For the holidays, my wife Abby surprised me with a trip to Portland, Oregon, a city and state neither of us had visited. We wanted to check the state off our list of states we hadn’t been to, so this was a great opportunity. The interesting part about the trip is that we were not flying from Washington, DC, we were taking a train. All the way. Across the country.
At first thought, many people think it’s crazy, but we thought it would be fun and probably something of an adventure. The impetus was my vast enjoyment of riding trains, something that started with my grandfather when I was a kid when I rode on Amtrak with him to New York Penn Station to visit his brother. Since then, I always enjoyed riding trains.
While there is a massive difference between a three-hour trip to New York and a three-day trip across the country, we had some experience in overnight train travel. After my parents purchased a home in Naples, Florida, we decided to take the train from Washington, DC to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a 22-hour ride along the east coast via Amtrak’s Silver Star. As it turned out, we loved it. It beat the hassle of flying and provided a leisurely way to travel to our destination. After another ride a year later from Florida to DC, we felt comfortable enough to take a trip across the country.
Our itinerary indicated that our trip began at Washington Union Station on Sunday, 10 March at 4:05 p.m. and arrived in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, 13 March at 10:10 a.m. It would be two and a half days on trains. Our first leg would be on the Capitol Limited, taking us from Washington to Chicago. After a six-hour layover, we would hop on the Empire Builder at 2:15 p.m. on Monday, 11 March, and arrive in Portland about two days later.
When the day came, we were thrilled to take our adventure, traversing more than 3,000 miles across the United States, including travelling through Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
On the day of the trip, a close friend dropped us off at Union Station in perfect timing to walk right on to the train. We found our sleeping compartment, a Superliner Roomette, as Amtrak called it. It was a very small compartment, with no room even for carry-on baggage. We could barely fit a backpack and purse under our seats. It was different than our Viewliner Roomette we had when travelling on the Silver Star, which had room for two carry-on bags, an in-room toilet, and a few more square feet. But at least our Superliner Roomette would allow us to lay flat and sleep our way through the night.
The train departed the moment the clock struck 4:05 p.m. We headed north along the train lines that run north and west of Washington, rather than north and east as I had been accustomed to when riding to New York. I had never been on these tracks before, so it was quite exciting for me. Immediately after getting settled in our room, we grabbed seats in the observation car, an entire train car that had seats facing sideways and had windows from floor to ceiling.
As I had already scoped out the train line that would take us to Chicago, I knew it would be important to get good seats, because, with the clocks pushing ahead for one hour just the night before, we’d have an extra hour of sunlight to view the Potomac River valley as the train snaked along the northern bank through Maryland and southern bank through West Virginia. We sat there for about two hours and watched the picturesque views until Abby went back to the room to take a short nap before dinner. We had enough light to view the river as we travelled through Harper’s Ferry and the Cumberland gap and I took excessive amounts of pictures with my mobile phone (thanks to forgetting my DSLR camera at home).
Around 8 p.m., shortly after the sun had set and we departed Cumberland, Maryland, we had dinner in the dining car. Passengers in sleeping compartments are considered “first class” and meals are included in the price of the tickets. Normally, these meals are in a full-service dining car, with meals made to order by an actual chef in a kitchen on the train. We were informed, for this trip, that we would instead be offered boxed meal that would be served hot. Abby and I didn’t care either way, so we would take what we could get.
We were quite impressed with what we received: a small side salad, chicken alfredo, and a warm roll with butter. Even better, because we were “snubbed” by Amtrak and given a boxed meal, an alcoholic beverage was included in our meal. As Abby wasn’t interested, the attendant gave me two beers, one of which I gave to another traveler. We were very pleased with the meals, especially the chicken alfredo, which had tasty pasta and real chicken, not boiled chicken like you find at a Subway.
After dinner, with full bellies, we retired to our compartment and awaited our beds to be made the by room attendant, Bill. After two calls to Bill via the intercom and still no sight of him, I made our beds, something I learned how to do by watching the attendants on our first two overnight trips. We went to sleep around 9:30, somewhere in Pennsylvania southeast of Pittsburgh.
When we woke up around 6 a.m., we found ourselves in northern Indiana, just east of South Bend, having just passed through northern Ohio overnight, strangely enough passing with about a half mile from where I used to live in a suburb of Cleveland. We received another hot boxed meal for breakfast, which was also quite lovely, and we ate as we watched the passing rustbelt cities of northern Indiana through the dining car windows. Around 7:45 a.m., we passed through Gary, Indiana, getting a view of the incredible industrial centers that now looked decrepit, on our way to Chicago for an on-time arrival.
We stepped off the train and made our way into Chicago Union Station, where we were to meet Joe, our friend who lived in a suburb, who graciously took off a day of work to spend the morning and early afternoon with us. Just inside the station, we found the Great Hall, which featured a refurbished first-class lounge where we could store our bags during the layover. After dropping them off in the luggage room, we met Joe about five minutes later. It was perfect timing.
We spent the next few hours walking through the cold Chicago morning, entranced by the 50-, 60-, and 70-story buildings that cast shadows across the streets. It was significantly colder than what we came from in Washington, but far warmer than Chicago had experienced recently. Abby and I, even with our winter coats, were freezing. Joe, wearing what seemed like a light jacket, was feeling great. We walked, and walked, and walked, stopping for coffee, taking pictures at the silver bean in Millennium Park and Navy Pier before stopping at Geno’s East for deep dish pizza for lunch. We went back to the station around 1 p.m. and said goodbye to Joe who took a commuter train back to the suburbs.
Our train boarded just about on schedule, and we were extremely excited to get on. For this two-day adventure, we had our own Superliner Bedroom on the train. Rather than a Superliner Roomette, which had the two bunk beds and no in-room toilet, a bedroom allowed us lots of space. While the room was only about seven by six feet total, it had a large bench seat that folded down at night to allow Abby and me to sleep side-by-side. The opposite side of the room had a chair, vanity, and our own personal shower and toilet. We didn’t have high expectations for the shower, but we felt it was a necessity considering we still had two more days on a train. We had plenty of room for our luggage and backpacks, too. We were grateful to have the bedroom, as Abby originally booked a roomette, but we upgraded our ticket about a week in advance of the trip. We were glad we did.
At first glance, the room seemed fine, but after a second glance, it had some issues. The first thing we noticed was a long piece of duct tape that was placed over the door jamb of a sliding door that adjoined our room to the next bedroom. Our guess was that the door jostled too much with the shaking of the train and the tape helped keep the door from making noise. We also noticed a large piece of aluminum foil that was jammed between the top of the shower compartment and ceiling, presumably for the same reason the duct tape was the door.
Shortly after our departure, our room attendant Carl stopped by our room to give us the lowdown on how the ride would go, and he informed us that he would be with us all the way to Portland. About 15 minutes later, as we made our way into Wisconsin, one of the dining car attendants secured our dinner reservation from 7:15 p.m. With nothing else to do, Abby and I sat in our compartment and took in the sights of Milwaukee and central Wisconsin.
Our first adventure on this train was to try out the shower. We didn’t have high hopes and were fully expecting the water to be lukewarm at best and have minimal water pressure. Much to our surprise, it was far better. The water pressure was strong, and the temperature was more than enough for me. The shower had bars to help maintain your balance, and if you needed to sit down, you could sit on top of the toilet seat. The water kept its temperature during my shower, and I was finally clean. Abby went next and had more than enough hot water as well. While the room may have been a bit subpar, the shower was fantastic.
Our dinner that night was familiar, as it was the same menu that we enjoyed on the train back from Florida in January. Considering the meal was included with our fare, I ordered the most expensive item, the “Surf and Sea,” a sirloin steak and crab cake with a baked potato and green beans.
As dusk turned to night, we found ourselves snaking another river, this time the Mississippi River between Wisconsin and Minnesota. As we were ready to go to sleep, instead of asking Carl, I made our bed. In doing so, I found that one of the seat cushions had ripped and been held in place with more duct tape, but it wasn’t doing much.
As we laid down to go to sleep, we put on a movie on Netflix, which I hooked up on Abby’s iPad via a mobile hotspot from my phone. As we laid there, we noticed that something else was shaking in the room. It was the connection between our vanity and the shower compartment. Doing my best MacGyver move, I wadded several tissues together and jammed them into the crevice. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. About halfway through our movie, we both dozed off as the train rocked us to sleep.
On Tuesday morning, having spent our second night in a row on the train, we awoke to a frozen tundra. A freezing, seemingly barren place called Minot, North Dakota.
Neither Abby nor I had been to North Dakota before, so we were happy to check off this state from our list of places we had visited, but were sure it would be our one and only visit. We were told that we had about 30 minutes in Minot, so disembarked and stepped onto solid ground.
Wrapped up in our heavy jackets, we were freezing as we looked around at the rail yard and Amtrak station. One of the rail workers, a portly man with a thick mustache who reminded me of Wilford Brimley, walked up to us as he inspected the train.
“Holy shit,” I yelled out. “This place is freezing!”
“Oh, no, it’s not that bad,” the man responded in a thick Dakotan accent. “This is nothing.”
Still amazed at the desolation of the area, I began to laugh in disbelief. “Do you live here?” I asked him.
I laughed more.
“Listen, you guys like coffee?” he asked as he pointed across the roadway in front of the station. “That’s the best cup of coffee in all of Narth Dahkohtah.”
Abby needed coffee, as she would get a headache if she didn’t have any caffeine, so we decided to take the walk. After almost slipping on ice several times, we made it across to the coffee shop, which wasn’t much of a shop. It was more of a tiny trailer, set up on blocks, in the middle of a small parking lot. Undeterred, we waited in the freezing wind for “the best cup of coffee in all of Narth Dahkohtah.” And when we got it, Abby took a sip and was quite happy.
“That guy was right, this is really good.” With a happy wife with her coffee, we made it the 100 yards back to the train without losing any limbs to frostbite and boarded. Now making our way through North Dakota, all we could see were fields of snow. There wasn’t much interest topography, except for the occasional hill, but this was the northern part of the great plains, so this was expected.
As we sat in our bedroom and looked out the window, we stopped about every hour for an occasional stop. I wondered who was getting on and who was getting off and for what reasons. Our reason was simple, we wanted to travel the country by train, but we were going coast to coast. Why would someone get on in a place like Williston, North Dakota, a place we had never heard of, and get off in Devil’s Lake, Montana, another place we had never heard of? Family? Work? Something else?
As we had lunch, we sat with two men who would help us answer that question. One was an oil worker at a rig in North Dakota, but he lived in Idaho. Sometimes he drove between the two locations, but this time, he said, he didn’t feel like driving, so he took the train.
“Lots of us oil guys are here on the train,” he said. “It’s just easy for us.” The younger guy sitting next to him was a mechanic on the rig. He was going all the way to Portland, just like us.
“Do you get a sleeper?” I asked.
“Nah, I can sleep anywhere, so I just curl up on two seats,” he responded.
It was pretty fascinating to us as we had never considered that oil workers wouldn’t live in the state but rather commute in from neighboring ones. As we walked through the train, we also encountered a few other reasons why people were on these trains. Some were college students, who could be identified by their clothing, age, and stops they got on and off. Others were people who feared flying or just didn’t feel welcome on flights. “Yeah, flying doesn’t take too kindly to me, so that’s why I take the train,” Abby and I overheard a man say.
As we made our way through Montana, we started to notice the topographical changes. In the distance we could see mountains, though they looked to be several hundred miles away, so we waited and just looked out the window. In the beginning, we thought we would be productive on the train. I would work on my next book, Abby would read a book, and we’d talk about future plans for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, none of that was getting done. It wasn’t like a plane where you were locked in a bubble for a few hours with really nothing to see. We were traveling by train, so we had the ground view of the scenery, the roads, houses, farms, ranches, and everything else. We were overtaken by the views, even though they weren’t of much.
As the afternoon rolled in and out, we showered and took naps, waking in time for us to get views of the Rocky Mountains that we entered from the east. It was a slower ascent than I imagined, but one that provided incredible views of mountain peaks, rivers, streams, and some tiny mountain towns.
We had dinner together later that night. Again, I ordered the most expensive item, the “Surf and Sea,” as I was going to get the most money out of this trip, whether anyone liked it or not. We dropped eaves to the table next to us, which had our companion from lunch, another oil worker, and a lady who seemed a bit too crazy. We enjoyed our meal and the entertainment from the next table. The banter between us and the dining car staff, particularly our waiter Chris, was a blast, and we gave him a $20 tip for providing such great service.
After dinner, we went back to our bedroom, and I made the bed. We dozed off fairly quickly, as we were now spending our third night in a row on a train. While it wasn’t particularly comfortable, we knew what we were getting into and had gotten used to it. We fell asleep somewhere in western Montana, knowing we’d be asleep through Idaho and eastern Washington before we woke.
About eight hours later, we awoke to incredible views of Washington state. By this time, our train was snaking along the Columbia River and provided views of terrain we hadn’t seen yet on our trip. The views were filled with cliffs of brown rock with large pine-needled trees that shot into the sky. We had an early breakfast, a hot boxed breakfast similar to our first breakfast on our first train. As we ate, we took in the sights, taking pictures when and where we could. Occasionally, we’d roll through a quick tunnel before turning around a bend in the river. The farther west we went, the greener the state seemed to be.
It was now about 7 a.m. and had less than three hours to go. We went back to our room and packed our bags to ensure we had an easy out. We enjoyed the rest of the journey along southern Washington before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon and heading south into Portland’s Union Station. We arrived about 20 minutes late, far within our expectations, considering the almost two-day train trip. We thanked Carl and took a picture with him, tipping him for the service and entertainment he provided, despite not making our bed.
We stepped off the train in a new state and a new city, seeing ground-level views of states we’d never been to: North Dakota, Montana, and Oregon. We met interesting people, heard interesting stories, tasted “Narth Dahkohta’s best coffee,” and ate steak and crab cakes. And we did it all on a train.
It was an adventure of a lifetime, one we might not ever do again. It was a truly unique experience, one I’m very grateful Abby booked for us. I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own, so I was very glad she was with me.