Romancing the Rails: A Trip on the Empire Builder
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.