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.
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.
AMTRAK’S EMPIRE BUILDER
ONE WAY TICKET COACH CLASS $134
DEPARTS CHICAGO, IL DAILY AT 2:15PM
ARRIVES PORTLAND, OR TWO DAYS LATER 10:25AM
SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES: Becoming unmoored from traditional concepts of space and time.