By Roscoe Baram
Editor’s note: I’ve always believed in the importance of instilling a love for travel in our children. Travel can be transformative. It can change the way we view the world, as well as how we view ourselves and our place in it. Roscoe’s commitment to plan and pay for his family’s cross–country rail trip is inspiring. While COVID-19 may have temporarily paused much of our travel, rail vacations offer an ideal way to socially distance while you explore the country. Thank you, Roscoe, for sharing your adventure with us!
It’s Feb. 15, 2020, and my dream is about to come true. I’m walking in a line of people to our sleeper car on the long double-decker Amtrak train. The trip is about to begin. This is the day I’ve been waiting for — after seven months of planning and saving up to $2,000 throughout the first half of sixth grade. I’ve done countless lemonade stands, a crepe sale, saved all my Christmas money and most of my birthday money, as well as used online savings apps.
I’ve chosen to take this trip because when I first heard about it, I couldn’t resist the idea. It was all I could think about. I couldn’t not take it — that’s how obsessed I was! It seemed so exciting because I love adventures and being in the snow, and I love the coziness and the feeling of trains, and the way they move through the countryside.
Here’s the journey we’re about to take — across the country from New York City to Portland, Oregon, through the quiet farmland of the east, into the solitude of big-sky country, and the snowy mountains of the west. This trip, at its Western end, follows the historic route of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who were sent by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806 to traverse the lands west of the Mississippi River, which the U.S. had just purchased from France.
I’m on the subway in NYC and we’re pulling into Penn Station, where my parents and I enter the station’s low-ceilinged and crowded main hall. We walk to the “Club Acela,” which feels like a refuge. It’s a fancy lounge for sleeper car guests. It’s nice to be able to sit and relax for a couple of minutes without worrying about the train.
The route starts in my hometown of New York, where we take the Northeast Regional to Washington D.C., traveling in a normal coach seat for this four-hour leg of the trip, we go through the suburbs of New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Then we board the Capitol Limited, in a sleeper car for a single night, where we go through the farms and woods of the east. After that, we board the Empire Builder, in a sleeper for three nights, through big-sky country and the mountains of the west.
We board the Northeast Regional, and go through the backside of the cities of the east, with their industrial buildings and some broken down buildings, which have their own urban beauty. Once in D.C., we walk to the fancy lounge in the grand Union Station, which is bigger and nicer than the one in New York City, but we’re only going to be here for 10 minutes, because now we’re taking the Capitol Limited, in a sleeper car for a single night. This train is a Superliner, which means it’s a double-decker train with roommates and bedrooms and a lounge car with huge panoramic windows and a cafe. There’s also a dining car, with a kitchen downstairs and the seating area upstairs, where you can eat some really good food. We walk to our car and find our sleeper car attendant, who will make our beds, and take our dinner reservations. He tells us our rooms and we go find them. For this part of the trip, we have two small “roomettes.” Roomettes are just two chairs facing each other, and during the night, they fold down into a bed. I’m settling into our cozy rooms and the train starts moving — here we go!
An hour later our attendant comes to welcome us and take our dinner reservations. We walk down the train through the diner car and into the lounge car. Light is flooding in through the huge windows and they’re big comfy seats facing the windows. We sit down and gaze out as we coast through the farms of northern West Virginia. We start talking to a nice couple; he’s an Air Force pilot but now he and his wife run a small organic farm in Pennsylvania. We also meet two friends, one of whom works at a nature camp taking care of bald eagles and is on her way to Chicago on a somber mission — to deliver her late husband’s ashes to her in-laws.
Slowly the day turns to night and we go to get dinner in the diner car. After dinner, we walk back to our rooms to find that our seats were turned into beds. I get cozy and I take out my computer to binge-watch The Simpsons. Now it’s 10 p.m. and I’m brushing my teeth in the bathroom, the floor is rumbling below me. I look out the window at the almost pitch-black farm fields, wondering what it’s like for all those people and what their lives are like. I go back upstairs to our rooms and lie down and fall asleep quickly to the soothing rocking of the train.
I wake up at 6 a.m. and walk over to the lounge car in my pajamas. I sit down and gaze at the sunrise over the farms. My parents come and join me. My stomach rumbling, we go to the next car over to get our breakfast. I just have a muffin. We go back to the lounge car and watch as we go through the suburbs of Chicago. Every once in a while we see a glimpse of Lake Michigan — and before we know it, we’re in Chicago. We pack our bags and walk out of the train and into the station. We leave the station and explore Chicago during our six-hour layover.
We walk back into Chicago’s Union Station and return to the lounge. We sit down and talk to a bunch of rail fans taking another train trip. Later, we’re told to board the train and we walk to the platform. We have to walk to the very end of the train because the train splits in Spokane, Washington. When it’s in Spokane, the front half detaches to go to Seattle while that back half separates to go to Portland. We’re going to Portland so we have to be in the very back of the train. We finally arrive at the back of the train where our attendant for this train, Craig, greets us. He points us to our room, which is on the first floor of the train at the end of the car. This time we just have one big “family room” that has a couch that folds down into a bed and two seats that become another bed, and two beds that fold down from the ceiling. So in total four beds, I choose the small bed by the window.
We sit down as we coast through Chicago and watch as the city becomes farmland. We make our dinner reservations for 7 p.m., but we made the mistake of booking our dinner at the same time as a “fresh air break” which is where Amtrak switches the crew, but you’re allowed to step off the train for 20-40 minutes. But anyways we headed over to the dining car to get a complimentary dinner (all meals are free).
I got an Amtrak signature steak, one of their most famous dishes. The steak came with green beans and a baked potato. The steak was probably one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. The baked potato and the green beans were also really good. When we arrived at the fresh air stop, we had to leave dinner to go outside. We meet a young Amish rail fan smoking a pipe wearing a top-hat on the snowy platform. He told us about his rail adventures taking (almost) every Amtrak train. This long stop wasn’t on the schedule and was because the train was 30 minutes ahead of schedule, so they had to wait. And I’m glad we did go out of the train. It feels really good when you can get a breath of fresh air and stretch your legs. Also, it’s just nice to be able to get out and see what these little towns look like. We got back on the train and finished our dinner. When we finished, we got up and headed back to our rooms. When we got back the beds were nicely made by our sleeping-car attendant. We went to bed early.
We wake up to find ourselves going through Big Sky country in northern North Dakota. In about two hours we’ll have a 30-minute fresh air break in Minot. We get up and go to get breakfast. I got French toast, which was phenomenal. After breakfast, we get out at Minot and walk onto the snowy platform. We know we’re going to be in Minot for almost an hour and a half because of how ahead of the schedule we are. Because of this, we ran over to a little drive-through coffee stand, to get some good coffee, but it was closed to our disappointment. We walk back to the platform and walk around and check out the small little station. The little station only sees two trains a day — this train and one going back. It has two little benches and a booth. We get back to our car and talk to our attendant. He tells us about his kids and life as an Amtrak attendant. From what he told me, it sounded like a pretty sweet job. We get back on the train and go to our rooms and sit down.
We pull out of Minot to see more farmland. The train rumbles beneath us as we fly along these quiet tracks. In the distance, you can see hills and mountains. Sometimes these hills come up right next to the track. These hills look almost man-made as they feel like they go on forever. We make a quick stop in Williston, which sits near the confluence of the mighty Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Also nearby is Fort Buford, a historic U.S. Army post, where Lakota chief Sitting Bull ended the 50-year Great Sioux War when he had his son surrender his Winchester rifle to U.S. military forces in 1881, famously saying: “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”
Eventually, we arrive in Montana to see totally flat plains that go as far as the eye can see. In the very distance, you can see the Rockies and snow-capped peaks. Every once in a while, you can see a long trail of grain hoppers. Sometimes you pass through a little community of just a few hundred people or less. The train bumps up and down over a single-track rail line through the plains. Once lunch rolls around, we order food to be delivered to our rooms. I got a hot dog, which was pretty good.
After lunch, we stop in Havre, Montana for 30 minutes, which ended up being an hour. If you have time, there are some sights worth seeing, including the Underground, the remains of an underground mall built back in 1904 after a fire destroyed the town’s main business district. During the rebuilding, businesses from the illicit (a brothel and three opium dens) to the legal (restaurants and drugstores) moved underground.
We got back on the train and saw the same scenery. When you would look south, you see flat plains then the Rockies in Wyoming. When you look north you see plains, but with one huge mountain sticking up. We go and snag a seat in the lounge car to see Glacier National Park. There will be four hours until our next stop in Shelby, Montana. It’s a tiny town, but it made headlines in 1923 for hosting the world heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. The rest of the day goes quickly and soon we’re getting dinner. I got mac and cheese and my dad ordered the land and sea combo, which had fish and steak.
We go back to our rooms and watch Glacier National Park go by in the light of the moon. We stop in Whitefish, Montana, and to our surprise, there are long lines of people waiting to get on the train, all after a day of skiing at Whitefish. Once back on the train, we get cozy and go to bed.
Today is the last day on the train. This day came quicker than expected. It’s amazing to me that we made it all the way across the entire country, a journey of over 3,000 miles, in just four days. We wake up along one of the most scenic natural pathways in America — the Columbia River Gorge — to witness an amazing sunrise. It feels almost like going through a canyon, due to its large stone walls towering over the river. We pack up our stuff and put everything away and go to the lounge car to see the amazing gorge. We sit down and watch the freight trains pass on the other side of the river. The train rumbles through tunnels until we start to enter the Cascades Forest, with snow-capped mountains on either side of the river. Soon, we can see Mt. Hood towering over the trees. And before we know it, we are pulling into Portland’s historic Union Station, which dates from 1896 and stands out in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood for its towering Romanesque Revival clock tower. And off we go to wander through the city.
Overall, it was an amazing journey. People sometimes compare train travel to flying, but they don’t compare. You can hop on a flight and get just about anywhere in the world in under 48 hours. Amtrak is the journey and not the destination. But Amtrak is also an adventure and a vacation. If there was unlimited time and money, I would always pick Amtrak over flying. I think I liked the adventure part of the trip the best, I loved seeing the small towns and I loved the feeling of the train.
I think next I would want to take the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco. You go through the farm fields of Iowa and Illinois before going into the Rocky Mountains and the Nevada Desert, then you climb up the Sierra Mountains and land in San Francisco. I’m also looking at the “Canadian National Railways Winnipeg to Churchill” route, which goes through the northern tundra (with the northern lights) and the snowy forests.
(Photos: Amtak and Roscoe Baram )