The Great Northwest, Face to Face

by Brian Jewell 15. May 2009 18:28

WASHINGTON-OREGON BORDER – The light comes streaming through the gaps in the curtains early this morning, and out the window of my sleeper car I can see clear blue skies and the beautiful Columbia River flowing alongside the tracks.

In the wee hours of last night, the train arrived in Spokane, where it was broken up into two sections. The front half of the train is making its way through Washington to Seattle, its final destination. The back half, which I’m riding on, takes a turn to the South, and has spent much of the night and the morning following the Columbia River, which marks the border between Washington and Oregon.  In a few hours, we’ll arrive in Portland.

Looking across the river to the Oregon side, I see the small, craggy buttes slowly give way to large rolling hills, covered in vegetation. Soon, Mount Hood emerges in the distance. Tall, powerful and snow-covered, this peak dominates the landscape. The train moves slowly by, and we all get a good look.

Soon, my leisurely journey through the West will be ending: Upon arrival in Portland, I’ll grab a taxi at the depot and head straight to the airport, making my way back East by plane. Late tonight, I’ll arrive in Lexington, covering in about 5 hours of air travel what has taken nearly two days by train.

It will be good to be home tonight, but I think I will miss the train. I’ll miss the great food, the attentive staff, and the slower pace of travel. But more than anything else, I think I’ll miss the scenery. This is an intimate way to travel, a long study of the nuances of our countryside. Taking it in is like studying the lines and curves of a loved one’s face, at once familiar and surprising.

We’ve always known that the Northwest was here, and heard that it was beautiful. But now I know for myself, because I have seen it face to face.

All Aboard!

by Brian Jewell 11. May 2009 18:02


ST. PAUL, Minn. --  It’s 10:30 p.m., and the First Class Lounge at the AMTRAK depot here in St. Paul is starting to fill up. Outside, a few dozen coach passengers sit in the waiting area; there are maybe a dozen more of us in the First Class Lounge. We’re there because we’ve booked sleeper cars for our trip West. And when the train arrives in about a half hour, we’ll be ready to call it a night.

I’m at the beginning of a five-day journey West aboard the Empire Builder, one of AMTRAK’s premier lines that connects Chicago with Seattle and Portland, Oregon. I will spend tonight and all of tomorrow on the train, stepping off in Whitefish, Montana late tomorrow night. The plan is to spend a couple of days exploring Whitefish and nearby Glacier National Park before rejoining the Empire Builder and continuing to its terminus in Portland.

It’s been a long day already, but a good one: after leaving Lexington this morning, I took advantage of the few hours of free time I had in the Twin Cities to visit my old friends Audra and JP, who live just outside of Minneapolis with their two young daughters. I don’t get to see them nearly often enough these days, but whenever my travel plans bring me through Minneapolis, we always make an effort to get together.

Today’s visit was simple: We had dinner at their place, and then spent an hour or so driving around the countryside in an RV that JP just picked up for a song yesterday. It was great to catch up, to get to know their awesome little girls, and to get a home-cooked meal before hitting the rails.

This time tomorrow night, I’ll be at a hotel in Whitefish. But what awaits in the next 24 hours – life on the train – is anyone’s guess.

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