The Empire Builder Westbound – Chicago to Fargo

All settled in!


The Empire Builder Westbound 

January 6, 2010 

Chicago to Whitefish 

Part I                                                   Staking our Claim 

Renewed, refreshed, and ready to go, we boarded on time at 2:00 p.m. Following Lin’s lead – given her experience and new status as a senior citizen, we were among the first to board The Empire Builder, ahead of many in the long line of passengers who were back-logged from the two-day weather related shut down.  Out on the platform, with a hoard of hurried passengers behind us, the conductor asked our destination and directed us to the third car. 

              The Empire Builder is a different breed than the Lake Shore Limited. Its two- tiered cars have elevated upper-level seating designed for comfort and relaxation on the long haul across America’s northern frontier.  However, beware; getting to the upper level coach-class seating is a struggle. Even with my lightened load – less one bottle of wine, ascending the narrow flight of stairs and navigating through its two right-angle turns up to coach seating was a test of strength, common sense packing, and a level of gracefulness that I was lacking.  Lin had to come back to my rescue when my collection of excessive luggage literally wedged me into a jam; I couldn’t move up or down.  I handed her a few of my bags, and I was able to resume my climb. 

At last on top, with the near empty car in front of us, our objective was to secure the perfect seats, and we believed we had done just that. We claimed the first double seat with a full, unobstructed window. In no time, we were relaxing and appreciating the elevated view, greater leg room and reclining seats, all better than the Lake Shore Limited.  Our bliss was short lived, however.  The seats behind us were claimed by two passengers:  a helpless, whiney, falsely sweet, and genuinely irritating twenty-something female and her spineless male companion.  

“Honey, can you put my bags up? Oh honey, I forget my book; can you get it for me?  Do you know where my pillow is?” 

“Yes dear.” 

“Honey, I’m getting hungry. Where are our snacks? If we lost them, I’m going to be really, really angry. You know how miserable I can be when I’m hungry.” 

“Yes dear.” 

“Honey, am I irritating you? Honey, I’m sorry.”  

Lin and I turned to each other, exhaled deeply, dropped our jaws, and rolled our eyes in unison: “Yes, you are irritating.”  We are two self-reliant women and proud of it. Even faced with relinquishing our prized seats, we couldn’t begin to tolerate the prospects of listening to this nonsense for the next thirty-six hours.    

In code, we both agreed that we needed a plug. Under the guise of searching for an electrical outlet to recharge our cell phones, Lin headed up the aisle to seek better arrangements. It didn’t take long. This time we deftly picked up our belongings and swiftly claimed another seat. Then, uh no!  My foot rest didn’t work. Once again, quickly and without missing a beat, we shuttled to the two empty seats across the aisle.  Finally we thought we were all set.     

However, for all our efforts, the good-seat gods frowned upon us.  Down the line, a young mom boarded with her eleven-month-old son and took the seat next to us. Soon after, the seat behind us was occupied with a mom with a two-year- old daughter.  Being grandmothers, we agreed the children were charming, and we commended the parenting skills of the moms.  Nonetheless the fussing followed us to Fargo, when at 3:00 a.m. they disembarked, leaving behind a car load of restless and sleepless passengers – including us.


Lake Shore Limited – Westbound to Chicago

Lake Shore Limited – Westbound to Chicago

January 5, 2010

Scheduled Rochester departure:   11:00 p.m. 

Actual Rochester departure: 11:50 p.m. (Not too bad.)  

A busy day led to the late night departure.  Bill and I worked through the final editing on his two articles under deadline for the Spring issue of Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine (wild turkey and opening day of trout fishing), passing drafts across the kitchen table, reading silently and aloud, changing sentences and words here and there, burning CDs, and printing contact sheets with the accompanying images.  After hasty showers and last minute packing, we headed over to Holly’s Red Rooster for an unhurried meal together before I departed on an eight-day adventure with Lin to visit Conrad and Dawn in Kalispell, Montana, via Amtrak.  During dinner, the snow was accumulating quickly on the cars parked across Maiden Lane. We knew we had a slow drive ahead over icy roads to pick up Lin in Naples and get to the train station in Rochester.

We arrived at the terminal before 10:00 p.m. Lin and I claimed our tickets and checked our bags through to Whitefish. The Lake Shore Limited has been jokingly, but aptly, nicknamed the Late Shore Limited, but we got a promising report that the train was en route, already in Syracuse, and only twenty minutes behind schedule.  We assured Bill it was okay to leave us behind and head back to Penn Yan.  

By 11:50 p.m., we were boarding. We each carried what we thought would be our essentials for what was supposed to be a 46-hour train ride ahead. Up the narrow steps to coach class, I wrestled a small, wheeled suitcase, a spacious canvas tote – holding a well-stocked cooler, my blanket and neck roll, and my “healthy back bag”- doubling as a purse, cosmetic case, and mobile office. Lin was much more streamlined with only one wheeled duffle and an inconspicuous purse over her shoulder.

All aboard and not particularly sleepy, Lin twisted the cap off our first split of wine for a toast to our trip. We settled in for the night. Over the next six hours, I drifted comfortably in and out of sleep whenever the train stopped to let passengers on and off or freight lines pass, catching glimpses of wintery night sights along the route.  

At Buffalo, I remember a mysterious ruin of a massive warehouse or factory at the edge of the track. The city’s night lights glowed through the falling snow, illuminating its eerie silhouette, outlined through broken window panes and crumbling walls.  Maybe it had been a public market or livestock exchange. My read for the trip was City of Light, by Lauren Belfer, which is steeped in Buffalo’s industrial and architectural history at the turn of the last century. I was well enough into it to feed my curiosity. When I discover the old building’s history, I’ll let you know.

About 4:00 a.m., the train pulled to a stop at the Cleveland station in the shadow of the Dawg Pound at Cleveland Browns Stadium. A wind generator was working overhead.  I pitied the passengers waiting to board in the bitter cold at this hour of the night. Cleveland city center, surrounding the Cuyahoga River and still in holiday lights, looked more inviting than I thought Cleveland could.  

By 5:00 a.m. in Sandusky, Ohio, I woke long enough to see the unmistakable constellation of brightly lit coasters at Cedar Point Amusement Park in the distance to the north.  That momentary image still strikes me ironic:  a classic symbol of summertime now glowing with frosty white lights and lake effect snow along the desolate, wintry shoreline of Lake Erie. 

People watching was a constant amusement. Boris and Natasha in the seats next to me, right out of the Orient Express, spoke broken English heavily accented with a Russian flair. She, dark-haired and fashionable, and he, foreign and well-dressed, passed the time reading a bi-lingual edition of a movie-star magazine headlining Marilyn Monroe. What’s that about? Were they typecasting Americans as much I was typecasting them?  I imagined stories of their identity, but was left only with my unasked, unanswered questions. Further along in the trip, I concluded many bolder Amtrak passengers could easily strike up a conversation with a stranger to satisfy any curiosity; however, in the end, I suspected they were more motivated to paint their own colorful self-portraits than to understand another’s.  

We slept well enough. Lin delivered hot coffee from the lounge car as soon as it opened, which I savored.  I managed a serial breakfast, one course at a time – unwrapping a juice box, squeezing cream cheese from a foil pouch onto my bagel, peeling an orange. We had a clumsy time with meal preparations, splattering portions of yogurt, half & half, and juice, joking we’d be smelling like the baby by the time we arrived in Montana.   With enough time for an adequate camp-style grooming in the car’s lavatory, the Lake Shore Limited delivered us into Chicago’s Union Station on schedule at 10:00 a.m. 

The four-hour layover before boarding the westbound Empire Builder was easy going. We snapped shots of the station’s great room, surprisingly vacant except for its grand holiday décor.  I expected a bustling retail haven like the stations in New York and Washington, DC. Lin was a good guide, leading us expertly to the one-and-only pub-style dining establishment at the station. We had a salad, a bowl of chili, and a bottle of wine for lunch. The departures board directed us to Gate 19. The Empire Builder was on schedule, but we learned it hadn’t run in two days. (We assumed winter weather was to blame.) Among the first to board the train by taking full advantage of Lin’s new senior citizen status, we were in much better spirits than the crowds of weary passengers, back-logged and perhaps two or three days behind schedule

A test run:

Well this is surely a slow start to blogging, but I’ve finished (well enough, I guess) my first real post about my recent train trek to Montana.  It’s such a slow start that you’ll soon see that I’ve only made it to Chicago, so far.  Meanwhile – I also tried to post some photos of the trip (they,too, only take you as far as Chicago) — but where are they?  I’ll have to sign up for Dawn’s class to get more adept at all of this,  but here goes!