It had been a long time since I’d taken a train trip in the U.S. The last one I remember had to have been at least 25 years ago, from Seattle to Minneapolis. But these days Amtrak is getting a serious look as an option for travelers in withdrawal from sky-high airline ticket prices and the staggering cost of filling the gas tank. Then I read Catherine Watson’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle about riding Amtrak from Minnesota to New Mexico and I began to get the itch myself.
When I mentioned our annual summer visit to Grandma’s house in Minnesota at the dinner table, my 10-year-old daughter said she wanted to take the train. Huh? Was she channeling me? I love trains, but my two daughters’ experience with railways is in Europe, not the U.S., unless you count the Caltrain commuter train from San Francisco down the peninsula to San Jose. No, they wanted to sleep on the train, something we’d never done in France or Switzerland, and that dinner conversation was full of earnest requests. How could I say no?
Well, Amtrak’s scheduling said no. To get to Minneapolis meant spending a night in Chicago to catch the connection to the Twin Cities. Going the other way, north toward Seattle and then east to Minnesota, meant a 10-hour bus connection from somewhere in Oregon to somewhere in Washington to catch up with the Empire Builder that would have left Seattle long before our arrival on the Coast Starlight. A 10-hour bus ride when you want a train journey? Are you kidding?
But we found a compromise. Friends have a place in the town of Leavenworth in the Washington Cascades, a place we try to visit whenever possible. How about a train to Seattle, then pick up a rental car to Leavenworth? So that’s what we did. And I must say, being greeted by our steward Miriam with complimentary champagne (sparkling cider for the girls) was the right way to start. Sleeping in two roomettes (the family sleepers were booked) was a big thrill for the girls. Rising to the view of Mt. Shasta as we curled around it for half an hour was a bigger thrill for me. Klamath Lake in the dining car put the perfect spin on our breakfast as we watched flocks of white pelicans preen, the low sun light up the reeds in iridescent green, the calm waters spread out to the horizon like a mirage.
The hardest part was getting off the train. The girls wanted to spend another night in the roomette, but we had a rental car to find. And unfortunately, that’s where traveling by train has its limits. Our 10:30 p.m. arrival in Seattle meant we had to take a taxi to the airport to rent a car. So we did, and arrived time-worn but safe and sound in Leavenworth, where our friends had left the light on for us and the door open.