The Empire Builder ~ Fargo to Seattle


The train shows up at 4:00 a.m., stainless-steel speed and weight, a force in the night.

Everyone walks outside the waiting room, turns right, walks to the back of the train, the coach car, where there are seats like those inside an airplane, but larger. However, I have been told to turn left, toward the front, the sleeper cars. A little tug pulling a checked baggage cart passes me. Checked baggage! I didn’t know trains had that.

I can see the door to the coach car is open. A glow falls out onto the platform, warm and bright. When I find my car, the door is shut, chrome-cold, the windows around it dark. I see a conductor step off the train and head toward the engine. The other passengers, every one of them, get on board and I have a sudden fear I’m in the wrong place, the wrong door, that the train will leave without me. I walk toward the conductor and he tells me to go back to my door. He’ll open it in just a moment, he says. And when he does, he shows me a short way down a narrow hallway to my room, opens the sliding door, tells me welcome aboard. The bed is already turned down. Moonlight through the window falls on the pillow. I sit and then lie down. I have no idea where to put my bag.

In the distance, I can feel more than hear the deepening sound of the engine. We begin to move and for whatever reason, for every possible reason, I am overwhelmingly happy. 4:20 in the morning and I’m in room 14 of car 731. Amtrak’s Empire Builder, heading west to Seattle.




It’s difficult to sleep.

In truth, it should be easy. The rocking of the sleeper car on the tracks is storybook gentle. The faraway sound of the whistle at roadway crossings is a lullaby. Clouds go by. The moon sets. It’s old-school romantic and deeply beautiful. That’s the problem. I keep closing my eyes and then opening them again. I don’t want to miss this. It’s too dark for pictures, but this has to be seen, noticed, appreciated, absorbed.

What’s odd is I am still home. I know this route. I’ve seen the railbed that runs up the side of I-29 a thousand times, in every season and weather and time of day. But I’ve always been looking at the railbed. I’ve never been looking from it, back over the highway. That small shift changes the content of the image. That small shift is enough to change it all. The familiar world is fresh again.




West of Grand Forks, the sun comes up and the room fills with light. At 6:00 a.m. I open my door to a quiet hallway. I discover there is a giant steel coffee pot at the end of the hall and the little amber light is on, someone has been up before me, so I pour a cup into my travel mug and take it back to my room. It’s actually good.

The situation takes a moment to sink in. I’m sitting in bed on a bright summer early morning, drinking a cup of coffee, while the American Great Plains, what used to be the Tallgrass Prairie, the bed of the Pleistocene Lake Agassiz roll past my window.

Not a bad way to begin.



At 6:30, the earliest possible moment, I go to the dining car, two cars back from my own. I’ve already read that the rule is community seating. There are booths for four people, so there will be four people in a booth. You sit with whomever comes in about the time you do. But when the sliding door opens to the car, I have no idea where to go. There are empty booths down both sides, blue vinyl seats, white tablecloths and blue napkins. Blue curtains frame the large windows. It looks sleek.

There is a service area in the middle of the car, and then more booths beyond that.
The server, a cheerful woman, points to an empty booth.

“Here you go,” she says. “Good Morning! Coffee?”

The two men and one woman show up behind me are suddenly my table mates and introductions are easy. So easy, I immediately forget their names. But I learn there are four questions you have to ask.

What’s your name?

Where are you going?

Where did you start?

Why are you doing this?

“Just the experience, man,” one of the men says. “Just the experience. You can’t get this in a car. You can’t see anything from an airplane.”

I’m the old guy at the table, but not by much. One of the men, I learn, began in Miami and is going to Seattle. The other began in Charleston and is going to Seattle as well. He tells me he is diabetic and cannot fly, so he’s meeting his wife when she flies there later. Then they are going on a cruise, finishing with a cross-country road-trip home.

“I have a four day start on her,” he grins.

The woman is ending her trip in Montana. As a group, they have been traveling together for days and have become friends.

I tell them I just got on in Fargo, am going once around the country, and everyone says this is a wonderful idea.

“The scenery, man. The scenery,” the guy says. He looks out the window at the flatland prairie. “Except here.”

“Oh, wait,” I say, local pride swelling. “This is my home ground. There are things you aren’t seeing.”

I point out young wheat and soybeans and sunflowers and corn in the fields, just green shoots this time of year. I tell the story of Devil’s Lake, which has no outlet and rises and falls with the rain, how entire towns on the shores have been submerged and then reappeared, how from the air you can often see crop rows apparently marching unbroken into the water, and about how, in 1911, the rising lake closed the railway. I tell them how the lake’s name is a white settler’s mis-translation of a Sioux name that means “Lake Holy One.”

I tell them we’re coming up on Rugby, North Dakota, the geographical center of North America, more or less, and about the obelisk marking the spot outside a Mexican restaurant.

“More or less?” the woman asks.

“There is some debate,” I say. “Rugby got the title a long time ago when geographers balanced a cardboard cutout of a map on a needle. Eighty-five years later, some guys drew lines with rulers on maps and decided the center was really in a bar in the town of Robinson. A few years after that, someone did real math and now the center is supposed to be in a town called Center.”

“The center is in Center?”

“Yup. The center is in Center.”

The server appears and hands me a three-egg omelet with roasted potatoes and a croissant. The others have scrambled eggs or pancakes. And coffee. The plates are plastic but look like china. The food is perfect.

Looking out the window, one of the men says, “It’s still very flat.”






After breakfast, I decide to take a walk, front to back, the whole length of the train. But first, I have to learn how to walk. The train rolls from side to side, there are rises and dips in the track. The floor is unsteady and it’s difficult to stay away from the walls. The hallway is narrow, just a few inches wider than my shoulders. Some people walk with a hand on each wall, their arms as shock absorbers. Others put faith in their knees and ankles, only to seem thrown against the windows.

Then it occurs to me. Instead of avoiding the walls, I can use the walls. I can’t fall any farther than the walls. I let my shoulders rub against one and then the other as the train leans and suddenly the hallway is easy.



At first I walk forward, past my own berth, past the curtained rooms of others, until a doorway is locked. Though a window I can see the inside of the baggage car. Shelves left and right, open space in the middle. Very few bags. In an old movie, I think, this would be the set for a railway poker game, a small table in the middle, players sitting on crates or suitcases, other men sitting on the shelves, watching, cigarette smoke in the air. Either frayed fedoras or cowboy hats. Six shooters or derringers. But no such luck. The car is empty and clean.

I turn around, pass the rooms again, pass through the dining car (pancakes are popular), and into the observation car where the light is breathtaking. Large blue swivel seats line a center aisle. There is no bubble-top, but the windows are huge and curve up into the ceiling. In the middle of the car there is a stairway leading to a lower level. The snack bar, I’m told. And the bar. Most of the seats upstairs are already taken. A group of Mennonite women in long dresses and caps sit together and point out fence lines. Everyone else seems to be by themselves.

Three people stare at their cell phones. Another is reading a book. We’re in central North Dakota, where the hills begin, where there used to be bison. Rolling prairie. Huge sky.

I remember breakfast. “It’s still very flat.”

I think about bumping the cell phone people as I pass.



The two coach cars are at the back of the train. The chairs are arranged like airplane seats but much larger. There are dropdown tables from the seat in front of you and an overhead shelf for bags. This morning, it all looks like the end of a long international flight. People scrunch into odd positions trying to get comfortable, blankets half fallen on the floor. Food wrappers litter the aisle. It’s still early morning and many people just try to sleep.

I turn around again and begin going forward. My idea is to sit in the observation car for a while, but the few open chairs have filled.

When I open the door to my room, though, it’s changed! What was once a bed is now two chairs. There’s a small folding table in the middle. Two bottles of water, various magazines and brochures. The room is still miniscule, but now there is room in the room. Someone knew I was up and knew I was gone and came through to make the change. I look up and down the hall. No one.

I settle into the chair facing forward, sip coffee I refilled in the hall. It’s 7:36 on a beautiful sunny morning in the Dakota prairie, this morning’s golden hour. I have my camera ready. I still know this part of the world. But there’s something odd and wonderful about seeing it by train. There is none of the diverted attention of driving. I’m not worried about how fast I’m going. Not worried about lanes or traffic or how much gas is in the tank. Not worried about my speed and the highway patrol. Not worried about oil pressure or tire pressure or deer that may leap into my path.

I watch the movement of the world from a position of peace.

And yes, it’s really flat.


Coming into Minot, North Dakota, an announcement over the P.A. system says this is the first “fresh air” stop of the day, a smoking break as the crew re-fuels and re-waters the train, an opportunity to get out, breathe a little fresh air or inhale some nicotine, get out of the chrome tube and stand on the platform. But the woman speaking over the intercom reminds everyone, “Don’t stray too far. The train will leave without you.”

In the 1920s, Minot was “Little Chicago,” a part of Al Capone’s prohibition-era bootlegging route from Canada. But it’s changed since then. As we slow to the platform, I see a family waiting. A mom, a daughter, and three sons all in cowboy hats.

We’re running about 30 minutes behind schedule but we’re not going to make up that time with a shorter break. The servicing takes whatever time it takes.
Everyone gets off the train, but we have nowhere to go. We stand in one spot, then go stand in another spot. We turn our faces to the sun.

“Good Morning.”

“Good Morning!”

“Good Morning.”


It’s almost like a renaissance dance. Take a few paces, bow to your partner. Take a few more. All we need is powdered wigs and some Mozart.

I meet Paul and Edith, from Florida, just retired, heading to New Orleans, via Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles. On their own circumnavigation. We bow and stand.

Then I meet Linda, the car attendant.

I see her get off the train, notice her Amtrak uniform, and watch her carry two large red bags of bed sheets and towels into the station. A few minutes later I see her back at the platform holding a half dozen cups of fancy coffee shop coffee for the crew.

“Oh, that’s not fair,” I say to her.

“I called ahead,” she says, smiling back.

People pose for pictures by the Minot sign. People pose for pictures by the train. Everyone is in good spirits. The air is warm. The sky is sunny. A man in an orange vest and an orange hard hat connects and then disconnects water hoses from the train. We all stand around a sign that reads: “Danger. No Smoking. Keep Out When Train Present. Extreme Hazard.”





Heading west, we pass a thousand oil tanker cars, oil wells in the fields. I can see the gas flares at the top of wells.

At Williston we’re able to get off the train for another moment and the guy from Charleston tells me he just saw white pelicans. He didn’t know they came this far up. He tells me he saw coyotes this morning, one of them herding a flock of turkeys, another herding cattle. He says his wife sent him a text message that it’s pouring rain in Charleston.

When my phone figures out I’m in Williston, it beeps a Flood Warning. We’re on the banks of the Missouri River, just below the confluence with the Yellowstone. The spring snowmelt from the Rockies is in full flow. The rivers are fast and high and I remember a bit of Lewis and Clark:

… when we had proceeded about four miles, I ascended the hills from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country, perticularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers, which occasionally unmasked by the wood on their borders disclose their meanderings for many miles in their passage through these delightfull tracts of country… the whol face of the country was covered with herds of Buffaloe, Elk & Antelopes; deer are also abundant, but keep themselves more concealed in the woodland. the buffaloe Elk and Antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without apearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are…

–Meriwether Lewis, April 25, 1805




After lunch, an Angus burger with chips and a glass of red wine, I go back to my room, settle into my chair and watch. Just watch. Camera ready. We’re in the shadow of the mountains but still too far away to see them. This is sagebrush country, high desert, the American steppe. This is where the fossilized skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Rex appear in the rocks.



When we come up on Glasgow, Montana, then Malta, a map in my phone tells me the railway runs along Kid Curry Road. Kid Curry, I know, was part of the Wild Bunch gang, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. William Pinkerton once said, “He has not one single redeeming feature, he is the only criminal I know of who does not have a one single good point.”

I know this because I have been reading about the last train robbery by the Wild Bunch before Butch and Sundance and Etta Place took off for Patagonia. I have a copy of an article on my computer from July 4, 1901, The Evening News of Detroit, Michigan.

“Bold Bandits Got $83,000,” the article reads. “Three Passengers were shot in Fourth of July Fusillade…Posses are chasing the looters into the Bad Lands…Reward of $5000, Dead or Alive, is Offered…”
“Great Northern trans-continental train No. 8, leaving St. Paul Tuesday morning, was held up at Wagner, Mont., 196 miles east of Great Falls at 3:05 yesterday morning by three masked men, who blew open the express car, wrecked the through safe with dynamite and secured $83,000. The robbery was one of the boldest that has ever occurred in the west…”



How much of landscape is history? How much of landscape is desire?

Looking out the window, I try to imagine the robbery. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid weren’t there, but Kid Curry was. And it was the Wild Bunch gang. The old west.

I try to imagine Lewis and Clark, the older west. Then I try to imagine Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Western Interior Seaway with its xiphactinus and plesiosaurs, the really old west. What I see is a beautiful summer afternoon, flatlands going by. Some hills in the distance. Soft cotton ball clouds. There’s a motorcycle on Kid Curry Road.





I sit in my room for much of the afternoon, watching the open range land, bluffs and ravines and buttes go by. Every now and then I walk to the space where there are doors to the outside so I can look out both sides, stretch a bit. Linda walks through and stops to talk.

Yesterday, she tells me, was the 90th anniversary of the Empire Builder. They did it up big for the departure from Chicago. There were group pictures, passengers and crew. There were certificates and little toy whistles.

“Yesterday?” I ask. “Yesterday?”

“Yesterday,” she says.

I’m devastated. I’ve missed history by one day.




Back in my room, I brood over the 90th anniversary. I should have known. There was no way I could have known. It doesn’t really matter. But that would have been sweet. So close.

Then the obvious dawns on me—faster than usual. If the 90th anniversary train left Chicago yesterday, then I am on that train! I am not on the departing passenger list, but this is that train!

I have a sudden and personal need to score a toy whistle.




Coming up on 3 o’clock in the afternoon, on the north side of the Fort Belknap Indian reservation, west of Dodson, Montana, our Empire Builder, train number 7 heading west, meets train number 8, the Empire Builder heading east. (There is another one behind us, too, another train number 7, having just left Chicago.) Large plumes of brown dust race by the window, kicked up by the locomotive.

I have a notion that we should open windows and slap hands as we pass. But the windows don’t open, and if we did we’d likely lose our arms.

Having just passed the other Empire Builder, though, we come to a stop in Harlem, Montana, outside the Handy Market, because, as an announcement tells us, we need to check something on the outside of the train. Trains, I learn, visually inspect each other as they pass. About what the something is, however, the announcement is not specific.





Rolling again.

For the last hour there have been mountains in the southern distance, gray and blue in the haze. I have heard already that one of the sad truths of the westbound train is it crosses the Rocky Mountains mostly at night and I start to hope something happens, something not terrible though. A broken part or two. Something that would make us extravagantly delayed. So delayed we don’t get to the mountains until morning.





At the Havre, Montana stop, I ask Linda about a story I heard of someone who wandered too far from the train during a stop. The classic movie moment. Train starts to pull away. Passenger runs for the door the attendant is holding open. An outstretched arm. Clasping hands. The passenger pulled safely aboard. Linda says yes, indeed, that happens. But not quite the way it does in the movies.

She was not there, but she heard a passenger got close enough to grab the rail on the outside of the car and the attendant was saying Just let go! Just let go! But the passenger would not. So the attendant, who Linda said was young and healthy and strong, reached out, grabbed the passenger’s clothes and bodily lifted the person into the car of a moving train.

I don’t know if that’s true or the kind of legend that seems to grow up around the trains. No one telling the story seems to have been present for the event. It’s one of those stories that’s good and fun to tell.

“Most of the time,” Linda says, “the passenger gets back to find an empty platform.”





At dinner, I sit with a couple whose room is next to mine, across the hall. His name is Steve. He’s retired and writing poetry. Her name is Kelly. She’s a theater director at Illinois Wesleyan.

Dinner is steak, medium rare, and it is wonderful. All four of us have it. And then chocolate Bundt cake at the very end. Red wine throughout.

Although we do not sit together, people from breakfast and lunch greet me as I walk to my dinner booth. Other people, people I’ve met in the hallway or the observation car, other people I know are sleeping in the same car as I am, greet me and I greet them. The train quickly becomes a community of people who know each other. We share meals and stories. We pause to bring each other up to speed.



Back in my room, however, now west of Cutbank, Montana, the Rocky Mountains have come into view in the distance. With the motion of the train it feels like we’re hurtling toward them. It feels urgent now, with the fading light, like we’re racing toward them before dark, which I suppose we are, humongous and necessary.
George Winston on my cell phone radio. Sky clouding over just a little bit. But the appearance of the Rocky Mountains is always remarkable. Their jaggedness. Their weight, even at a distance. Gravity insists that we are pulled toward mass.





In Browning, Montana, we pull over onto a siding and wait for a freight train to pass on the main rail. It takes more than 20 minutes for that train to show up and then it is very long. I am told that because the railways are owned by the freight companies—Amtrak pays to use them—the freight trains always have the right of way.  But this is not true.  Amtrak has a legal right of preference. Nonetheless, freight trains have grown so long there are a limited number of sidings they can use for other trains to pass.  Size matters.  Amtrak waits.

It’s nice, though, to see snow and ice in the mountains. The sun is going down behind them, which puts the eastern side, the side we are still on, in shadow. If I were a landscape photographer on assignment, I would be here at daybreak, morning light on the east faces. But I am not. I get what I get. There is a haze in the air this evening and the rise of the hills is blue-grey-black.

Golden light time. It’s a shame not to be closer to the mountains. People stand in hallways and talk. Steve and I talk cameras and lenses and rock and roll.

We move, then we stop at East Glacier Park. This is where the mountains begin. Abruptly. Look east, down Highway 2, the Hi-Line, and you see huge sky over rolling prairie. Look west and you see rock. The railway platform is western-mountain-elegant, the station log-cabin style. There are Swiss-chalet hotels here, neatly trimmed lawns, clean streets, planted flowers alongside a walking path. A man in old-style railway clothes—pinstriped overalls and cap, red bandanna—gathers his customers. Cliché as marketing. Steve takes a picture of his back. We all walk to the end of the waiting area and Linda calls after us.

“Don’t go too far. You don’t want to be left behind.”

This would be a good place to be left behind, I think.



A good many people get on the train here and twilight comes as the train leaves the station. Some people head toward the lower level of the observation car, the bar, but I settle into my room to watch the deepening light in the mountains. We pass Little Dog, Calf Robe and Summit mountains. We climb over Marais Pass.



Sleep comes early. We pass Essex, West Glacier, Whitefish, Libby, Sandpoint, Spokane, the Kootenai National Forest, and Ephrata, which I am told means fruitful and is an ancient name for Bethlehem.




I get up at 5:00 a.m.

The amber light in the hallway coffee pot is dark.

Outside my window, the world is dark. When we pass crossings, I can tell there is fog.

I head for the shower.

Some rooms have showers as part of their unit. For me, though, the shower is down the hall, on the other side of the main doors. And I have been wondering about this—padding down the early morning hallway with a towel and shampoo and soap. That’s why I’m up so early, to avoid an awkward moment. The shower is inside a larger room and although the lights are a weird yellow green, there is a neat stack of thick white folded towels on a shelf. There is a frosted door to the shower stall, the Amtrak logo on the glass. The room is warm and clean. The spray is strong and the water is hot. The stall, like the train, rocks from side to side, sometimes lurches, sometimes glides, and all that’s missing is baroque music, perhaps a quintet outside in the hallway.



On the way back to my room, I see the amber light is on. Linda must have heard me.




We are running two hours late, but coming up on the Cascades is beautiful. By this time on the train, we are no longer a group of strangers. We are a community of people who stop at each other’s tables before and after breakfast, say hello, ask how you slept. Paul and Edith laugh a lot and behave like two teenagers in love.

We pass orchards. Acres and acres and acres and acres. Well-groomed trees in straight lines. A number of small wind turbines, none of them moving. Perhaps they are used to power the irrigation.

My phone beeps. There’s a red flag warning for this part of the state, near Quincy, Washington. High of 96 today. Winds at 25 mph. Higher gusts possible.




I’ve been taking pictures of the Columbia River, nearly still in the dawn, and trying to imagine the Missoula Floods. 15,000 years ago, more or less, the ice dam that held back Glacial Lake Missoula broke. Then it froze. Then it broke again. Geographers estimate it broke more than twenty-five times over two thousand years, ending 13,000 years ago. And the breaks were cataclysmic. Walls of water, a flow 13 times larger than the Amazon, moving at 80 miles an hour down the river. Then again, 55 years later. Then again.



I know this story because, just south of my home, the Traverse Gap was the southern end of the Glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest glacial lake in North America. 12,000 years ago, the ice dam broke here as well, and the flood cut valleys for the Minnesota and the upper Mississippi rivers, then did it twice again. Sea levels rose by nearly three feet in one year, at about the same time nearly every culture created a flood story, Noah included.

The train descends one side of a bend in the river, makes a U-turn as it crosses a bridge, then ascends back up the other side. What I see is a quiet river in a wide valley bordered by hills and cliffs.





At Wenatche Washington, a fresh air stop, Linda tells those of us standing around a story of an evening when the train was heading east.

“A woman with a baby asked if there was a liquor store nearby,” she said. “I told her no but still the woman took off in search. We never saw her or her baby again.”

We all look at her. “Really?” Kelly asks.

Linda smiles. “No, I’m teasing you. They made it back. Empty-handed. But they nearly missed the train as it departed.”

When we get rolling again, the conductor comes on the intercom to give us updated arrival times and states we’ll be arriving in Seattle at 10:30 a.m. Not a second after he’s done a dining room attendant comes on and says, “I think he meant 11:30.” He comes back on and says “Yep, I meant 11:30.” Everyone laughs because no one has any need to be on time. We are where we want to be. We’ll get there when we do.




After Leavenworth, heading west, snow topped mountains in the distance, we follow Nason Creek, shallow and rippling, and enter thick forests. My notes tell me this is where David Lynch got the idea for setting Twin Peaks.

We approach Stevens Pass, Cowboy Mountain and the Cascade Tunnel. This is avalanche country. Four to five hundred inches of snow every year. On the east side of the tunnel I can see the ski area, blue sky. Then darkness. At 7.8 miles, this is the longest railway tunnel in North America. Then light on the west side. A town called Scenic.

We’ve passed Windy Mountain, the town of Tye, the old Cascade tunnel, only 2.6 miles long, the site of disaster.



Tye, Washington, is a ghost town. It was abandoned in 1929 when the new Cascade tunnel opened and trains did not need to come through town. Tye is the name of the river there, but it was not the original name of the town. In October of 1910, the name was changed to Tye from Wellington to erase a memory.

On March 1, 1910, a passenger train, The Seattle Express, and a mail train were at the Wellington station, waiting out a blizzard that had already lasted nine days. Snow swept over the tracks in front of them. Snow swept over the tracks behind them. Telegraph lines were down. Snow fell sometimes at a foot an hour, then turned to rain. Thunderstorms.

At 4:20 in the morning, an avalanche dropped out of the mountains and through the forest, which had been clear-cut above town for timber, pushing the trains off the tracks and, along with the station, 150 feet downhill into the river valley.
At the bottom, the trains were buried in snow, sometimes seventy feet deep, and water. No telegraph meant no calls for help. Locals pulled out the survivors. It took a week to gather the dead, until July for the last human remains. Ninety-six people died. Only 23 survived.

The event made newspapers in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Ohio, Montana, California, Kentucky and Hawaii.

It is still the worst avalanche toll.





We reach Everett, Washington. The Boeing Everett factory is here, on Boeing Freeway, and the world’s largest building by volume. I never see it. The tracks run on the banks of Puget Sound.

Paul and Edith walk by and we look at the water.

“Guess we’re almost there,” he says.

We’re still more than an hour away, yet there is a real sadness in his voice.

The Sound is beautiful.

But Seattle means we have to get off the train.



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