Riding the Empire Builder: A Pacific Northwest Train Ride

Riding the Empire Builder

This year I saw two fireworks shows on the Fourth of July. I watched both while looking out my window, lying in bed with a glass of wine. One in Montana and one in North Dakota. Now, I could turn this into one of those obnoxious word puzzles and ask how that could be possible, if x and y are true numbers and the color of the sky is purple.  But I am a better person than that so I’ll just tell you the answer. I was on a train. The Empire Builder #8 to be specific.

The Shortest Possible Summary:

My July Trip included four States in three days plus a host of colorful people and an amusing shower incident.

A longer explanation..

The States

The best way to describe the scenery on a trip like this is to simply show you. Look at these pictures. Now factor in my poor photography skills and imagine how it actually looked in really.

View of Montana

What is it about cylinders of hay that makes them so adorable?

The trip started in Seattle, Washington and passed through Montana, North Dakota, & Minnesota. The train ends its journey in Chicago, Illinois but sadly due to time constraints I could only go as far as Minneapolis.

Sunset in North Dakota

Sunset in North Dakota

There were plenty of long stretches of nothing… I’m looking at you North Dakota!…but the benefit of riding a train is that I could simply turn back to my book or a glass of wine or an interesting conversation when we hit one of these patches.

My first sight of Montana

My first sight of Montana

It really is a beautiful section of this country. And it was all served up outside my window 24 hours a day. All I had to do was turn my head slightly to see the show. Even I can survive that amount of physical strain!

The People

I had jokingly told friends before I left that I was most looking forward to meeting all kinds of “Train People”. My imagination ran wild thinking about what kind of people would ride a train across the pacific northwest, and how many of them would be awake a 2am and willing to tell a stranger their life story. It turns out I was correct in my anticipation and had the luck to meet and interact with an incredibly diverse and interesting group of people.

Passing through a Montana Railyard

Passing through a Montana Railyard

It wasn’t just the other guests that held appeal. The Train staff proved to be just as fascinating. There was Joe. I’m not sure what his actually job title was but I came to think of him as the Train Car Butler. Each car is assigned a specific person to help the guests in that car which can mean anything from helping to set up beds in the evening to bringing food for those who didn’t want to go to the dining car. Joe had to keep strange hours, slept whenever he could, and had many dull stretches of time with nothing to do when he would sit and talk to me. He was going to night school to be a lawyer and had some horror stories to share about the online dating scene in Seattle. I don’t know what I would have done with the 4am – 6am timeslot without Joe.

The Panorama Room

The Panorama Room: The place to be for great views and interesting people

Hillary and Rose were the Dining Car Dynamic Duo. Rose was my waitress and Hilary seemed to be the “Overlord and Ruler of All Things Food Related”. Both were hard working non-nonsense ladies who were efficient, bubbly, and would not stand for any of your crap. Meals on the Empire Builder were served with equal portions of Smiles and Sass. For example, while taking a few minutes to debate on whether or not I wanted desert Rose broke in to tell me, “Of course you want dessert. It’s free dessert. Don’t pretend like you are not going to get dessert, we all know you will.” And she was right. Of course I ate the free dessert.

Montana Through The Window

Seeing Montana through the Panorama Windows

With limited space available communal dining is a requirement. While awkward at first this situation actually led to some of my favorite encounters. On the last night I sat at a table with three Amish gentlemen. They were open and willing to share with me their stories though clearly had no idea how to process me and my own life stories. It was an amazing insight into a way of life that I was ignorant of.  I would have not had a chance to met them in my normal life. I am grateful for this trip, in part because I didn’t miss out on that dinner conversation.

The Shower

By Day Two I was feeling grubby enough to try the shower. I had also promised Melissa, my wonderful train neighbor who had to get of the train early, that I would give it a shot so I felt obligated.  The two problems I expected, a tiny shower and cold water, turned out to not be problems at all. The shower was reasonably big and the water was nice and hot.

However, there were two problems that I didn’t expect. The first one, is that the shower drain is just a hole in the floor with a metal grate. That right, a hole in the middle of the train car. The very rapidly moving train car. I quickly found that looking down through that hole could cause a wave of dizziness that left my stomach feeling upside down. So important rule #1 for showering on the train: Don’t look down.

The second problem was the facet / water flow situation. Have you ever been in a bathroom where the facet was one of those push down on the top models, the water spurting out until the button returned to its full and upright position? Well that’s how this shower works. You push the button, water comes out for a few seconds (minutes?) and then stops. Not so bad when washing your hands. Difficult when trying to wash a larger surface area.

I ended up with a complicated dance like routine in which I would hit the button, focus on one area to clean, spin and twist and twirl while being very careful to never never look down into the hole of doom, and then rush to hit the button again before time ran out. It was intense, but at the end, I was clean.

Riding the Train

My Private Room and favorite spot on the train

Extra Bits:

  • All meals are included in your ticket fare if you purchase a private room. Three days over the holiday weekend including all food cost $350. A very good deal.
  • The trip includes several short stops along the way but none are long enough to get out and explore. This is really a stay on the train the whole time type of journey. No smoking on the train and very short infrequent stops means that this is probably not a good journey for you if you are a smoker.
  • I highly recommend this trip to pretty much everyone, except for the smokers and people who hate to sit still. This is not about the destination, it really is just about enjoying the trip.
  • The National Parks Service provides Forest Rangers to offer information and stories as the train rolls along. They sit in the Panorama Car for most of the day explaining the history of the parks and pointing out wildlife and landmarks as they pass by. This is a wonderful treat and definitely worth listening to!
  • Find out more about the Empire Builder, its Route, and how to book a trip here: Amtrak Empire Builder

Fun Fact: Train stations are about 3 million times better than airports. Far more comfortable and relaxed. Also, pretty.

King Street Station

King Street Station


icon_compass01July Trip – The Quest Goes On A Train

icon_hiking01Survived the Shower – A feat of great physical skill!

icon_state_MT01 New State – Made it to Montana

icon_nationalpark01 New National Park – Glacier National Park (MO)

icon_state_ND01 New State – Nice to meet you North Dakota

icon_state_MN01 New State – Thanks for having me Minnesota

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