My AmTrak Valentine

American train travel has its charms, but not much luxury.

Our trip on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle marks our first multi-day trip on an AmTrak train.

Back in college, I flirted briefly with AmTrak, riding a six-hour route from Hattiesburg, MS, to Anniston, AL. The train averaged from ninety minutes to twelve hours late. Otherwise, though, the experience was a good one: snacks from the lounge, card games with strangers, and (once) the spectacle of native New Yorkers excitedly snapping photos of “the buffalo” grazing outside the Anniston Army Depot. (The animals were cows, actually.)


Six hours on a train is one thing. Two and a half days is another. Clyde and I are both saying that our experience so far is both better and worse than we expected.

The atmosphere in the Observation Car is spacious and pleasant, with the flat plains of Wisconsin or the bleak, snowy expanses of North Dakota rushing by. Frozen rivers, blanketed in snow, wind their way through the hills like highways paved with ivory.


The dining car staff is friendly, and, because each table must seat four, you quickly grow accustomed to being seated with strangers. Last night’s steak was better than steaks I’ve had at Roxx in Atlanta. This morning’s omelette, served with a “whole wheat biscuit” and three strips of bacon, was adequate. (Salsa would have helped.)


We’ve been promised tender, succulent pork shanks for lunch today, which probably is a better choice than the vegan corn-and-bean burger.

And then, of course, there are the sleeper car rooms.

We’re in Room C in car 730. It’s about four feet wide by six feet long. As you come in the door, two bench seats line the left-hand wall; these “recline,” but their real purpose is to slide forward, taking up all but about six inches of the room space, to make a narrow twin bed. Above these seats, a panel opens to reveal an upper bunk.

Last night, we climbed into the lower bunk and assumed our usual sleeping positions. I had expected the rocking motion of the train to be sleep-inducing; instead, when the train does late-night speeds, the jostling and tilting of the train made us feel a bit like jelly beans bounced around in a metal Band-Aid box.

The bed itself looks, but does not feel, padded. First, my shoulder ached. So I turned over — and in five minutes, my other shoulder ached, and my legs went to sleep. So I turned over again, and my knees throbbed. This cycle repeated all night, until, zombie-eyed and listless, we got up at 6:00 a.m. I have concluded the best way to get a good night’s sleep onboard will likely involve chemistry.

The window is opposite the door, of course, with an upright seat to its right. On the far right is the bathroom: a telephone booth-sized space with a hand-held shower head hanging from the ceiling and a toilet affixed to the floor.


Using the toilet means doing whatever you usually do, but with your shoulders hunched together and knees drawn up tight. Using the shower means sitting on the toilet to do whatever you usually do standing up, but with your shoulders hunched together and knees drawn up tight. Whether one is relieving oneself or bathing oneself, the compressed space does not encourage dilly-dallying.

All of that said: because we are who we are, we are happy — mostly, though, because we tend toward happiness. Happiness is our mean, our default position, our norm. If your own emotional thermostat tends toward the unhappy or discontent, you might consider crossing the wilds of North Dakota by car and sleeping in a motel.

This morning, after a night of tossing and turning, we awoke on Valentine’s Day. Clyde surprised with me a sensible and portable (given constraints on packing for this trip) pair of my favorite socks. I managed to surprise him with peanut brittle and coconut candy, but, alas, while he was digging for charging cables on Saturday night, he stumbled on the Russell Stover coconut cream eggs I’d hidden in my suitcase earlier.

Currently, I’m sitting in the Observation Car opposite Clyde. Outside the windows, North Dakota speeds past: squat, snow-covered hills punctuated with fine brown grasses; isolated farm houses; oil tankers on the tracks beside us. Google Maps tells me we’re in a town called Stanley, but this could be anywhere, anyplace in North Dakota, because it all looks alike — at least, so far.

This is not luxury, and it’s definitely outside our usual routine. But none of that matters: we’re together, it’s Valentine’s Day, we’re on an adventure, and the sun is beginning to peek out from behind the low, thick clouds.

Thinking of taking the Empire Builder yourself? See my post on Empire Builder Travel Essentials — everything you need to know before you go.


Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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