I woke before dawn on my third day aboard the Empire Builder. The observation car was silent and the passing countryside soaked in darkness, but then the first grey light of pre-dawn began to outline the contours of mountains and a glimmer of river. All too soon, the ethereal half-light gave way to an angry burst of fiery red clouds and then golden daylight hit the river water and filled the observation car with dancing shafts of light.
Change was in the air. In Spokane, a new crew boarded and cars were decoupled. Half the train was going to Portland and the other half to Seattle. I said goodbye to my Amish friends as they headed off down the tracks in the observation car bound for Portland. Our part of the train got the dining car, so I wandered down for a strong cup of coffee and a plate of eggs with some fellow passengers I had met at an earlier meal. We greeted each other like old friends and swapped stories. They were well-rested, having had the luxury of a sleeper car, but sequestered in their private quarters they had missed out on all the excitement of the near mutiny and were still in the dark about the previous day’s mysterious delay. My tiredness slipped away as I filled them in on the adventures they had slept through, and suddenly my spot in the observation car seemed infinitely preferable to a comfy bed in a private car.
Back in my seat, I overheard a fellow passenger ask a conductor if we were on time. The conductor who had boarded in Spokane laughed amiably and answered ‘I can’t speak for what went before, but my part of the journey is on schedule. We’re not going to lose any extra time on my watch’. The whole car erupted in laughter. It was reassuring to see most people had maintained a sense of humour.
A glance out the window revealed the countryside was changing rapidly now. We were passing through the fertile lands of the Columbia Basin. The scars of agriculture formed vast swathes of colour, geometric and sweeping and dramatic enough to rival the most modern of painters.
The sharply etched fields gave way to high desert. I was in familiar territory now, having driven the stretch from Spokane to Seattle countless times in the past. Huge, parched, craggy outcrops lined the tracks, dipping down to afford tantalizing glimpses of the Columbia River beyond, twisting and weaving its way through the arid landscape, appearing at alternating sides of the train as it clattered across bridges.
The tracks cut stark gashes through the barren landscape. I discovered, to my delight, that the decoupling in Spokane had left the back window of the train in full view, so I could watch the tracks unfolding behind us as we carved our way through eastern Washington.
Then green trees and waterfalls, green rivers and the Cascade Mountain Range were suddenly flanking the tracks on both sides. As we crested Stevens Pass, the train plunged headlong into the Cascade Tunnel. It is the longest tunnel in the US; a masterpiece of man’s perseverance measuring 7.8 miles in length. After a full quarter hour of darkness we re-emerged into dappled green and dropped down into the overcast lushness of western Washington.
As we descended, the Cascades soared like giants behind us, and then we hit coastline. This was it, the final stretch of the journey along the coast from Everett to Seattle. Cloud-blanketed skies diffused gentle light across Puget Sound as the Empire Builder clickety-clacked along its final few miles of track.
The train pulled in to Seattle’s King Street Station and passengers scurried down the aisles, eager to disembark. I gathered my bags and walked the length of the platform to greet friends and family before taking a long shower, catching up on news and sipping a glass of wine until my eyelids grew heavy and I stumbled into bed. I was going to need all the rest I could get in the next 24 hours, because I was about to turn around and travel almost the same journey again, in reverse. This time, however, I would be doing it by car, in the company of a friend and a very special dog called Sprocket… (continued here)