Riding the Rails

Pandemic Travel: A Cross-Country Train Trip from Portland

Taking a ride on Amtrak’s Empire Builder … at the end of empire

By Steffen Silvis December 1, 2020

Amtrak train

We all have our own risk tolerance levels nowadays when it comes to leaving the house, whether it’s to exercise, get groceries, visit the dentist, see loved ones, or get to work. It’s no different when it comes to getting the heck out of town. Before “The Freeze,” some of us were weekending in Vegas. Others haven’t left their zip code since MarchAnd a lot of us fall somewhere in between, including Steffen Silvis, whose usual back-to-school ride on Amtrak’s Empire Builder was a lot lonelier this year.

I left Portland in 2013 for a Ph.D program in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Hating the Midwest, I have spent my winter breaks and summers back home, and felt lucky to have been here on sabbatical for the first half of 2020. As someone who lived a quarter of their life in Europe, I’ve remained in love with train travel, and so adopted Amtrak’s Empire Builder—which runs between Chicago and the Northwest, with Portland- and Seattle-bound cars splitting at Spokane—as my preferred means of moving east and west.

The Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge

The Empire Builder’s route is one of the most scenic in America. After clearing the great plainness of North Dakota, the train hits the long stretches of prairie of Eastern Montana on the first morning westbound. By late afternoon, you can see the Rockies jutting out of the prairies ahead as the train enters Glacier National Park (better enjoyed on the eastbound trek when you arrive in Whitefish, Montana, for breakfast). By next morning, the train skirts the Columbia River into Portland, moving from Eastern Washington’s arid plateaus into the Cascades’ firs and mist. Often shifting from my compartment to the glass-enclosed club car, I’ve enjoyed listening to first-time travelers to the Northwest as they process the beauty and grandeur that we take for granted.

When traveling on Amtrak, I get a “roomette,” a private compartment that can accommodate two. With a roomette, all of your meals are free in the dining car, and I’ve been fortunate to meet some interesting people over the communal breakfast and dinner tables. Normally, I break up my journey for a few days in both directions at Wolf Point, Montana, the principal town on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, where my friend James Walling edits the town newspaper. After spending a few days exploring the Hi-Line and Lewis and Clark sites along the Missouri with him, I again board the eastbound or westbound train.

Then COVID hit. In August I boarded the Empire Builder in Portland, and it was like a ghost train. My roomette, often imagined a luxury, appeared like a necessity. I could seal myself off from the world in a rolling quarantine. The dining and club cars were out, and so there were to be no happy collisions with strangers over eggs or salad. Only in my roomette could I remain maskless. The sole human I met was my car’s porter, who kept everything sterilized and who delivered my meals on trays to my compartment.

Haystacks in a field on the plains

A plains view along Amtrak’s historic Empire Builder route

The atmosphere seemed tubercular, yet the route’s beauty was undiminished. In fact, it seemed more vital. Rather than stopping to visit James, we reconnoitered by phone to wave at each other as the train passed through Saco, Montana. Good journalist that he is, he saluted me in front of the schoolhouse where Chet Huntley (of NBC’s midcentury Huntley–Brinkley Report) had been a student.

Although human contact was confined to the porter, he would do. I began to look forward to his intercom announcements, as his deep, honeyed voice often bordered on the sultry when announcing “dinner” or “Fargo.” At a long stopover in Havre, Montana, we stood on the platform together. “Have you ever done radio?” I asked him. “You’ve the perfect voice.” He looked surprised. “Do you think so?,” he asked. “Absolutely,” I said. Now he looked dazed.

“I’ve never thought about it,” he replied. After that conversation, his subsequent announcements were accompanied by an intro and background of cool jazz and, if anything, his voice became a tad more sensuous.

Steffen Silvis

I’d like to think that he returned to Chicago, quit Amtrak, and is now a late-night DJ. If not, I look forward to hearing him again this month when I leave the Midwest and its witless bumbling into the coronavirus’s promised next wave, and travel, locked up and alone, back to Portland.

Steffen Silvis, a former theatre critic and associate cultural editor at Willamette Week, is finishing a Ph.D in Theatre History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

This article is part of a series. Do you want to share your own pandemic travel story? Email [email protected]