Cross Country in Coach: A Three Day Amtrak Journey in the Cheap Seats

The line was at a standstill outside the Great Hall in Chicago’s Union Station. I was waiting to board the Wolverine line to Michigan, drumming my fingers on the handle of my suitcase and looking at a wall-sized map of the United States. Dozens of colored lines split like veins across the country — train routes cascading coast to coast, over mountain ranges, across wide plains, connecting cities and towns over miles of land.

Two years later I am about to start a semester abroad that doesn’t begin until mid-February. To put it simply, I have oodles of free time. By default I’d become a recluse at my parents’ house or bother my friends in Milwaukee until I don’t have any more couches to sleep on. But instead I decided to try something I’ve wanted to do since I saw that map outside the Great Hall: take the train across America.

I had never been out west, never even crossed the Mississippi River. So I picked one of the farthest cities west I knew of, somewhere known for its quirkiness, love of recycling and parks. I was going to Portland, OR, even though I didn’t know a single person who lived there.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder line starts in Chicago, IL and goes to Seattle or Portland. On the way, it goes through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington (see map). I boarded in Milwaukee, WI and rode to Portland, spending two nights and three days on board. Albeit the first and third days weren’t full days, but an evening and a morning.

The train ride from Milwaukee to Portland is about 45 hours long. I booked the cheapest non-refundable coach seat I could buy, totaling for a round trip of about $300 and 4,100 miles.

In the weeks leading up to departure, I did as much research as I could on long-distance train travel, finding very little. I watched a lot of vlogs from older couples who booked sleeper cars. I found this blog post from Amtrak about sleeping overnight in coach which gave me the basics, and a few others, like this one, which gave more detailed, down-to-earth overviews of travel accommodations.

I’m a thrifty person. Traveling across the country isn’t cheap, and I wanted to save as much of my spending money for Portland. So how could I pack as little as possible while still being comfortable, especially in the middle of winter? How could I avoid the dining car and not starve? How safe was it to do this thing alone? What could I expect to see on the way there? I’m sure I won’t be the first, or last, to make this journey, and certainly not the only one with questions.

In the end I didn’t spend a dime in the dining car and didn’t go stir-crazy being on board for almost two full days. I made it home with way too many souvenirs and extra snacks. Most importantly, I actually enjoyed it. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Day one

I left from Detroit, MI and gave myself some breathing room in Milwaukee, a day to visit friends and say “final” goodbyes before I left the state, and eventually the country. The hours leading up to departure felt like an ordinary weekend on campus — waking up late and showering, stopping to visit friends and popping into the grocery store to grab a few extra snacks.

It wasn’t until early afternoon that I started to feel nauseous with nerves. I got a phone call from my Airbnb host concerning my reservation. It seemed that she overbooked the room I was supposed to stay in. The second visitor was bringing her dog and rented the space for both of them — “are you a dog person?” my hostess asked. Of course I was, I replied. You know how once you’re supposed to leave, things just seem to fall apart by some eerie coincidence? Yeah, at that point it was pretty easy to catastrophize. But luckily everything turned out alright, and I was able to keep my bed.

The train was due to arrive at about 4:30 p.m., so my friend and I had one last hurrah at the Milwaukee Public Market, stopping for buttery caramel squares and Pad Thai. I was feeling sick still, realizing as the hour of departure drew closer that I was doing this alone. Going the furthest I’ve ever ventured, completely by myself. Kind of like studying abroad, but without the studying.

When I got to the station 20 minutes before boarding, there were maybe 15 people waiting for the train. This was weird. I’m accustomed to the massive, snaking lines of passengers that span the entire length of the station waiting to ride to Chicago.

I boarded the quiet train with my suitcase, backpack and bag full of snacks in the upper level coach seats, where I found an empty row and claimed it. Again, the train was shockingly empty. There were plenty of passengers, but I’m so used to the wall-to-wall, overpacked Chicago train. The empty row felt rare, especially because there are only two coach cars on the Empire Builder. The rest are sleeper cars.

We sat in the Milwaukee station for about 20 minutes, so I took the time to unpack my blanket and pillow and make a nest out of the two seats. Once the train started rolling, the conductor pointed out Miller Park and a few other landmarks, like a tour guide. Already this trip had a different vibe— much more relaxed, focused on the details, knowingly slow because the stops were far apart and most passengers were there to stay for at least a few hours.

I noticed pretty quickly that the Amtrak WiFi network was down. It was still showing up on my phone, but wouldn’t connect. Luckily I packed my iPod and a flash drive full of movies, so I didn’t have to worry about streaming (a smart move, because the WiFi ended up never working).

The sun set only an hour after we left Milwaukee, but the train continued to stop at different points through the night. Once we got to La Crosse, WI, I set myself in the observation car. The conductor announced that we were about to cross the Mississippi River — a milestone of this trip I was overly excited for. I sat alone on a swivel couch watching my reflection in the glass. It was too dark to see anything outside except the occasional city lights dancing on the water. But the train swayed and lurched over the islands that split the mighty Mississippi, and I felt like something was beginning. This was the furthest west I had ever been.

We stopped at Winona, MN around 10 p.m. The crew allowed passengers to step outside for a stretch break, so I followed a group of 10 or so Timberland-clad men in baseball hats into subzero temperatures to do a few jumping jacks and stretch my legs. It was frostbite-level cold out, which is why I guess I was the only one outside who didn’t have a cigarette between my lips.

I fell asleep shortly after we pulled into St. Paul. Before shutting my eyes I watched several passengers leave behind empty seats and new ones file on.

All night people were getting on and off the train, moving through the cars, making trips to the bathroom, adjusting and readjusting their sleeping positions (very audibly, I might add). Thankfully I downloaded enough music and nature sounds on my iPod to drown out the sound, but some sort of noise-blocking device is essential for sleeping in coach. I regret not bringing earplugs because I woke up several times with my headphones digging into my head and having to readjust.

I only slept in hour-long increments, and every time I woke up, it seemed that the cast of characters in my car changed slightly. At one point, the Amish family with their crying baby was nowhere to be heard. The girl sitting across from me headed to St. Cloud, MN vanished and was replaced by another passenger, this time with a ticket for Grand Forks, ND.

Train travel is best for those who are good at going with the flow. It was a restless night for me, but I used the time to jot down my thoughts and watch the landscape glitter and become pitch black again. I even saw some of the brightest stars I have ever seen outside of St. Cloud, MN. And that was through a train window.

Day two

I woke up just in time to see the sun rise over Devil’s Lake, ND. This was another landmark for me because a few of my relatives lived there in the early 1900s before emigrating to Milwaukee, and later Detroit. My parents visited the place on a road trip in their 20s, so this hereditary stomping ground felt important to me. The land was becoming flatter, the sky more vast and cloudless. I watched the sun peek up in shades of blood red, bright orange and shy yellow, powdering the horizon.

The train pulled into Minot, ND about a half hour early. Scheduled departure was 9 a.m., so the crew opened the doors and let us walk around the station. Unlike the smoke break in Winona the night before, I followed quite a few cigaretteless passengers out into the equally freezing morning air. It was the kind of cold that burns when the wind blows. There wasn’t much to see in Minot besides the train station parking lot and the freeway above it, but I wore my camera around my neck, hoping to find an image of something to prove I was there. I took a few shots of the station and got back inside.

As I stared out the window watching a Minot Public Schools bus pass by, I decided it was time for breakfast. I packed two bagels and bought single-serve packs of almond butter to spread. I paired that with an apple and called it a balanced meal. So far, my only stop to the cafe car was for hot tea water.

The sleep deprivation caught up to me after eating, so I napped for about two hours as the North Dakota hills sped by. I woke up to the sun high in the sky, bleeding through the blue curtain that hung on my window. The ground was crusted with a shiny layer of snow and the glare of the sun only got brighter as we passed into Montana.

At this point I was starting to feel a little cooped up, so I went to the observation car with my embroidery and try to get some work done. I brought a book, some KenKen puzzles and my camera along as well. I ended up seeing most of the afternoon through my lens, trying to snap pictures of the quaint, scattered farm buildings and shadows of distant mountain ranges, growing steadily closer.

For lunch I ate a clementine, dried edamame and a granola bar. I chatted in the observation car with a Wisconsin dairy farmer — we were both eagerly waiting to ride through the mountains. We tried to gauge if the train would reach Glacier National Park by sundown. Around 3:30 p.m. we were still waiting to get to Shelby, MT and the sun was threateningly low already.

I took a nap around 4 p.m. and woke to the announcement that we had just arrived in Shelby. By now the sky was a rosy color and the land still extremely flat. I was hoping to see the sun set over the mountains, but it was now apparent that that wouldn’t happen. We were at least an hour out from the park, and by then it would be pitch black.

In the meantime, I munched on dried pea crisps, beef jerky, nuts and graham crackers. It was a makeshift, poor excuse for dinner, but it kept me full.

The darkness in Glacier was like nothing I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t tell the sky from the ground. I could only feel my ears popping as the altitude frequently changed. At one point I caught a glimpse of a road below and a single pair of headlights cut out like holes in black paper, only then realizing how high up we were. I sat in the observation car and tried to look for headlights or street lamps or even train signals. But the world remained mostly dark, like the windows had been painted.

The mountains paused for Whitefish, MT, where quite a few passengers boarded. It was another fresh air stop, so I got out and walked around. The city was still decked in colored Christmas lights, even though the holiday ended weeks ago. Maybe celebrations last longer out west. Or maybe it’s just been too cold to think about taking down the decorations.

I wish I could say my second night was less restless than the first, but my inability to sleep more than a few hours remained a problem.

Around 2 a.m. we pulled into Spokane, WA and the train stopped. We were parked for about an hour and I walked downstairs to brush my teeth. The train door was open so I stepped outside in my slippers, the air now sticky, the world tranquil and blanketed in fog. Besides two conductors walking down the platform, it was completely silent.

Day three — arrival

I couldn’t tell if the sun came up when I awoke around 8 a.m. We were riding down the Oregon/Washington border, toeing the bank of the Columbia River which was covered in dense fog. Not to mention we were also in a valley, so the mountains on either side hung ominous and gray where the sun should have been.

I didn’t realize half the train was missing until I sat in the observation car and the whole place smelled like diesel. Where the second car of coach seats was yesterday, a locked door and churning engine replaced it.

For the Empire Builder, Spokane is an important stop; it’s where the train splits in two. At Spokane, the crew takes half the train to Seattle and the other half to Portland. The dining car disappears but the cafe/observation car remains.

I stayed in the observation car until we reached Portland, watching the river speed by and talking with a woman (we’ll call her Sarah) who was traveling to visit her mother in Washington. She had chalk-white hair and knew a lot about trains. When we learned from a conductor that the train had split in Spokane, she walked over to the engine to have a closer look at it — “this must be one of the new ones!” Sarah sat down next to me again and we talked as she pointed out landmarks from the window. If things had been different when she was younger, if girls had been able to be whatever they wanted, she said she would’ve been a locomotive engineer.

When we reached Vancouver, WA, Sarah and I exchanged phone numbers. If I ever came back, she said we could go hiking together. She handed me a coupon for See’s Candies and wished me well.

When I headed back to my seat right after we crossed over the Willamette River into Portland, I was grinning stupidly. I had nearly made it.

By the end I was one of about 15 remaining passengers in my car and I had a lot of stuff to clean up. I shoved my pillow and blanket into my tightly-packed suitcase. I was tired, stiff and ready to be on solid ground.

But I was ready for a full day of exploring. I don’t find train travel as exhausting as flying or driving. It’s rhythmic, and once I got used to fellow passengers walking through the car and the train stopping periodically, I relaxed. Train travel is the only circumstance where I can stare out a window for hours on end and not get bored.

Once the train came to a complete stop, I awkwardly carried my suitcase downstairs and walked onto the platform. It was 50 degrees and cloudy; beautiful weather by comparison to the Midwest.

For the rest of the day, every time I sat down I felt like I was still moving. I guess that’s one negative aftereffect. Once you leave the tracks your body doesn’t forget how long you were on them.

What I did differently on the way back

Maybe one cross-country train trip is enough for some people, but I decided I loved it so much that I had to do it twice — in one week! So, taking notes from the first time around, I decided there were things I could do differently, and saw that some things that just happened differently, because it was my second time.

I spent more time in the observation car.

I forced myself to sit somewhere else for a change of scenery. I literally brought a bag of stuff and sat there for like two hours at a time. This helped me feel less cooped up by the end of the trip. I also found myself walking around more.

I drank more water.

It’s sooooo easy to get dehydrated on long trips. But because there are bathrooms and dozens of faucets/water taps on Amtrak trains, there should be no excuse for not drinking enough. On the way back home I discovered the magic of the “lounge” room at the end of the hallway of toilets. It has two sinks and a small couch and it’s perfect if you need to change your clothes or just want a bigger, semi-private space to hide out for a bit. Anyway I went in there to fill up my water bottle in the sink. It worked way better than squeezing the button on the water taps by the coach seats until my thumb ached.

I exercised beforehand.

Because the train left around 5pm, I had the entire day in Portland to myself. So, I wandered around town and took the MAX train to the arboretum, where I hiked about 5 miles. Then I showered before leaving, so I felt refreshed even though I had the customary last-minute scramble to collect all my things and get to the station on time. By departure, I was tired, relaxed, and ready to rest.

I slept better.

Maybe I was finally used to the constant swaying motion and the sound of people passing back and forth through the cars. Or maybe it was because I exercised beforehand, but I passed out in the observation car within the first three hours. I went back to my aisle seat after napping for 30 minutes and was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep. But I found a way to curl up against the armrest, trying to take up as little room as possible…except I probably didn’t succeed in that respect because the guy next to me fell asleep on my shoulder. It’s cool though, I didn’t mind. We’re Facebook friends now.

I ate more beef jerky.

No specific reason why. I just had a taste for it. Sometimes nut butters aren’t as appetizing as chewy, teriyaki-flavored steak, you know?

I didn’t change my clothes as often.

On the way there I would change into pajamas around 9p.m. each night — a habit I scrapped because it got really annoying. Instead I’d wear something that I could nap in and keep that on the entire day and change my clothes in the morning.

I finally saw Glacier National Park.

Yeah, I was pretty sad that we went through the mountains in the dark on the way to Portland. But on the way to Chicago we passed through Glacier in the daytime. As expected, it was gorgeous.

I carried my blanket everywhere.

I guess I forgot for a second that long distance travelers don’t give a flying f*** what you’re wearing. So I wore my blanket like a robe half the time, often in the observation car because it was cold by the windows.

I read more.

I guess after experiencing firsthand how endless this ride can seem, I relaxed and gave myself time to get lost in my books. My novel of choice was Oliver Sack’s autobiography, “On the Move,” which is a perfect read for the cross-country adventurer.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat. Do I recommend this kind of solo trip to others? Well if you like beef jerky, talking to strangers and pretending you’re living in a Jack Kerouac sketch, don’t think twice.

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Resources

What I packed

Besides clothes and toiletries, here’s what I brought for the train: travel pillow, blanket, nail clipper, 2 reusable grocery bags, 3 books, flash drive with movies, computer, embroidery supplies, umbrella, iPod, camera & camera bag, chargers, headphones, earbuds, water bottle, tea thermos, slippers

I was able to fit everything into a suitcase and backpack. On the way back I shoved a lot of my stuff into the tote bag because I bought way too many books in Portland. Luckily Amtrak allows two carry on bags and luggage without having to check anything, so things worked out just fine for me.

Snack list

This is what I ate over three days on a one-way trip:

Breakfasts: 2 bagels, 2 packs of almond butter, 2 apples

Lunches/dinners: 2 oranges, 3 varieties of granola bars, nut mix, pea crisps, pretzels, peanut butter, graham crackers, beef jerky, pistachios, sunflower seeds

Desserts: cookies, caramels

Side note: I also packed a lot of mint gum.

If you’re planning to take a trip on the Empire Builder or another long-distance line or have questions about this post, feel free to send me an email at jennifer.walter@marquette.edu or dm me on Twitter.

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Jennifer Walter

Jennifer Walter

Permanently in transit. Writer, news nerd, embroidery artist, lover of languages, wannabe computer programmer, turtle-necked spiritual grandma.