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The Essex Turn
By Kit Baker

We travel for two reasons: first, to get there, and second, for the journey. For me, the journey's the thing.

Even in the midst of taking people around this country by airliner, I became an inveterate train fan. This trip was hatched out of my belief that the congress might well nail the coffin closed on Amtrak. There have been attempts before to shut down Amtrak, but this time, the Bush administration seemed intent on a final dissolution. I thought if I am going to get my journey in, I'd better do it now.

With the help of Julie, Amtrak's automated reservation agent and the sometimes puzzling Amtrak website, I put together a trip from Tacoma, Washington to Essex, Montana and back. I had looked for two cities that would allow me the least amount of layover time between outbound and inbound segments, but knowing there was always that off-chance delay that could leave me stranded, I chose the Empire Builder from Tacoma to Essex, Montana that gave me about nine hours between the eastbound and westbound trains. I also chose the Empire Builder because it has run more consistently on time than the Coast Starlight, the other option. There was also the added attraction of spending a day at the famous Izaak Walton Inn, which is right along the mainline carrying up to 50 trains a day.

Also, the Coast Starlight, while not the refurbished train the Empire Builder has become, is a nifty consist and the scenery is beautiful. But the sad reality is the Coast Starlight gets bogged down in the north - south freight traffic clogging the Union Pacific and has been nicknamed the "Coast Starlate". Also, the city pairs that would have given me some time between trains was in Southern Oregon. I have traveled extensively in that area, so it was not new ground. So given my plan to get out and back in just two travel days, and travel some unfamiliar territory the Empire Builder became the obvious choice.

So, early on the 15th of September, I presented myself at the Tacoma Amtrak depot with email confirmation in hand, changed to an earlier Cascade train to Seattle to accommodate an unforeseen obligation, and was issued my tickets.

I was back at the station by 1045 AM in time to see the southbound Coast Starlight arrive on time and depart carrying nearly a capacity crowd

Fifteen minutes later, Cascades train 500 from Eugene, Oregon to Seattle pulled into the station, again very nearly full, and on time arriving and departing.

I would very much like to have shown Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta these two trains and asked where these travelers might go if Amtrak were to cease operations.

The line to Seattle is a very old and established line that will soon accommodate expanded commuter rail service and we stopped for several beautiful stations that were new to Amtrak. Into the Puyallup Valley, through the old Northern Pacific yard at Auburn, along Boeing Field in South Seattle and into the Seattle King Street Station.

King Street station is being refurbished from the dinghy tomb it has been to a renovated Downtown Depot bringing back the glory days of passenger rail service.

It is and continues to become a busier place now that there are trains in commuter service as well as Amtrak many as a dozen a day and shortly more.

I left my bag in the station express and baggage office and had time for lunch and a quick walk around Seattle's Pioneer Square. I got back to the station in time to easily make the scheduled departure of the eastbound Empire Builder.

This is a premier Amtrak service and they had seen to every detail including the orderly boarding process.

Because the station is directly on the main north south track with only a rudimentary siding, passengers are not allowed out onto the platform until boarding begins. That makes it difficult to see the many freight trains going through. Too bad, but the station is being refurbished and there are plans for making the loading spur more easily accessible for train watching. However. The boarding process starts with plenty of time available for getting to the right car.

I was able to find my way to my sleeper and my superliner roomette without difficulty and stow my bag. There were several announcements about dining services and I was just beginning to wonder about making a reservation when the dining car steward arrived at my room and presented options. I decided on dinner at seven and settled back to watch Puget Sound roll by as we headed north toward Everett, Washington.

It is at Everett that the line turns eastward into the Cascade Mountains, through Stevens Pass and the famous Cascade Tunnel and into eastern Washington. The weather was good, the train was smooth, comfortable and quiet and before Everett I dozed off. Comfortable surroundings and scenery sometimes do that...!

My sleeping car steward, Delores, a very personable lady had prepared a written briefing for the trip along with the usual and terrific Amtrak snacks and left it in each room. She came around a little later to introduce herself and answer question. I awoke passing Monroe, Washington in time for her to stop by my room and tell me a few things about the trip. She added a lot to the trip, not only from her knowledge of the route, but for her can-do attitude. Very refreshing, but the norm on this train.

Up the hill we ran, through the forests of the western slope of the Cascades at dinner in the dining car. Good food...I had a salad, steak and vegetables...and good service. I had to draw the line at dessert, though...waistline and sugar count intervene...but I did linger over a cup of herbal tea as we transited from east to west through the long cascade tunnel.

Down the hill now, next stop Wenatchee, a major apple shipping point. Sure enough, after the station stop, we backed into a spur and picked up an Amtrak Express car of apples for east coast markets. According to Delores, Amtrak has pretty much discontinued their once-touted express service except the Empire Builder does still handle a car or two daily almost always at Wenatchee.

Out of Wenatchee, the line follows the Columbia River south, eventually crosses and bends toward the east. There is a very steep grade as the line climbs out of the Columbia River Gorge. It is a hard climb up that hill, and while the speed was slow, it was a beautiful view down the Columbia with a very nearly full moon lighting the countryside.

Eastern Washington is not all flat land, but in this area it is. From Quincy to Spokane, we traverse an area scrubbed to bedrock by a flood of biblical proportions at the end of the last ice age. The remnants are Soap Lake and Moses Lake and a number of finger lakes all aligned northeast to southwest, which was the direction that flood ran. It was such a huge cataclysm that the topsoil that makes the Willamette Valley of Oregon so fertile once resided in the central plain of Washington State!

There is a lengthy scheduled stop in Spokane, Washington where the Portland section of the Empire Builder is joined to our train and there is a fresh-air break (translation: smoke break) for everyone. Well, the events of the day, the excellent dinner, and the comfortable bed were too much for me so before we got to Spokane, I was long gone so sleep.

All the switching, backing and maneuvers necessary to join the train didn't cause me even to stir. Compliments to the crews.

I had remembered to set my watch ahead so I was awake in the morning just after Libby, Montana, and excellent shower facilities in the sleeper...and ready for breakfast by seven.

Again, it was an excellent breakfast and service. By the time I finished my second cup of tea, the dinning car had filled at both ends by people waiting to be accommodated. Hence the lesson: get there early!

I had walked the length of the train after breakfast and discovered the lounge car had been the night before in Spokane. I was never able to find out why the lounge car didn't originate in Seattle until a member of the train crew pointed out that the diner originated in Seattle, and the Portland section would have had no food service were it not for the lounge. Even trade.

I was back in my room when we got to Whitefish. That's another place I would like to visit. Next time, maybe. At the station platform, there is a Great Northern Switcher on permanent display. Looked nearly new.

I had called the Izaak Walton on my cell phone earlier and arranged for a room for the day and they were there to pick me and one other passenger up at the platform. It was an overcast day, that gave way to sun breaks and an occasional shower, which made the train show in Essex that much more interesting. There were at least 12 trains that went by during the day including a work train maneuvering in and out of the fairly large yard. At the west end of the yard was a reminder that winter was coming...a line of snowplows ready to do their duty. Indeed, there was snow in the foothills already and the temperature at Essex when I arrived was in the thirties.

My room was a neat little corner of another TV, it downstairs in the reception...even on one that I carried and the phone was in the hall! In a nod to modernity, wireless Internet service was available in the lounge. Even my cell phone had given up.

But there was a comfortable bed and a nice window looking out on the main line. I watched train after train, first from the porch of the inn, then from my room and once again, sleep overtook me!

Lunch was that great American favorite...grilled cheese and homemade cream of tomato soup. It was terrific and not too filling since I wanted to dine aboard the westbound Builder.

The parade of both east and westbound trains lived up to its billing in front of the Izaak Walton. The tracks are literally in the front yard of the Inn and the show was terrific.

There was also a few helpers heading off to do their duty.

And the scenery... Even in September, there was snow in the hills.

Our Empire Builder was running just a few minutes behind schedule, which they made up before they got to Essex and the Inn's bus had us at the platform in plenty of time. Actually, I had thought about taking the short walk to the platform, but it had started to rain lightly, so, the bus was better.

There was only this old flat area long the main for passengers to use. A significant number of folks arrive and depart on each train, so Amtrak has given some consideration to making the facility a little more formal than a gravel patch by the tracks. The depot that had served Essex had been removed many years ago as rail passenger service began to wind down, but the Izaak Walton had expanded across the tracks and has become a major tourist center both summer and winter. It was the current owners of the Izaak Walton that convinced Amtrak to add a station stop along the line at Essex. Traffic has grown ever since. When I arrived that morning, two of us got off, and three got on the eastbound Builder and later that night, there were six getting off and five getting on the westbound.

There were several of us in the sleeper and again, easy to find my car, and my roomette. My very gracious steward, John had a seat reservation in the dining car for me for me. Dinner at eight it was and another fine show by the dining car crew. I had the special of the day, which was a ham steak with a terrific sauce and the usually well prepared Amtrak vegetables. Again, I passed on desert...same reasons as before, but everyone at my table had something and it looked great. Herbal tea, again for me. Humph.

Back to my room and all the walking and the brisk air of Montana inspired me to an early bedtime. John had my bed made up in no time and again, before Spokane, I was long gone.

Again, the shifting of cars was done so I slept right through. Good job, traincrew!

Again, a great nights sleep. I had reset my watch and woke up around four, glanced at the paper that had been slipped under my door, and fell back asleep until 630. What a treat to shower on the train and while going through the cascade tunnel. Breakfasting going downhill through the forest was beautiful. Another lesson, though: don't forget the first lesson about arriving early for meals. I very nearly missed breakfast and only by the quick actions of steward John, that I got into the diner at the last minute.

Again, good food and good service and breakfast with a young mother and her two exuberant boys so excited to be on the train. Great fun for them and for me, too.

As we got nearer to Seattle, it began to dawn on me that we were running pretty swiftly through the freight traffic maze north of the city and sure enough we arrived at Seattle King Street Station almost an hour early!

My connection to Tacoma was not for three hours, but because we were early, there on the next track was the southbound Coast Starlight. I rushed into the depot, presented my ticket and was shortly aboard headed south. I was so early into Tacoma that I had to organize alternate transportation home, but even that was without difficulty.

And almost before I knew it, my journey was complete, a great fun and success, for after all, the trip's the thing, isn't it?