Romancing the Rails: A Trip on the Empire Builder | Midwest Living

Romancing the Rails: A Trip on the Empire Builder

Sampling the magic of old-time train travel, a couple riding west finds time to relax, reconnect and experience an almost bygone era.
  • A journey west

    Editor Barbara Morrow and her husband took the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle. This is Barbara's story as published in the September/October 2011 issue of Midwest Living.

    Wisconsin bluffs, pointy and dark as slouchy witches' hats in the dusk, rise almost straight up from the wide, flat Mississippi River turning silvery in evening's light. My husband, Ken, and I sip wine and watch as the almost surreally beautiful scene unfolds beyond the windows of the Empire Builder's dining car.

    We hate to look away, even to slice into steaks prepared in the lower-level kitchen. Perfect -- the food, the moment, the prospect of time together unfurling just like the 2,205 miles of track ahead on this journey west.

  • Extreme relaxation

    The other couple sharing our booth, Tom and Lynn Hollstein of Amherst, Ohio, first toured by train 40 years ago and only now have found time to repeat the experience. We will love this trip, they promise.

    "It's extreme relaxation," Lynn says.

    We toast to that. This 46-hour, two-night journey isn't just about getting from Chicago to Seattle. We're hoping for the ultimate scenic drive, long days of great views without the chore of driving -- a sort of land cruise. Three of the Amtrak routes venturing west from Chicago offer this experience; they are equipped with special observation cars and travel through compelling landscapes on timetables calculated to make the most of the views.

    Pictured: The Empire Builder's route threads between Minnesota bluffs and the Mississippi River.

  • A buzz of adventure

    I realized as I researched this trip that we wouldn't be pampered cruise-style. Online photos show train cars and equipment that's more than 40 years old, built before highways and air travel pushed rail travel out of the mainstream. Even Amtrak, the federal rescue of the passenger rail system, is turning 40. I figured what the journey might lack in luxury would be made up in authenticity with a buzz of adventure -- suburban, Midwestern us on the Orient Express.

    After all, could a trip aboard a train called the Empire Builder be less than epic? Ken remains dubious: Will his Blackberry work? Sure, I say (not a lie, just incomplete research, I later protest).

    Pictured: The Empire Builder makes a stop at the Red Wing, Minnesota, station.

  • All aboard

    The trip starts at Chicago's Union Station, a cavernous hybrid of Gilded Age splendor and comic-book campy Art Deco, swirling with streams of passengers coming and going on journeys like ours, as well as commuter hops. Without a security gate in sight, the unfettered surges of suitcase-toting travelers feel like a scene from an old movie.

    We follow a uniformed conductor onto the platform, down the line of massive cars. Up the sleeping car's skinny twisting steps, our "bedroom" turns out to be the size of a walk-in closet. Train attendant Tom Walsh, a 25-year veteran, shows us the secrets: a plastic-lined, phone-booth-size combination shower and toilet (the mysterious "shoilet" I read about online). He demonstrates latches, clasps and handles that must be released in succession to turn a small sofa into a bed and bring an overhead bunk flopping down.

    "Is there a Wi-Fi password?" Ken asks hopefully. John breaks the news like the veteran he is: "We're stuck in a zone, and a lot of people like that. They say, 'Thank God, you don't have Wi-Fi.' "

    Ken does not look likely to say that any time soon. I try not to laugh.

  • On our way

    As soon as the train begins its halting progress through the city, we set off exploring, getting our train legs moving through narrow, swaying corridors and aisles between cushy coach seats. Padded chairs in the observation car seem to offer the best views as lush Wisconsin dairy country fills tall side and overhead windows. We take turns looking up from the stacks of magazines, paperbacks and electronic gear we had carefully amassed for the trip, each trying to get the other's attention in time to see whatever sight is disappearing at the end of the filmstrip of windows.

    Pictured: A trestle bridge crosses the Mississippi.

  • Fall colors and big skies

    By Milwaukee, everyone concentrates on the view. It takes all of us to see the best of what rolls past. Fall colors flash around paddlers in a lone canoe, and the Dells' famous riverside rock formations loom, then disappear.

    The second day brings the big skies of North Dakota and Montana and the mountains of Glacier National Park (pictured). We glimpse pronghorn perching improbably high on a butte and a rush of mountain streams, pools and waterfalls.

  • Rambling across the country

    The train first stops briefly every couple of hours at towns that look lost on oceans of prairie, and then pulls into tiny spots hemmed between the tracks and mountains. Rambling talks, head-to-head so we're not shouting over the train's constant drone, flow naturally. So do relationships that form in front of the windows and in the dining car.

  • Meals and sleep

    New companions come with each meal. Moscow University professors offer monosyllabic descriptions of life in Russia, and a New York City pair marvel at all the open space. The food is more predictable. Menus are short, and heavy on simple classics (pancakes and eggs for breakfast; sandwiches and salads for lunch) because all the cooking goes on in the compact lower level. But it's well-prepared, and portions are plentiful.

    At night, after the windows go dark, realities descend. First, I learn the hard way, get whatever clothes you need from suitcases in the car's lower level. (I haven't thought so much about where my underwear might be since Girl Scout camp.) Take turns at the sink before transforming the cranky couch. There won't be room afterward. Latch the shoilet so the door doesn't bang. By day two, we're moving through these steps semismoothly -- not a ballet but at least a mildly jerky jitterbug.

    Pictured: Cheese tastings on westbound trains include premium Wisconsin selections.

  • Ready for more

    We start the final day watching the Cascades give way to lush Washington lowlands and the Puget Sound. By midmorning, the train pulls into Seattle's King Street Station. Instead of that familiar can't-wait-to-get-off-the-plane urgency, I feel like a kid on a merry-go-round that stopped too soon. As much as we saw, I wonder what we missed, and I'm already thinking about another ride on the rails.

  • Where to get onboard

    Chicago's Union Station represents the center of Amtrak's national rail system. Short routes link multiple Midwest cities, and longer tours, including scenic journeys to the West Coast, connect the country. For Amtrak's schedules, rates and seating/lodging options, call (800) 872-7245 or visit

    Empire Builder travels through the Upper Midwest to Portland/Seattle. One-way tickets from Chicago to Seattle for two adults sharing a bedroom with in-room shower and toilet cost about $1,800. Coach seats from about $210 each.

    California Zephyr ventures across Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska through the heart of the Rockies to Emeryville, near San Francisco.

    Southwest Chief angles through Kansas City, the Kansas plains and the southern Rockies to Los Angeles.

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