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The Empire Builder
We were given an early call to get aboard the Empire Builder.
Panic! We did not appear on sleeping-car attendant's manifest. Somebody else was
marked down for the room we thought we had. That was in spite of the fact that
we had a ticket issued by VIA rail, and a print-out from Amtrak itself made by
the willing clerk in Greensboro. The conductor took over: he took our tickets
inside the station, returned and announced that we were now booked, and would be
in bedroom 2. Whew!
The sleeping car attendant got us settled in,
then told us that there would be no diner until Spokane (the diner would be on
the part of the train that starts in Seattle, and joins on in Spokane), so there
would be no hot meals. He asked us whether we wanted beef or chicken: we both
opted for chicken, and he promptly gave us two meal packs. Off to Vancouver,
across the river in Washington State. Leaving there, we seem to be in suburbs
for a very long time: large houses, beautiful gardens. After leaving Washington
we dined on the chicken dinners: very tasty. However, we kept the
(airline-style) package of cheese and crackers for later.
hours, we ran alongside the Columbia river, which is in a gorge for part of the
way but which gets broader (due to dams?). We passed several dams, big ships at
the lower end, a tug-boat pushing a couple of barges, a stern-wheel
paddle-steamer. We ran (well, walked, swaying from side to side) to the lounge
to view this. The terrain changed quite rapidly from lush Pacific to drier
areas: trees disappeared. There were towns: some on our side, some on the Oregon
side.When it got dark we returned to our room, and found that the attendant had
already made up the beds, so we sat rather uncomfortably and read, then set the
clocks forward one hour and went to bed.
We both awoke about 5:30
and ate the cheese and crackers from the previous night's dinner. Then we
genuinely arose before 7, washed and went to breakfast. While we were stopped in
Whitefish (Montana), at the end of breakfast, we returned to our room & phoned
our daughter Sîan in Calgary: some years ago, we had spent a vacation together
in Whitefish, which is only a couple of hours drive from Calgary. We caught a
glimpse of the ski resort we'd stayed at. After Whitefish, we passed the west
and east entrances to Glacier Park, the southern continuation of Waterton Lakes
Park in Canada. The track pretty well forms the southern boundary of the park,
and we had wonderful views of the mountains. During the morning we saw antelope,
and deer in a clearing.
The train stopped a long time at Havre at
the end of lunch, so Dewi stepped out. The train was boarded by two burly border
patrol guys, who answered no questions but asked plenty. That afternoon we
worked our way across Montana and North Dakota. Many communities seem to be
fading away, with ruined and boarded-up houses. There were dead cows and a dead
horse. Minot, ND was a major stop, with time for smokers. Canadian Pacific
trains bound for the border rumbled through while we were there. We had a late
sitting for dinner and tried to get our car attendant to make up the bed late in
the evening, but to no avail.
The next morning, we were in a big city, or cities: St.
Paul/Minneapolis. Now on some of the trains, like the Empire Builder,
first-class passengers are given a route map and guide to the places the train
goes through (see attachments) and we follow along. But on leaving St. Paul we
couldn't find that landmarks mentioned. Some hours later we arrived at La Crosse
- and went straight through the station, "wyed" the train on a triangle, and
re-entered the station facing the right way. Apparently the main route had been
blocked, so our train had been re-routed on the opposite bank of the Mississippi
and had approached La Crosse from the eastern end.
From here on, the land seemed less dry, and although it wasn't
heavily populated, there were frequent farms and small towns, giving way to
suburbs around Milwaukee and Chicago. Arriving in Chicago, the sleeping-car
attendant gave us each a bottle of wine (half-bottles of cabernet sauvignon)
which we suspect should have been placed in our bedroom at the start of the
Down we climbed onto the platform, at about 5:30 pm, and up the
ramp into the station area. Went to the Metropolitan (first-class, sleeping-car
lounge), showed our ticket, and Eufron stayed there with luggage while Dewi
checked around. Found the Great Hall of Union Station, now only used for a 9/11
exhibit. We were looking for a public-transport way to our hotel on South
Michigan Avenue. I followed the signs to "buses", up an escalator onto Canal
Street. The first bus-stop I saw had a list of bus routes, the first route
listed was route 1, the first item on its destination list was South. Michigan,
and there was a bus waiting. The driver gave helpful information and confirmed
that the bus went where we wanted.
Went back to Eufron: brought
suitcases up to the street, and boarded the next bus which had now come along.
The temperature in Chicago was very warm: we later found out it was a heat-wave
record. The driver sold us two senior-citizens tickets at 75cents each (though
later we found we should have had Chicago ID cards to get those). The bus was
crowded and rush-hour traffic made it a slow ride but the bus dropped us on the
corner by our hotel. Checked in with no problem, noted that we would only stay
two days not three. Very clean fresh room on 6th floor, with view of Grant Park
and Lake Michigan: got the air-conditioner going and sat, picked up info about
Chicago, and planned the next day and where to eat that evening. In the end we
walked along S. Michigan, looked at the Essex hotel's bar and grill, but opted
for the Irish pub (Kitty O'Shea's) in the Hilton. Walked back: the neighbourhood
looks as though it had been running down, but now was being re-furbished with
new hotels and loft rental space.
Slept quite well but the air-conditioner was noisy! It came on with a click and
cut off with a klunk.
The next morning, I walked out to the
El station on Roosevelt, and asked about the South Shore line that allegedly had
a station there. "Roosevelt and South Michigan" I was told, but I could not find
it. Since it was then about 9am, and the tourist offices didn't open until 10
am, I walked up State street (partly) and S. Michigan (partly) to the Art
institute, found the tourist office, found the gift shop, and bought myself a
one-day tourist pass for the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority). Looked for the
other South Shore line station that was supposed to be there. Didn't find it.
Walked around under the El structure: makes it dark (or shady) but VERY noisy
when a train goes by. Then I headed for the nearest El station, went around the
Loop, and took the Orange line to Midway airport. Looked around, got another
There are two kinds of car, and in one kind, you can look out of
the window of the last (or first) car, so I got on the last set of doors. There
is a station at the Library, a red-brick, massive building with a very ornate
green "thing" as the roof. Went around to State and Link, and checked out the
Blue line subway. The trains look just like El trains! Back then up to the El
platforms, and got a Green line train back to Roosevelt. Walked to the hotel and
out again to a "corner store" though it was not on the corner, and bought bread
(buns) and sharp Vermont-made Cheddar cheese, and potato chips and digestive
biscuits. Took these back to room and had lunch.
Later that day
we walked out of the back door and headed towards Roosevelt. Chicago has a free
tourist trolley, consisting of four bus routes. At that time of year it only
runs in the school break, and we happened to hit that week. One (free) trolley
passed, but one heading the other way drew up as we arrived at the stop beneath
the El station. That trolley took us to Union Station (or at least to Adams St.
near the station), passing the Sears Tower, where we changed to the Yellow
(star) shuttle to Navy Pier. This (second) driver was a character, telling jokes
(Grey Poupon) and also telling us about some of the buildings and other features
that we passed. At Navy Pier we saw the Chicago Shakespeare Company's theatre,
then back to State St. and Marshall Fields store, where we changed to the Red
(square) trolley up the Magnificent Mile to the water tower district. Back to
Union Station, caught the last Green circle shuttle back to Roosevelt. We've
have done better to get off at Balbo (NOT Balboa) St. but driver changed his
route for this (last) run of the day.
Walked to hotel, considered
our options, and went back to Kitty O'Shea's for a tuna sandwich and wedge
fries, shared, plus Amstel beer.
And so to bed.
Click on thumbnail for larger picture.