Sunday, April 27, 2014

North by Northwest On The Empire Builder

By Allen Bacon, The Daily Bosco

Traveling through the Northern Region of the United States near the Canadian Border during the Spring and Summer months is a special visual treat.

With the start of spring, the snow is melting and Wildflowers begin to paint the prairies with an explosion of color.  The Blue tint of the Prairie Crocus is followed in the Summer months by the Red Scarlet Trumpet, Bright Yellow Wallflower, Wild Blue Flax, and hundreds of other varieties of colorful flowers.

I recently experienced this, along with other wonders along the way, first hand by taking my favorite method of travel, the train, from Seattle to Chicago.

The route quickly became one of my favorite train rides through a wondrous and spacious part of our country.

The Empire Builder travels daily between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago following major portions of the Lewis and Clark trail and takes you on an interesting trip through majestic wilderness, Northern towns and cities.  The route roughly follows the footsteps of the early pioneers.

There are two alternate beginnings (or endings if you are traveling west) for the route. One starts/ends in Portland.  The other, which I took (due to coming down from Alaska) starts/ends in Seattle.

The two sets of train cars join/uncouple in Spokane.

Before boarding the train I took in a Mariner Baseball Game and ate some of the best ballpark food in America on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at an open-roofed Safeco Field.

Inside the park, my favorite eateries are Apizza and Edgar's Cantina.  Apizza (located at The Pen), offers New Haven style pizza including a thin-crust white pizza with delicious pepperoni as well as a Caesar salad pizzetti to die for.

Edgar's (Named after former Mariner great Edgar Martinez) has two locations inside the park. One is at the Home Run Porch and it offers a "Northwest Mex" menu for Edgar's Tacos.  The highlight is a basket of three fresh corn tortillas with the choice of carne asada, carnitas, chicken, or lengua topped with diced onion, cilantro, and cotija cheese.

Edgar's Cantina (behind the left field wall) features a south-of-the-border menu.  It has the popular pork carnitas and salchicha tortas, as well as the traditional carne asada and chicken.

You also have to try the famous garlic fries at the park at the Hit It Here Food Stand.

After the final out (The Mariners beat the Detroit Tigers this day),  I walked over to my favorite coffee shop/contemporary art gallery in the Northwest (Zeitgeist Coffee 171 S. Jackson Street) for one last cup of delicious coffee before boarding the Empire Builder in the late afternoon.

Because Zeitgeist is so close to the train station (a block away), it seems like I always end up there when traveling through Seattle.  Not that I wouldn't go there anyway.  There is a reason why it consistently wins or is in the top five "Best Cup of Coffee" in the coffee capital of the world.

We board the train and are soon on our way as the gorgeous coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest roll by and I watch the boats and sailing ships maneuver their way through the coastal waters.  During some parts of the year you are additionally treated to beautiful Sunsets over the Puget Sound as the train makes it way North and eventually makes the sweeping right turn and heads east.

Alternatively, the riders from the Portland portion of the trip are treated to spectacular views of Mt. Hood and Beacon Rock as they travel through the Columbia River Gorge.  At some point in my life I want to travel this section of of the few I have not been on yet.

When I am on a train, I usually have a hard time sleeping because I want to be able to soak in all the scenery.  Coupled with the fact it is the Northwest and it stays light out longer, I follow my pattern and am wide awake as the train pulled into Spokane shortly after midnight for it's longest lay over of the trip.

It is in Spokane where the cars from the Portland and the Seattle trains are joined together to form one large train that will make the duration of the trip on to Chicago.

I take the opportunity to get out and do a two mile walk in the warm Spokane air while we are stopped for close to three quarters of an hour.

The combination of the walk and a long, fun day in Seattle following the long trip from Alaska makes me ready for bed and I quickly fall asleep at my comfortable reclining seat next to the window as the train rolls across the Washington Desert, Idaho, and into Montana and the Mountain Time Zone in the middle of the night.

I woke up early on Monday morning somewhere between Libby and Whitefish, Montana.  I would like to say that I saw a beautiful sunrise but that was made impossible by the fact we were traveling through a beautiful scenic heavily forested area along a stream.  The sun shone through the openings in the leaves of the trees.

I strolled downstairs to the cafe, which had just opened to get a hot cup of Green Mountain Coffee.

I overheard some folks complaining in the cafe sitting area about how the train was running behind schedule.  There was a lady in her late 70's to early 80's sitting alone across from me and after the complaining party left to go back to their seats or the observation deck, we looked at each other and shook our heads.

"I didn't think we were that late," I said.

"We're not", replied the lady.

Which reminded me about how when you take a train, especially in America, you have to learn to roll with getting behind schedule and actually plan for it.  If you worry about it, then it takes away from the enjoyment of the journey.

I also was reminded about the wonderful people you can meet on the train.  The lady, who was on her way to visit her daughter in Montana, told me about her life.  She was a costume designer in Hollywood and her and her late husband would take these wonderful train trips all over America and Europe.

Good coffee and good conversation as beautiful scenery rolls behind you.  You really can't beat the combination.

We stop in Whitefish at their historic and quaint Alpine Style train station before breakfast and it affords another opportunity for me to get out and do an equivalent of a one mile walk in the fresh mountain air around town and by the train.

If you do that,  make sure you stick close to the train...because the conductor will leave without you.  We have 20 minutes here and in addition to the brisk walk,  I pick up the  Billings Gazette and send off some postcards to friends and family before getting back on the train.

Whitefish definitely has rustic charm amid the rugged beauty of the Rockies.  Nestled at the foot of Big Mountain and within a short train ride to Glacier National Park and the Canadian border, the area offers outdoor activities for all seasons, from skiing Whitefish Mountain Resort in the winter to cycling, horseback riding and whitewater rafting in the summer.

Once back on the train, It's now time for breakfast and I make my way to the dining room. The experience doesn't quite conjure up images of the Railroad Dining Cars of years gone by, but it's all right plus I'm hungry.  Unless you have a party of four, you have to sit with somebody else.  It's a great time to meet new people from all over which is what I did this morning.

On the Empire Builder you can choose between a selection of Classic Railroad French Toast, Buttermilk Pancakes, Omelets, Continental Breakfast and Scrambled Eggs with roasted potatoes or grits and a whole wheat biscuit, croissant or cinnamon raisin bread.

The meals are pricey (The Omelet breakfast which I had with fresh vegetables and cheese was $11.25) and the portions are small but are included if you purchased a ticket with a room. You can't beat the view as you eat, talk and ride through the Rocky Mountains as we approach Glacier Park.

During the spring and summer months, National Park Service guides are onboard the Empire Builder between Seattle and Shelby, MT from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.   As on other routes I have been on, I always like to listen to their presentation.  I have learned a lot about the history, culture and geography of our Country.

The other programs presented on different days of the week include: Between Havre, MT and Minot, ND - the Nez Peirce National Historic Park and Bear Paw National Battlefield.  Between Williston, ND and Shelby, MT or Malta, MT - Ft. Union Trading Post National Historic Site.  Between Stanton, ND and Shelby or Malta, MT - Knife River Indian Villages and between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Columbus, WI - the Mississippi River Recreation Area.

After stops to pick up passengers in Essex, Cut Bank, Shelby we are ready for another break in Havre to stretch our legs.

We crossed into North Dakota and the Central time zone in the early evening and it was as good a time as any to go back to the dining room for dinner.

The dinner choices include Black Marinated Steak, Vegetarian Pasta, Herb Roasted Half Chicken (my choice), Beef Shortribs or a salmon filet.  Add a choice of three dessert options. Again, it's pricey (they have a captive audience) but the food is delicious.

We traveled across the state of North Dakota during the middle of the night unfortunately.  The Westbound travelers are treated to traveling over the spectacular Gassmann Coulee Trestle during the early morning hours.

In the wee hours of the morning the train stops traveling east and makes a right turn in Grand Forks and heads south.  I was awaken around 2:30 AM by the lights of Fargo, ND and the train made another turn and headed in a southeast direction and into the state of Minnesota.

I woke up in time to get out in the Twin Cities for a scheduled 45 minute layover.  I am able to get in another two mile walk close to the station and pick up the Star Tribune before getting back on the train for breakfast.  This morning I enjoy eating and reading the newspaper in the cafe.

Most of our Tuesday is spent traversing the beautiful state of Wisconsin.  After being two days on the train, I am ready for a break.  Through my other train excursions, I have determined that two days is about as long as I can go before I need more than a 20-30 minute break off the train.  I guess some would call it cabin fever.  But after a few hours off I am ready to go again.

As we made our approach into Chicago, we take in a magnificent view of the Mighty Mississippi River.

I finished my trip on the Empire Builder by getting off the Train and walking through the extremely busy Chicago Union Station when everybody was rushing to get home after a long work day.  I walked past the Sears Tower, boarded the L Train and arrived at Wrigley Field just in time for the opening pitch of an evening Cubs game. It was perfect timing.

I would later, (that same evening after the game), return to the Train Station, board the Lake Shore Limited that took me to New York and Boston.

I will always remember my trip across the Northern United States through seven states on the Empire Builder.

I hope to return some day and try going in the East to West Direction during another time of the year.

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