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Andy Anderson's Journeys Empire Builder
Leg Four - Oct 26th - 28th 2009: The Empire Builder
andy anderson seattle space needle image
The Space Needle comes into view as the Empire Builder says good-bye to Seattle

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At the Seattle Marriott on the Waterfront

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a Marriott fan. If you want consistency, quality, and great service, you will never be disappointed by a Marriott property... NEVER.

The next morning, I get up around 5:00AM; when I call Amtrak at 7:00AM, they tell me that they have my phone. Way to go! I plan to pick it up when I return to the station to board the Empire Builder.

Since the Empire Builder doesn't leave until 4:40PM, I'm on my own today. There's only one big problem... It's raining cats and dogs. I had hoped to walk about and take some shots; however, I may have to change those plans.

It never really stops raining. The Marriott put me on the concierge floor (I'm hitting one-hundred percent on hotel upgrades), so I eat a free breakfast in the lounge, and then take a short walk; however, the weather is definitely against me. I do lunch across the street at Anthony's Fish Bar (Fish and Chips), and go back to my hotel to pack. Oh, and no dessert.

At 2:30PM I head out of the hotel and grab a taxi to the Seattle King's Street Station. As the taxi moves down Alaskan highway, it stops raining, and the sun begins to break out of the clouds (dang). Well, it's all in the timing.

King's Street Station

The first thing I do is go to baggage and pick up my iPhone. Pam, one of the baggage attendants gives me my phone. Then she smiles and says: Take good care of that thing. I smile back and head into the station proper.

The King's Street Station is small, and old; however, it's an historic site. The City of Seattle is raising funds to have it restored to its original grandeur. In my case, I hope that means they will add a first-class lounge. Whatever the case, I'm sitting in the high-backed wooden bench seating that is typical of many old Amtrak stations. They're not designed to be comfortable... I'm not even sure if they were designed to be functional. They are a seat... they are made out of wood... and you sit on them. End of story.

Andy's Note: Since I'm planning on doing this trip again next year, I make a note to delay going to the station. It's a nice place; however, after five minutes, you're ready to get on your train.

The station has three doors leading out to the tracks. I've never boarded from here before, but it looks like they're using doors one and two for the Empire Builder: Door one for coach, and Door two for first class.

As I sit waiting, this weird homeless dude (he's got to be homeless) comes into the station and begins having a long, loud conversation with himself. As he walks by, he yells at me: SHUT THE F@&$ UP... I'M AN AMERICAN !!! Then he walks away, still talking to himself. I thought about snapping a photo, but decide that might not be the smartest thing to do.

It's currently 3:15PM, so it's a little over an hour before we board. When I arrived fifteen minutes ago, the station was almost empty, now, it's beginning to fill up with passengers; presumably for the Empire Builder. This is the only one of Amtrak's long-distance trains that I have not traveled on, so this should be fun.

I've heard a lot of good things about the Empire Builder. For example, the meals are prepared onboard, and not pre-made and then nuked when needed. Also, they use real china, and not the plastic stuff made to look like china.

Sleeping Car passengers are supposed to get some goodies for the trip. I'm not sure what goodies mean... it might be something like the Coast Starlight, where they give you a bag with soap and shampoo, and a bottle of champagne. I guess it's useless speculating about what's going to happen, when I'll be experiencing it first hand in about an hour.

Everything is going fine, except the weird dude that talks to himself walked by again and gave me a dirty look... Can't wait to board the train.

All Aboard the Empire Builder

Boarding begins for first class about thirty minutes before departure. I wheel my stuff down to my designated sleeper car, and Dennis our car attendant meets me and directs me to my room. Later, he come in to give me the tour; however, when he see my gadgets, and junk all laid out; he gets a sly grin on his face, and asks me if I've ever traveled on Amtrak (I think that's what you call a rhetorical question). I tell Dennis, that I have taken a trip or two, so he dispenses with the new-be lecture and leaves me to my own devices. I hear him giving the canned speech to the couple in the next room.

The Empire Builder leaves exactly on time: 4:40PM, and we slowly move away from the King's Street Station (and that crazy man). I get up and take a peek around the car. At this time, I am the only one who booked in a bedroom. Dennis tells me that they will fill up, as the train progresses toward Chicago. He also drops by to give me a bottle of champagne, and a bag containing some shampoo, and soaps... just like the Coast Starlight. I mix the champagne with orange juice and make a mimosa. Hey... I'm on vacation!

As I watch, the shoreline of the Sound opens up on my left. The sun has finally comes out, and as it plays hide-and-seek with the clouds, it paints a picture over the tranquil waters worthy of a Matisse. The homes on my right, are all up on a steep hill, and many of them have worn wooden staircases leading down to the Sound. At the bottom, canoes and kayaks sit ready to be used. I can image, on a beautiful evening just like this, getting into one of those kayaks, and watching the sunset from these tranquil waters. As one television commercial suggests... Priceless.

The Empire Builder moves purposefully eastward... the sun moves below the horizon, and slowly the landscape begins to turn from green to gray.

Andy's Note: The sleeper cars on this train are Superliner II cars, so the description I made of the sleepers on the Coast Starlight fits the ones on the Empire Builder... that's a good thing.

As it gets darker outside, the last view I have of my surroundings are an enormous river system following us on the right. It looks swollen from all the rains this area has had recently. Occasionally, I see pastures with cattle grazing right next to the rushing waters. Slowly, the outside world disappears, and is replaced by reflections of the lights in my room. For all intents and purposes, my window to the world has been effectively shut down until tomorrow's sunrise.

I start to work on my computer, and about 11:00PM hit the sack. Tomorrow will be another day of discovery. It's time to go to bed.

The beds in the deluxe bedrooms consist of an upper and lower berth. The upper berth is a swing down affair, and the bottom berth is created by converting the couch. During the day, the bedding materials for the bottom bed are stored in the upper berth. I swing the upper berth down, and grab the pillows, sheets, blankets, and then make my own bed in the lower berth. Since I go to bed late and get up early, I typically make my own bed. Normally, the car attendant does that for you; however, I don't intend to wake him up at this hour, just to stretch out a few sheets and blankets... It's lights out time.

Day Two on the Empire Builder

I wake up around 5:00AM. Outside the world is dark without a single light to break through the blackness. My cell phone has no service; however, my GPS says that we're in Montana. A bit after midnight we arrived in Spokane, and while we slept, a coach and sleeper car were added to our consist; plus a sightseer lounge car. I woke up to watch the process, but it was too dark to take any photographs.

At 7:00AM we hit Whitefish Station (twenty-six minutes early). If we follow our typical modus of staying at a station until our normal departure time, we'll be here until 7:46AM. Although it's late in the morning, it's still pitch dark outside. Of course, days are getting shorter with the Fall season, but it's also probably due to the fact that we're pretty far north (almost to the Canadian Border). It's too dark to take any photos, and the few people out there smoking are all huddled together, so it must be pretty cold. I decide to skip my fresh air stop, and stick to the comfort, and warmth of my sleeper. From my window I think I see an old restored rail car in the distance. Unfortunately, it's still totally dark outside, and the car has no lights around it. Too bad, because I have plenty of time to photograph it.

Our next serious fresh-air stop will be at Harve Station, Montana, around 1:30PM


My breakfast this morning consists of oatmeal, and hot tea. I'm not all that hungry; besides the meals on Amtrak are quite large. In fact, the Amtrak slogan should be: No one goes away hungry on an Amtrak long-distance train. Add to that, all the eating and sitting I've been doing for the last week, and I get the feeling that I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the gym when I get home. And let's not forget the upcoming holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years... not to mention Halloween (oops, I mentioned it). Tis the season to eat a lot.

On the Road Again

At 7:46AM (on time) we pull out of Whitefish Station, and head out into the gathering light. After our stop in Belton (West Glacier Part), I begin to see some snow. It begins with a light dusting of white on the branches of the pine trees. It reminds me of a Bob Ross Painting. With every mile we travel east, the snow gets more and more intense. Now, just five or ten miles from where I spotted the first dustings of snow, it has increased to several inches. The tops of the surrounding mountains are covered in low-hanging fog. And (this is frustrating), it's still too dark to do any photography. I HATE it when that happens.

On and on we travel. If we're getting this much snow in October, I can just image what this route looks like in the middle of the Winter season... My kind of place.

Well, I can't take it any more, I boost the ISO of my digital camera to 640. The quality of the images will suffer slightly; however, it allows me to capture images with less light.

It's snowing now, and the Empire Builder kicks up a spray of white as it moves through the storm. Both sides of the train are enclosed in snow-covered pine trees. Occasionally, I see a path open up between the trees, only to disappear into this snow-covered forest of pines. I'm afraid to put down my camera and write in the journal, because I might miss some awesome shot of nature's beauty.

It's so cold outside that I can feel it through the windows of my sleeper. In response, I crank up the heat a bit. That's another nice thing about having your own sleeper, you can set the heat to your own preference. I'm sure it's fine in the coach cars; however, you have to live with what the car attendant considers comfortable.

This place is awesome... the clouds are thick with snow, and in the cloud-filtered light, everything appears in surrealistic shades of gray. This is truly a Winter Wonderland.

It's about 9:30AM, and it's snowing so hard, that I can now put down my camera. Although you can see the areas close to the train, we might as well be traveling in a bubble of white. The snow is falling hard and fast, and it looks like there might be twelve or more inches on the ground. The roads looked pretty clear for awhile, but now, even the highways are disappearing under a blanket of snow. Sure hope the train engineer can see better than I can.


Since I didn't eat any breakfast, I go to lunch at first call (apparently, the Empire Builder only does reservations for dinner). Anyway, I get there before the crowds and have an angus burger and chips. We're talking biggie size. The three people I'm sitting with are very non-conversional. All I managed to find out is that they're traveling to Chicago, and they are in coach... that's it. They remind me of the old Bob Newhart show... Hi, my name is Larry, this my brother Daryl, and this is my other brother Daryl.

Andy's Advice: If you want to check out some really classic old TV (for free) go to: hulu.

I finish my burger and offer my good-byes to my talkative friends from coach. It's back to my room, to watch the world go by and to write. Oh, and no dessert.

In the time it takes me to eat lunch, the snow is replaced by rain, and the wide open spaces of Montana are filled with the colors of Fall. I only wish the sun would come out, and give me a bit of light. Dennis stops by and asks me if there's anything I need. I ask for more sunlight, and he smiles and says he'll see what he can do. When the diner car attendant comes by for reservations, I decide to skip dinner. This sitting and eating for days on end (even though the food is excellent), is begriming to wear on me. I feel the need for a calorie reduction.

Since I'm not going to dinner, I get a couple of bottles of water from the first class service area, grab a cup of coffee, and go back to my bedroom. I spend most of the rest of the day tearing into my current projects, and trying to keep this blog updated. The weather outside stays rainy and dismal. As I work on my computer, we move through Montana; stopping at Malta, Glasgow and Wolf Point. In the evening we hit North Dakota, and at 7:00PM we stop at Williston... Later it's Stanley and Minot. Back many years ago, I almost taught at a college in Minot.

At 11:32PM we pull into Devil's Lake station, and I decide it's time to hit the sack.

Andy's Note: I am having a hoot of a time on this trip, the only thing that's frustrating is the weather. It's really hard to get shots on a moving train when the weather outside is cloudy and dismal. I may try this trip again next year a bit earlier, and see if I can get some sun.

Day 3 on the Empire Builder

This day marks my final part of the journey, and thus far, not one thing has gone wrong (knock on wood). The trains have been great, the hotels marvelous, and the Amtrak staff have performed above and beyond. I rise at my accustomed hour of 5:00AM. Today I skip breakfast (again), and instead take a nice loooong shower.

Outside my window, the world is dark, gloomy and mournful. I manage to take a few shots of some passing scenery; however, it's difficult to take photos from a moving train, when you don't have much light. Just before hitting the Minneapolis/St Paul station, I spot two white-tail dear by the side of the tracks. They stare at us, like they're looking at an odd curiosity, and then they turn and move back into the safety of the woods.

At 10:40AM we hit our first station in Wisconsin: LaCrosse, then Tomah, and then the Wisconsin Dells station. When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, we used to go up to the Dells, and visit a Catholic monastery called Holy Hill. It's was a trip we made every year, and someday soon, I'm going to go back.

Our last stop in Wisconsin is Milwaukee Station (2:05PM). There we stop for ten minutes, for a fresh air break. All day, it has done nothing but rain, rain, rain.

Only two more stops to go.

The End of the Line

We hit Glenview, Illinois at 3:12PM, ten minutes early. It's a quick stop, and then on to Chicago. We stop in Chicago's Union Station at 3:48PM, seven minutes early. Ten days ago, I began this adventure in Chicago, and now it's ending where it began.

I exit my sleeper, thank Dennis for a great trip, and give him a twenty dollar tip. Then I grab a taxi, and head for the Chicago O'Hare Hilton. Although traveling on the train is not exactly hard labor, I'm feeling very tired, and find it hard to stay awake, as my taxi weaves through the afternoon traffic. I've only one more thing to do, and that's catch my flight tomorrow and head back home. As much as I've enjoyed this trip, I'm ready to be back home.

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Keep the faith... And keep traveling
Andy Anderson