Wednesday, September 6, 2000 - Somewhere between Chicago and Minneapolis - On Board Amtrak's Empire Builder Train

A bit difficult to type on one's lap but I will make do. It is dark now but we had the sun up until about an hour ago when I saw the sun set from the dining car. I have never actually been on a train like this ever, really. Other than some trips on board the train between Winnipeg and Regina when I was in university (which is not quite as long as this trip) on trains MUCH sub-standard to this. This train is complete with air-conditioning, individual lighting, dining car, observation car, lounge, even a smoking area (not that that interests me)…along the lines of being in a plane except for the extra restaurant facilities (oh, they are showing a movie in the lounge right now as well, but I can't be bothered…). I actually picked this method of getting to Minneapolis over the idea of flying simply because I had never done it and I was aware that the Amtrak system in the US is far superior to our pathetic system in Canada (and the UK for that matter).

Well, I must say the day has been quite busy (as per normal if I ever stop moving I will probably be dead…death no doubt caused by my continual movement). I checked out of the hotel just in time to witness the line of businessmen checking into the hotel for a conference I believe that is starting tomorrow (I grabbed one of the free newspapers being offered to them – it is a LONG train ride). I caught a cab to Union Station despite it only being about 10-12 blocks away (that is, within walking distance) simply because I have acquired some baggage weight (read: books) and I was not about to drag it about on the streets of downtown Chicago.

Union Station is quite amazing, I believe they have filmed a few movies here (I BELIEVE that Blade Runner, the Police Headquarters was filmed inside, but I am not 100% sure). I was able to simply pick up my tickets which I had ordered over the Internet, putting my luggage into a locker for the time being and go for a walk. I had a few hours on my hands so I walked through the middle of downtown Chicago, passing by the many business people, cars, cabs, trains, etc that makes the city hum. It was a long walk – I ended up right on the Museum Campus (near the Field Museum, Aquarium and Planetarium). I actually wanted to be there as the other day I had passed a restaurant that I wanted to try out that suggested it served the “best corned beef in Chicago”. I had to put this boast to the test so I sat down in the park (finally finding a bench to sit on) and tried it – VERY good (pretty expensive but when you think there is probably a good 1/2 pound of meat in it…). Probably the best corned beef sandwich I can ever remember having, though the place was a bit of a dive, this has very seldom slowed me down in the past…(by the way, it is A P Deli two blocks south of the south side of the loop).

I decided I had never really taken the “L” around the Loop (around downtown Chicago) I picked up a train and got out just beside the Sears Tower (which is right across the river from the train station). I must say it is a bit strange riding about 30 feet above the street – much more calm than at street level. Looking out of the windows between stations you can see straight down to the street with only the occasional support structure to interfere with the view – if the doors opened I don't know what you would do, probably become a pavement pancake (sorry). The train rattles and spits as it negotiates the often sharp corners and comes to rest in the very close together stations (in the Loop area).

I grabbed a few things to eat for the train from a local nut shop then made my way back to the station. I was able to check my luggage (what a novelty!) and then waited only a few minutes before boarding the train. The line was quite something and I was quite concerned about being able to get a window seat but my concern turned out to be unfounded as the train is truly massive – around about 8 carriages. I have a set of two seats to myself so I am able to spread out much as I would like, they even have footrests and the bottoms of the chairs tilt up to support the legs (wow, quite relaxing!).

I have spent most of my time reading on the train, catching up since I have not had much time to do this over the last week or so. They came around and gave me a reservation (!) for dinner for 7 so I wandered over there about 15 minutes early, being able to stop for about 10 minutes in the observation car whose seats face the windows (and there are MUCH fewer), this is also where they show the movies on two well-bolted down televisions and they also serve drinks from a bar. Dinner was a bit unnerving as I was seated with a father, his son and another relative (doubt it was the child's mother). The son did not really want to be there and, being about 4 or 5 years old, was all about and under the table. I tried my best just to be quiet and let them be. I spent most of my time fighting with using my utensils to eat a half-chicken and looking out the windows as we passed various lakes and forests.

The view out the windows has been quite spectacular - if a bit monotonous. Leaving the station in Chicago a point about the city was made perfectly clear from the train. When you leave the high skyscrapers of downtown, just on the other side of the river (outside of the Loop) all of a sudden there are NO skyscrapers and you have a lot of pretty ratty looking housing and very rough looking neighbourhoods. Then, gradually, you get into a lot nicer housing in the surrounding suburbs with ever-increasing yard sizes and nicer looking cars. For quite some distance these areas serve the commuting population of Chicago with the Metra train system serving those neighbourhoods out beyond the “L” and subway systems. The Metra, by the way, also leaves out of Union station.

When on one of the tours of Chicago I went on when I first arrived we were told that when they first built the “L” it was a train suspended above fields of corn and such but the city grew out from the various train lines, this seems to be also true of the Metra lines.

Can't see much out of the windows now, though we occasionally have a car pass us on an adjacent road. It is not much longer now until we arrive in Minneapolis where I will be staying with Michael who, some years ago, travelled with me to Hong Kong. About an hour and a half…

⇒ Continue to Thursday, September 7, 2000 - Burnsville, Minnesota (just south of Minneapolis/St. Paul)