Building the Empire: Riding the Rails from Chicago to Portland (Part 1)

As someone who fancies himself some degree of a writer, culture says I'm supposed to do something like take a train across the country. The worse the conditions, the more romantic the journey. If I were to share an unmarked boxcar with a vagabond who is the world's best whistler, I could be destined to become the next great American writer.

I didn't share an unmarked boxcar with a whistling gypsy, nor have I become the next great American writer (do keep an eye out, though; I'm working on it). What I did do was travel across eight states over two days via Amtrak's Empire Builder, and the journey, if not dripping with romanticized underpinnings, did provide the three things I had hoped it would: It allowed me to see some spectacular country, share stories with a few new people, and successfully transplanted me from Chicago, IL to Portland, OR without driving off a cliff, or otherwise ending up in a twisted heap of flaming metal somewhere in the western United States. I have to say it was worth the $145.

After my initial train ride from Normal, IL to Chicago, I arrived at Union Station. Chicago's Union Station is huge, bustling, and, if the websites are to be believed, full of several specific rules unique to it. I've always been a rule follower (it's a control thing, I've decided), so I read everything concerning what I needed to have/do leading up to my departure to make my trip the smoothest possible. I knew I'd be fine once I got on the train, but I also knew I'd stress up until the point I actually took my seat. So, I went into Union Station armed with extra time and the knowledge of what I was supposed to do.

As I have found to often be the case, the world operates with the assumption that no one has actually read anything. So where I was searching out a wandering Amtrak employee to "check me in," and give me a boarding pass (per website instruction), I of course found nothing. I inquired about this to a terse Amtrak employee standing in an important looking contraption in the center of the great hall.

"Hi, I'm taking the Empire Builder at 2:15pm and wanted to get checked in and everything. Are you the person I talk to?"

"Stand over there. They'll call you when it's time to board." *points to huge church pews littering the Great Hall*

I thank her and go and sit down, but those rules I read about are gnawing at me. What about that damn boarding pass? It's about 1:15pm; I don't want to sit here for an hour, get up to board when called to have them say "You need a boarding pass." I'd miss my train, I'd miss my trip, I'd waste my vacation days, and the world would most likely end.

I muster my courage and go back up to the employee and inquire about the boarding pass. She looks at me in a way that only someone who truly hates every single member of the public can --like a DMV employee, or someone at Wal-Mart:

"No boarding passes. They'll call you."

Risking getting murdered, I clarify.

"So, I literally just have to sit in here and wait for the call to line up. No check in, no boarding pass, nothing?"

Thinking of murdering me, she nods.

So, I wait. I stare up at the impressive hall and snap this picture.


Not to be outdone, a man -- I'll call him Jackson because it sounds kind of douchey -- goes to the end of the hall, aims his camera, then adjusts it with the obnoxious precision that only a hipster can. Once he's adequately shown everyone in the hall how awesome he is, he steps back to shoot. Oh, no! Amtrak has placed a standing sign about their rewards program and it's in his shot! He could choose a different angle, but no. He moves over to the sign, at first turning it. Not good enough. He must drag it out of his shot. You know that scene in Men in Black when Will Smith drags the table over to his seat. Yes, that. In the middle of Union Station. To get the same unoriginal photo that I, with my archaic Galaxy S3, have just taken. I watch him ascend the stairs and walk out onto the streets of Chicago, while I wait for the totally inaudible voice to announce the commencement of boarding over the loudspeaker. This is going to be fun.

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