Archive for March, 2011

Across the Frozen North on Amtrak

6 March, 2011

In 34 posts below I detail my late winter adventure on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, America’s best train. It started as an ordeal, with blizzards and derailments delaying my journey, but ended a pleasure. Start at post 1 and ride along to post 34.


34 – Chicago Found

5 March, 2011

Twilight arrival

Through a light snow, the lights of Chicago’s skyscrapers are a kaleidoscope of colors and reflections. The Empire Builder threads it’s way through this other-worldly forest to its destination in the heart of the city, beautiful, busy Union Station. I do a final check for any valued detritus and walk down the stairs to the lower level for the last time. I bid Mr Denman a final goodbye and step into the night. The promises and pleasures of Chicago ahead.

33 – Old Milwaukee

5 March, 2011

Almost there

The train stops at platforms buried under a building here in Milwaukee. I’ve always liked this spunky town, which is feeling its spunk thanks to the victory of local fave the Green Bay Packers in this year’s Super Bowl. I can think of several bars I’ve knocked back a few good local brews that are close to the downtown station. But the temptations are muted, I can sense Chicago just south.

32 – Not “driving a butt-numbing 12 hours a day”

5 March, 2011

The best corridor travel

We’re rolling through the middle of Wisconsin, past the state’s clichéd dairy farms that are surrounded by cows giving steamy snorts in the cold air. I’ve come 2000 miles and have 200 to go. Had I driven the most direct route, I’d go 2100 miles along bland and generic interstates, with gas stations and fast food joints offering excuses to rest my legs; one bit of franchised artifice blurring into another. Driving a butt-numbing 12 hours a day, I’d need three full days to cover the route. And I’d miss the dramatic route through the mountains I witnessed from the Empire Builder. I wouldn’t have heard the Emma’s or Jim’s stories or enjoyed that Syrah. Instead of the gentle motion of the bed in my roomette, with the haunting notes of the distant train whistle, I could have enjoyed a cookie-cutter room in a roadside motel with atmosphere provided by passing semis. I think not.

31 – Along the Mississippi

5 March, 2011

Got skates?

Amtrak splits the difference between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, with a simple station midway between the two. It’s little preparation for what awaits as you head south on the final day of the trip: a 140-mile-long run along the mighty Mississippi River. Today it’s the ultimate ice skater’s dream, a vast frozen river stretching far into the distance. But look close and you might detect some of the same charms espoused by Mark Twain, who once said in an interview:

“It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi. The river below St. Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part.” Adding: “Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages–everything one could desire to amuse the children.”

30 – Pancakes!

5 March, 2011

Joy on a plate

One glance outside at the Minnesota dawn and I know in my heart of hearts that I must honor past commitments, that I must hold true to promises I’ve made myself. Today is the morning for pancakes. Slipping into my sunny dining car booth, my anticipation builds as I sip coffee and think of the movie Fargo, which was filmed in these parts. But I quickly forget Frances McDormand’s addictive accent (“you betcha!”) when my plate of joy arrives. I am not disappointed, the pancakes have a yeasty sweet quality that has me smiling with every bite. If I could have these all the time, I’d a) maybe start to become a morning person, and b) need to go on a month-long fast.

29 – B52s w/o the Rock Lobster

4 March, 2011

8 degrees of frostization in Minot

There’s no rock lobster here but there are plenty of B-52s. Minot, ND, is home to a squadron of the iconic US Air Force bombers, Cold War veterans that have been flying for almost as long as the Empire Builder has been running. The base dominates local life, the newspaper on the rack at the station headlines: “50 Years of 52s”. This is the last chance to stretch the legs outside before the long night ends in Minneapolis. A frosty 8F outside, the station offers warmth and a warm gesture: a rack of free books for travelers.

28 – So Many Interesting People

4 March, 2011

Jim Forrey

“Man you meet so many interesting people,” says Jim Forrey sipping a beer after dinner. Lounging around the closed dining car while the waiters who have been running for 15 hours sprawl on the seats, Jim gives a thumbs up to his first long trip by train. It’s a quiet winter for him – he promotes bands and progressive activism around Minneapolis – and he’s taken a break to drive a car to Portland for friends. Looking out the window at the occasional spots of lights from another small North Dakota town, he recounts growing up in one in Minnesota: “You either leave, hang out in the bar or get married.” He’s clearly not ready for his trip to end tomorrow and he says with a conviction that shows that national pride wears no one political stripe: “I love seeing our country.”

27 – Is that a potato or are you just happy to see me?

4 March, 2011

Modest-sized spud (and meatloaf)

For decades the size of your baked potato was of literally huge importance to travelers on the trains across America’s northwest. In the 1930s, the Great Northern Railway gamely boasted that its baked spuds on the Empire Builder were “big”. But this claim was mashed by arch competitor Northern Pacific, whose own “big” baked potatoes made the GN’s look like tots. Weighing in at 2lb, these behemoths of the side-dish set gave a certain starchy cachet to the NP’s trains which competed against the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago but which never had the same glamour. Tonight in the diner, I’ve opted for the bison meatloaf (tangy, not bad) with a baked potato on the side. My spud is tasty but thankfully for my dessert desires, it’s not of a size that could crush a toe if dropped.

26 – Cold, Dirty Work

4 March, 2011

Frozen frustration

My respect for railroaders is immense. It’s hard, dirty work that is unforgiving. Ignoring the rules, letting your attention slip can end in calamity. Yet people are rather cheery, even the ones who have to battle the ice on the cars to check things and restock supplies at stops.