As the end of my 30-day sojourn nears the end, this Seattle to Chicago leg will be unique. I am beginning a virtually non-stop, trans-continental train ride across the United States, and will arrive in Washington on the evening of my 30th and final North American Rail Pass day.
From Washington, DC, I will go Tuesday night to Williamsburg, VA where I will write for four days, then take a break for Thanksgiving.
THE EMPIRE BUILDER
Seattle to Chicago is the longest leg of my trip, and the longest time I will spend on a train. It is forty-seven hours to Chicago. This is two full days and two full nights — 2,206 miles, 47 hours, 45 minutes. To complete my trip across the country, I then travel another night and day from Chicago to Washington, DC.
I run the numbers.
When I reach Washington I will have ridden 10, 486 miles, an average of 340 miles a day. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like that much.
In fact, I’d be happy to hop another train and keep going.
Life on board has been comfortable (as long as I did not use Amtrak’s bathrooms).
I have spent my days writing as interesting country schoonered by. When I wanted interesting conversation, I headed to the observation car. People talk on trains and tell you their stories. Dinner always brought more new people with stories to tell. More often than not, I really liked these people. They were a feast.
One night my dinner companions were a man who sells wine in Australia and France, a former Princeton University professor who now lives outside Guadalajara, Mexico, and an Amtrak employee who was being sent to Minot, ND, for training.
Want a take on Australian wines? The wine seller said they are not great but they are commercial and the Australians have been driving the French crazy. His opinion: The French have nothing to worry about.
Want a take on Mexican drugs by one who has lived in Mexico for 30 years? The retired Princeton professor had one word for it: Hopeless.
Want to know why there are no cabooses anymore? The Amtrak man struggled, but it comes down to this: Technology.
Want to know about the Chinese and the Australians? “When the Australians dig a hole and find something, the Chinese rush down and buy everything in the hole,” the wine man said.
This is good stuff.
Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada, like most everyone else, have had enough of smokers and barely tolerate them.
Unlike hotels, the railroads don’t make passengers sign papers promising not to smoke because when passengers do smoke, the railroads can have you arrested and thrown in jail at the next stop.
I don’t smoke, but I come to enjoy the “smoke stops” which occur every three hours or so. It’s not merely the opportunity to use a clean bathroom.
On smoke breaks, when the train stops and empties for 10 or 15 minutes, I always scramble out to photograph the station and surrounding area. It doesn’t matter whether it is day or night. I’m out there. When the engine whistle blows, everybody climbs back on and off we go.
Only once did I have to run for the train — but that one time was quite a sprint. The Conductress planted herself and staunchly refused to step back on the train without me.
Smoke breaks were also useful to efficiently move long distances up and down the train.
If I want to go to or from the concessions car, it was a long hike — often six cars away. But if I waited for a smoke break, all I had to do was get off, walk down the platform and get back on any car I want to be on. I perfected this and became very good at it.
Finally, on smoke breaks, I saw things and meet people. It was on a smoking break that I first met Jumpinggirl.
At Wenatchee, MT, I notice someone jumping up and down in the distance. I go check it out.
The Jumper is a car attendant from a sleeping car adjacent to mine. She is trying to exercise. Unlike regular crew, she is on standby, and she is on her second run on this train with one-day rest. I have been on the train less than a day. She has been on it for 5 straight days. She cheerfully tells me she is losing her mind.
We decide to see who can jump highest.
I out-jump her. This does not please her at all.
Re-match: She out-jumps me.
Later I find her sprawled in the dining car hunched over a salad, wriggling her toes. “Hey! How you doing?” I ask.
“I ache everywhere,” she says. “I can’t exercise. I’m having my period and I’m constipated.”
Wait. Did she just say … ?
“I’m walking that back,” she says. “Hit me again.”
It’s Sunday afternoon and I am reading in my compartment. Havre, MT, is a forty-five minutes behind, and Malta, MT, is about thirty minutes ahead.
It is flat, gray, occasional snow dusts the ground here and there.
At 2:13 p.m. in the Mountain Time Zone with Edmonton Alberta, Canada, north and to the west, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan almost directly north, CA-WHOOMPH! An air blast smashes the side of the train.
A train is flashing by in the opposite direction. It is really moving. I check it out: Wow. That’s our sister train, The Empire Builder, heading in the opposite direction for Seattle.
My trip Seattle to Chicago is precisely half over.
(Photographs: Side of train with Minot, ND, Amtrak station in distance on left; street side entrance door to Minot, ND, station; interior station and Amtrak ticket counter, Minot, ND; a northbound train pulls into King Street Station, Seattle, Saturday, November 7, 2008, 1:20 p.m.)
Amtrak Train #8, “The Empire Builder”
Distance: Seattle, WA to Chicago, Illinois
2,206 miles / 3,550 kilometers
Trip Distance Total: 9,722 miles / 15,646 kilometers
Content and photographs of this blog, copyright 2008 jointly by Seine-Harbour Productions, Studio City, California, and Peter M. Crow