If you took a poll, travel by train would probably be the single most popular form of transit. Every famous travel writer in the world has waxed lyrical about train travel, and most not-so-famous ones, too, yours truly included. Loving the rails might make me just one of the herd, but I can’t help it. It is the best way to see the world, even the smallest slices of it.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s always romantic. Or even comfortable. I was open-mouthed astounded recently when my husband put on a show called Extreme Trains, and the host fed his audience an image of Amtrak’s Empire Builder route – from Chicago to Seattle – that I, a veteran of that journey, have never seen in my life. I have ridden the Empire Builder more than 20 times, and you could look over, under, through, and across the train and never find that my experiences coincide with those depicted on Extreme Trains. Maybe in another universe.
This is a crappy show. Sure, it’s done by the History Channel and hosted by a real-life train conductor who knows his engineering. His presentation (reminiscent of those overly melodramatic volcano shows on the Discovery Channel that show some TV producers never learned that the drama of nature really does speak for itself) makes me think they dragged someone over from RAW World Wrestling. But presentation is only half the problem.
While host Matt Brown certainly has his facts down, his adjectives need correcting. I was interested when he talked about the history of the Empire Builder route, how the line was blasted through the unforgiving Cascade mountains outside of Seattle, and for all my times on the train I didn’t realize its schedule was designed to give passengers a daytime view of Glacier National Park’s beautiful southern peaks.
But then he gets to words like, say, “luxury.” Or “comfort.” Or “gourmet.” Take any of them and you’re talking a barrow-load of crap. Throw in his comment (made 3 times!) that Amtrak, especially the Empire Builder, is famous for its “on-time service” and I swear to your God that I spilled my soup.
I adore Amtrak. I revere Amtrak. Amtrak got me through college and back home again every Christmas, every summer, and sometimes spring break. I could afford it, unlike the plane tickets. It was more comfortable than Greyhound. And I can remember riding it my very first Christmas break, the day after my last physics and calculus finals, and thinking that the 24-hour journey was exactly what I needed to transition from the first exhilarating, giddy semester of college, back to the mountain home I loved and the friends I’d missed. If I dug around, I could probably find the journal entry that says that very thing.
My love for Amtrak and the Empire Builder goes beyond an affection for train travel. We have a relationship.
It’s a one-sided, old-fashioned marriage. “On-time service,” says the host of Extreme Trains? Our train once sat in midwinter, on a dark night, outside of Havre, Montana (one of the middles of nowhere out on the windswept prairie) for 6 hours while they tried to locate another engine that could pull us up through the Rocky Mountains. Obviously they couldn’t have thought that one ahead, although Amtrak did the trip every single day at the time. Since they had to remove our old engine, the electricity was off. That meant the heat was off. In Eastern Montana. At night, in the middle of winter. For 6 hours.
Such was my preparation and love for this train that I simply shook my head, pulled on my wool hat and ski gloves, and dragged the thick blanket back over my shoulders.
I once got on a train in Minneapolis, to go home, that was 36 hours late. Work that one out. Never once did I arrive back in Montana anywhere near on time. I think we did arrive only 2 hours late, once. It was a fluke.
And have you ever tried the food on Amtrak? Extreme Trains host Matt Brown went on about how high-quality it was, how the passengers were hungry, and how the Empire Builder was known for its excellent dining car service.
You bet the passengers are hungry. That’s because the food is pre-cooked, microwaved stodge that you can only buy a plate at a time (as in the plates are pre-arranged and shrink-wrapped), and there’s not a whole lot of it. And it costs a fortune. Being a lover of this train, and knowing it well, I always brought a big bag of crusty bread, cheese, salami, and chocolate. It made me popular, although not as much as the whisky flask my grandmother once sneaked into my pocket for the journey.
Extreme Trains proved to me, once again, how misleading travel shows can be. It shows why real travel writing, by real people having real experiences, is so crucial to the armchair or mobile traveler.
But it also does Amtrak a great disservice. The Empire Builder might be late, sometimes cold, and underfed, but it is a journey in the best tradition of train travel. There’s lots of room, even if you just buy a seat. I once took my harp back and forth, plonked in front of my feet, and had plenty of leg room (it’s a small harp). You meet interesting people, whether in your car or in the observation lounge. The trip takes you through views of America’s sprawled-out countryside that in a car might put you to sleep. It gives you access to towns all across the northern United States that nobody in a plane will likely ever see. It allows you to learn that almost every single small town in Montana has a bar named Stockman’s.
There are train journeys in Europe, both comfortable and elegant, with views that made my teeth tingle, that can never have the place in my heart that the Empire Builder does. They can’t touch the memories created by a journey that is like an old lover: doddering, tardy, cranky, with indigestion.
Forget ‘Extreme.’ The Empire Builder is anything but extreme. It is like the best of America: strong, solid, simple-hearted, and worth of loyalty.