ESSEX, Mont. – Twenty-nine hours and 1,547 miles after leaving Chicago a day earlier, the Empire Builder arrived Tuesday evening at the place we’d all been waiting for: Glacier National Park.
Mile after mile of flat land through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota had passed, then the conductor’s voice came over the PA system: “Folks, this is my favorite part of the whole trip.”
As the train rumbled past snowy peaks and rushing rivers, passengers crowded into the observation car and pressed their faces against any unclaimed window they could find. Kids and adults alike tried to identify animals that whizzed by.
A bald eagle swooped down behind the train and followed us for a while, though I failed badly trying to take a picture of it from the back window of the rear train car.
A giddy Amtrak employee passing by my seat stopped to marvel at the pattern in a river’s rapids. Even kids who had been running up and down the aisle sat transfixed in front of the observation car’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Look at those big trees!” a woman said in Spanish to a young boy who didn’t need to be told (he was already looking very intently).
One of the biggest selling points of long-distance train travel, everyone I talked to seemed to agree, is watching the landscape change as you cruise across the country. What Amtrak lacks in speed – the Empire Builder tops out at 79 mph and usually travels far slower – it more than makes up in scenery.
Until I took this roughly 60-hour train trip from D.C. to Spokane, I’d really only ever traveled around the United States by air. For all the benefits of flying, it’s hard to grasp just how vast this country is until you see everything between the big cities.
Each stretch of landscape along the way is beautiful in its own right. After leaving Chicago on Monday afternoon, the train made its way north from along Lake Michigan to Milwaukee before turning west toward the Twin Cities. We passed through Minnesota and the easternmost part of North Dakota at night, and by daybreak on Tuesday we were greeted by a cloudless sky and golden-brown fields that stretched to the horizon.
After an hourlong stop in Minot, North Dakota, to refill the train’s diesel fuel and water supply, we continued west into Montana, where gathering clouds only made the sky seem bigger.
Still, by the time I arrived in Spokane after 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, there was no question for me what the biggest draw of the Empire Builder is. If you’ve got the time – and you don’t mind catching a train from Spokane in the middle of the night – there’s nothing like passing through the Rockies on an Amtrak.
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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