The Making of Trails & Rails

If the three sweetest words in the world are “I love you,” then the four sweetest words are “The vacation begins now.” The phrase appears in this month’s cover story “Trails and Rails”, in which the astute travel writer Berit Thorkelson describes train travel’s advantage over airplane or car. When you ride on the sleek, silver superliner, she reminds us, there’s no security line, no shoe removal, no liquid restrictions—heck, you can even BYO bottle of wine.

Last year when I wanted to hop on the train-travel trend, I woke my husband early on a Saturday morning and told him we were headed out of town (because he likes surprises, I volunteered no further details). Then, Amtrak texted me: The train was delayed. So I told him to go back to bed. A short while later, Amtrak alerted me again: The train had made up time! I hurried my half-asleep, much-confused husband into the car and raced to the station, where, of course, we waited.

But as soon as we boarded the Empire Builder, I felt exactly as Thorkelson did: The vacation begins now. The train rolled away from the platform and headed southeast, offering a peek at the underbelly of industrial St. Paul before threading its way along the Mississippi. Its tracks mostly are nestled between the highway and the river, lending a better view of its natural beauty than the acclaimed Great River Road. We relaxed as if we were in our own living room, snapped out of our scenic reverie only by the sight of an Amish passenger talking on a cell phone and, out the window, a glimpse of the historic, hidden pub, Reads Landing, which we immediately put on our “to-visit” list.

My husband and I disembarked at Winona—not the ideal day-tripper’s destination as the station is about a 20-minute walk from the heart of downtown (in Red Wing, the train stops right next to the St. James Hotel). But we didn’t mind the exercise, as it helped us work up an appetite for raised-glazed doughnuts at Bloedow’s. We spent the rest of the day touring the town’s parks and museums and returned to the station at dusk to await the sight of a lone, distant headlight. When the engine approached, pushing a gust of wind against my face, I was charged with the same excitement rail travelers have felt since the first passenger train blew its steam whistle.