The Empire Builder: What I Discovered on a 50-Hour Train Ride Across America

Sasha Pea
Sasha Pea
Nov 14, 2019 · 21 min read

In the age of jet planes, 200 mph bullet trains, and proposed 800 mph Hyperloops, what would compel anyone to take a 50-hour train ride through the flattest part of America?

This is exactly what my friends and family asked me as I set out on my journey on “The Empire Builder” — the Amtrak route that begins in Chicago and runs through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington before finally splitting into two and ending up in either Portland or Seattle.

“What are you going to do for 50 hours?” a practically-minded but overly-scheduled friend pressed me, as I was booking my ticket.

“Oh, probably just stare out of the window,” I replied, unconcernedly.

“I’m taking my camera with me,” I offered as a quick alternative answer to a photographer friend, who I knew would instinctively understand my attraction to the observation car, which offers a glass-domed panoramic view of all the landscapes and lightscapes we’d be passing through.

“I’m thinking of testing the limits of my attention span — of turning off my phone for two full days and trading in its enslaving, app-strewn landscape for a world that lies further than a foot away from my face. I’m embracing a challenge to detach myself from those I spend 24-hours a day connected to and the East Coast urban bubbles which have thus far been my only in-routes to reality and challenging myself to become a pioneer fulfilling the hopes of the very name of my route — The Empire Builder,” I only half-jokingly waxed poetic to my mother, who raised alarm at the idea that I might be unreachable for two days.

Admittedly, Amtrak’s long-distance routes seem, at best, like a relic of the past and, at worst, like an anachronism, attractive only to those with a funny bone for novelty and nostalgia. In a world which values “arrival” — measuring desirability by the speed at which your Amazon package gets delivered or the perfectly Instagrammed vacation highlight — it’s hard to silence the voice that insists as you pull out your credit card and click “purchase” that it now only takes about 6 hours by plane from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and often for less than the price of a train ticket. So why would I spend $180 and 50 hours of precious vacation time traveling from Chicago to Portland? Why would my fellow travelers spend upwards of $1000 to $1400 to book a Superliner roomette over any other kind of travel or accommodation?

Despite all the advancements in the speed of travel that have occurred in the century and a half since these long-distance train routes were conceived, however, it’s somehow still possible to get a shiver down your spine by the idea crossing the entire continental United States by train; metaphorically “conquering” large swaths of land for no reason whatsoever. There’s still an undeniable draw to the mythos of the American West, and a romance to riding the route that I chose, in particular — which was once part of “The Great Northern Railway.” After all, the railroad in the American narrative represents the success of a seemingly impossible project to connect the endless, wild, an unknown West into one viable land. Those scraps of metal which were laid over the vast prairies and previously passable lands led not only to the adaptation of standard time but the unified stretch of land that we think of as modern America. It’s hard not to get excited by the idea of passing through the spot of the last train robbery of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, the spot where Chief Sitting Bull surrendered after the Battle of Little Big Horn, and travelling the “Mystery Pass” through the Rockies sought by Lewis and Clark (facts I had not known before setting out on my trip, but learned along the way from a PDF I had downloaded on my phone before the trip and read throughout my journey).

But for all my spirited defense of train rides and talk of disconnecting from technology, I had a sneaking suspicion that my true loyalty would emerge only after I had boarded an experienced my first bout of boredom, and so I secretly loaded up my phone with Netflix and podcasts and e-books and audiobooks and felt satisfied that, if my instincts were off, I could at least easily account for 50 hours of entertainment.

To my surprise, however, I didn’t watch any Netflix at all — or really experience boredom at all during the 50-hour journey. Part of this, no doubt, thanks to sleeping on my sister’s floor for three days prior and a family wedding the night before — both of which had done their best to deprive me of sleep and guarantee that any restlessness I might have otherwise had transformed into a semi-exhausted zombie-like contentedness and transfixion with the scenes that passed outside of my window. Instead, much in the same way the cows watched our train passing by them, I simply found myself lulled into almost a meditative state, daydreaming and listening to music. There was no need to worry about traffic or directions weather or tire pressure. I could get up and walk around whenever I wanted or take a nap if I felt like it. It was like being a kid in the backseat, and I delighted in my ability to do nothing and be responsible for nothing and think about nothing for hours as we passed through all variety of swamps, plains, prairies, mountains, desert, and temperate rainforest.

Honest to my claim, I planned to turn my adventure into a chance to practice my photography, and there certainly wasn’t a lack of opportunity to observe visually stunning sights. But almost as soon as I got to Union Station in Chicago to board my train I realized that half of the visuals that I saw I probably wouldn’t be bold enough to photograph, and the other half depended too much on the grandeur of scale and space to be done justice by a photograph.

My first experience with what would be my ultimate disappointment with my photographs came while waiting to board the train. Waiting with me, like perfect tableaus in the nearly 100 year-old, suitably named “Grand Hall” of Union Station — cinematically equipped with a high dome ceiling, old long wooden benches, a ticket-taker’s window (and a slightly impatient point person) — and all with a mix of excitement and exhaustion on their faces, I saw:

  • A troop of rowdy boy scouts camped out with their bags by the back wall, intimidating in the way that only teen boys can be, until one of them stood up to give an unwrapped sandwich to:
  • A prophetic-looking homeless man with no shoes but a full white beard, talking animatedly to a group of travelers, who didn’t seem to mind his presence, and otherwise ignored by:
  • An androgynous teen on the bench facing me, staring glassily into space with perfectly matched bright blue hair and eyes.

But by far the most appealing to my visual sensibilities were the at first shocking number of what appeared to be Amish people waiting for the train. (Cue Google: “What is the difference between Amish and Mennonite?” “Do Amish people take trains?”) I saw:

  • A man who I thought might be a hipster — wearing a white shirt and black suspenders, interesting facial hair, maybe early 30s — until he put on a tall black hat and I noticed as my perception of him metamorphosed before my eyes that he was sitting with a white head covering.
  • Next to them, a family of twelve in matching turquoise blue — the boys all in light blue button-up shirts, the women in simple dresses cut of the same color, all with head coverings.
  • And then I saw them everywhere — little boys with bowl cuts and tiny suspenders, girls with long hair and simple dresses. A mother dozed — her simple dress flowing over the seat and to the floor, and her two tiny babies — like dolls in miniature outfits — dozing with their blonde hair spread over her chest and their rosy cheeks.

Even with my limited knowledge of Amish people, I knew that they most likely wouldn’t enjoy having their picture taken (does anyone?), so instead I people-watched happily from the sidelines as passengers around me interacted with one another and I guessed and deduced who they were.

When it was time for us to line up and be led to the train like a class of Kindergartners through Union Station to our train, I found I was over-eagerly already in the front of the line and was pointed by several attendants to the right platform and then down what seemed like several city blocks down the entire length of the train. I finally found my assigned seat on the upper level, which I had chosen for the purposes of its view, and marveled at the sheer amount of space my coach seat had — which, speaking as a relatively small person, was seemingly equivalent to a La-Z boy chair, complete a footrest, a table, and the ability to lean — if not all the way back, at least recline significantly enough that I didn’t anticipate sleeping to be a problem.

The one downside of making my trip the week of the 4th of July holiday was that everyone else was also traveling, and so they had somehow oversold the train. Though I had hoped to have both seats to myself to avoid awkward conversation and spread out overnight — I soon had a seat partner — a member of an Amish of about 15 to 20 who were all riding to Glacier National Park.

Still quite comfortable, I watched the Chicago streets pass by my window. We traveled along what used to be an old plank road for horses and wagons and I watched as the city that first spoke the word “skyscraper” became flatter and its streets grew further apart and its greenery poked out more boldly as we began to transition from the city into the suburbs. My Amish seat partner told me about his family’s vacation to Tijuana last year and plugged in a landline phone to the seat outlet, both of which I found equally fascinating. I watched an older Amish man in front of me hang his timepiece on the seat in front of him, swaying slowly back and forth as he settled down to read. I watched the young man in a man-bun and towel shawl across the aisle out a Moleskine and commence to write, I presume, poetry.

After my ticket was scanned by a conductor, I felt as though I had stayed dutifully in my seat long enough and could now proceed with exploring the rest of the train make my way to the observation car — which had been my real reason for travel. I awkwardly aisle-surfed my way up several cars, trying my best not to hit my fellow passengers as I passed or let the car doors bounce too vigorously on my way out.

Even with an oversold train (to the point where some passengers were temporarily placed in the observation car, and a few had spread out on its benches to sleep), I was happy to discover that I was still able to find a seat by the window. Because the seats are very close together and pointed toward each other it was almost more awkward not to talk to your seat partners, and so after not very long I was in conversation with the two people closest to me — a woman who happily exchanged small talk and jokes-faced, and a cheery middle-aged man who vigorously waved at me every time I saw him again over the next 48 hours.

I even managed to find a seat at an empty table as we finished our first hour as we passed through Milwaukee and into beautiful bright green marshlands for quite a while.

Wisconsin

Around dinnertime took a break from watching the sunset over lakes and weeds to I hop down to the snack cart and buy a pizza at my friend’s nudging (“it’s the best part of any train ride!”). I had planned to celebrate my first day with a drink from the bar but ultimately decided that not enough time had passed since my brother’s wedding to make that option appealing.

Wisconsin and Minnesota

As the sun began to set the clouds rolled in, and by the time we pulled into St. Paul it was heavily raining, which was pleasant and meditative to experience from inside the train. By that point I was exhausted but forcing myself to stay awake until we left the city, winding down the hours by speaking to a few more travelers until I finally made my way back to my assigned seat and pulled myself into a tight ball, shivering and regretting not listening to the online advice I had read about how cold Amtrak trains get at night and buying to $5 blanket I had seen in CVS.

I awoke not long after to an orange glow and the chitter-chatter of my train mates. The sun was rising over North Dakota, which my fellow passengers had taken as a cue to wake up and start talking loudly. I had been planning on trying to catch the sunrise from the observation car anyway, so even though I was exhausted and a little hesitant to annoy everyone on the train by opening and shutting the doors (I wonder how their experience was), I made my way back to the front of the train.

North Dakota

Sleepily clutching my Amtrak-branded paper coffee cup and stretching out in an empty chair, I was reminded of something my brother had said when I had expressed my doubts on what I would see on this journey: “Just because it’s flat doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.” The landscape stretched out before us in every direction, occasionally interrupted by grain silos or fields of cows or horses or dead cars.

North Dakota and Montana

Back in the train and craving some food with actual nutritional content, I put my name on a list for the dining car, which I had wanted the novelty of eating in. When my name was called, I was sat at a table with — I found out — a mother, her late teen daughter, and a man traveling alone, en route to an extraterrestrial compound under a mountain in Idaho, and who refused to fly based on the information that the government gathered about how to torture you more effectively when they scanned you at airports. It was a conversation I thoroughly enjoyed and was sad to end.

­­­After getting back on the train after a second brief stop, this time in Havre, Montana, I consulted the map. Knowing that Glacier was going to be the highlight of the trip and that I wanted a seat and not to miss it, I judged that since we were coming into Montana soon (“Montana means mountains!”) and only an inch or two away from Glacier on the map, I should start to stake out a seat. Despite the fact that I was exhausted from my continual lack of sleep, I foolishly headed to the observation car right after Havre to make sure I would have a seat before the car filled up. But though I had expected all of Montana to be filled with mountains, hours and hours passed of flat, desolate landscape, which I watched blankly, too tired to do much else. My estimated 2–3 hours before the park stretched into 4–5 hours of waiting, and my confusion at the flatness of Montana and the actual distance between Havre, Montana and East Glacier was met with pitying concern from my fellow travelers.

Montana

Finally, we began seeing the mountains in the distance around 6 or 7 p.m. My anxieties about the unreliability of the timing of these long-distance trains manifested in cloudy and threatening weather, and then in getting stuck behind a freight train for over an hour — with the mountains tantalizingly at the edge of eyesight. I closed my eyes and begged we’d get there in time. At last, we started moving again — but only to stop again right at the start of the park, as a large portion of the train was getting off. Thankfully, we finally started moving in time to catch the last light in the park. We saw beautiful mountains until about halfway through the park when it became too dark to see much, but I still tried to catch glimpses of the mountains in the distance and the dark river we seemed to be following along. Only after we stopped at West Glacier on our way out of the park and it became so dark that I truly could not see anything did I go to bed. I heard that the rest of the ride was beautiful too, but, unfortunately, we would be passing in the night.

Glacier National Park

I had both seats to myself that night and slept more comfortably, despite the bitter cold of the train. I woke up early as well to flashes of bright orange as we traveled along the Columbia River and again headed back to the observation car.

Though I had expected Montana and Glacier to be my highlight, the Washington-Oregon border quickly vied to become my favorite. The plains and mountains carried with them a sense of the immense toil of America’s growth and survival; the rivers and hills anticipating the Pacific came with the easy energy and joy of a homecoming. Maybe because there were more markers to judge our winding path along the river by, but we seemed to be going faster. As we barreled through Mt. Rainier and I absorbed the green, which after so many hours of scarcity and barren landscapes felt refreshing — it lavish and lush, and made me feel almost like I was cheating or getting off much too easy after the long trek through the endless flat lands of Montana the day before.

Washington-Oregon Border

When our journey finally ended in Portland (which, my PDF guide informed me, ironically was almost named “Boston” in a coin toss — which would have truly been the icing on the cake of my Boston-Portland trip), I gathered my belongings with an equal sense of victory and reluctance. Besides the definite smell that was beginning to rise from a community that had not showered in two days, I was sad to end my journey.

There’s no doubt, however, that the trains — for all their perks and loyal travelers — have unsightly warts of impracticality. They seem to hardly ever be on time — doomed to give right of way to any passing freight train, which often means that they are hours late to where they are going. Trains often only come once a day through small towns, and often in the middle of the night. Due to other concerns with timing, even the trains that pull big with tourists, such as The Empire Builder, don’t have the luxury of scheduling around what “pretty” to see — favoring 10 hours of Montanan prairies over national forests passed over in absolute darkness… to name a random example.

Somewhere between the Washington border and Portland I voiced these thoughts on the drawbacks of Amtrak’s passenger experience to an older British woman who turned out to have done many of the world’s most famous routes — the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Canadian, The Glacier Express through Switzerland, the Sri Lankan Railroad, as well as the Empire Builder starting from the other direction (which features more of the rainforests and national parks during daylight hours) several times. I don’t remember much of our conversation, but I remember a question she posed: “Is the government really the best organization to be running these railways? What about Disney, or some agency that could make it profitable and more interesting? What if it were more like a cruise line?”

While I didn’t have a good answer at the time, as I read up on the subject when I returned home, I found that — even besides the scenic timing and scheduling delays — the main grievance of those concerned with long-distance Amtrak routes seems to be the phenomenal amount of money they hemorrhage every year. Since it began in 1971, Amtrak has yet to make a profit and has total operating loss at somewhere around $200 million a year, most of which is lost on the Western, long-distance hauls, forcing more popular routes, like its Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston to DC, to spike up their costs in order to compensate for the loss.

Most people, therefore, still prefer flying between these nearby cities due to cost, and yet the ability to transport passengers directly from downtown to downtown without the need to travel outside of a city to the airport or stand through long security lines uniquely positions train routes as a more efficient, practical, and environmentally-sustainable alternative to flying and driving. So why shouldn’t a company like Disney take up these long routes, and allow Amtrak to focus on increasing the efficacy and cost of inter-city service in the south and west?

The problem with a Disney-like, pay-to-play experience through America’s heartland (though it would undoubtedly be exciting, entertaining, and profitable), is that it would defeat the entire purpose of the routes and Congress’s original mission to serve the country with public transportation. After all, Amtrak exists as a publicly-funded, government-supported entity is to serve the entire country. Amtrak was charted by Congress in 1971 to preserve rail service and create a national network for national service as private carriers couldn’t maintain the costs, and many worry that increased service between cities would ultimately come at the expense of longer-haul routes to more rural areas- a point that has caused outrage to those who believe such decisions are setting rural America up to fail. Especially in areas where the nearest airport can be hundreds of miles away and many passengers rely on the train for transit due to age or limited income, a disruption or reduction of train service could cause a significant stumbling block to quality of life and accessibility — one which likely would not be abated by the proposed replacement buses, which are often congested, crowded, and of lower quality than rail service.

While I could easily see the classic sleeper, dining, and bar cars I love so much falling into extinction as renovations become necessary and being replaced with more passenger cars as an easy solution to boost profit, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to keep the character of the long-distance lines vibrant while at the same time increasing the ridership and efficacy of shorter-distance routes.

Perhaps, like most American debates, what’s actually at the core of the Amtrak debate is a matter of ideology, rather than money or resources. We already have good rail system infrastructure, and plenty of money to spend on other government subsidies for highways and airports. In short, we tend to find money where we see value, so why don’t we value rails? Is our American drive for independence at all costs sinking our money into gas-guzzling highway systems, rather than the practicality of rails and public transit? While “profits” and “value” often seem interchangeable, riding Amtrak made me wonder if they should always be so strictly aligned. If Amtrak’s budget were expanded to boost service in both urban and rural America, it would bring value to lands which may or may not be able to immediately provide profit in equal measure, pumping lifeblood into the middle of the country and eventually making possible the profit that we so eagerly want to see. In order to save Amtrak, perhaps what’s needed is a cultural shift in our thoughts about the role of trains in our country, and a rethinking of the legal and economic practices that make cars and planes more affordable and timely for travelers than rails.

After everything, the world I discovered wasn’t either broken system or the most efficient mode of transportation. It wasn’t just a quirk for nostalgic retirees with too much time on their hands, but it wasn’t a Disney ride either, made to entertain and delight for the purposes of profit. What I discovered was a world onto itself. It was a world of international travelers, vagabond poets, conspiracy theorists, religious families, curious travelers, and people just trying to commute to work. It was a world that delights in slowing down. A world filled with passengers who want to stare out the window at the landscape instead of at their phones and who like to talk to their neighbors. A world that wishes, sometimes, it could just get there a little faster. It was a cross-section of America that doesn’t always agree, doesn’t always run smoothly, and sometimes gets caught up or derailed behind huge debates, but which is ultimately all on the same journey, and traversing the same land.

So while I don’t know what the future of Amtrak or its long-distance routes holds, riding the train made me wonder if, as the contentious ideological debates over Amtrak’s future deepen and grow, perhaps America simply needs to turn inward as it moves forward and ask of itself the same question every curious train traveler inquires of their neighbor: Who are we, and where are we going?

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