There are plenty of reasons to avoid Amtrak like a bout of indigestion: the frequent delays, the diner food, you get the idea. (No wonder sales have dwindled; only five billion passenger miles were logged in 2000, compared to 17 in 1960.) Still, I’ve always wanted to take a long-distance train trip.
My great-grandfather, Patrick Sheehan, was a conductor on the Empire Builder route (from Portland or Seattle to Chicago) during the Depression, back when it was the Great Northern Railway. So when my boyfriend decided to move East from Portland to be with me in New York City, we used the excuse to hop on board. It took us two days to purr along the Empire Builder’s 2,200 miles of tracks, and what we saw encapsulated the vanishing American West.
We departed Portland, Oregon’s 1890 Union Station on a sunny afternoon. The minute we settled into our “roomette” (roughly the size of a bathroom stall), the sleeping car attendant brought us dinner and two small bottles of champagne. The minuteness of space was immediately forgiven. (This service typical of Portland departures on the Empire Builder; you don’t have a dining car until you merge with the super-liners from Seattle.)
Soon the train began inching, then thundering, eastward, and America rolled past us. We saw the steep forested cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge; the snowcapped mountains and emerald rivers of Glacier National Park; a lone wolf stalking across a snow-covered cow field in Browning, Montana. Members of the Lakota Sioux tribe boarded en route to a powwow, and practiced their drumming and songs in the all-window observation car.
The two days passed like a dream. We’d packed games and books to entertain ourselves, but didn’t crack them once, not even in the flat, hardscrabble North Dakota grasslands. This land (your land, my land, Woody Guthrie’s land) was more than enough for us.
Info: 800/872-7245; Amtrak.com; trip for two from $300 per person, including a Superliner Roomette and all meals.
Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is a freelance editorial assistant at Travel + Leisure.