I am very enthusiastic about riding trains. Not the ones with which people commute to work. I am in awe of the long hauls. I have already ticked off the box of riding trains in Russia, Kazakhstan, India, New Zealand, and China. In the U.S., I have crossed the country three times by Amtrak already. Now, with being back in the U.S. for some time and wanting to catch up with friends in Portland and in Idaho, it is the perfect opportunity to close a little gap of the “Empire Builder” route in the Northwest (between Portland and Sandpoint, ID) and to eventually ride on an Amtrak train in winter. I had this idea in mind to marvel at fantastic winter sceneries while sitting on the train that crosses the Rocky Mountains and the prairies of the north, close to the border towards Canada. So, I booked another cross-country trip from Portland to Chicago on the “Empire Builder” and from Chicago to Washington, D.C., on the “Capitol Limited”. A real across-the-country-experience. I love traveling slowly, experiencing the distance between places, and seeing what’s in between. This is especially interesting in the U.S., where everyone only focuses on the big cities on the coasts.
Whereas in many European countries, trains are even used by business people to get to their meetings, the clientele that uses Amtrak trains in the U.S. is quite different. Other than the people that take the train for pure pleasure and to see the country, it’s the people that cannot afford a flight, do not have a car, or even look to travel under the radar. So you get to meet some characters and hear quite some stories, and the mere appearance of some people nudges your imagination of what their lives might look like. And yes, I got to meet some veterans, college students, occasionally big Amish or Mennonite families, and people that try to convince me that Jesus will also save my life.
However, traveling by train in winter comes along with cancellations, delays, and other setbacks: the train was canceled for about ten days in late December due to massive winter storms in the north. Until very near my departure at the beginning of January, I couldn’t be sure that the train would run. But it did! So, I flew out to Portland, caught up with a friend, and boarded a train to Spokane, WA.
Even though many train stations are not located prominently, they are sometimes found in impressive buildings from back when traveling by train was a privilege. Portland’s Union Station e.g. was opened in 1896 and has a huge waiting hall with wooden benches and a lovely tile floor that breathes the good old rail times. I am excited and cannot help myself, but it amazes me to go by Amtrak. The silver charger is humming powerfully while the conductor hands out seat numbers to us passengers on the platform. This time of the year, a weekday in January, the trains are not crowded, so I get two seats. The train leaves on time and makes its way through the Columbia Gorge along the Columbia River. Unfortunately, it is already too dark to see the Bridge of the Gods, which spans the Columbia, and where I started my Pacific Crest Trail hike in 2017. I make it to Spokane, WA, just after midnight.
After a few days with friends in Idaho, it was time to get back on the “Empire Builder”. In Spokane, the train coming in from Seattle and the one coming in from Portland get connected. Nervously, I track the trains and find out that the one from Seattle is delayed. Oh well, it was scheduled to leave from Spokane at 1:15 am; eventually, we leave at 2:30ish am. Immediately, I fall asleep on my coach seat. When I wake up, the day dawns, and I realize that the train is making its way slowly through the windy valleys of the Rocky Mountains. I am wide awake and soaking in all the fantastic scenery: snow-covered mountains, impressive rock faces, frozen lakes, and wooden lodges in the rare settlements. A couple of hours later, we leave the mountains behind and continue on the high plains and prairies of Montana and North Dakota. The land is flat, and the mountains are still visible in the backdrop; the ground is mostly covered in snow. From time to time, I see run-down little farms with a handful of cars rusting away on these properties. The conductor probably reads my mind and says we are crossing the Black Feet Reservation right now. I am happy that the train does not go fast, because now I can enjoy these vast open landscapes I love so much. A darkening winter sky makes it appear even more dramatic. Also, witnessing a sunrise and a sunset in Montana makes quite an impression on the state’s sheer size. We roll into North Dakota with the first glimpses of the night. Minnesota flies by at night, and just before crossing into Wisconsin, I realize that the route follows the Mississippi. It’s almost completely frozen as the thermometer hits -16 C. I was engaged in a charming conversation with the conductor for the last few hours. It was interesting to hear his stories and have him share insights and knowledge of the route. We arrive in Chicago at dawn. The conductor’s back home; I can tell he is happy. Before saying our farewells, he gives me an original Amtrak blanket (A nice gift for a train enthusiast!) and a big hug.
We were only one hour delayed, so I made my connecting train. The “Capitol Limited” departs in Chicago and makes its way through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and into D.C. The train is fully booked, so I will have to share seats with a college student traveling to Ohio. We are not talking; he immediately puts in his earphones. Two men in the seats behind us are watching a sports match, and both of them are really engaged in discussing the game. I have trouble falling asleep: my backside hurts from all this sitting, and I am thirsty and not tired. But when the sun rose, I was in a restless sleep. I decided to listen to an audiobook. The scenery was amazing once we eventually hit the Appalachians.
The train noticeably slowed down as we had to go through narrow and windy valleys. We follow the Potomac for a bit, and just outside of Harper’s Ferry, there is the confluence with the Shenandoah River. Next to the bridge on which the “Capitol Limited” crosses the waters is another bridge on which the Appalachian Trail crosses. After that, we rolled into the densely populated urban spaces of the East Coast. Eventually, I could spot the tip of the Washington Monument peaking over office buildings in the vicinity of Washington’s Union Station. I made it 30 minutes early.
Tired, with an almost sore back side, but super happy about yet another long-distance train experience, I left Union Station.
This was the fourth time that I crossed the U.S. with Amtrak. I spent 63 hours on trains this time and covered a distance of about 4600 kilometers (2900 miles). The ticket for the coach seat cost me about 300 USD. But it was worth every cent: again, I got to see amazing landscapes, experience distances, and meet people I would never have met otherwise.