All aboard the Empire Builder with a one-way ticket | Mindy Stern

My husband had driven to Eastern Washington earlier in the week to complete a project at our vacation home. Traveling by rail would allow us to return home together in one car.

By Mindy Stern, Guest columnist

Sitting on a wooden bench in Pioneer Square’s newly refurbished King Street Station, I held a one-way Amtrak ticket from Seattle to Wenatchee. Sparkling white walls and an ornate, 45-foot-high ceiling emitted an aura of elegance. My husband had driven to Eastern Washington earlier in the week to complete a project at our vacation home. Traveling by rail would allow us to return home together in one car.

The conductor’s announcement echoed off the terrazzo and tile floors — the 4:55 p.m. Empire Builder was ready for boarding. This sleeper train connects Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois, over a 2-night, 45-hour journey. A senior discount coach-class ticket costs less than a tank of gas. For $103 more, I’d get a private “roomette,” a three-course meal, and a glass of wine. We’d be rolling through dinner time, so this option sounded good. Plus, if we got stuck somewhere — a real possibility since freight trains share this track and get right-of-way — I could stretch out in a bed.

A first-class attendant escorted me to my ground floor roomette. No need to schlep a suitcase up the narrow stairs, which lead to larger bedrooms and the dining car.

Although the exterior windows were streaked with filth, the roomette was fresh and inviting, with large pillows in crisply ironed cases, linen head protectors, tissues, a hanger for my coat, and water bottles. A panel illustrated how the lower bed is formed and the folding shelf above eye level becomes an upper bunk. It’s no honeymoon suite, but this tiny space can sleep two people.

After storing my suitcase in the luggage rack by the door, I checked out the toilet and shower at the end of the hall. Surprise! Fresh roses glammed up the bathroom. Across the aisle, a gleaming shower room was stocked with toiletries.

With a jolt, we began moving exactly on time. I walked back to my seat to take in the views. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. The train moseyed up the westernmost side of Seattle, beating a steady rhythm. Gliding past the Olympic Sculpture Park mere seconds after 5 p.m., both figures in Louise Bourgeois’ Father and Son sculpture were revealed, reaching for one another. A fountain of bubbling water conceals one, or both of them, the rest of the time. Perfect timing!

Continuing north, we hugged the coast and picked up speed. Thuk-a-thuk-a-thuk-a-thuk-a-thuk-a-thuk-a-thuk replaced the earlier ta-ta-ta-ta-ta as we passed rocky beaches and marinas bursting with pleasure boats. Next came the Port of Everett, with its shipping containers and huge silos.

After turning east, the Empire Builder finally began humming. At greater speed, the sound of the wheels changed to “whoosh, whoosh.” Mountains and rivers replaced coastal views.

Soon, a porter from the dining car announced dinner times: “Would you prefer 6:00, 6:45 or 7:30?” he asked.

“I’ll take 6:00 please. And, I’m curious, what’s on the menu?” I asked, keeping my expectations low. How good could train food be?

“We serve salmon, pasta, chicken, or steak,” he said.

“Which is best?” I asked.

“Oh, the steak for sure,” he recommended. “It’s really good. See you upstairs at 6:00.”

A coffee urn and more fresh flowers graced a nook at the top of the winding staircase. While coach-class travelers must fend for themselves, sleeping-car guests have unlimited coffee, juice and water.

With white tablecloths and small bouquets on every table, the dining car looked inviting. Everything I ordered was delicious and my steak came exactly as requested — medium rare. Even the wine was good. But the best part was the view. The setting sun cast golden light over rivers and mountains. I was eager to share my experience with my husband, but cellphone reception was non-existent in many stretches, and Wi-Fi is unreliable.

Suddenly, my phone rang. A miracle. “Meet me in Leavenworth,” my husband suggested, “one stop before Wenatchee.” We were already running 15 minutes late, and might encounter more delays. The porter confirmed that Leavenworth was a viable option, and would get me off the train a good half-hour earlier. I didn’t really want this trip to end, but it made a lot of sense.

The sky was pitch black when we pulled into Icicle Station, over a mile from Leavenworth’s Bavarian-themed downtown. A shuttle van idled, waiting to ferry passengers to their hotels. Moments later, my husband arrived. A happy reunion! We were both excited to share our recent adventures.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. And maybe one day, go all the way to Montana.

Mindy Stern is a Mercer Island resident whose essays can be found at