How the Empire Builder
made me a fan of the rails
By Olga Bonfiglio / OpEd News / July 5, 2011
The first time I ever took a train was with the girl scouts when our leaders, Mrs. Belko and Mrs. Rieburger, planned a Saturday day trip to the Holland Tulip Festival. About 15 young girls with a couple mother-sponsors rode the rails from Detroit to Grand Rapids and then took a bus to Holland.
This was a memorable trip for me, mostly for its long distance from home, the back and forth swaying of the train that made walking difficult, the toilets that emptied their contents onto the track, and the conical paper cups that held water from the push-button dispenser.
Today, trains have more significance for me than did the curiosities of my youth. They are a “green” way to travel and a key component of our public transportation system. They avoid the hassles of freeway driving and the expense of auto parking or the long waits and delays of the airport. And, they are just plain fun to ride.
After discovering the Empire Builder, the long-haul line from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, I decided the adventure of “eating up” all those miles was just too good to miss. Fortunately, a friend of mine who lives in western Montana provided me with the perfect excuse to go cross-country by train. And, after spending 31 hours and one night, I quickly realized I had a lot more reasons to enjoy this wonderful form of travel.
As a writer, I need time and space to allow ideas to flow more easily through me. Staring out the window of a train that rocks back and forth as it moves forward provides both the rhythm and the environment for solitude. The low-toned rumble of metal on metal is more soothing than the high-pitched muscle of jet engines or the droning of an auto motor.
I can scribble down notes for an article I’m working on, read, reflect on my encounters with fellow passengers, or just be alone in my thoughts. I can also be inspired by the passing landscape, small towns, big cities, and the diversity of people that trains seem to attract, like the 90-year-old woman traveling alone to see her sister; the legions of Amish who picked up the train at different stops to attend a family funeral; the young man with no legs who ordered lunch in the snack car; the cowboy with his hat, jeans, and boots who sat by himself all the way from Montana to Milwaukee; and the big, hulking Native American who kissed his wife for 30 to 40 minutes before he boarded.
In truth, trains are one of the last public spaces left in our society and they also demand a different kind of behavior than we are accustomed to in today’s fast-paced, impersonal, high-security, privatized society. You can interact with other passengers you don’t know, feel safe with them, and be with people who are largely respectful toward their fellow travelers.
On a long haul train people seem to want — and conductors seem to care about ensuring — an environment that is quiet and absent the omnipresent cacophony of electronic devices, boisterous talking, and rowdiness. Of course, the Lounge Car is available for those who prefer more spirited interaction.
As with any public space, trains beckon you to explore them in a number of ways. You can walk around to stretch your legs or use the restroom. You can go to the Lounge Car to play cards, read, observe the scenery or get a snack. You can also go to the Dining Car for a delicious meal at a table complete with a tablecloth, cloth napkins, real silverware, and friendly servers.
Because space is limited, the maitre d’ uses every seat, so if you are traveling alone or in a group with less than four, you will sit with other travelers.
Wearing some kind of identifying mark like a Chicago Cubs cap, a Lady Gaga t-shirt, or a place-oriented jacket as I did, provides you with a handy conversation starter. Several young people stopped me to ask if I knew their friends when they saw my Kalamazoo College jacket.
Train personnel are generally more interactive than those you find on airplanes. And on a long haul line, they’re with you for the entire trip, so you get to know them because you both are on train time where the time boundaries are much broader and the pace more leisurely. Isn’t that what life should be about anyway?
All of these opportunities for encounters enhance your travel experience because they are energizing and engaging compared to other more hurried, confined, and oppressive forms of travel where you want to get out of the vehicle as soon as you can.
Traveling in a long haul train also allows you to feel the expanse of the country. An overnight ride is exciting to fathom when you realize that you go to sleep in one place and wake up hundreds of miles away in another. Air travel, of course, provides a similar experience except that your focus is on the hours you must sit in your cramped little seat. Flying, though fast, is more surreal because you cannot see the space you traverse since you are at least a mile high over the ground with much of it blocked by cloud cover.
Car travel allows you to traverse the miles at your own pace and convenience, but you must be vigilant to the road and, like air travel, you are confined to a small space. And although you travel on public roads, you tend to treat your car more like private space.
My ride to Whitefish, Montana (what a funky name for a town!) covered 1620 miles of the northern-most parts of the United States. I crossed the mighty Mississippi River and saw the “spacious skies” and “amber waves of grain” gradually give way to the “purple mountain majesties.”
I felt both pride and blessedness in my country as we passed by industrious large cities, quaint small towns, colorful farms, and magnificent landscapes of forests, rivers, and plains that have each created unique cultures and lifestyles sensitive to place. One surprising effect of this long ride was that I came out of it feeling as though I had just witnessed Walt Whitman’s America.
Sleeping comfortably on a train can be a challenge but it’s certainly not as bad as trying to sleep in an airplane. If you travel by coach, you might be lucky enough to have two seats to yourself, which then provides you with a couple of options: you can curl up across the seats or you can sit up and use the foot rest or leg rest. I found it comfortable to stretch my small body diagonally across two seats with my head wedged in my traveler’s pillow at the window and my feet on the leg rest of the other seat.
Since you are primarily traveling through the countryside, there is virtually no light coming in from outside. Meanwhile, the low blue ceiling lights in the aisle help guide your way should you need to get up during the night. People seem to quiet down around 10 and the motion of the train soon rocks you to sleep. I got eight hours each night while on the train, more than I usually get at home, and felt refreshed in the morning as the sun rose on the Dakota prairie.
If you want to sleep on a bed or have more privacy, you can purchase a roomette or a first class cabin. This more costly option also includes your dining car meals, a wine tasting party at 3 p.m., and certain privileges at train stations. It is a means of travel reminiscent of the days when only the wealthy could afford such luxury on trains.
The summer-long Rails to Trails Program, a special collaboration between Amtrak and the National Park Service, also offers travelers the opportunity to learn more about the countryside and its historical and geographical significance from volunteers who enthusiastically research and prepare scripts of useful information about the places you are seeing out your window. You will find them in the Lounge Car.
As a result of my trip on the Empire Builder, I have come to believe that trains facilitate your ability to be a “real traveler” because you can meet a variety of people, learn about their lives, discuss their ideas, and really see the country. This trip has inspired me to take more long haul train journeys with the goal of seeing the entire country by rail as long as I have the time and money to do so.
Trains take a little longer than other modes of transportation but the experience they provide enriches you even before you arrive at your destination and savor each passing mile. Go Amtrak!
[Olga Bonfiglio is a freelance writer and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. The former professor and nun has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice, and religion. She currently volunteers as a gardener and lamancha goat handler on a small dairy farm in southwest Michigan. This article was published at and distributed by OpEd News.]