I drag my trolley case through downtown Chicago. It feels good to walk after spending the last couple of hours on the plane that brought me from Baltimore to Illinois. The sky is incredibly blue, the air fresh, and on this early Sunday morning, you could almost smell fall approaching. I was on my way to Union Station, where my train would leave in a few hours. Westbound again.
I am going to see friends in Idaho. Why fly if there is a train running? I already figured that taking trains in the US is not for traveling quickly from A to B; these cross-country routes are for train lovers and those wanting to enjoy the ride itself. And I sure love riding trains! I like to see the scenery changing and to experience the distance. I like to spend time reading, sleeping, writing, and talking while being on the train. I’ll have plenty of time for all this as the ride estimates 37 hours.
Train routes in the US have names: I already took the “Southwest Chief” twice, which crosses the country through the southern and central states. This time I was taking “The Empire Builder “that runs from Chicago to Spokane/Washington, where it splits up in a northern route to Seattle and the southern route that runs to Portland/Oregon. I will get off in Sandpoint, ID.
Union Station! After finding the correct waiting hall, I take a seat and have a closer look at my fellow travelers. Quite a few seem to have also signed up for the long haul: the majority are elderly couples with a lot of luggage chatting excitingly, individuals with a pillow strung to one’s backpack, some families with kids.
Then, eventually, the conductor opens the glass doors that lead to the platform where the silver Amtrak train is already humming its typical and familiar sound. I’m excited and make myself comfortable after finding my seat on the upper deck of the carriage next to the panoramic car. Over the masks, I can see a lot of excitement in people’s eyes.
On-time we leave Chicago and slowly make our way through the outskirts of Chicago and out of Illinois. We travel through the marshlands of Wisconsin and along the Mississippi towards Minneapolis.
I wake up at dusk when the train crosses over from Minnesota into North Dakota. After passing Devils Lake, eventually, we are headed into the Northern Plains. The following hours I marvel at light brown endless grasslands, the occasional farm, oil pumps. From time to time, the train stops at places I have never heard of: Minot, Williston, Wolf Point, … I google all these places and learn about them. Many settlers from Norway and Germany once settled here. These days, the area sees an influx of people as oil, gas, and especially tight oil is extracted. Still, settlements are sparse, and there is lots of empty land. However, there are also many reservations for indigenous people of the region. I realize that we are loosely following the Missouri River well into Montana. Time flies, and the Golden Hour bathes the landscape in soft light. I change seats and sit in the panoramic car for a bit. Just in time! Suddenly I sense excitement among the people. On the horizon, the outline of a high mountain range comes into sight. The Rocky Mountains! The next stop is East Glacier Park Village, the gateway to Glacier National Park. Some people get off here excitedly. I’d wish me also! But this has to wait for another time. The views are awe-inspiring while the train slowly makes its way up to Marias Pass, where we cross the Continental Divide. Now, all the creeks and rivers will eventually flow into the Pacific Ocean. Rocks, granite, raging rivers. Finally, night falls while the train sounds its horn many times in these windy valleys through the mountains (which is an incredible sound when you like riding long distance trains). Finally, Sandpoint.