We did not lose Mushroom Man in Chicago. He managed to rouse his buddy as we rode through the freight yards toward Union Station. Somebody had paid for a sleeper for the two of them, so they, as we, got to wait for the Empire Builder in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge. They sloshed onto a couch near our seats and conked out again. That was the last we saw of them. Passengers are assigned cars by destination. Mushroom Man and his buddy were not going much further than Chicago, but we were on our way to the Pacific.
Lois and I travel by train a lot. The Empire Builder Is the nicest Amtrak train we have ridden. We had barely settled into our cabin when the car attendant stopped by. “Would you like some champagne?” Why not? It was paid for. Out came two little bottles and two little plastic wineglasses. Each bottle was good for a cup and a half.
Supper was a couple of hours later. We had skipped lunch because we know trains feed you well. Food court fare at Chicago’s Union Station seemed unnecessary. For dinner we had steak. Why not? It was paid for. So was the dessert. Delicious, more than we needed, and better than airline pretzels.
That was Saturday. Sunday afternoon was wine and cheese tasting time for sleeper passengers. Paid for, of course. Oregon cheese and Washington wine, all good. There also were talent and trivia contests. I debated reciting the river pirate’s poem from Count Otto’s Dragon, but a lady beat me to the punch and yodeled. Hooray! A bottle of wine for the nice yodeler (yodeless?). What was Jed Clampett’s dog’s name? “Duke!” announced another passenger. Good for you! Have a bottle! Not moonshine, though, and don’t drink it now. Supper starts at five, and they have to set up. The dining car attendant gave us more cheese as we left.
Supper rolled around, or should I say we rolled around to supper as supper rolled through the Rockies? On trains, the dining car crew seats passengers to fill up tables; you don’t get to pick your friends. It makes for much more interesting conversation. Our dining partner was the Beverly Hillbillies expert. It turned out his brother’s dog’s name was Duke; hence his knowledge of houndile celebrity. Would we like some wine? He couldn’t drink it all himself. Why not? It was free. Off he went. Back he came, bottle in hand. Amtrak cheerfully supplied glasses. Glass ones, no less.
The walleye sounded good. Apparently it had been, because they were out. (Hint for unseasoned rail travelers: Dinner is by reservation, with three or so seatings. If you want the widest food selection, schedule for first call. Also order what you really want early in the trip.) We had vegetarian lasagna instead. It was good, but the dessert was better. So much for good intentions.
Now I know what a Kobe beef must feel like.
The view was spectacular as we rolled through Glacier National Park just before sundown. We slept through the dry side of Washington and awoke while the train climbed into the Cascades. Seven miles of tunnel later, we emerged into the temperate rain forest on the Pacific side and started down to the sea.
Had we seen any wildlife, you ask? Yes. It rained on us the whole way. Every low spot in North Dakota and Montana was full of water. ‘Tis springtime, when a quacker’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. Every puddle had a pair of ducks. Lots of geese, too. Some pheasants. An eagle or two. A herd of elk, lots of deer, antelope bounding away from the tracks. Foxes. A coyote, stalking a pair of sodden, besotted ducks.
Also, but not really wildlife, there were cattle. Calves frisked and frolicked but never dropped their serious bovine expressions. “Who, me? I’m not playing!”