Butter sculpting and lumberjack/jill demonstrations under a bright blue Midwestern sky; “gizmos” (beef and pork in a hoagie bun), bacon-on-a-stick and spam burgers; displays by tractor manufacturers and the National Guard: one could spend days at the Minnesota State Fair – but I have a train to catch.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder service, from Chicago to the Pacific northwest, passes through Minnesota but once a day, calling at Saint Paul (which, with Minneapolis, is one of the United States’ Twin Cities) at 10.20pm.
I arrive early to find the cavernous halls of Saint Paul’s beautifully restored Union Depot station well-lit but almost deserted. A handful of fellow travellers are milling around, warily eyeing the local youths taking advantage of the comfy seating, the free Wi-fi and, that staple of railway waiting halls the world over, the complementary ping pong table.
As departure time approaches, a line forms at the Amtrak door and I get a look at the 40 or so other passengers boarding the train. Behind me stands a pasty young man in a black T-shirt and a jester’s hat who is obviously excited. Kenobi’s going to PAX West, he says, a gaming-culture festival in Seattle, and he’s meeting a similarly inclined lady from Chicago for the first time – at least in the flesh – on the train. Fortunately for his nerves, the regular traveller who informs us this service tends to run on time (a rarity across the Amtrak network, apparently) is correct, and the silver carriages of the Empire Builder slip into the station on schedule.
The carriages are double-deckers, bathrooms and luggage racks downstairs, seating upstairs. I have a ticket for coach rather than a sleeper cabin, and the set-up is much like that in an airliner, albeit far less squashed.
As the Empire Builder, the nickname of the founder of the Great Northern Railway, James J. Hill, proceeds through the night, it stops every hour or so. St Cloud, Staples, Detroit Lakes; as I doze, it’s not clear which station is which as one strip of concrete bathed in the haze of orange or white street lamps looks much like the next. The first familiar name is Fargo, but that comes at 3.24am – which would mean two early rises, to get off and on again, the following day – so my knowledge of the North Dakota town must remain restricted to what is shown in the eponymous film and television show, little of which was actually filmed in Fargo, anyway (I have done my homework, at least).
The sun rises over plains and fields dotted with round, rolled bails of hay and at Rugby, a sign attached to the station building bids passengers “Welcome to the geographical center of North America”.
Breakfast service started at 6.30am, so as we chug into the western half of the continent, I find myself sitting at a banquette table, meeting Kenobi’s new friend.
Meals on-board are sociable affairs; single travellers are seated with whoever else has just arrived in the dining car. As I tuck into Amtrak’s “Signature Railroad French Toast”, I hear all about the attractions of PAX West and discuss the pros and cons of train travel with a man recently bereaved, travelling to visit his student daughter in Portland. At the table on the other side of the aisle, a rookie professional on his way to East Glacier Park station confidently tells his table companions – an elderly couple from the south and a scientist taking up a post in Seattle – about his budding ice-hockey career.
Each carriage has its own attendant, and, as passengers step down to stretch their legs at Minot, I ask ours whether any ever get left behind. “We don’t lose people here,” he says, “but we do in Williston, which is a smoke stop if the train is making good time, and from where it’s a US$300-plus taxi ride to catch the train up.”
A couple with two young children bustle out of the carriage door, asking for directions to the nearest McDonald’s. Trusting in their timing, if not their taste in food, I follow them into Minot and take a look around the town, one of many on this route that owe their existence to the Great Northern Railway, making sure the hurrying family are always further from the train than I am.
After Williston, which appears to pass with no loss of human cargo, we cross into Montana, and turn our watches back an hour, to mountain time – not that there are any mountains to see, yet.
In fact, there hasn’t been a great deal of anything much to see, so it comes as a relief when the track passes close to the Fort Union Trading Post, which was built in the 1820s and once attracted Crow, Cree, Blackfoot and other tribes with furs to trade.
I know this because volunteer National Park Service rangers have started delivering a running commentary in the observation car. Anecdotes and figures related to windpower generation and wartime oil refineries help distract passengers from the endless prairie.
There’s plenty more interesting conversation to be had over lunch, and the Rockies are getting nearer …
At 7.41pm on the dot, the Empire Builder pulls in to Essex. I decided to break the journey here, and booked a room at the Izaak Walton Inn, which was built in 1939 as lodgings for railway personnel. In the winter, skiers base themselves in this charming inn and in the summer, those wishing to hike through the surrounding Glacier National Park stay in its rooms and converted railway engines and cabooses.
Essex stands at the top of a long, steep stretch of track, and almost all there is to the place, besides the inn, is a yard in which the locomotives that helped haul trains up the steep incline were once housed. The constant hum of engines coming from that direction suggests the yard is still very much in use, but the noise, which continues through the night, proves calming.
Having hiked the kinks out of my legs, I am back on the bare concrete platform that is Essex station at 7.30 the following evening. A freight train of something between 100 and 200 wagons thunders its way east before the Empire Builder rounds a bend and toot-toots into view.
It’s still light enough to appreciate the alpine scenery as I renew my journey, and one of the rangers points out distant plumes of smoke. Wild fires are necessary in the mountains, he says, because they clear away dead brush, kill destructive pine-bark beetles and strip away the coating that prevents pine cones from germinating, but this year there have been more than usual, and they are causing more damage. Just the night before, a fire that had been raging for 21 days consumed one of the national park’s oldest lodges, Sperry Chalet. Seen through a moving window, however, the oranges of the setting sun refracted through the smoke-filled air bestow another layer of beauty upon forested slopes and gurgling rivers.
Wrapping my coat tightly around me – Amtrak appears to have taken a leaf out of the MTR’s book and set the air-cons to stun – I settle in for another night on the rails. Apart from a few bumps in Spokane – where the train is split into two, the half I’m in destined for Seattle, the other for Portland – and the intense lighting of what I blearily decide must be the Rock Island Dam, the night passes peacefully.
I wake to see the green running lights of the train, as it snakes its way around a bend, and discover we’re approaching Wenatchee, Washington.
At breakfast, I’m seated with an elderly African-American couple from Richmond, Virginia with a love of British television and a yearning to visit the Olympic National Park rainforest, to the west of Seattle.
The observation car left with the rest of the train in Spokane, but we don’t need commentary as we pass through the sloped seas of fir trees and rocky rivers of the Western Cascades. Sometimes, the train tracks the Skykomish River, which plunges into falls as it squeezes through gaps in the granite. The occasional early-morning angler in waders casts about for a nibble.
As the train approaches Everett, the home of Boeing, I catch a first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. The line turns south and runs alongside Puget Sound, the imposing white Mount Baker visible behind us, the Olympic Mountains ahead.
It’s been three sleeps since I boarded the Empire Builder but the journey has flown by. As the train pulls into King Street Station at 10.25am sharp, under another bright blue sky, Seattle prepares to enjoy the Labor Day holiday weekend.
I wonder if there’ll be gizmos.
The writer’s trip on the Empire Builder was supported by Brand USA.