The Empire Builder: Minneapolis to Glacier National Park

Notes from August 4:

I had initially planned to fly from Fayetteville, North Carolina to Green Bay, Wisconsin and make the first stop of this journey in Door County, Wisconsin; however, I decided to skip that destination and begin instead in Minneapolis on account of two main factors: the first is that a couple of days before our flight to Wisconsin was scheduled to depart, the woman who’d planned to join me on the trip backed out. I’d had a feeling she might for a few weeks already since she’d recently become preoccupied with a new relationship, so I wasn’t surprised when she texted to say she’d decided not to go. In fact, I was kind of relieved because–factor #2–I was exhausted from a last-minute road trip I’d just taken to Washington D.C. to deliver my most recent foster cat to her new mama. I’d driven for 12 of the last 24 hours, making my way between patches of sun and thunderstorms so strong that all the drivers on I-95 had to turn on their hazard lights and slow down to 15 mph. So when I got word Monday afternoon that my companion was bailing on our Wednesday morning flight, I figured, great, I will too and get a few extra days of solid rest before departure.

The foster cat I delivered to her new mama just before my big trip began. For the few weeks she was with me, I called her Elsa, after the tropical storm during which I found her, but now that she’s moved to the big city, she goes by Luna Moon.

Thankfully, I could rearrange my trip without much hassle because the airlines’ policies are more lenient than usual at the moment on account of the pandemic; I was able to cancel my Wednesday flight to Green Bay without a problem and book a ticket instead to Minneapolis for Sunday, August 1. Then I called Amtrak to cancel the train I’d booked from Milwaukee to St. Paul, and the operator informed me of yet another complication: where the Empire Builder ends in Seattle, I had booked another segment to take the Coast Starlight south to San Francisco; however, wildfires had shut down the trainline south of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

As I write this, I am curled up in my seat on the Empire Builder, about three quarters of the way from Minneapolis to East Glacier. (more on both soon), and I’m still ironing out how I want to handle the West Coast. I’ve said many times that one thing I love about Amtrak is how unreliable it is. I am a person who loves to plan and who also loves to improvise when my plans get derailed.

A few minutes ago, the conductor came over the loudspeaker to say he has been directed to “cease communal seating in the dining car due to the spread of the Delta variant of Covid 19.” Several times in the last hour, the ticket collector has paced through the car, looking stressed, one time even cussing a little under his breath, and a few minutes ago, he walked by, streaming the Toto song “Africa” through the speaker of his cell phone, still looking stressed but also determined, like the song was helping him cope. I feel a certain affection toward him in spite of the fact we haven’t spoken. His shift hadn’t begun yet when I boarded last night in Saint Paul and stretched my sleeping pad out in the narrow aisle between the seats and the windows of the observation deck so as not to block the walkway (a trick I learned during my last big rail adventure in 2017). A different ticket collector last night woke me briefly to ask where I was headed, and then he wrote a ticket marked GPK, which he propped on the sill of the window above my head.


After dark, passengers typically vacate the observation deck of the train and return to their regular seats or their sleeping cars. In my experience, no one seems to mind if you stretch a sleeping pad & sleeping bag out in between the seats & the windows, staying clear of the main aisle. This is a way to sleep a little more comfortably if you’re travelling in coach.

As I write this, I’m sitting back in my seat in coach, and the man behind me is laughing into his phone, telling whoever is on the other line, “I didn’t choose this path, man. It chose me.” He woke up with a cough this morning.

It is mid-afternoon, and I am streaming the Toto song “Africa” on repeat through my headphones because for miles and miles, I have been singing it silently to myself and looking out over long fields of recently plowed wheat, dry and ochre-colored. I feel calm assurance I can’t quite explain that despite the obstacles, and uncertainty, I am exactly where I should be.

Once I get to better wifi, I’ll add a little splice of the soundtrack I was listening to 🙂

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