Empire Builder to Chicago

Back in July 2013 (it is January 2014 as I write this) Carla and I embarked on one of our dream vacations: a long distance train trip. We had originally scheduled this trip for the summer of 2011 but heavy rains in the upper Midwest flooded out a good part of the line. This would have resulted resulted in at least 1 long bus ride from Portland to Spokane and then perhaps another one across North Dakota. We watched the BNSF web site and weather reports and cancelled at the last moment opting to fly back to Chicago to visit Andrew and Henriët. 
This year the weather was much better and we booked our tickets again on the Amtrak Empire Builder.
Empire Builder route
We started off, of course, in Portland. We got there ridiculously early so I could sop up every bit of railroad goodness. During the wait, Carla went up on the Broadway Bridge to get some pictures of the train terminal.
Portland’s Union Station – our departure point

 At last it was time to board; we were met by our sleeping car attendant Joe who took great care of us throughout the 3 day / 2 night trip.

Joe – our sleeping car attendant.

 The Empire builder is a bi-level car with some luggage, facilities and a family sleeping chamber in the bottom. The stairs bisect the car; on one side is a row of roomettes which have two facing chairs that convert into a bunk beds. These roomettes do not have their own bathrooms; riders use showers and sinks on the lower floor.

Roomette side of the sleeping car.

 Carla and I splurge on the larger sleeping room which has a large sofa and one facing chair, a sink and a combination shower/toilet. A bunk bed pulls out of the roof above the couch giving each of us our own bed.

Carla relaxing on our room couch.

 As the day arrived I worked on lowering my expectations; I’ve been looking forward to a trip like this since I was 10. When the day came I talked myself down saying it may not be all it was cracked up to be in my imagination and I’d need to just take it as it as it comes. You can see from the picture below how successful I was in tamping my expectations.

Howard in the facing seat; do I look excited?

As we headed north out of Union Station we crossed the Williamette river and saw majestic Mt Hood in the east.

Mt. Hood rising above the Willamette river

 We then crossed the Columbia river into Vancouver, Washington and headed down the Columbia River. This was one of the most anticipated parts of the ride.

Damn from the Washington side of the Columbia River

 We meandered up to the observation car to take in the full glory of the mighty Columbia.

Howard in the observation car along the Columbia River

The Portland section carries two coach cars, the observation car, and one sleeping car. The Seattle section has two coach cars, two sleeping cars, and the dining car. The two sections leave their respective stations around 4 PM and meet in Spokane, Washingto to be combined. Our sleeping car was at the tail end of this section of the Empire Builder.

View from the back of our sleeping as the sun sets along the Columbia River

Pasco, WA? 

 Our attendant Joe, put our beds down while we went to dinner. Dining was very fun; our meals were included with our fare. The dining car is made up of sets of tables for four. To make the use of the space every table is filled with four people. So Carla and I were seated with different dining companions for each meal. Some were fascinating and some were “interesting”.  But we enjoyed all our experiences.

We lunched one day with another rail fan; he had a radio scanner allowing him to track the progress of the train and road maintenance.

After a couple of hours in the observation car we retired to our beds. I slept in the top bunk, which swayed a bit; you really notice that one end of the bed is higher than the other. I really don’t like my head lower than my heart and feet with sleeping. The upper birth has a very low head space and I had fun exchanging my head and feet ends of the bed.

When we stopped in Spokane around midnight the weather was beautiful; we arrived about 40 minutes ahead of schedule so had a bit of a wait for th  Seattle section to arrive for our join. I couldn’t bear it; I climbed out of the bed necessitating stepping on Carla’s lower bunk and waking her a bit. I grabbed a jacket and went out on the platform. I had forgotten my camera but no way was I going back in the room to root around for it and risk waking Carla. It was fantastic; I watched 2 freight trains roll by the platform before the Seattle section came in.

Our locomotive pulled away and the Seattle section was coupled to the front of the train. From our end to the front were, in order, Portland sleeping car, two coaches, and observation car; dining car, two Seattle coaches and two Seattle sleeping cars. The sleeping cars are at either end to afford us the most privacy.

I climbed back into bed, waking Carla once more and drifted into dreamland. Early the next morning we were in the Montana Rockies and pulled into Glacier National Park. Based on what we saw in late July they may have to rename the park as there was very little snow or ice on the mountain sides.

Glacier National Park

Amtrak participates with the National Park Service on a “Rail to Trail” service. Two guides boarded at Glacier and went to the observation car with a little loudspeaker unit. They proceeded to give us a guided tour through the Rocky Mountains and pointed out where bear and other wild animals are sometimes spotted. At first I thought it was a bit hokey but came to enjoy it.

As we drifted down the east side of the Rockies into the plains of eastern Montana we fetched up along a storm. The storm stayed with us all afternoon and into the night.

Carla caught a great picture of the storm clouds south of the tracks.

The storm got closer and closer to us and we were treated to a night of spectacular lightening displays. At their height there were strikes every two or three seconds.

Dark clouds as we head into a dark and stormy night.

The Empire builder is notoriously late, often running two hours behind schedule at the end of the run. This trip was worse than usual; the storm was so bad that it shut down the signal lights for the trains so we ended up stopped or moving very slowly throughout the night. By morning when we woke up we were over three hours behind schedule. This was unwelcome news to those reporting to work in the North Dakota oil fields and those making connections in Chicago. On the bright side we were greeted by a wonderful day in the upper Plains.

Lovely view of the North Dakota plains

The day was glorious and we spent hours just looking out the windows and being mesmerized by the beauty. Carla and I brought books, puzzles, and music to while-a-way the time but we just never got to them; the view from the train was so beautiful that time flew as we gazed on the scenery and talked and reminisced about our lives together.

Train depot in Fargo, North Dakota

Small farm in North Dakota or Minnesota
Yes, we saw plenty of freight trains roll by; it was impossible to get them from inside our train as they whipped by. But I got a chance at our stops.
Somewhere in Minnesota or Wisconsin
Carla and I had time during one of our longer stops to walk the length of the train to get a shot of our leading locomotives.
Empire Builder east bound

We arrived in Chicago over six hours late. Once you are a bit late you tend to get later and later. There is a slot for expected travel of the passenger trains. Because we started our third day over three hours late we had lots of slow orders and waiting for high priority freights and road work. The maintenance of way season in the north plains is short so they have to make the most of it, making trains late.

Amtrak worked hard and getting people to their connections. Some connecting trains held an extra hour for us to arrive; other passengers were put on motor coaches and did an end-around meeting the east bound trains out in Ohio. My advice if traveling by rail; give yourself an overnight connection to reduce the stress.

We went to Chicago to visit Andrew and Henriët who just bought a house! We worked with them to clean it up and get it ready to move in. We painted and cleaned windows while contractors remodeled the kitchen and other heavy work. It was exhausting due mostly to the high heat and humidity. Carla and I took a couple of days off to stay at their apartment near Lincoln Park and go to the movies. We were so busy I didn’t get pictures of their place.

We took the weekend off to go up to Milwaukie, Wisconsin to see a baseball game. I was amazed at the tailgating activity in the parking lot. I’ve heard that football tailgating in Green Bay is big, but for a baseball game? Simply amazing. There were thousands of people in the parking lot cooking on hundreds of grills. There were two live bands and everyone was playing a sandbag tossing game called corn hole.

Tailgating at Miller Park

We had nice seats for the game. A few years ago I remember snow stopping an early season game; since then they built a new stadium with a convertible roof. One of my goals is to attend major league baseball games in as many cities as possible. This makes nine by count:

  • Dodger Stadium
  • Los Angeles Angels
  • AT&T park (Giants – I also attended many games at the old Candlestick)
  • Seattle Mariners (both the old King Dome and their new stadium)
  • Texas Rangers
  • Boston Red Sox
  • Wrigley Field
  • Chicago White Sox
  • Milwaukie Brewers
Years ago we were in New York and I was too tired after a long day of site seeing to join my nephews and niece on a trip the the New York Mets.
We passed by Miller Park on the train down to Chicago; it was fun to go inside. When a Brewer hits a home run the team mascot goes down the slide out in left-center field.

Miller Park

And of course the reason we travelled was to see our son and daughter-in-law!

Henriët and Andrew enjoying the game.

The train trip was a complete success. My expectations going in were not too high; we want more and more. Some day we plan to take a big triangle trip: Portland to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight; then to Chicago on the Southwest Chief and finally the reverse trip on the Empire Builder.

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