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“As you set out…hope the voyage is a long one.” C.P. Cavafy

Union Station, Portland OR © SR Euston

When we booked our first overnight Amtrak ride recently, I envisioned an Orient Express experience: mysterious women in flowing silk dressing gowns disappearing into sleek sleeping cabins; fine dinners served on elegantly appointed tables by men in dinner jackets; the train’s rhythmic sway lulling me to sleep as we slipped through the velvet summer night. I imagined Romance! Luxury! Intrigue!

The trip began auspiciously enough. We left Portland’s Union Station on Amtrak’s Empire Builder headed for Chicago precisely on time at 4:45 pm, anticipating our scheduled arrival in Shelby, MT at 11:43 am the next day.

Along the Columbia River © SR Euston

Behind Bonneville Dam © SR Euston

Remembering the tart online discussions about the Empire Builder’s difficulties—one blogger even admonished “Get over it!”—I realized on-time arrival was unusual.

In the Lounge Car © SR Euston

Still I never dreamed we would spend five hours stopped dead on a siding near the Dalles and another two (I don’t even remember where) languishing. Granted a series of brushfires near the tracks stalled us up. Even so.

Out the Window: Grain Elevators © AME

Seven additional hours spent in a semi-upright position in a not-so-comfortable-for-sleeping coach seat with no dining car until Spokane did not make for the relaxed, re-vitalizing journey I had envisioned. By morning even the train staff were as cranky as the trapped passengers.

Yet, in retrospect, delay had its advantages. We saw sunrise over the Eastern Washington wheat fields. We could wander from car to car and get off at stations to stretch.

At Whitefish Station © SR Euston

We passed through some of the very best scenery in daylight, along the Kootenai River and later skirting Glacier National Park. We had two volunteer ranger/naturalists join us to point out the sights—a rare chance for them to describe locations mostly passed through in darkness. Even if (bedraggled, tired and hungry) we didn’t make Shelby until past 7:00 pm, it truly was an opportunity to slow down and look around. On balance, we had, not your standard high-anxiety airplane trip, but rather more a Cavafy-style voyage.

And we learned two important Amtrak lessons. Don’t expect to be (even remotely) on time. And always book a sleeper car.

(Part 2: The Return: Romance, Sleep and Dinner too!)

Greeting the Dawn © AME

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