Son Troy was moving back to
Southeastern Wisconsin from Minneapolis with cat Noche to live with
soon-to-be wife Leah and son Noah and needed help.
He planned on packing his stuff into a 14-foot U-Haul truck and towing
his 2003 Mazda Protege behind but that proved expensive, so I offered
to drive his car back while he drove the U-Haul.
Neighbor Larry has a second home north of Minneapolis, and my first
thought was hitching a ride with him. Unfortunately, he was
heading up well ahead of Troy's schedule. Second thought was
taking a Greyhound or Badger bus, both comfortable and convenient, but
then a third possibility--Amtrak--occurred to me.
Money is always an object when you're a working stiff, so I checked and
discovered a one-way coach ticket from downtown Milwaukee to the Twin
Cities costs $93.00. Not bad given the ride--unlike going by
bus--would take me by places I hadn't seen before.
I visited the easy-to-use Amtrak website and bought a ticket for a
September 2 departure. (An Amtrak National Fact sheet states that
588,617 individuals purchased tickets to or from Milwaukee in 2010.)
The train bore the impressive name, 7 Empire Builder, departed at 3:55
p.m., and would travel 333 miles over six and one-half hours before reaching my
destination. The 7 derives from a numbering system that assigns
numerals based on direction--trains that travel generally southward or
westward bear odd numbers, those running northward and eastward are even-numbered.
Amtrak promotional brochures indicate the Empire Builder has operated
since 1929 and crosses six states on its 2,200-mile-route between
Chicago and Seattle.
When I arrived at the glassy Milwaukee Intermodal Station, I
encountered throngs of people waiting in a several-abreast line that
began at the platform doors and curved deeply into the lobby. My
first thought was all these passengers were on my train, and it was
probably crowded due to the upcoming holiday. Most were college
students, but there were plenty of older adults, including what
appeared to be an extended Amish family, men with beards and
suspenders, women wearing 19th-century bonnets, and some similarly
dressed boys and girls. Evidently train travel is permitted
by their religion, I thought--maybe because trains were around in the
1800s--but later I learned that they also occasionally travel by
automobile or bus.
A PA announcement soon made clear that the crowd was waiting for the
Hiawatha to Chicago not the train I was on. After it departed,
another announcement invited Empire Builder passengers to begin
boarding. Passing through the aluminum-framed glass doors that
separated the lobby from the platform, I was greeted by a long Amtrak
train, and a conductor who asked where I was headed: "Twin
Cities." Pointing eastward, he said, "You're in the last car."
Rolling out of Milwaukee
At the top of the boarding stairs, I looked down a large and airy cabin
with plenty of storage space. I threw my duffel bag on an empty
seat and sat down. The car was about three-quarters full
when the train began moving exactly on-time. There was no movie
cry of "All aboard!"
One of the many cool things about rail travel is the scenery next to
the rails that can't be seen from streets and highways. Not far
from the station, a number of tracks abruptly ended in mounds of sand,
probably designed to stop wayward trains. All along the route, urban
graffiti decorated the sides of viaducts and other passageways.
Every artist wants an audience, I suppose, and some have none more
willing than passengers gliding past on a train.
From the locomotive, I heard the distinctive whistle blowing now and
then, but it was less distinct than the sound I often hear from our
house in Brookfield, which is about a mile from the track I was
on. As the train rolled out of Milwaukee, a man took the
seat next to me, said he had been in the lounge car, extended his hand,
and introduced himself as Chester Meriwether from Southfield, Michigan,
a suburb 15 miles northwest of Detroit.
I told him I lived in Brookfield, and we'd soon be passing Wirth Park
in the heart of my 'burb. And there it was, right after Pilgrim
Road. Countless times I have waited at that crossing while a
silver and blue Amtrak train clattered by. Looking out the window
along the south side of the track as we continued west I saw something I hadn't seen before in the city where we've resided for 21 years--evenly space utility poles holding
old-fashioned glass insulators but no wires. They were
no longer needed I guessed, displaced and made surplus by newer
technology. Taking them down was probably judged to be too expensive.
In the 50s and early 60s, when my parents regularly took the family to
Tigerton in Shawano County, Wisconsin, I saw hundreds of poles like
these paralleling railroad tracks along the highway, all with wires
hanging from what I remember as blue-green insulators. Always
thought the color was cool. Later I discovered that
the poles lining the way through Brookfield originally held wires used
in a now obsolete, railroad-owned communications system.
Chester was interested in the areas we were passing and asked about the
cost of homes. He said he owned a beauty salon and clothing store back
home, and though the Detroit area was hurting, he was hoping for the
Very quickly we reached the outskirts of Pewaukee, and I could
see the lake to the south. Chester asked how much the homes on
the shore were worth, and I speculated "many hundreds of thousands."
I decided to check out the lounge and began walking toward the
front. Moving from one car to another requires going through
sliding doors at the end of one and the beginning of the next.
It's a little weird at first but becomes second nature. Along the
way I passed through sleeping cars and could see narrow beds beyond
some of the slightly open compartment doors.
The lounge car had an upper, domed seating area with curving expanses
of glass. Large chairs and tables were available on a
first-come-first-served basis. Colors were muted and didn't
compete with big views of the passing landscape.
Many Amtrak cars are double-decker (the Empire Builder brochure calls
them "bi-level Superliner equipment"), and in the lower part of the
lounge car, an alcove held a beverages and snack food service. Domestic
beer was $5.00, imported, $6.00.
Returning to the upper level and taking a seat, I wrote, "Cool way to
travel," and watched the pastures of plenty and the backs of small town
businesses and houses out the window. It was fun to see vehicles
waiting at crossings rather than being inside one as the train went by.
Two matronly ladies near me were talking about the dining car, so I
asked what they thought of the food. They recommended it and
mentioned I needed to reserve a seat. Just then female and male
conductors approached together, and I inquired about making a
reservation. They asked my name and said they'd get back to
The train stopped briefly in Columbus and then rolled on to
Portage. I noted the time was 5:30 p.m., and it was still light
out. The lady conductor returned and said my dinner reservation
was for 8:30 p.m.--late for me, but I decided it would be worth it to
experience eating in a "fancy dining car" like the one Johnny Cash sang
I walked down to the lower level snack bar to get a bag of peanuts to
tide me over. Ahead of me were a mom and two teenage boys--one
heading toward morbid obesity--who were selecting snacks to take to
their seats. Another passenger appeared and stood several feet
behind me, near the entrance. After what seemed like a long time,
the party of three paid, collected their purchases, and turned to
Amazingly, just as the mom cleared the door and the teens were still
blocking me, the passenger who had entered after me, raced ahead and
began placing his order with the somewhat startled attendant. I
stepped forward and said, "Excuse me, but I'm ahead of you in
line." He replied, "Oh, that's right!" as if he somehow forgot. I
like to think all the pushy, obnoxious people I meet are
fundamentalist-nationalist-caveat-emptor capitalists like Pat Robertson
Returning to my seat in the observation car, I was happy the half-full
can of beer I left on the table with my notebook and pen hadn't spilled
in my absence. The train made a continual noise and swayed a bit
but offered a quieter and smoother ride by far than any jetliner I've
Points of interest
Signs in the distance announced our approach to Wisconsin Dells, the
closest America's Dairyland comes to a full-tilt, tourist-milking
operation like Disney World. I could see the Wisconsin River and
some of the water-carved sandstone formations that are the town's
primary attraction rising from its banks.
French explorers originally named this stretch of the river,
"dalles," meaning narrows in English. Anglicization
produced dells which fits particularly well given a dell is a small,
wooded hollow. A website I found when looking into the origin of the
town states about its creation:
"The railroad made plans to bridge the Wisconsin River near the river's
dells, and a boomtown named Newport sprang up at the expected site of
the bridge in 1853...but when the railroad finally came through the
area in 1857 it took nearly everyone by surprise by crossing the river
a mile upstream from the site of Newport. As a result, Newport was
rapidly turned into a ghost town as the settlers flocked to the new
city at the site of the railroad bridge, Kilbourn City."
The town was named after Byron Kilbourn who was the president of two
railroads at the time and one of the founders of the community later
Gradually, tourism became Kilbourn City's primary business, and to
it easier for tourists to connect the place with the natural landscape
bringing it fame, the name was changed to Wisconsin Dells in
Just before we reached town, I noticed a line of deciduous trees
bordering the track that had been trimmed carelessly because of the
power lines that ran through them. It was a sorry sight and yet
another dark mark on the long list of human cruelties to the
The train stopped at the Wisconsin Dells Station and across the street
I could see--no foolin'--the Torture Museum!—a great place to take the
kids! Oddly or not, the Dells Bells Wedding Chapel was close by
and sported a sign reading: "Welcome to Fabulous Dells Bells Wedding
As we eased north again, an old-fashioned auto salvage yard appeared
just beyond the Dells' northwestern edge. Probably it isn't
visible from the highway but what a sight from the Empire Builder. Dilapidated cars were in some instances nearly obscured by
prairie grasses that grew higher than their roofs.
I visited the lower level of the lounge car again and the somewhat
straight-laced attendant frowned when an impatient passenger wearing a
Goonfest T-shirt complained he had been waiting quite a while.
The attendant served me quickly enough.
At about 6:30, we reached Tomah which still has a quaint train
station that a website states was built "in the early
1900s." It looks a lot like the one in the old
village area of Brookfield, now closed, that was built in
1867. An Amish buggy with a single male occupant was
waiting at a crossing with cars and trucks as we pulled out of
Tomah's north side.
Tunnel City appeared next and its namesake is an engineering feat of
large proportions, considering it was completed in 1861. Jarrod Roll,
director and county historian at the Monroe County Local History Room
& Museum in Sparta sent photocopies of articles that appeared in
the Monroe County Democrat and Badger History. One reports the
tunnel is 1,330 feet long, 243 miles from Chicago, and that the next
tunnel on the run is 1,399 miles from Chicago.
The Empire Builder passed Fort McCoy at 6:48 and Sparta at 6:51 and
reached La Crosse's city limits at about 7:05. It was still
light, and a crescent Moon was visible in the west.
We came upon another train track running at right angles to the one we
were on and, oddly, a train was waiting for us to pass, just as motor
Moving into La Crosse, I was struck by the poor construction of the
houses along the tracks, many barely more than shacks. When the
train stopped at the station, its final cars blocked a city street and
automobiles had to wait until it moved on, no doubt a source of
irritation to residents.
A number of waterways are crossed on the way out of town, starting with
the Black River and French Slough and ending with the East Channel and
West or Main Channel of the truly mighty Mississippi. The train
trestle on the last has a section that pivots to
parallel the river and allow barges through. In the distance beyond tawny sandstone
outcroppings along the track, a long and low carrier was visible
heading up river as we left the city.
Calls for dinner came regularly and finally passengers with an 8:30
p.m. reservation were summoned. When I reached the dining car
after making my way through several passenger cars, a nice hostess took
my name, walked me toward the locomotive end and, to my surprise,
seated me at a table already occupied by three dinners--I took the
My companions--the Stackhouses--were affable and if they were bothered by my joining them, they didn't show it.
The friendly trio comprised a dad, mom, and son, all from Peru,
Indiana, who were traveling to Minneapolis to spend Labor Day
weekend with another son who lived in a northern suburb. They
commented on the beauty of Wisconsin Dells and the number of water
parks. Mom said she had visited once but hadn't seen much other
than the interior of the Ho-Chunk casino. She was a freelance
I had a salad and salmon and the food and service were excellent; any
stationary restaurant would be hard-pressed to match the decor passing
by the dining car's big windows. Total cost with another beer and
tip was about $33.00. My dining companions said they had traveled
to see the son and brother by automobile and plane and now were trying
the train, which they seemed to like. We had a pleasant conversation,
another of the ride's many charms.
It was beginning to get dark as we continued north along the Mississippi.
With lights from the Twin Cities visible in the distance, the train
slowed, possibly to avoid other trains ahead or to stay on schedule and
arrive in the double metropolis at 10:31 p.m. sharp, as it ultimately did.
Detraining occurred at Midway Station, named for its location between
the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. After a short walk, I
hailed a taxi in the parking lot and soon was at my hotel in Dinkytown,
said to be where Bob Dylan lived during his brief time as a student at
the University of Minnesota.
I was staying at the University Inn, 925 4th Street SE (one of the
thoroughfares Dylan might have had in mind when he wrote "Positively
4th Street"). The doors were locked when I arrived, and
there was no obvious buzzer. A desk clerk was visible watching
television at the far end of the lobby, but pounding on the door failed
to get his attention. I walked around the building and banged on
the glass nearer the clerk. When he saw me, I returned to the
door and he buzzed me in. It was about 10:45 p.m.
My room was a clean, neat, quiet kitchenette and everything worked. I highly recommend the place.
It was raining the next morning at 5:00 a.m. when I went to the
lobby. The desk clerk from the night before was still on
duty. He asked, "Why are you up so early?" I explained my
mission and mentioned that I planned on taking a bus to Troy's
apartment. He said the stop was across the
street. When I observed he worked long hours, he introduced
himself as Jim Salovich and said he co-owned the hotel with his
brother. I understood.
I paid and walked across the street to wait for the bus. Rain was
falling lightly when the first pulled over. I
asked the driver if she would get anywhere near my son's address; she
said no and added that the next bus that was scheduled to come by
would. Sure enough. After about 15 minutes, I was aboard
and it dropped me within about five blocks of my destination.
Troy already had the U-Haul packed and ready except for loading Noche.
Soon the Twin Cities were disappearing as we headed east toward
Wisconsin. The trip home was familiar from the many times we had
visited Troy. Noche, as is often the case with cats, wasn't a happy
passenger, but he got used to it or simply grew tired of meowing with
Unlike the completely new and fascinating Amtrak ride, the journey back
was mundane. But on the bell curve of travel stories, that tends
toward the good end. Traveling on the Empire Builder 7, however,
pegs the needle.
Now when I hear the Amtrak whistle blow, I think of travelers
passing quickly through Brookfield on their way to points north, west,
south, or east. Maybe they're sleeping, reading, having a drink
or dinner, talking with friends old and new, or simply watching the
world roll by without--at least for the moment--a care in their gently
swaying and undulating world.
* * *