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A Holiday Amtrak Adventure

By Pat Gallagher

Photos by Pat Gallagher

The Empire Builder #28 was scheduled to leave Portland, Oregon December 19, 2008 at 4:45 PM. Friends had offered to drive me to Union Station, saving me the $25.00 cab fare. During the final hour of packing and readying the apartment, they called to see if I had checked to see if the train was running on time. A newbie to train riding and Portland, I hadn’t even thought of that. Duh! A quick check on the internet showed the originally scheduled departure now delayed seven hours due to a derailment in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and the winter weather. I had them drop me off at the depot at 7:00 PM as they had dinner plans that I didn’t want to screw up.

Checking in at the station, I picked up my tickets and asked “Where should I wait?” “Well I would have suggested at home” was the ticket booth person’s response. At 9:30 PM Amtrak personnel brought out boxes of assorted sandwiches and sodas for a now crowded lobby of hopeful and hungry passengers awaiting for #28. At last, a little after 10:00 PM the train arrived but needed to be serviced and cleaned. We were then told boarding would be at 10:30 PM.

Well 10:30PM came and went and for those standing in line to board, the news was “sit down; it will be a while longer”. Finally at 10:55 PM we were given the “All Aboard” call, loaded and off we went.

The primary order was to get our bearings on board and settle in as we headed towards our first stop of Vancouver, Washington. Here many additional people boarded and my seat mate, a very nice but tired young college girl, joined me. We are now what appears to me as full as we approach our next stop of **Bingen – White Salmon, Washington. Once again many more people boarded in this late night hour, many sitting in the lounge car and others camped out on the floor for the night. Additional stops that first night included Wishram and Pasco, Washington before our sunrise arrival in Spokane.

Pulling into the station an announcement says we’ll be waiting for the other half of our east bound train coming from Seattle. Winter weather in all its glory means they are having a difficult time coming through the snow in the Cascades.

We’re all getting to know each other and the conversations are a pleasant way to spend the time. A young single father in front of us has 3 and one year old sons with him. He had boarded in Portland and the boys at first full of energy have settled down and slept through the night. We were finally told the delay in Spokane will be nine hours and if we wanted to go to a restaurant or shopping in Spokane we could. The Amtrak crew made plans to take people to where they wanted to go for the day. Spokane, at this point, has a lot of snow on the ground only to receive much more in the following weeks.

Slowly my fellow passengers returned to the train, the nine hours went by, the Seattle train arrived and we are connected into one train. As we hadn’t moved in many hours, the two young boys were getting to know their fellow passengers and entertain us. Oh to have that much energy and enthusiasm. As we begin to roll slowly forward the three year old shouts to us all “Hold your horses we are finally moving, Dad hand me my blanket”. Everyone applauds and cheers, only to realize the train has stopped and starts backing up. As it turns out, our train was repositioning and after what now seemed a very long half hour we were connected with the Seattle half and rolling east.

By now it is evening so we see very little of the scenery, but at least the Seattle train has brought a dining car with it and our lounge car was relieved of some of the pressure of feeding us snacks and sandwiches. For those wanting to sit at a table with a white linen table cloth and eat with real dishes and silverware it was a pleasant addition. The rocking and motion of the train makes it difficult to have a glass of wine without sloshing it on the table cloth and yourself. Note to self: Next time order white wine.

Lake Pend Oreille—Sandpoint, Idaho

The following day as dusk was upon us we headed across the Sand Point reservoir in Idaho and journeyed into Montana, stopping frequently to pick up additional passengers. The Amtrak crew members were doing their best to make the trip as comfortable as possible for what I was told was now a population of 500 passengers on the last train headed east for what would be days. Whitefish, Montana was a popular stop for many who were going there to ski, or as my seat mate, visiting family. They were graciously holding a great roast beef dinner for her, a college person she wasn’t prepared to purchase extra food on board. Thanks to our cell phones, we were able to keep in touch with family members as our journey progressed and fell further behind schedule.

The delays meant we went through the Rocky Mountains in the dark and were not able to enjoy that magnificent scenery.

Freight train companies own the tracks and Amtrak rents them meaning the fast moving freight trains have the right away and we pulled over and waited at least seven times the first 24 hours to let them pass.

Sun Dogs on the North Dakota Plains

The snow just keeps coming and the temperature outside is now well below zero, by the middle of North Dakota it is 40 below zero and we appear to be encompassed in a cloud of snow, with visibility minimal at times. Passengers have now gotten to know each other and many card and board games are going strong in the two packed lounge cars. Others have brought along books, projects to knit and crochet, personal DVD players, lap tops and cell phones to keep in contact with the outside world.

By the time the train arrives in Williston, North Dakota the heat had gone out in one of the lounge cars, water pipes are frozen in a few cars, including to the coffee maker. By the way, the coffee is very good. As you could now see your breath inside the one lounge car, the crew suggests those traveling in the car with no heat move to a warmer car. “No they were just fine” playing card and board games and didn’t need to move as everyone had put on additional layers of clothing and wrapped in blankets, the games went on.

As the trip progressed my car attendant, Phyllis was very up beat and ran a tight ship. Our car was always clean and we were reminded frequently to keep our shoes on while walking through the train and to remember to mind our manners and cleanliness in the restrooms. At each stop the car attendants would graciously assist the passengers on and off with all the baggage we seem to travel with. It appears that only students know how to travel light with a back pack, blanket, pillow and lap top computer.

A repair crew in Williston was able to thaw pipes and restore heat, which turned out to be short lived as we continued to travel across the frozen north. Just west of Minot we stopped in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, corn fields with stalks poking through the snow on each side of the tracks. Another freight train? No due to the many delays our Engineer crew was out of hours and Federal law states they cannot go further with out being fined $5000.00 each. Now we waited for another hour for a new relief crew to come via mini van. After a brief “training lesson” for the new crew, we went backwards for a short distance, and once again were headed east.

In the dining car you are seated in 15 minute to half hour increments and I was scheduled for the 5:00 PM seating. Tonight’s choices were steak, chicken breast, pasta and a fish special. By the 8:30PM seating an announcement was made: Only a few steaks and chicken meals were left, but there was plenty of the fish special. At nine the announcement was: “The dining room is now closed for the night, unless you want the fish special, but why as you didn’t want it the first time around”. Our new Engineer was very comical on the PA and kept us informed during the day light hours of our progress from Magical Minot to Rugby, the geographical center of North America and on through Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Fargo into “MMMinn-e-sota.” Yeah my stop is getting closer!

I was originally scheduled to detrain in St Cloud, Minnesota at 5:14 AM on December 21st, I arrived 14 hours later. It was a fun trip even with all the delays and loss of sleep. I think you have to be less than 25 years of age to sleep on a crowded train.

After a long shower and good nights sleep in a real bed, I woke up to a typical cold and snowy December morning in Central Minnesota.

Yes, they heat the bird baths in the frozen North!

Christmas came and went; it is now time to head back to Portland. How late is the return train? Surely they would have caught up by now; it’s been a week and a half!

Checking the schedule on line, yes Empire Builder Number #27 is on time, but wait it shows it’s still in Chicago an hour after it should have been moving? As the St Cloud station is only manned when a train is due in I’m concerned about being dropped off and having to stand outside for hours in the cold. My brother brings me to the station at midnight and we hope the train has picked up some time. Entering, I see 17 others waiting for both the east and west bound trains. The east bound is now 22 hours behind and the west bound is still showing only an hour behind. Our scheduled departure of 12:40 am has now been moved to 1:30 am and as 1:30 comes and goes we take the laid back attitude of sooner or later it will show up.

The attendant has gone but kindly leaves the lights on in the waiting area and the old radiators are pumping out plenty of warmth. After several false alarms, hearing a train arriving only to see it is another freight train, at 2:00 am our west bound train arrives and we board the train full of sleeping passengers. Luckily for me a very nice young man got up and shared his spot with me, he curled up on the floor and returned to a sound sleep only to be rousted a couple of hours later to de-train in Fargo.

I had skipped dinner at my brother’s in Minnesota, too anxious to eat while preparing to head out, so I looked forward to the call that the dining car was now open and serving breakfast. After what seemed to be a very long walk through the connecting cars that are really swaying and galloping along I arrived to a warm bright dining car and joined several others for a very good breakfast and more of some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. Much of the crew was new, but a hand full were working from my East bound trip. The ever present lounge car attendant, who seemed to work incredible hours and always had time to chat with passengers and serve food and beverages. Does this woman ever get home I wonder?

My new car attendant was a tall young man, with a booming voice, who promptly reminded us of garbage receptacle locations and “not tuck our garbage under the seat” and the “keep your shoes on while walking in the train” speech was given again too. We heard that message many times in the next 40 hours and soon like a chorus would recite the message along with him. Amtrak trains are non smoking, so at any stop longer than four minutes smokers quickly de-trained “but stay on the platform” and had a quick few puffs.

In the day light as we got closer to Montana, I was hoping for the return trip to be in the Rockies while it was still light enough to see. But thanks to another freight train derailment and three miles of torn up track, we would spend the night in Whitefish, Montana. Well that would work as I would be able to see the scenery at dusk or so I thought. Pulling into Shelby, Montana, a few stops and hours before the mountains, the news came, because of avalanches we would be going no further until 2:30 AM.

Oh how the skiers moaned as they were so close, but would not make their resorts tonight, so back to the card games and luckily the small town of Shelby had several bars, a movie theater, bowling alley and grocery store all within walking distance of where we were parked. The delay turned into a small economic boom for the town. At 3:00 AM everyone had re-boarded and regaled us with stories of the “friendly” town of Shelby as we rolled west again.

Kootenai River, near Libby, Montana

There was a glimmer of hope as we crossed Montana in the dark, passing crews still working on track repairs and avalanche clearing. Arriving before dawn in Whitefish, many gladly headed to the resort town. What a thrill to have gotten rid of so many people. Finally room to stretch out! But then they boarded the new passengers so that stretching was only a fleeting moment as we headed to Libby, Montana. Once again the scenic Rockies were passed during the dark night.

A glimmer of hope for scenery as dawn brought us to the beautiful Whitefish Lake.

Whitefish Lake at dawn

As we traveled westward to Libby, it marked the beginning of our following the Kootenai River, providing spectacular views all the way to Sandpoint, Idaho.

Kootenai River, near the Idaho boarder

Throughout this journey, great conversations were had, people respected each others privacy and belongings, the Amtrak crews were a wonder especially under the circumstances (weather, equipment issues and long hours for them as well as the passengers). We enjoyed several free meals and complimentary glasses of wine.

Arriving in Spokane, the train divided into Portland and Seattle halves. We said goodbye to each other gave back borrowed books and games and headed in different directions. The crew worked very hard to separate the two trains, using wrenches, blow torches and the final blow was given by a broom handle. Very technical I guess. The process drew a crowd of onlookers from the train, as after all the hours on board, we were very easily entertained.

Empire Builder #27 West Bound

The advantage of being in the lounge car with all the windows on a curvy portion of the track is you can take a photo of the very train you are on.

Along the way many hundreds of deer, pheasants and a few antelope were viewed and many miles of wonderful scenery. This is a great way to travel if you are not in a hurry. Scores of my fellow passengers have taken this route numerous times and all agreed even with the delays; it still beat air travel and/or driving.

As we pulled into Portland exactly 12 hours late the passengers and crew thanked each other for a great journey and happily I saw my friends waiting at the station for me and the short drive to my home in Portland.

Already I’ m thinking, where should I follow the rails next?

* Amtrak
* Detailed information about the Empire Builder route

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