Shortly before Memorial Day, my husband, Matt, and I pulled our three children out of elementary school a week early and boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which loosely follows the trail of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. We got on in St. Paul, Minnesota, headed for Portland, Ore. It promised to be a romantic, slow, idyllic trip: more than 37 hours of Internet-free educational time for our kids, and - without the pressure of driving long, bland highways - two bottles of wine for us.
But we soon realized that our kids’ best educational moments were happening inside the glass-sheathed lounge car. Every morning, our 9-year-old son, Caleb, made a beeline for it. “It’s where you hear stories,” he said. A guy with piercings told two retirees about how he grew medicinal marijuana. They disapproved. Another retiree - there were many on this train - explained how to hunt for the black, gray and yellow morels growing in the moist environment of Northern Oregon. An African-American woman entertained three Muslim children with dominoes. “The part I like best is people here talk to each other - like we used to do years ago,” said 59-year-old Chicagoan Vivian Lonak, our sleeping-car attendant, who has worked for Amtrak for seven years.
For some, the Empire Builder is a lifeline to jobs such as those in the North Dakota oil fields. For others, it adds nostalgic adventure to an otherwise comfortable retirement. In the lounge car, travelers who might not ordinarily come together due to economic, geographic or social stratification suddenly find themselves sharing tables. They are “people you’d never put together, but on a train you can, and it works,” Lonak said.
The Empire Builder has a small-town feel, in both its conversation and its pacing. Bill Anderson, a 73-year-old former high school teacher and pastor from Edmonds, Washington, boarded the lounge car in Havre, Montana, to narrate the history of the route. He’s a volunteer for the Trails & Rails program, which is offered through a partnership with the National Park Service. He presented to and visited with passengers for five hours, his love of the mountains apparent.
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“How many of you are looking for mountains?” he asked when he got his microphone to work. We cheered. “Good! I told them to stay put.” He got a few polite laughs. Outside, white-tailed deer bounded across the prairie, undeterred by the wire fences strung to keep cows in, while old cars rusted in the dirt and decrepit barns sank into the flat plains, reminders of yesteryear.
We entered Glacier National Park and rolled on the steel rails through wooded valleys, under snow sheds built to protect trains from avalanches and along streams fed by snowmelt. Anderson showed us where a train derailment, followed by inadequate cleanup, had left grain spillage that later fermented into alcohol, leaving the feasting bears staggering.
“I’m really hungry,” said the turbaned woman who shared a four-person table with my 7-year-old daughter, Anna, and me. “I’m on food stamps, and the train don’t take food stamps.” I gave her our carrots, radishes and box of Clif Bars. She told me she was on her way to Reno, Nevada, with her boyfriend, who had a three-week gig there. I told her we were heading west to visit family. She teased my daughter, who typed away at my computer, eager to record her journey: “You gonna be a writer like your mama?”
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At night, we were sheltered in the last car on the train, the sleeping car, far enough from the engine that we barely heard the sound of the horn blaring as it called out to clear the track. One child over the limit for one room, we had purchased two and split up. My husband and Max, our eldest, both early risers, took a tiny stairway to an upper level roomette.
The younger two and I shared a slightly larger lower-level family bedroom. Communal bathrooms and showers were at the end of the hall. Both rooms, colored a tired blue, left little floor space. We stored most of our luggage on the silver rack outside our room. At night, our lounge chairs reclined into narrow beds. Overhead bins became bunks with thin mattresses reminiscent of those found at summer camp. “What if I fall out?” Caleb had asked. He recently had taken a tumble out of my father-in-law’s horse trailer, which left him unnerved by heights. I showed him how to snap the netting that acted as a guardrail to the ceiling.
I didn’t sleep well. Like a plane encountering turbulence, the train jerked, sped up and slowed down. With every jolt, I woke - were we still on the track? But the movement lulled our kids to sleep, their breaths deep and heavy. They woke energized, eager to explore the bouncing train. “Put your shoes on,” Lonak, the attendant, said to my daughter before she bolted while I poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee from the pot. “You don’t want to pinch your pretty toes between the train cars.”
Max spent most of his time with his new friend Conner Helenius, a fellow 11-year-old from Wisconsin who had boarded with his mother, Jennifer, on a 30-day rail pass. He had brought his scooter. He let Max try it out in the dirt and gravel beneath a bypass during one of our trackside stops when an attendant, in a throwback to the ’50s, announced that we had “just enough time to get out and have a smoke.”
Meals are complimentary for those in the sleeper cars but available to everyone else at a price. They’re first-come, first-served - except for dinner, which requires a reservation. We ate in the dining car, in booths with tabletops covered in white linen, as the scenery changed outside the window. We ordered omelets, steaks, crab cakes, and mac and cheese. The food was hot, familiar and good enough. The uniformed waiters moved quickly. We got our food before a child thought to ask where it was. After dinner, in our roomette, Matt and I split a bottle of malbec that we had brought on board while our kids watched a movie in our family bedroom. We slid our door and curtain shut, grateful for the privacy the sleeper car afforded us.
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During the night, while in Spokane, Washington, our train divided in two. Half, including the dining car, went to Seattle, while the other half, which we remained on, continued to Portland. We woke early as the sun peeped in. The lounge car stayed with us, so we ate a cold, boxed meal there - a ham-and-cheese croissant with chopped fruit and yogurt. Our daughter refused hers, so a man who had been riding in coach ate it.
Mount Hood, majestic and snow-capped, rose in the distance. Our kids heard one last story as we chugged down the scenic Columbia River. “That’s an in-lieu site,” a retiree said, pointing to where Congress granted tribal fishing rights to Native Americans. Our kids squinted to see the wood stand projecting from the rocky shoreline, hungry to catch their own Chinook salmon.
When we were less than an hour from Portland, ahead of schedule, we walked back to the sleeper car to finish packing our bags. Lonak had already folded up our beds and spruced up our room for a quick turnaround. But I wasn’t ready to go yet. I knew I would miss the sense of connectedness brought on by sharing a small space, and the intimacy that comes from simply listening to a stranger. Everybody’s somebody on a train.
Patterson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. Her website is unplannedcooking.com. Twitter: @UnplannedCookin.
If you go
Amtrak Empire Builder Train
Purchasing a room in the sleeping car provides perks, such as showers, linens and meals (alcohol and drinks are not included), as well as comfort and privacy. Remember to bring your own toiletries.
Price fluctuates depending on season and availability. Book ahead for best rates. Prices for one adult in a roomette start at $533 each way (Chicago to Portland, Oregon, or Chicago to Seattle), with additional discounts available online. Fourth-graders receive a 75 percent discount with the purchase of one adult ticket as part of the National Park Service 100th Anniversary celebration through Aug. 31.