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3780Rockies, plains, Great Lakes train journey

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  • fufraw
    Jul 1, 2007
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      Rockies, plains, Great Lakes backdrop of train journey By A.B. Minthorn ASSOCIATED PRESS
      Contra Costa Times
      Article Launched:07/01/2007 03:05:03 AM PDT ABOARD THE EMPIRE BUILDER -- The Empire Builder snakes through Montana's Rockies, past evergreen forests and mountaintops that glisten with snow, even in the warm months. It's a glorious morning in my transcontinental railway journey. Amtrak's intercity express had departed Portland, Ore., at 4:45 p.m. the previous day bound for Chicago. My destination was Penn Station in New York City, four calendar days and 3,216 miles distant. Traveling before a holiday, I wanted a no-stress alternative to jammed airports and packed jetliners. I also wanted to travel in comfort, so for $1,792.90 one way, I booked a deluxe bedroom compartment in blue decor, with a lavatory and shower. My meals and dinner wine were included. I hadn't made a sleeper-car journey since the 1960s, when airliners and interstate highways came to dominate long-distance travel. My friends were intrigued by the idea of a train trip across the
      Rockies and Great Plains, through lands traversed by Lewis and Clark 200 years ago. A real journey At Portland's Union Station with its imposing clock tower, excitement was in the air as travelers climbed aboard the silver passenger cars on a gray afternoon. My compartment window at the end of the train was a fine vantage as we headed east through the Columbia River Gorge, past tall timber carpeting the foothills of the Cascade Range. Dinner was a shrimp salad delivered by a sleeping-car attendant. We reached Spokane, Wash., around midnight, and linked up with the twin train from Seattle to form a "consist" of 11 cars and three diesel locomotives carrying about 300 passengers eastward. Awakening to snow The fold-out bed in my 61/2-foot-by-71/2-foot compartment had only one wool blanket, so I spread my overcoat for extra warmth and fell asleep to the soothing monotone of motion. I woke at dawn in the snowy Rockies. Breakfast beckoned. I've
      ridden European express trains featuring fine cuisine. The Empire Builder's dining car had similar amenities: enticing meals, white tablecloths and attentive service. Breakfast was a western omelet and the best oatmeal I've ever tasted. The most expensive dinner item was an 8-ounce steak for $21, appropriate for the ranch country we were crossing. Dustin Baker, 38, the dining-car steward, told me he trained in Los Angeles restaurants before joining Amtrak. He works a six-day week on the rails, then has five days off with his family in Portland. To reach the diner, I had to walk through six cars, and handholds were needed when the train swayed at 79 mph top speed. A passenger offered me a steadying arm on one trek. The club car had plush seats and panoramic views of our all-day crossing of Montana, past landmarks such as Whitefish, Glacier National Park, Marias Pass (elev. 5,280 feet) and Cut Bank. In 1806, Lewis and Clark passed near where Fort Peck Dam
      now spans the Missouri River on the Great Plains. Even in the jet age, this former route of the Great Northern Railway remains a vital transportation link for a sparsely populated region of sagebrush and lonely vistas. Passengers get on and off at whistle-stops, some for a quick cigarette because the train is smoke-free. Crossing North Dakota overnight, the train reached Minneapolis-St. Paul around 7:30 a.m. Then we followed the Mississippi River to La Crosse, Wis., before traversing the rolling countryside to Milwaukee. Trouble ahead Skirting the gray waters of Lake Michigan, the Empire Builder pulled into the Windy City at 3:55 p.m., 45 hours and 2,257 miles from Portland. I grew up in Chicagoland and enjoyed my four-hour layover with relatives who met me at Union Station. Then I boarded the Lake Shore Limited for the 7:55 p.m. departure to New York. Trouble struck near Elkhart, Ind. An electrical outage in one of the two diesel locomotives left us
      stranded without lights or heat for more than two hours, and very little information from Amtrak. Around 12:30 a.m., the train roared to life after the defective locomotive was uncoupled. With horn blaring, the Lake Shore Limited headed east on the old New York Central line, toward Cleveland and Buffalo on Lake Erie. Lunch the next day was disappointing. The dining car was sold out of everything I ordered. The waitress wouldn't let me substitute breakfast items, so I settled for a bowl of fruit. I didn't leave my customary tip. In Albany, N.Y., at midafternoon, the train split into sections for Boston and New York City. Then it was down the picturesque Hudson River valley to Penn Station, for a 5:30 p.m. arrival, two hours late. Despite the annoyances on the Chicago to New York leg, I enjoyed my transcontinental journey. Easy boarding, comfortable accommodations, gourmet food on the Empire Builder and mesmerizing scenery made my 661/2-hour rail trip a
      small vacation in itself. I'm planning to do it again. Associated Press writer David Minthorn in New York contributed to this report. If you go Find information at http://www.amtrak.com

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