Train Trip Diary: Empire Builder, Milwaukee-Portland


Monday, May 15 2017, got on the train for Portland, the Empire Builder. My sister Pati dropped me off at the station. (The train goes from Chicago to either Seattle or Portland, your choice, what they do is split the train in Spokane, WA, some of it going to Seattle and some of it going to, you guessed it, Portland OR.)

Everything was “preferential” from the line that was just for sleeping car passengers, to my dining car ticket when I got on the train, to the car attendant (David) introducing himself as soon as we rolled out past Miller Brewery (which I used to stare out at from classes in high school for 4 years a long time ago — the sign on the top rotates, although not smoothly, at least back then, there were multiple long gaps).

The sleeper accommodation had two wide seats which face each other, individual overhead lighting options for reading and also for room illumination. The windows had curtains. There was a very narrow closet where you could hang jackets or shirts or something thin like that. There were a couple of “steps” near the door which could be used as a table or a place to put a suitcase (that’s what I used them for) or as the way to get to the top berth once it was lowered. Since I wasn’t sharing the roomette, the top berth was not used.

David turned down the cushions and made up the bed that night after diiner. I also figured out how to make the seats lie flat during the day, if I wanted to lie down and take a nap or something. Honestly, once you’ve gone roomette you never want to go back to coach. I’m sure I will though, I won’t always be able to get such a deal and the normal retail price of these private rooms is very high.

The train left Milwaukee close to 4 pm so there wasn’t much of anything to see during daylight Monday except for rural Wisconsin, which is, as a matter of fact, very pretty, especially as you go further west and there’s some hill and rock formation type landscape near the Mississippi River. We stopped for a longer period of time in Minneapolis/St. Paul and I got out to walk the platform. I was able to sleep a bit, though not extensively even flat on my back in the sleeper car, but when I awoke we were firmly in North Dakota. I believe I slept through the stop at Fargo, North Dakota (which is right on the Minnesota border, anyway).

Tuesday, May 16. – States were North Dakota and Montana. Both are big states. Montana, interestingly, is almost all flat until we got to the far northwest of that state, which is then the Rockies and Glacier National Park. (We arrived in Glacier around dinnertime, which was AWESOME – see pix and videos.)

So basically the ride through the northern plains was uneventful. I was surprised there were so many ponds and little lakes in North Dakota. Wondered if they are always there, or if that was the result of recent snowmelt.

It’s not nearly as barren as say, Nebraska. Lots more variety in ND as far as trees and other landscapes go. Same thing with plains in Montana. So with North Dakota, I’ve been to my 49th state. Alaska, I’m coming for ya.

I got to Portland on Wednesday (train takes 2 days) via another gorgeous route – this one along the Columbia River from Spokane to Portland. The Empire Builder train splits in Spokane – some of the cars going to Seattle, the other half the train going to points in Southern Washington state before ending in DT Portland and Union Station there.

Mostly the scenery on my side of the train (the right side, or the northern facing side) was of rock formations along the river gorge. It was early morning and breakfast time, a crisp sunny morning, not a cloud in the sky. Really pretty (and you see, I have pictures).

The mundane things: finding the Car Rental place while traversing the blocks of the sketchy and the homeless—sometimes one and the same. Once I got there it was pretty simple, and remembering how to get to John’s place was no big deal (don’t know why I thought it would be).

So here’s the truth about his place out there: It’s not in Portland. It’s in the Portland area, but it’s rural Washington state, the fringes and I mean woodsy fringes of Camas, Washington, which is a little town on the Columbia River. But John lives no where near the town, it’s miles away along a 2 lane blacktop in the woods with no shoulder (where the speed limit is 50 mph).

And no matter what he says, it really does take more like 45 minutes to get to Portland (because of the traffic, not the distance) not 20 like he sometimes says when he talks about it. It’s a beautiful place to visit and I love it, but it’s not in Portland.

The next day (Thursday) we DID go to Portland to sightsee, to the Pittock Mansion, an old place left over from one of Portland’s founding families. A fun tour of a very nice old house, something that I think both John and I enjoyed.

Friday was an aborted day trip to Seattle. Bad planning on my part. I figured I could just get a round trip ticket with my pass with no problem, similar to the Hiawatha and the MKE-CHI route, but the Amtrak Cascades is different. Unfortunately, the return trip was sold out so I just drove back after a little breakfast from the Safeway (!) that was less that stellar. (NOTE to readers – this is the section of Amtrak that was hit with the derailment in December, 2017, near Tacoma WA)

I was a bit disappointed that my little side trip to Seattle didn’t work out so I decided to drive to Mt. St. Helens. That was about a 1.5 hour trip from John’s. I didn’t go to the furthest viewing point as it would have been more driving but it was beautiful and the best part was that it wasn’t crowded. Just a very peaceful day to be by myself. So now basically both times I’ve been to Mt. St. Helens the summit was shrouded in clouds. I guess I’ll have to keep trying.

When I got back John’s his nephews (actually his grand nephews) were there, an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, names were Bodie and Rylo. Great kids, inquisitive and respectful. Behaved well. John adores them and I could see why, they were absolutely delightful.

We all ate dinner together. John made meatloaf and some corn and probably something else. Don’t remember. There were brownies under one of those pedestal cake plates. I asked if they were regular brownies or if they were “special” brownies. John seemed aghast that I would think he would “poison” me but I had to make sure, I mean really, the last thing I wanted to do was to eat something with pot in it.

Saturday, May 20, was a day in Portland. This was the day I saw old friend George Brown. We met at Pioneer Heritage Square, all of which seems rather sinister (maybe the heritage part) in the wake of the white supremacist murders on the Max train, which happened later in the week that I was there.

Anyway, we had lunch at a place called Jake’s, downtown, it was very nice, kind of cloth napkin nice. We walked all over, saw two different Saturday festivals, like a farmers market and then a craft fair, both were interesting and very popular. Even if Portland is much smaller than SF or LA it still seems like a really big city to me. We spent probably most of the afternoon together and then went our separate ways. It was so great to see George again, someone I originally met in 1983. Again I had no problem finding my way back to John’s in Camas.

Saturday was my last night there at John’s—don’t remember what we did but maybe that was the night we watched the Bernie Madoff movie (with Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer). The next morning was mainly packing up and leaving —stopping at the Safeway to buy made sandwiches for the Coast Starlight which was a 30 hour journey down the coast. Next: Back home to Los Angeles.