I began my journey from Montana to Turkey in early August. I was to embark on my first 55-hour, cross-country Amtrak experience, leaving from the historic Whitefish train depot, and ending in Rochester, NY. I was hoping it would be everything one could imagine of a train route called "The Empire Builder." It probably seemed like I was solely trying to build the empire when I arrived at the train station with my eight 50-lb. bags.
Upon arriving, I learned that a cargo train just west of Whitefish had derailed early that morning, damaging the track, and we had to wait for buses to unload passengers and luggage from the Empire Builder in Libby, transport them to Whitefish to pick up us and our luggage, and then onward to Shelby, Montana, where all 6 buses including passengers and loads of luggage were to switch with the passengers heading west on the ol' "Builder." So, all in all, it was kind of a big gong show day. I missed the most scenic part of the Empire Builder where the train runs along the south side of Glacier National Park, I learned that two carry-on bags weighing 50 lbs. with no wheels was probably the stupidest idea I ever had, and our train ended up being 9 hours behind schedule.
Once on the train, the Empire Builder lived up to its expectations. I inherited two seats all to myself, and so I built myself a little cave for sleeping. I think I slept on and off for the first 24 hours, waking up here and there to watch some farmland go by. It was a slow, dreamlike transition from the West to the East.
Once I emerged from my slumber, the observation car was my favorite place to be. It was equipped with chairs and benches facing the scenery, and the windows extended onto the ceiling. Compared to my dark cave, it was a little greenhouse full of lively conversation, card games, and music. Two young guys played their banjo and guitar to supply us with background music. Here, you would meet all sorts of people, each with a very different reason for being on the train, from gypsying around the States to visiting family to moving to Turkey! I could have stayed on that Empire Builder for at least another 8.5 hours...
When we arrived in Chicago, I had missed my connection, and so Amtrak was kind enough to put all of us up at the Hyatt. By the time I got to the hotel at 2am, all the rooms were taken except for the penthouse suite. So I got to wake up to a wall of glass displaying Chicago's waterfront on Lake Michigan. Since the next train I could catch wouldn't leave 'til 10pm that night, I had the whole day to explore Chicago. I walked and walked, which felt great after sleeping in contorted positions on the train. I never really found a neat niche in Chicago that day, but I certainly walked around looking for it. I kept finding myself in crazy tourist trap areas and then trying to get out as fast as I could (ie, the Navy Pier and Museum Garden).
When I made my way back to the train station that night, I felt relieved to be "home." The train to Rochester, NY, was smaller and more ghetto than the Empire Builder, but I only had a short stint until I arrived in my birthplace the next morning. Here I had a few days to spend with my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins before driving all my baggage down to my mother's house in New Jersey. (We had to rent an extra car for my baggage didn't fit into my mother's.)