Taking the train is an elite form of transportation. Don’t believe me? Read on for further evidence. This is a conversation I frequently had last fall when I’d explain why my partner and I chose to travel from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest via Amtrak’s Empire Builder for the holidays.
“When are you flying back to Minnesota?” friends and family would ask.
“Actually, we’re taking the train,” I’d respond proudly. Then we’d have a brief, predictable exchange about how long the ride is, ending with talk of how underrated and unfortunately underfunded train travel is in America.
Amtrak has been a hot topic of discussion for several years now, and compared to its European counterparts, the United States isn’t nearly as sophisticated when it comes to routes, amenities, convenience and speed. But I can tell you that traveling by train anywhere is a great opportunity to slow down in our fast-paced world. I’ve come to really appreciate letting go of my day-to-day troubles and spending 36 hours seeing parts of the country that are hidden from major highways.
This was my second time taking the Empire Builder on this route, so I knew what to expect — and what to do differently to make the experience even more enjoyable. Unlike flying, there’s no limit to the number or size of bags you can bring aboard, so we planned ahead and packed a stash of healthy snacks to fuel us through the entire adventure. This was a lesson learned from our last train trip. The dining car is only available for sleeper car travelers, and while there’s an onboard cafe for coach passengers, all the hot food is microwaveable — meaning that packing your own food is key.
Because we didn’t splurge for a private sleeper room, we knew we’d be resting in our coach seats. But let me assure you that these seats are way more comfortable than airplane seats. They nearly lay flat and feature not only a footrest but also a leg rest that springs up to support tired limbs. I learned the hard way the first go-around that an eye mask and neck pillow are essential since a few lights are kept on at all hours. To top it off, we also brought some natural sleep aids. Magnesium helped bring me to a comfortable headspace both nights as the rocking of the train car lulled me to sleep.
While the train itself unfortunately doesn’t offer Wi-Fi due to its remote route, we luckily had reliable enough cell service to use our hotspot so that we could get essential work done. Most of our time was spent in the observation car, where the walls and ceiling are panoramic windows so the scenery of the Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park is unobstructed. This made for a great work environment and brings me to the highlight of the trip: the views.
I might sound like a broken record to my friends and family, but I must emphasize: The views from this train are unmatched. It’s amazing how the western portion of this route traverses some of the most scenic parts of the country, yet so few people know about it. When our train departed from Portland on Monday evening, we sadly slept through the stunning Cascades. But we woke at the best possible time as we entered Glacier National Park.
As if the views weren’t incredible enough, it was sunrise on a clear day after fresh snowfall. Sitting in the observation car that morning is something I’ll never forget. And Amtrak certainly knows how to best showcase this regal landscape, with the Empire Builder rolling through the national park at sunset on its westbound return trip.
On Wednesday morning, we arrived at St. Paul’s Union Depot a mere 30 minutes behind schedule. While I was relieved to be back in town and eager to see loved ones, I’m glad we made the decision to slow down and take our time getting from point A to point B. It’s an adventure taking the Amtrak — one I can comfortably say I’d happily embark on every year.