The train rolls past distant hills — mountains, an easterner would call them. But it’s just a tease. Out here is mostly prairie and thin wire fences and undulating gray moguls of land, mysterious for what lies beneath, all dinosaur fossils and buffalo bones. The sky is huge and blue and endless. Here is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid embarked on their last train robbery. Here is the middle of Montana. Here is the West.
Then, there’s an announcement. It’s time for wine tasting! I brush my hair in the tiny roomette, elbows bumping the dark blue walls with every stroke. Then I hurry up to the dining car and take my place across from a couple from Ohio. The train jerks side to side, but the tasting begins — Washington State chardonnay, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon. People grip their little plastic cups, but nothing spills. Wine. Cheese. Laughter. The time passes.
The Amtrak Empire Builder may not be the most fashionable train in the world, or the fastest, or the most elegant.
But it has something that other trains in the world do not have — the wide Montana scenery that takes you right into the heart of the Rockies and Glacier National Park.
Train travel is much maligned in the United States, and many bemoan the fact that it is not what it could be or should be or used to be.
The long-distance Empire Builder, especially, faces severe challenges to perform on time.
Yet there is something still wonderful about taking the train.
Every day, the Empire Builder begins a 2,205-mile journey from Chicago to Seattle and Portland and vice-versa. One of Amtrak’s signature routes, it passes through Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, then turns west across northern North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Oregon.
Due to time constraints, I flew to Minneapolis/St. Paul and caught the westbound Empire Builder as it left at 11:15 p.m. headed for East Glacier, Mont. — 1,129 miles and 21 hours away.
Booking a roomette — a tiny, private sleeping berth with two seats that fold to a flat bed — turned out to be a good decision. Although the train jerked its way west and the bed was about as comfortable as riding a hay wagon across a turnip field, sleep came. By dawn, we were in Grand Forks, N.D.
Unlike the semi-shabby Amtrak trains of less illustrious routes (I’m not pointing fingers here, but Detroit-Chicago comes to mind), Empire Builder had 11 gleaming Superliner cars attached to two engines. It had four 2-level sleeper cars, four coach passenger cars, a dining car, a dome lounge car and a baggage car. It was clean. The toilets worked. Sleeping-car passengers got free breakfast and dinner, free coffee and juice and a small gray drawstring bag with toiletries. And yes, there were showers, and I should say that taking a hot shower in a moving train is quite entertaining, like showering in an earthquake — just hang on and don’t drop the soap.
The Empire Builder, contrary to rumor, was not all silver-haired seniors. It was packed with families, couples, students, oil workers. Even the more expensive sleeping cars had guests ranging in age from about 16 to 70.
The train stopped 16 times between St. Paul and East Glacier. I liked that passengers could get out several times along the way as the train refueled, in Minot and Williston, N.D., and Havre, Mont. And I liked the fact that the train, for the most part, stayed on schedule as it trundled west, west and farther west.