time as possible looking
out the window. It's a beautiful country..
|Every two or three hours, the train would stop and let passengers get out, stretch
their legs, smoke as much of a cigarette as possible, and take a stab at cell phone
When I got to Portland (a half-hour early!) on Saturday morning, my wonderful
friend, Vonnie Good, met me at the station, and we spent a beautiful day visiting
four of the wineries in the Wilhamette Valley region and the Evergreen Aviation
Museum--the new home of the "Spruce Goose", since it left Long Beach a few
years back. There's no way I could get the entire plane in one photo, but here are
a couple of photos of Vonnie and me with the tail section and the model of the
plane that was used in the movie The Aviator.
It was a great trip. If you ever get the chance, do it.
You'll love it.
| So why is a train that goes from Chicago to Portland called The Empire
Builder? It's named for James J. "Empire Builder" Hill, who founded the
Northern Pacific Railroad in the 19th century. His railroad opened a vast
segment of the continent to economic development. Here's a statue of Mr.
Hill in front of the station in Havre, Montana.
For more information about the route,
I boarded at Cincinnati at 3 a.m, and we
arrived in Chicago seven hours later.
After checking my bags, I went for a stroll
and discovered that Union Station is only
block away from Sears Tower, which I had
never visited. So I checked it out and took
this picture, looking toward the new Frank Geary
building in Grant Park (lower right), Navy Pier and Lake
As you'd probably suspect, the scenery was the highlight
of the trip. I don't think we ever actually got into the
Badlands of North Dakota, but the scenery at right
was not too far away.
It's very difficult to take a digital photo from a moving train.
I spent almost an hour trying to get a decent shot of Mt. Hood.
This is as good as I could get.
|Riding the Empire Builder, September 2005