By Robert Rietz
My longtime friend Albert, a math professor at Magnificent State University in the Mitten State, prefers Amtrak to flying. He takes the train to visit his family in Vancouver when he can in the summer. Albert thrives on companionship, and that’s how I found myself riding with him on the Amtrak Empire Builder in August.
We boarded our coach late in the afternoon and settled into our roomette as the train pulled out of Seattle’s King Street Station. The Cascade Mountains, viewed from the glass observation car, fueled my admiration for the pioneers who navigated this part of Washington state. The journey continued into Glacier National Park while we finished a delicious dinner and dessert. I won’t soon forget the sunset over the Rocky Mountains, and we returned to our cabin when the color show ended.
Being somewhat large people, we were able to sit comfortably on the opposing couches after making a couple of adjustments. These seats folded into Albert’s bed in the evening, and I drew the upper bunk (the height thing again.) Getting into my sleeper involved quite an interesting process, and the porter demonstrating how to latch the berth’s webbing to the ceiling did not reassure me. Theoretically, I could roll over during the night without landing on the floor—as if I could roll over on a 2-foot-wide mattress.
My nightly 2:30 bathroom visit down the hall was an adventure best described in person at an actuarial conference.
Breakfast, just as tasty as dinner, found us entering Montana where the number of passengers getting on the train in successive small towns surprised me. The Empire Builder services over 40 rural communities on its route, boarding or discharging travelers or taking on fuel and fresh water. One stop was Shelby (population 3,169), the site of the 1923 world championship heavyweight boxing match won by Jack Dempsey. Only 7,702 spectators viewed the fight from hastily constructed bleachers that covered an entire football field. Promoting the bout almost bankrupted the town.
Albert related this historical account, and other similar stories, during our trek through Montana, which deserves its nickname of Big Sky Country. He reminded me of the importance of the railroad to rural America during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and each station featured a tribute to its rail heritage. The two of us caught up on our families and discussed math concepts, Social Security, and the changing nature of actuarial science.
The afternoon found us enjoying the endless wheat fields of North Dakota, which taught me the reason “amber waves of grain” is mentioned in America the Beautiful. The state produces almost half of the nation’s spring wheat and 60% of its durum wheat. We entered South Dakota while relishing another pleasant meal with a different pair of friendly fellow passengers. A continuous series of flaring gas and oil wells illuminated the pitch-black night.
The scenery transformed overnight into a familiar Midwestern sight; flat landscapes connecting farm after farm. The train rolled into Minnesota after breakfast, stopping at Minneapolis/St. Paul and pausing in Winona, where my brother attended college.
Six whistle stops in Wisconsin reminded me of my parents’ annual vacation to Lake Owen, near Cable. The many small lakes, dairy farms, and deciduous trees previewed our proximity to Chicago, “The City of Broad Shoulders.” Lunch, though enjoyable, couldn’t compete with thoughts of Chicago deep-dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches.
Albert and I went our separate ways when the train pulled into Union Station about 48 hours after we left Seattle. I had witnessed massive mountains, the Northern Great Plains, America’s dairy land, and numerous small towns, rivers, and lakes. Yet I realized I saw only a fraction of this big, beautiful country that we live in.