Part Four: Amtrak's Holy Trinity
This journey saw three of Amtrak's celebrity routes: Southwest Chief, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder.
When the advertisement for the Rail Pass hooked me into taking a cross-country voyage aboard Amtrak, I couldn’t shake the idea. I think all forms of public transportation are rad, but without the discounted Rail Pass, my budget and time consistently worked against me on this one. Once I realized the idea could work this time, it appeared as though my patience had eventually paid off.
The morning of my departure, I arrived at New York City’s newly-minted Moynihan Train Hall, tickets in hand. I had my backpack full of food, a tote with my work supplies, and a rolling suitcase with 11 days of clothing inside, but that’s when doubt came rushing in.
What have I gotten myself into?
Boarding the Chief in Chicago
I reached The Windy City three days into my adventure. The nerves had quietly begun to settle. After all, I had already spent two nights on (and one night off) a train: one on the way down toward Atlanta, one at a hostel in New Orleans, and one approaching Chicago. I was settling into the journey just fine, especially now that I was well outside of the eastern corridor. (Once you cross into these multi-day routes, the trains are two levels and much more comfortable.)
Between disembarking the City of New Orleans and boarding the Southwest Chief, I had a few hours to kill. After checking my bags at the station, I hit some of Chicago’s tourist traps like “Goth Target” and Millennium Park, and sampled some of the local food and coffee at Revival Food Hall. The modern outfittings of the downtown food space reminded me of Finn Hall back in my home city of Houston, and the quick-bite sandwich from Danke was exactly what this weary traveler needed.
The Southwest Chief was scheduled to leave at 2:50 PM from Union Station. Thankfully, I arrived an hour ahead of time to gather my bags from luggage check: When I scanned the departures board for my train just after gathering my bags, I saw that I was assigned to a D gate. Upon arrival at the south concourse mere moments later, the Southwest Chief had been switched to a C gate. Scores of passengers shuffled from one side to the other, further confusing those of us who hadn’t yet learned of the track swap. Amtrak staff were trainside, only compounding the confusion as there was no one in the concourse to ask for clarification.
When 2:30 arrived, a boarding call was finally announced. I followed the line of businesspeople, travelers, families, Amish, and a few folks with dogs out to the C tracks. Finally, at the door, I confirmed I was in the correct line.
A Double-Decker Desert Express
Imagine a train ride through the desert. Perhaps you’ll envision a train that’s been sandblasted by hundreds of desert crossings, an observation car hot under the sun with its wrap-around windows, and seats that are stiff to sleep in while you spend two nights trying to find the correct angle. While its not what I expected, it is what I was prepared for just in case.
Instead, the two-level Amtrak Superliner seats its coach passengers (that’s me!) on the upper level in plush, reclining seats that provide brilliant views of the picturebook landscape. Downstairs, five well-appointed bathrooms mean that hygiene is no issue.
Many hours were spent in the observation car on the following days into Los Angeles. Breathtaking views of the vast plains of Kansas, the rough terrain of southern Colorado, and the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona were more than enough to keep the passengers entertained. Though, contrary to my expectations, this was not the route I saw the best sunsets on. Those would come days later, aboard the Empire Builder.
The Southwest Chief’s route is as dynamic as it is beautiful. During long stretches with no cell service, it was impossible to tell exactly where we were along the way. A fellow observation car passenger soon sighed, “We’re in New Mexico.”
I was puzzled as to how exactly he knew that without a map. Thankfully, another passenger asked how he could be so sure: “The dirt. It’s gone from brown to red.”
I glanced at the ground gliding by us. The difference had been faint, but was perceptible.
As the Southwest Chief approached California, my anxiety began to spike. We had experienced significant delays along this voyage, as is typical for Amtrak (more on that in blog five). I worried what would happen if I missed my connection to the Coast Starlight – would I be re-booked on the following day’s train? Re-booked on a bus instead?
The re-booking options themselves weren’t necessarily off-putting, it was what would come next. This trip was meticulously planned (except for the fact that I didn’t know when I booked it that Amtrak was subject to frequent delays). This meant that one missed connection would result in the rest of the connections needing to be pushed back and re-booked, too – all the way back to New York!
Or so I thought.
I expected to be put up in a hotel in L.A. for the night, or booked on a long-distance bus.
As the Coast Starlight departure time came and went – while we were still miles from arriving in Los Angeles – the re-booking process began. My phone chimed. Then again, and again. Email after email poured in from Amtrak customer service with new tickets. Without missing a beat, I was booked on a commuter bus from Union Station to Bakersfield (which would depart as soon as this train arrived), and then aboard the San Joaquins from Bakersfield to Martinez, just outside of San Francisco. Here, I would be reunited with the Coast Starlight – the same exact train, in fact, that I was to have boarded in Los Angeles had the Southwest Chief arrived on time.
Yes, snow in the summer. That’s what we were greeted with aboard the Coast Starlight.
The Starlight picked us up from Martinez at nearly 11:00 PM that night. We pressed northward toward Oregon. I found my place aboard and settled into my seat. Seated next to me was a sweet elderly lady who only spoke in broken English, but was rooting for me on this cross-country journey – she’d done something similar the month before with a Rail Pass.
“At the end of it, I only wanted my own bed,” she laughed. We were both soon asleep. The rest I got that night was some of the best I enjoyed the whole trip.
By 5:30 AM the following morning, I was already up with the sunlight. We traced the lakes and rivers of the Pacific Northwest, with great snow caps in the distance. To higher and higher elevations we climbed. By 9:45 AM, we were 6,000 feet above sea level and despite the sweaty, humid climate back home in New York City, it was snow as far as the eye could see in this moment aboard our train.
Crescent Lake, visible out our windows, was a grayscale painting out of some holiday market. Bordered by frost-covered pines with a blanket of haze resting atop it, the lake was eerily brilliant.
The rapid elevation gain was unreal. We had been surrounded by lush greenery just moments before. Though it didn’t feel like we’d trekked 6,000 feet up, we were somehow cornering a mountaintop. The cliffside drops just outside the observation car windows into the white forest below send you reeling if you fail to focus on the beauty of it. With only the camera of an iPhone in hand, there’s no possible way to communicate the extreme of it all. The passenger is aware that they are lakeside in the sky, but they are unable to appropriately capture it.
Perhaps this is one of those set the camera down and live in it moments.
Embarking on the Empire Builder
We arrived in Portland on time. Here I had a moment to visit Union Station’s coffee shop, but not much else. I own a denim jacket, so naturally I purchased a few Amtrak pins to add to it along with my coffee for the road (or for the tracks, as it were). At 4:45 PM, I boarded the Empire Builder, which would take us all the way to Chicago. Like the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder was a superliner with dual-level coach cars.
This would be the longest single leg of the trip – just a few hours more than the Southwest Chief. The views from the Empire Builder, diverse and seemingly endless, are extraordinary. There were more mountains ahead of us, including Glacier National Park in Montana. Beyond that would be more of the Midwest’s famous plains, more rivers and lakes than you can count, and plenty of time to get to know your fellow travelers – no cell service for most of this route.
Once you’ve cleared the mountains, the scenery evolves from breathtaking to quaint, cute, and eye-catching. Small quintessentially American towns, their history as rail and river hubs evident, and endless farmland all serve to capture the essence of the remote areas between major cities along this route. Once you approach Minneapolis, your journey on the Empire Builder is essentially over.
Winding through Minnesota and into Illinois, you’ll be in Chicago soon enough.
Train Fact 4:
Do you possess a train car all your own? Between certain destinations, Amtrak allows owners of private train cars to hitch onto Amtrak trains, no ticket required. There are, of course, charges for other things, like your annual registration fee and a mileage rate. Maybe it's cheaper to travel with the rest of us plebeians?
Part 4 of 5.