One year ago today, I rolled through North Dakota. It was very exciting. Now normally, a trip to North Dakota is not necessarily worthy of any sort of celebration (no offense to the 750,000 people who live there). But this was no ordinary trip for me. You see, North Dakota was my last state. Once I crossed that state line, I could officially say I visited all 50 states.
Before heading out, I did a little research on the not-be-missed, hot spots of North Dakota. I think the locals must be very good at keeping their haunts under wraps because the internet yielded very few results. One clever commenter said that the best thing to see in North Dakota is the sign that says, “You are now leaving North Dakota.” With results like that, I struggled to make plans. Then it hit me: I could take the train.
A few years ago, I saw a good chunk of Canada via the rail line. I fell in love with train travel. Now the rail service here in the U.S. leaves little to be desired. But it is still a worthy way to see this country. For this particular voyage, I booked passage from Chicago to Seattle on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. I would have really liked to have booked a sleeper car, but it was just too damn expensive. So I booked a coach seat and hoped for the best.
Chicago to Seattle
The train leaves Chicago once a day in the afternoon and arrives in Seattle 46 hours later. Since I arrived in the city with a couple of hours to spare, I tried to explore a bit. But my pack got a little heavy and I headed to the station to settle in and wait.
They were offering some sort of special for those who wanted to try out the new lounge. Since it was only $10, I decided to give it a whirl. It probably does not cost $10 anymore, but I can almost guarantee that it is still worth whatever the new price is. The lounge has comfy chairs, drinks, snacks and free Wi-Fi. But best of all, you get priority boarding on the train. Me and about 15 other folks got to bypass the line and have our pick of seats. I sat across from a nice guy named Matt who clued me into the extra leg room in the first row of each train car.
The seats are not plush. But they are way better than your standard coach seat on an airplane and recline quite a bit. If you are lucky, you’ll have two seats. The train left Chicago full. But probably half of those people got off somewhere before midnight, including my seat mate. So I was one of the lucky ones (Matt, not so much). With a bit of help from some earplugs and a little Tylenol PM, I got decent sleep on both nights of the trip.
Waking up in North Dakota
I woke up on July 4, 2015, just as the sun was rising over North Dakota. There was a fine mist covering the land and the light was muted. The view did not justify my level of excitement, but I could not stop smiling. When I planned this trip initially, it did not dawn on me until after it was booked that I would be celebrating Independence Day by visiting my final state. What a perfect way to celebrate!
I spent a good chunk of the day in the observation car watching the landscape pass by. It was more varied than I expected. It was also very, very rural (although I expected that). Some of the towns were quaint and I saw more than one 4th of July parade in the works. Others looked like ghost towns. We stopped at a couple of little towns so I was able to walk around and breathe in the air. But for the most part, I was just an observer. I never got bored and I never tired of looking out the window.
I did not see any fireworks that night. But what I did see was so much better: a colorful sunset somewhere near Glacier National Park.
Now here a couple of tips if you are thinking about taking a similar journey:
- Pack food. The train provides two eating options. The first is a fast food/gas station sort of situation offering more snacks and microwave fare. The second is the dining car which actually has pretty good food, but can get expensive if you eat every meal there (like my friend Matt did). Plus, you have to wait until the sleeper car passengers have already eaten since they have first priority. I planned my “meals” pretty carefully and brought healthy snacks. But I also treated myself to two meals in the dining car.
- Walk around. The beauty of train travel is that you get to move. Unlike a car or an airplane, there are no seat belts and you can get up and move anytime you want.
- Drink lots of water. Sure, you will have to pee. But since you can get up and go to the bathroom anytime you want, it is not a big deal. Plus, it will remind you get up and walk around.
- Do not leave valuables lying around. I felt perfectly comfortable leaving most of my stuff in my seat while I went to the bathroom or visited the observation car. But I always took my wallet and phone with me.
- Talk to people. People are fascinating and hearing why others are on the train going to XYZ is one of the best parts of traveling the rails. It is pretty easy to meet people too. If you do any eating in the dining car, you are going to be sitting by strangers. You might as well talk to them.
- Bring warm clothes. It does get a little cold at night, even in the middle of summer. I could have used an extra sweater.
- Bring something to read or watch. During the day, I listened to music and stared out the window. But once it gets dark, there is nothing to see and if you are not ready to try and sleep, you are going to need something to do. Luckily, each seat on the train has an outlet so it is easy to keep your devices charged.
- Be sure to brush. Your teeth that is. There are plenty of bathrooms on board and although grooming in them is not ideal, you can get relatively clean and feel refreshed. Just don’t forget your wipes!
The US of A is big and vast and there is so much to explore. Taking the train is enjoyable way to see not only North Dakota, but many different pieces and parts of it. It helps to be prepared. If you are, you are in for a spectacular experience. Also, happy 4th of July!