At 10:30 p.m. on Friday night, I board the train that will take me back to the West Coast. It’s a 36-hour journey from Minneapolis to Seattle—two sleeps—so there will be plenty of time to enjoy the scenery across the great plains and the Rocky Mountains, and to meet the interesting people who travel using this slow and classic mode of transportation.
Dining on Amtrak
American trains may be slow and unreliable, but they do have one excellent redeeming quality: onboard dining. I have failed to pack any food, so I am obliged to eat at the onboard café and restaurant. The café is on the bottom floor of the observation car and sells snacks, sandwiches, beverages (including beer and wine), and other sundry items. It’s open late, and is operated by a friendly man in an impeccable Amtrak uniform who always smiles and says “sir”.
The restaurant is something else entirely. It occupies the top floor of one of the rail cars in the middle of the train. It is set up like a retro diner, with booths for four on either side of the aisle. There is a galley kitchen tucked at one end where meals are made, and two servers patrol the aisle to take your order, albeit using a strange system where you must scratch your choices into a piece of carbon paper, which is then passed on to the kitchen. The panoramic windows make for a scenic meal.
The food is American home-style, and consists of things like steak, roast chicken, mashed potatoes, white rice, and leafy salad. Breakfast is the stereotypical American fare of eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes. All is eaten with proper silverware and is served on china plates emblazoned with the Amtrak logo (or perhaps they’re actually plastic versions designed to parrot the old designs, thus preserving the sense of nostalgia, but I have a hard time telling for sure.)
I am also treated to a special culinary surprise, available only by special order and picked up at one of the stations along the way. The dish is fried chicken and blueberry cobbler, a local specialty apparently, and comes packed on a neat little cardboard box. The chicken is stiff and an overcooked (I need to ask the attendant to microwave it warm in order to choke it down), and the cobbler tastes like it came out of a can, but no matter—it’s about the experience.
More than just scenery
There is limited seating available in the dining car, and since I am a solo traveler, the hostess always seats me with strangers, which gives me the opportunity to meet some of my fellow travelers. Typically, they are older couples with lots of spare time and an uncanny knowledge of the American rail network, and little to no knowledge of the rest of the world. I listen in on several debates about the virtues of the various Amtrak routes, each of which is named according to the terrain and legends associated with the regions they traverse. My train from New York to Chicago, for instance, was called the Lake Shore Limited. This train from Chicago to Seattle is called the Empire Builder. There is also the Maple Leaf (New York to Toronto), Cascades (Portland to Vancouver), and the California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco), to name a few.
Most of the people I meet are traveling by train primarily to experience the slow pace and classic style of the golden era of the railway, not as a mode of transportation. Juan, an enthusiastic young man from Argentina, has already trained from California through Texas to New York, and is now on the final leg across the north to Seattle, finishing a loop of America before starting a master’s degree at Stanford. Another group is traveling to Glacier, Montana, for a hiking trip.
The scenery along the way is, of course, gorgeous, and I spend many hours gazing out the window as farmland transitions to foothills and then to mountains. The best place to observe the scenery is from the “club car”, which features swivel seats and panoramic windows that stretch up and over the ceiling like a solarium. Like in the dining car, seating in the club car is at a premium. Before leaving on the trip, a friend warned me that it’s important to snag a seat if it becomes available, because early-rising senior citizens will claw their ways there at the crack of dawn, wheeling oxygen tanks in tow and wearing Depends, making it possible to stay all day without leaving, thus being able to practice the uniquely senior activity of seated fossilization.
Some entertainment is provided on board. Twice during the trip, a pair of National Parks rangers board to give a lesson on the environment and wildlife. One points out a couple of antelope grazing in a field. At another time, a storyteller boards for several hours to teach passengers about the life of Native Americans in the region, both before and after colonization. One of the rangers points out a small patch of field fenced off with chain-link, sticking up curiously out of the flat plains. “That there is a missile silo,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Under that field is a nuclear-armed minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile.” Huh.
An Amish birthday party
There is one group on board that is using the train expressly as a mode of transportation, not just tourism, however. One of the train cars is populated with about thirty Amish men, women, and children, all from Michigan, who are easily identified by their traditional outfits. All of the men who are old enough sport a long beard and suspenders, while the women all wear plain home-made dresses and a starched white bonnet. Oddly, they also wear store-bought running shoes, and are toting around enormous sacks full of candy and other junk food, which they consume in quantity.
The Amish passengers speak to one another in Pennsylvania Dutch, a language I didn’t even know existed. One couple asks me enthusiastic questions about my trip around the world. What was it like traveling through Central Asia and the Middle East? Did I go through Germany? Their ancestors are from there. After I’m finished my story, the wife surprises me with tales of her own travels. She has been to Banff several times, she says, and to Quebec City. Her and her husband traveled on the California Zephyr several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I feel foolish for thinking that Amish people never leave home.
One morning, when I am lucky enough to snag a seat in the observation car, I strike up a conversation with an older gentleman. I ask if he is a farmer. No, he replies that he works in an R.V. factory. He tells me that his entire extended family is traveling from Michigan to Montana to surprise his brother for his 50th birthday. I imagine the scene: a man hears a knock on the door, opens it, and sees on the doorstep, unannounced, his Amish brother with 29 relatives in tow, all of whom live thousands of miles away and do not travel by airplane. Imagine!