Sunday, September 9, 2012

Empire Builder turns Chicago trip into a land cruise - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

ABOARD AMTRAK'S EMPIRE BUILDER -- Though not the longest Amtrak route -- that title belongs to the Texas Eagle, which travels from Chicago to Los Angeles -- the Empire Builder from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago offers a leisurely, 2,250-mile trek that takes about 48 hours to complete.

Coming from the West Coast, the Empire Builder actually begins as two separate, shorter trains -- one from Portland with an observation car, one from Seattle with a dining car. They meet in Spokane, Wash., and join to form one long train.

The trains leave Portland and Seattle in the late afternoon, and travelers from Portland who book a room receive a box dinner because the dining car won't be available until the trains reach Spokane around midnight. (Coming from Chicago, the trains divide the same way at Spokane at 1:40 a.m. on the third and final day of the trip.)

But the boxed dinner on the train from Portland is a fair trade for the opportunity to view the Columbia River Gorge from the observation/lounge car with its curved wall-into-ceiling windows. Tracks run along the Washington side of the Columbia, offering spectacular views of Oregon's northern edge, including Multnomah Falls, the ornate art deco design of the Bonneville Dam and abundant wildlife. On our trip in May, two bald eagles could be seen soaring within 50 feet of the train.

The Empire Builder slinks along the edges of Glacier National Park during daylight hours in the summer, arriving at the East Glacier Park station from Chicago at 6:45 p.m. and from the West Coast at 9:54 a.m.

PG graphic: Amtrak's Empire Builder route
(Click image for larger version)

During our Memorial Day weekend trip, clouds hung low over Glacier's mountains, obscuring views of their peaks; wind-blown snow whipped past the train's windows at the highest elevations.

East of Glacier, the scenery flattens out into the Northern Great Plains, a beautifully desolate if repetitive landscape. Ridership also begins to pick up as the train gets closer to Williston, N.D., which saw more people get on and off our train than perhaps anywhere else on the line, even larger cities like Minneapolis.

"There's as many millionaires as mosquitoes," said a dining car attendant familiar with the Williston oil boom.

Gina Caciolo, a 2008 Duquesne University grad, rode the Empire Builder en route to a new job on the East Coast. She started in Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight then transferred to the Empire Builder.

"I'm taking the train because I have anxiety issues over flying," she said. But she also prefers train travel since taking Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg during college. "It made an impression. I never took Greyhound again."

Brooklynites Julie Nociolo and her boyfriend, Greg Mumby, both 25, took Amtrak across the country and back this summer after accumulating enough points on an Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard to cover roomette tickets for most of their trip. They stopped along the way and stayed in assorted cities with friends, but they also enjoyed meeting characters on the train. Among their favorites: a gold prospector who pulled out a gold nugget worth $2,000 over breakfast one morning and a hunter who killed a boar and kept it in a cooler in his roomette.

They noted most people they encountered -- including at meals in the dining car, where passengers are seated with strangers -- were older. Some of their friends questioned the prospect of two weeks on a train.

"There were raised eyebrows," Mr. Mumby said. " 'Take the train? What? Why?' "

But they enjoyed the trip and would recommend just one change: spend more time in cities between legs of their journey.

"I would love to do it again," Ms. Nociolo said, "and really break it up."

En route from Chicago to New York the couple planned to use a scheduled layover in Pittsburgh to visit Ms. Nociolo's sister, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh who wanted to take them to P&G Pamela's Diner in The Strip for a quick breakfast -- but the train was scheduled to arrive (and depart) before the restaurant opens.

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