NEAR WAGNER, Montana — The train rolls past distant hills — mountains, an easterner would call them. But it’s just a tease. Out here is mostly prairie and thin wire fences and undulating gray moguls of land, mysterious for what lies beneath, all dinosaur fossils and buffalo bones. The sky is huge and blue and endless. Here is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid embarked on their last train robbery. Here is the middle of Montana. Here is the West.
Then, there’s an announcement. It’s time for wine tasting! I brush my hair in the tiny roomette, elbows bumping the dark blue walls with every stroke. Then I hurry up to the dining car and take my place across from a couple from Ohio. The train jerks side to side, but the tasting begins — Washington State chardonnay, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon. People grip their little plastic cups, but nothing spills. Wine. Cheese. Laughter. The time passes.
The Amtrak Empire Builder may not be the most fashionable train in the world, or the fastest, or the most elegant.
But it has something that other trains in the world do not have — the wide Montana scenery that takes you right into the heart of the Rockies and Glacier National Park.
Train travel is much maligned in the United States, and many bemoan the fact that it is not what it could be or should be or used to be.
The long-distance Empire Builder, especially, faces severe challenges to perform on time.
Yet there is something still wonderful about taking the train.
Every day, the Empire Builder begins a 2,205-mile journey from Chicago to Seattle and Portland and vice-versa. One of Amtrak’s signature routes, it passes through Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, then turns west across northern North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Oregon.
Due to time constraints, I flew to Minneapolis/ St. Paul and caught the westbound Empire Builder as it left at 11:15 p.m. headed for East Glacier, Mont. — 1,129 miles and 21 hours away.
Booking a roomette — a tiny, private sleeping berth with two seats that fold to a flat bed — turned out to be a good decision. Although the train jerked its way west and the bed was about as comfortable as riding a hay wagon across a turnip field, sleep came. By dawn, we were in Grand Forks, N.D.
Unlike the semi-shabby Amtrak trains of less illustrious routes (I’m not pointing fingers here, but Detroit-Chicago comes to mind), Empire Builder had 11 gleaming Superliner cars attached to two engines. It had four 2-level sleeper cars, four coach passenger cars, a dining car, a dome lounge car and a baggage car. It was clean. The toilets worked. Sleeping car passengers got free breakfast and dinner, free coffee and juice and a small gray drawstring bag with toiletries. And yes, there were showers, and I should say that taking a hot shower in a moving train is quite entertaining, like showering in an earthquake — just hang on and don’t drop the soap.
The Empire Builder, contrary to rumor, was not all silver-haired seniors. It was packed with families, couples, students, oil workers. Even the more expensive sleeping cars had guests ranging in age from about 16 to 70.
The train stopped 16 times between St. Paul and East Glacier. I liked that passengers could get out several times along the way as the train refueled, in Minot and Williston, N.D., and Havre, Mont. And I liked the fact the train, for the most part, stayed on schedule as it trundled west, west and farther west.
The name Empire Builder dates from 1929. It honors 19th century Minnesota rail tycoon James J. Hill, who built this whole line, originally called the Great Northern, in the 1880s and 1890s. In addition to growing rich transporting freight by rail, he had a vision to transport tourists to what is now Glacier National Park. After Glacier became a national park in 1911, passenger travel there expanded. One 1930s brochure advertising the Empire Builder waxed, “You relish Empire Builder meals. You sleep exceptionally well. You meet worthwhile people. … Here indeed is an extra fine train.”
These days, the Empire Builder has a comfortable dome observation car, which is a splendid way to see just how big this country is. The prairie and farmland and waterways pass like watercolor illustrations from a book about scenic America. Although the train has its big-city stops in Seattle, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, it seems most at home on the prairie. It pauses at Fargo, N.D., famed for the movie that bears its name. It stops in Williston, N.D., an oil boom town. It regally passes several tattered, windswept spots that look shabby enough to blow away in a strong Montana wind.
Ride the Empire Builder, and you get a strange sense of still being part of the rich historical timeline of the West. Trains helped settle this country. Two big Indian reservations along the way — the Blackfeet and Ft. Peck (for the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes) — still speak to the heartbreak of loss, the vanished buffalo and the first people on these lands. And always the waving grasses spread out to the rolling distance, showing the sweeping America that Empire Builder transits every day.
Finally, we spotted the snow-covered Rockies jutting from the distant landscape, and then we were at East Glacier on the edge of Glacier National Park.
That’s where I got out.
IF YOU GO:
THE ROUTE: Empire Builder travels between Chicago and Seattle/ Portland, a 46-hour trip. I boarded in Minneapolis and went as far as East Glacier National Park, about 21 hours. The East Glacier station is open only seasonally, but the Essex and West Glacier stations are open year-round.
SLEEPING CAR: Recommended. Although it costs more than a regular seat, it helps you sleep and has perks — your own private roomette or compartment, free meals, cabin service, wine tasting and more. Book far ahead for best selection. Besides the roomette, you also can choose a family cabin or a larger sleeping cabin.
COST: Book up to 11 months in advance. Right now, round-trip fare for two people from Chicago to West Glacier in July 2013, including a roomette that sleeps two (upper and lower bunk), is $1,184 if you use your AAA card. (www.amtrak.com, 800-872-7245 )
TOURS: I made my own arrangements, but there are package tours. Examples:
Amtrak Vacations: “Northern Border and Pacific Northwest” — eight days and includes Empire Builder from Chicago to Glacier National Park, with three days at the park, then train to Seattle. Includes lodging, tours and more. From $2,299 per person. (www.amtrakvacations.com, 800-268-7252)
Vacations by Rail: “Empire Builder with Glacier National Park” — seven days, one way on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Glacier, then on to Seattle. From $1,845 per person with roomette. (www.vacationsbyrail.com, 877-929-7245)
FOR MORE: Download the timetable for the Empire Builder at www.amtrak.com/ccurl/348/668/Empire-Builder-Schedule-050712.pdf