Mutiny on the Empire Builder

I woke with a start in the observation car of the Empire Builder. Checking my watch, I realised I’d only slept three hours, but after my sleepless nineteen-hour journey on the Lake Shore Ltd, the paltry snooze had given me new life. Dawn was streaming rosy shafts of light through the picture windows as I slowly became aware of my surroundings. Morning mists danced around dark trees and the sun burned pink. It was glorious.

mutiny empire builder train amtrak usa dawn

I followed the enticing aroma of coffee to the lounge, and as I stood in line to place my order, rumours circulated around me about a mysterious delay. The train had been perfectly on time when I had drifted off to sleep a mere three hours ago. What could possibly have happened? I warmed my hands on the paper cup holding the bitter, dark coffee and came up with possible scenarios that might have happened to cause the delay. A young conductor drifted by and I asked him if we were on time. He confirmed the rumours; we were now two hours behind schedule. I raised my eyebrows and met his gaze, hoping for more information. He took a seat across the table from me and told me the story. Someone had abandoned a car on the tracks overnight. The train had been halted, the car removed and the tracks checked for integrity. My curiosity was satisfied, but we continued chatting, swapping travel stories. He told me of Nicaragua and I shared my adventures in Guatemala. It was a wonderful way to start the morning.

Two hours behind schedule wasn’t so bad, I thought, but when I returned to my seat, the couple across from me were not so optimistic. ‘This is only the beginning’, opined the gentleman, and knowing that he had previously worked on the railroads, I was inclined to believe him. Freight trains get precedence on US railroads. Passenger trains have a slim corridor of opportunity to travel unhindered. Once a train falls behind schedule, it has to pull over and allow any and all freight trains to pass.

North Dakota was very, very flat, but it kept my attention by constantly changing colour, with vast fields of bleached gold, bright green and rust brown under bright blue skies, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

mutiny on the bounty amtrak usa train north dakota

I lost count of the freight trains we encountered along the way, but the two hour delay turned into four hours, then six, then seven. I was reliably informed by my passengers-in-arms across the aisle that one of the freight trains we had stopped for was an empty grain train. There was no cargo on board, but the passenger train was shunted into a siding to let the empty train rattle by before we continued on our way.

I distracted myself with haystacks. Well, they weren’t exactly haystacks. The haystacks of my childhood were piles of hay forked neatly into mounds. Hay bales came later, and they just didn’t compare. At most, a hay bale could offer you somewhere slightly uncomfortable to sit. Haystacks, on the other hand, begged you to jump into them. In North Dakota, I discovered hay rolls and decided they were perfectly useless inventions. You couldn’t sit on them and they were so compacted you would risk an injury if you tried to jump into them.

mutiny empire builder amtrak usa train north dakota haystacks

I returned my attention to what was happening on the train. There was mutiny in the air. Regular stops allowed smokers to hop out onto the platforms for hasty cigarettes, but due to the delay, there was now a further complication. The engineers had now exceeded their shift limits, so the train had come to a complete standstill, miles from any station, while they brought in another crew. There hadn’t been a station stop for almost seven hours and nicotine withdrawal was bringing out the Fletcher Christian in the most mannered of folk. People were pacing up and down the aisles, gathering by the doors and hanging out windows. ‘There’s more of us than there is of them,’ I overheard one girl say. Other people disappeared silently and came back strangely calm. It was terribly exciting. When the train finally pulled into the next station, the doors were almost ripped off their hinges by people foaming at the mouth. The strike of a match; a sharp inhale, and mutiny was averted.

We were now in Montana, but the train was running so late there was little chance of reaching the spectacular views of Glacier National Park before night fell. As daylight dwindled, I settled in for my last night aboard the Empire Builder, grabbing my pillow and curling up in my secret spot in the observation car.  What would tomorrow bring?

…continued here.


About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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49 Responses to Mutiny on the Empire Builder

  1. gkm2011 says:

    The shot of the hay rolls is beautiful (though perhaps not the best place for jumping.)

  2. Madoqua says:

    Oh no! Seven plus hours of delay – how frustrating! Lots of time to write up some posts though, I guess, and do some people watching. That would fill an hour…… 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      There was definitely plenty of people watching, Madoqua, but no internet connection, much to my dismay. I had to wait until I arrived in Seattle to play catch up online. 😦

  3. Max510 says:

    Complimenti !
    Mi sembra di esser sul treno con te.


  4. Pamela says:

    Beautiful shots and your description, especially of the first one, so…well…descriptive!! That rosy dawning: what a sight to store in your memory bank…. and as for hay rolls looking to be sheathed in silk…..simply splendid!
    Looking forward to the continuation of your ‘traveller’s (and travellers’) tale(s)’.

  5. viveka says:

    Wonderful … in so different ways – the “hay rolls” are like they were made of gold – my favorite pick is that stunning pink morning – beautiful photo.

  6. westerner54 says:

    But those round bales make such gorgeous photographs. Wonderful post.

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks, westerner54, I was very happy I got one that turned out alright, I took many more when the train was going so fast it looked like the bales were sprinting across the fields in great blurs of gold. 🙂

  7. Amy says:

    Gorgeous rose sunrising! And, the hay rolls, wow!! Thank you for the “train riding”!

  8. It may have been a longer journey, but you have made it sound so interesting!

    • ailsapm says:

      It really was interesting, Denise. Even with the delays, and not having a sleeper car (or a shower!) it was an awful lot of fun. Next time, I might try a shorter trip though. 😉

  9. A funny that I chuckled over. I’ll wait to read what happens next on your train adventure.

  10. writecrites says:

    Your train trips are truly adventurous. A near-mutiny over a smoke? I guess that’s what addiction will do. Reminds me of an attempted passenger mutiny on an NCL cruise ship in Hawaii a few years ago. I think they would have keelhauled NCL management if those folks had been on board at the time. But that’s another story. Your pink dawn photo is simply beautiful.

    • ailsapm says:

      Now that cruise sounds like a story I need to hear, writecrites. Have you written about it? So glad you’ve enjoyed my train journey 🙂

  11. Gunta says:

    Can’t quite tell if your hay rolls are reflecting golden light, but out here they wrap them in bright white plastic. I’ve actually convinced a city slicker visitor that they are marshmallow fields. 😉

  12. How funny! Now I know why my husband didn’t sound too keen when I suggested a long train ride for a vacation. I forgot about the smoking thing. He’d never be able to last!

  13. LubbyGirl says:

    I love that soft early morning shot. My husband and I are trying to plan for a train trip someday – probably through MT and the Dakotas. This gives me something more to consider. I never knew that fact about passenger trains having to give way to freight trains.

    • ailsapm says:

      Neither did I until I was on board, LubbyGirl. Still, the scenery is spectacular, particularly Montana – it really is Big Sky Country, I’ve never seen anything like it! xxx

  14. Gilly Gee says:

    You dealt with the frustrating delay very patiently!

    • ailsapm says:

      Haha, Gilly, the way I see it, you’re not going to get there any faster whatever attitude you adopt, so you might as well find something interesting to look at and have a good time. 🙂

  15. Good heavens! You did have an adventure though I suppose!we have nothing to complain about here!

  16. pommepal says:

    Wow what an adventure wait with baited breath to find out just how late you will arrive

  17. Trust me. I love the hay rolls. Simply amazing.

  18. Thank you for sharing your adventure with us, Ailsa. I can’t wait for the next episode. As a “farm girl,” though, I can’t let the “hay” go uncorrected. The golden field and round bales are straw, not hay, and not fit for feeding animals. Love the photos – I’m so impressed that you’re able to get such wonderful images on a moving train!

    • ailsapm says:

      Ooh, I love finding out things like this, ididitforjohnny. So as a farm girl, can I ask you, are the round bales always straw and the square bales hay? I’m not sure why I need to know, but I found them fascinating. 🙂

  19. rfljenksy says:

    This what my trip from Chicago through Lincoln Nebraska.. fun fun fun in retrospect.. but a 6 hour delay in Lincoln Nebraska will never be forgotten.

    • ailsapm says:

      Gulp. 6 hours stuck in the same spot? That sounds dreadful – at least on the Empire Builder the delays were sporadic, so we were never stuck in the same place for too long. At least the scenery changed. 😉

      • rfljenksy says:

        Funny but it ended up being an amazing trip and so bizarre. I had dropped my kids off in Chicago and was sleeping in the chairs as I couldn’t afford a sleeping car.. I kept waking up as the train would pass a station.. finally about 4 am I got up and started walking around as the train was at a dead stop and there was NO movement on it. I peeked out saw the sign Lincoln Nebraska. others were starting to move around.. a few of us walked the entire train and other than sleeping passengers there were no workers.. so we did like any low-end traveler who had been traveling for over 10 hours would do and took showers in the cabin areas.. then continued to search for employees.. we finally located a cook who was prepping for breakfast.. and asked where we were and he said we were in some location (not where we actually were) and we were like.. uh.. no.. we are in Lincoln Nebraska.. he was like.. NO we passed Lincoln about 6-7 hours ago.. we were like.. uh.. NO station sign says lincoln. .. well.. cook ran out of the room and based on his response.. people started panicking. and actually opening the windows and jumping off the train… what happened was .. apparently there was a derailment ahead of our train.. and when I kept waking up we were actually puling past and then backing up to the same train station and finally the train just stopped.. all of the workers left the train.. (minus the panicked cook) and got a hotel.. left all the passengers unattended and just locked the train up. I know it’s terrible.. but in retrospect it’s sort of funny.. they had to bus us about 5 hours around the train derailment to the next station.. total of about 11 hours delayed.. but I made some great train riding friends.. experience never to be forgotten

        • Pamela says:

          I’ve only just seen this. Rfljensky and can only say ‘Wow! what an experience!’ I’m wondering, since you managed to shower, did you have the sense to commandeer a nice first class cabin in which to sleep?

          • rfljenksy says:

            Sorry for late response. I’ve been traveling for a few weeks and first time back on.. sad to say no.. but on my very first post of the new year I actually took amtrak again.. and Yes.. splurged and bought a sleeping car for my daughter and I and the grand-son. Ironically, the shower didn’t work.. did someone say something about Karma???

  20. ailsapm says:

    I am laughing out loud at this, rfl. That poor cook! And I cannot believe the rest of them went and got a hotel room and left you guys to fend for yourselves. I can only imagine how that would have been a bonding experience for you and your fellow passengers. Wow!

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