Matt's Tips for Long Railroad Trips

So if you thought--like Gene Wilder in Silver
--that taking a  long train trip for a couple
of days would be a great way to relax and get
caught up on your reading, you are mistaken.  
There's lots to do and see. Here are a few tips
which might help you plan your trip.

1. Go to and just look
   around.  Click on the "Routes" icon to get
   an idea of places to go.  The site also has
    information about specials that seem to be
    very popular.  I booked my reservation on
    the website and had no problems.

2. I'm not saying that the folks in coach are
   the wretched refuse of anyone's teeming
   shores, but if  you can swing it financially,
   get something on the sleeper.  In addition
   to the privacy, you'll have access to
   showers, reservations in the dining car,
   and a special steward on each sleeping
   car who will look after your well-being.

3. Book early.  Sleepers fill up fast.

4. What Amtrak likes to call "roomettes" are
   great if it's just you or just you and a small
   child.  If two normal-sized adults are
   traveling together, it 's better to get a regular

5. Even if you're traveling coach, eat your
   meals in the dining car.  The food is quite
   good, and as on cruises, you are compelled
   to eat with others.  Everyone I ate with was
   terrific and had great stories to tell.

6. Trains have a bad reputation for being
   chronically late.  I can't generalize, but my
   train arrived in Portland a half-hour early.

7. If you're a smoker, your smoking breaks
   are limited to the occasional opportunity
   to go out on the platform when the train
   is in station.

8. Be open to meeting new people.  It 's one
   of the best perks of the trip.

9. Generally speaking, "early to bed and early
   to rise" is the best strategy for train riding.
   I didn't see anyone who looked like Paul
   Newman running a poker game as in
  Sting, and the bar closes at 10 pm.
   They dim the lights in the coach, and there's
   not a lot to see outside in the darkness.
   I was generally in bed at ten and up around
   six in the morning.

10. Occasionally, a train will be scheduled
    for a twenty-minute stop in a city.  Don't
    plan to take in a lot of sights in that time
    period.  It's just about enough time to go
    into the station and get a newspaper or ice
    cream from the vending machine.

11. Regardless of how old you are, you'll
    be the youngest person on the train.

12. Don't expect to get much use out of your
    cell phone or laptop.  (For me, this was one
    of the very best features of the trip.)

13. Spend as much time as possible looking
    out the window.  It's a beautiful country..
Every two or three hours, the train would stop and let passengers get out, stretch
their legs, smoke as much of a cigarette as possible, and take a stab at cell phone

When I got to Portland (a half-hour early!) on Saturday morning, my wonderful
friend, Vonnie Good, met me at the station, and we spent a beautiful day visiting
four of the wineries in the Wilhamette Valley region and the Evergreen Aviation
Museum--the new home of the "Spruce Goose", since it left Long Beach a few
years back.  There's no way I could get the entire plane in one photo, but here are
a couple of photos of Vonnie and me with the tail section and the model of the
plane that was used in the movie
The Aviator.

It was a great trip.  If you ever get the chance, do it.
You'll love it.
So why is a train that goes from Chicago to Portland called The Empire
?  It's named for James J. "Empire Builder" Hill, who founded the
Northern Pacific Railroad in the 19th century.  His railroad opened a vast
segment of the continent to economic development.  Here's a statue of Mr.
Hill in front of the station in Havre, Montana.

For more information about the route,

                                                  I boarded at Cincinnati at 3 a.m, and we
                                                  arrived in Chicago seven hours later.
                                                  After checking my bags, I went for a stroll
                                                  and discovered that Union Station is only
                                                  block away from Sears Tower, which I had
                                                  never visited.  So I checked it out and took
                                                  this picture, looking toward the new Frank Geary
                                                   building in Grant Park (lower right), Navy Pier and Lake

As you'd probably suspect, the scenery was the highlight
of the trip.  I don't think we ever actually got into the
Badlands of North Dakota, but the scenery at right
was not too far away.

                                            It's very difficult to take a digital photo from a moving train.
                                            I spent almost an hour trying to get a decent shot of Mt. Hood.
                                            This is as good as I could get.
click here.
Riding the Empire Builder, September 2005
At two p.m., I boarded the train and was immediately greeted by my sleeping car host,
O.C. Smith, from McComb, Mississippi (right).  Needless to say, we bonded right away,
and he took very good care of me for the duration of the trip.  At one point, I heard an
announcement asking everyone who had signed up for the wine tasting to report to the
dining car.  I hadn't heard anything about it and told O.C. that I was sorry I was going to
miss it.  His response was that he knew I'd want to go and had signed up for me.  I found out
shortly that not only is he an outstanding sleeping car host, he runs a mean wine tasting as well.

                                                                            At said wine tasting, I met the folks at left.  George from Milan,
                                                                            Indiana, which is where I go to ride my bicycle on nice days.
                                                                            If he hadn't told me that he sent his daughter to Xavier,
                                                                            I would have thought him to be entirely convivial and