The Empire Builder takes two days to reach Portland, stopping along the way at every small town in Wisconsin with a hot coffee vending machine. The Empire Builder is a real train, with special cars for eating and for looking out the window and torso-sized metal boxes that dispense lukewarm water for absolutely free. The Empire Builder has exactly one available electrical socket. It is in the lounge car, and someone will be using it.

The train cars are two stories high. The bathrooms and the elderly and infirm are on the bottom level, and everyone else sits above them. Each coach car has three bathrooms, a men’s changing room and a ladies’ lounge, preserving the polite fiction that we will not all be wearing the same clothes and underwear for the next three days. Casual awful overpriced food is available for purchase in the Lounge Car, while those of a more formal bent may wish to make reservations at the Dining Car for formal awful overpriced food.

union station

Sleeping was uncomfortable the first night, but by the second night we are masters. This is because we are now so tired we could sleep anywhere. And we nap. Napping is the secret of sleeping on trains. Sleep whenever you are the slightest bit tired. Bored? Try closing your eyes! The constant unstructured drift between sleeping and wakefulness unmoors you from time as you have known it, leaving you wondering just how many weeks have I been sitting here, again?


The acknowledged sightseeing highlight of the journey is Glacier National Park, where the train curves through mountains and sits in the East Glacier station while a horse walks the length of the town. Throughout North Dakota the squat station buildings are surrounded by groups of people waiting for friends or relatives leaving or arriving. A woman greets a kid in a Harry Potter costume. A man in a blue tee shirt that says “Groom’s Father” in iron-on letters stands by a woman whose pink shirt says “Groom’s Mother.” They are waving to someone, but the train moves slowly, and by the time we pull out of the station they are walking away from us, back to the parking lot.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES: Becoming unmoored from traditional concepts of space and time.


  1. i took the train across country several times – by myself. this requires a whole additional level of bizarre interaction, including occasionally having odd men who are taking the train across country by themselves ask you to dinner in the dining car.

    but i prefer the trains east of the mississippi and in the south, where smoking cars still exist(ed?), because smokers make the funnest impromptu gangs of people.

  2. In my first reading of your comment, (presumed)Mz. O’Moxie, I received the impression that your cross-country train trips were a lark; subsequent inspection and reflection revealed that it is probable your destinations were purposeful, so perhaps this question is best directed to the populace at large:

    I find myself vicariously living through the travelogues here and really any story of destinationless(or negotiable-route) adventure. How is a young man of the career world to arrange, e.g., a passenger slot on a freighter? This is a domain in which my knowledge is nil, so please forgive me if such basic data as which thumb to stick out is not in my possession.

  3. You’re in portland right now? That’s fantastic! I made the mistake of visiting Portland and now I live there. BEWARE! They’re all recruiters.

  4. Yo,

    I enjoyed this post very much. I loved taking the train between Tacoma and Portland when I was in school, but found longer trips (San Francisco to Portland, Tacoma to Chico) would begin fairly fun but slowly drive me batty in a comfortable sort of way. I will never complain about Amtrak though… Train is my prefered method of travel when I have the time to take one, and having ridden Chinese trains I can say without a doubt that Amtrak is A+.

    Have fun in Portland.

  5. Joe… a quick search turned up all kinds of companies that will broker freighter travel. Here’s one: Who knew such things existed? I certainly didn’t.

    I love train travel, but have not taken long trips by train in the US. I did once spend about 20 hours switching from train to train to get from Florence to Paris. My relationship to time changed… a few days later, the 8-hour flight back stateside seemed downright zippy. Blink and you miss it.

  6. Freighter World works. It’s an odd company – I think they are still living pre-computer – but you can book a trip, and you can see lots and lots of containers. There are cabins available with two twin beds, and I think it’s quite a bit cheaper this way as opposed to solo. But you would have to provide your own companion.

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