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An Unconventional Summer Adventure: A Train Trip Through the American Midwest

Summer is, obviously, a popular time for college students to take vacations before landing adult responsibilities that make getting away a bit more difficult. Some go to Cabo, others to Hawaii, and the incredibly lucky may find themselves in Europe for an extended period. My summer, on the other hand, was a different kind of picturesque while still being whole-heartedly memorable, even if I wasn’t surround by the serene blue waters in Greece or the warm illumination of the Eiffel Tower. 

Instead of waiting in the dreadfully long security lines at Sea-Tac airport to reach our destination of Ann Arbor, Michigan, my dad and I started our September trip at King Street Station in Downtown Seattle, boarding an Amtrak train line famously known as the Empire Builder, running from the Emerald City and set to arrive 46 hours later in Chicago. Once our tickets were scanned and we walked out onto the Downtown platform (reminding me of a certain movie series I was unashamedly obsessed with in my middle school years), we were led up into our home for the weekend. Between the two of us, we shared a room that couldn’t have totaled more than 60 square feet, with two cot bunk beds and a bathroom that made a broom closet seem like a mansion. Although “glamorous” wouldn’t be anyone’s first word to describe our living space, it allowed us to gaze through a window (literally) at what we would soon interpret as peacefully and mysteriously, yet truly, the real American Midwest. 

We silently passed Spokane and then through the thin stretch of Idaho by late Friday night, before waking up to see Glacier National Park, almost literally at our fingertips, on that golden Saturday morning. My dad and I had driven to see the park and its glory the September beforehand, as a COVID-safe attempt to soak in some mountainous views, but seeing them from the train was a surreal type of experience I’d never had before. Since the train ride doesn’t make too many extended stops, there were next to zero opportunities to get off the train and take in the scenery when it was most convenient for you, like traveling in a car. As a result, if you wanted to see Montana’s finest, you had to be up and ready at 7am before it was gone 30 minutes later. In that way, I was able to notice contrasts between my own mental images of the place versus what was really out there—and in that way, I realized that traveling by train allows you to take your surroundings in past a superficial level. 

The rest of the Treasure state—and I feel the need to emphasize my lack of exaggeration on this—takes eight thousand years to cross. The Empire Builder could reach close to eighty miles per hour on the open track, and even at that speed, eastern Montana has an ample supply of…well, nothing. The only change in elevation were slight blips in the cracked highways, the constant meeting of the brown of the wheat fields and blue of the sky, and all shades of green seemed to evacuate towards the mountains, or perhaps they scurried east to North Dakota. My dad and I marveled (yet simultaneously rolled our eyes and whined, “Are we there yet?”) about how much empty, unused space was out there, which led us to hypothesize about how different both our lives would be today if we had grown up in one of those Midwest towns of Havre, Malta, or one of those that don’t even show up on our phones. It’s funny to think about how an experience like that, something I had never had before, had the power to turn me, or really anyone with that amount of down time on their hands, into a temporary philosopher.  

We reached North Dakota by the second night’s sunset, which was basically a repeat of its sister state to the west, with the addition of fields of oil wells as far as the eye could see. After hopping out of the train at the Minneapolis/St. Paul station early Sunday morning, just to claim a new state for the both of us, we started our final leg of the trip by heading southwest through Minnesota and Wisconsin, with Illinois welcoming us at the very end. Although we were both more accustomed to the scenery here, as the green hinted at the similarities in our Washington outdoors at home, my dad and I continued to point out the differences we noticed during this stretch, still very much in the heart of the Midwest. What we both recognized, and then came to understand, was how industrial this part of the country was, and how despite some forces of nature that were pleasing to the eyes, leisure didn’t seem to be a huge focus in these areas. As everything became industrialized in the 20th century Midwest, it seemed to leave very little room for anything resembling public recreation, art, or any creatively oriented spaces for the people, which most of the West Coast has no shortage of. 

Finally, around 4 pm Central time on Sunday afternoon, we entered the beautiful palace of Union Station in Downtown Chicago, reflective and grateful of our new method of travel that we could finally cross off our bucket list, yet relieved and quite eager to claim a car and an AirBnB with actual beds. It might not have been a traditional family vacation as one last hurrah before I hit the textbooks again, but even so, riding a train two-thirds of the way across the country was an experience like no other. Only time will tell if I’ll end up reliving that experience again, but if you’re looking for a new way to travel to really see the world around you, this might be it. 

Hailey Hummel

Washington '23

Hailey is a current junior at the University of Washington, majoring in Public Health—Global Health and minoring in Law, Societies, and Justice. She loves hiking, traveling around the state of Washington and the world, making art, playing piano, taking pictures, and spending time with her friends.
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