Pepin-Minneapolis 2022 Trip, Part One: The train ride out

The view of the Rockies from the dining car, as the Empire Builder crests Marias Pass in Montana. 12 May 2022. Olympus XA2/Kodak Portra 160

Here is Part One (of a planned three) posts about Emee and my trip to the Midwest for the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour. We took Amtrak’s Empire Builder out of Portland on Wednesday May 11th and landed in Red Wing, Minnesota on the morning of Friday, May 13th.

Here is a fact: The Empire Builder is my favorite train. I’ve ridden this train, which travels from either Portland or Seattle to Chicago, many times in the last 22 years. It wasn’t the first long-distance train I’ve taken, that would be the Lake Shore Limited which travels from Chicago to both New York and Boston. When I left Connecticut via rail (not Via Rail) in 2000, the Lake Shore Limited was just another train ride. The landscapes of the Northeast and Midwest felt familiar, not exotic.

The Empire Builder was the train for the second leg of that trip and right off the bat it was different. Firstly the train itself: it was made up of Superliner cars, the bi-level cars based off an old Santa Fe design. The view is just better when you’re higher up. And these Superliner trains have actual viewing lounges, a car encased in floor-to-ceiling windows. I never had that on other trains before.

But the bigger thing about taking the Empire Builder was the landscape. Heading west from Chicago, I first encountered the last big cities of the upper Midwest: beside Chicago I saw Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul. After that it was the big expanse and lonely country of the True West, the sparse, wide open landscape of North Dakota and Eastern Montana. Then a crossing of the Rockies at Glacier Park, and waking up to the Portland section of the Builder cruising along the mighty Columbia River, first through the arid landscape of the Columbia Plateau, than the Gorge, and finally Portland. I’ve taken other trains that have gone through great landscapes, like the Coast Starlite and California Zephyr, but those trains don’t hold as special of a place in my heart.

There wasn’t much different about this Empire Builder trip than the last time we took it to Pepin in 2018. Emee and I had booked a private room in the sleeper car, which has become pretty standard for my long-distance train travel since 2016. I did a lot of time sleeping in coach, and while I could still pull it off, I don’t particularly miss it. The two things that were different was bringing Bromptons, which we simply folded up carside and stowed in the downstairs luggage. This allowed us to get off at the unstaffed stop of Red Wing rather than have to figure out a way to get down there from St. Paul.

The other difference was this was the first time in a long time that I brought film cameras on the Empire Builder. It’s not the first time: I did bring my janky Honeywell Visimatic 615 rangefinder on at least the first trip. But in 2000 a film camera was still what you brought. Nowadays it’s a novelty to most. What cameras did I bring? I took the trusty Olympus XA2 for color stock, mostly using Fuji Superia 400, though the first roll was Kodak Portra 400.

For black and white I brought the Minolta XD5. This was my first time traveling with an SLR on a non-car trip, as my Minolta SR-T 101 is quite bulky. The XD5 is about the same weight and a bit smaller than my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, which I have flown/taken the train with. After a few test rolls back home, I was confident it would work fine. I brought just two lenses, the MD 50mm f/1.7 prime, and the MD 28-85 f/3.5-4.5 zoom. And I primarily shot with Kentmere 400, though I did use a few rolls of HP5+.

The train ride was great and without incident. It did rain quite a bit once we got east of Shelby, MT, but I got great views of the Rockies at Glacier National Park as the Empire Builder crested Marias Pass.

We got into Red Wing that Friday morning. We mostly chilled in town, swinging by The Staghead (the unofficial Red Wing meeting place for the ride) that evening and saw friends old and new.

Please enjoy the photos from the train ride below:

Amtrak Empire Builder (Portland Section) at Spokane Depot, waiting for the Seattle section. 11 May 2022
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