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?”
“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.”
“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.