Sleepless from Seattle

By Roger Hall

Seven states, two days and all that scenery ... Roger Hall takes the train.

The Amtrak Empire Builder crosses the plains of Wisconsin. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image posted by user NateBeal
The Amtrak Empire Builder crosses the plains of Wisconsin. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image posted by user NateBeal

There's something irresistible about a train that passes through places with names like Leavenworth, Spokane, Whitefish, Glacier Park, Wolf Point, Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Fargo that evoke the images of a wild and wonderful landscape.

And so it was that we headed across the United States on the Empire Builder, Amtrak's busiest long-distance train, which carries 500,000 people annually between Seattle on the west coast and Chicago on the Great Lakes.

It's a journey of 3550km, passing through seven states (Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois) and two time zones. Twice we had to put our watches forward an hour and, when we along the borner between Montana and North Dakota, people with mobiles were amused to see the time on their phones flickering from one time zone to another until finally they settled down.

We booked a sleeper cabin with bunks, shower and, most importantly, a toilet (I'm past the stage of staggering down a corridor at night, especially a corridor that rattles and sways).

The other advantage was that during the day we had a private room from which to watch the passing landscape.

From time to time, we went to the observation car, which had swivel armchairs and picture windows along the sides and more windows overhead, particularly useful for viewing mountains.

When we were passing through areas of special interest, those in the observation car got commentaries from volunteer National Park Service rangers on what we were seeing.

For the times when there was no commentary, Amtrak supplied an excellent published guide that told when and which side to look out of the train at places of special interest, either scenically or historically.

Shelby, for instance, "where Jack Dempsey's manager arranged a heavyweight fight between Dempsey and Tom Gibbons, but slipped out of town with $300,000 in cash from the takings and, as a result, four Montana banks failed".

Or Wagner, "site of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's final train robbery".

Or La Crosse, where French trappers watched Indians playing a game and called the game after the place.

At night, it was hard to sleep (despite two sleeping pills). The mattresses were thin, the train rattled and swayed, and the engine's hooter sounded at every crossing. But that was to be expected (a movie of the experience would have to be called Sleepless from Seattle).

Our fare covered all our meals, served in the diner. When you turned up for breakfast, lunch or dinner, you were told where to sit and no nonsense about it.

I had no objection to sharing a table, indeed welcomed it as a way of meeting other passengers, but felt hard done by when I requested two seats facing forwards at an empty table but was made to take two seats facing backwards (luckily the man facing forwards cheerfully swapped places with me).

Dianne thought the food "adequate", but I put it several degrees below that. The brochure had promised us "regional cuisine" and "delicious meals". Huh! Any small-town diner could have done better, especially when it came to service.

We had an infuriatingly perky but inefficient waitress who drove me insane (though the rest of the staff on the train, especially our sleeping car attendant, were good).

And at least, on the second day, the dining staff put on a wine and cheese tasting combined with a trivia quiz.

However, we weren't on the train for the food but for what we could see and to experience the changes in landscapes as we sped across half a continent.

It was the scenery, of course, that made the journey worthwhile, a 48-hour geography lesson.

As we left Seattle, we travelled for 50km along Puget Sound and then beside the Skykomish River before heading into the Cascade Mountains and Glacier Park.

The next day, we woke in Montana. Hours and hours were spent looking at the plains, seemingly barren expanses, with a smudge of mountains 100km away.

Much of the land we passed through was Indian Reservation, where herds of bison once roamed in their millions, often shot by white "hunters" from passing trains. Instead of bison, it's now the remains of thousands of abandoned cars that can be seen.

The next morning, the empty plains were replaced by four-lane highways as we approached the city of Minneapolis.

Past suburban gardens, small towns, and 225km beside the Mississippi, the first glimpse of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee and then, late in the afternoon, we pulled into Chicago. We caught a cab and I was allowed to face forwards.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand, in conjunction with partner airlines, has daily services from Auckland to Chicago via Los Angeles and returning from Seattle to Auckland.

Economy-class airfares start at $2897 a person return.

Further information: You can find more online about Amtrak and the Empire Builder.

Roger Hall paid his own fare on the Empire Builder.

- NZ Herald

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