“There’s something about a train that’s magic.”
This was the first line from a jingle that encouraged travelers to ride the rails on Amtrak. Since 1971, Amtrak serves as the intercity passenger rail service that traverses the U.S.A. It runs over 21,400 miles of track serving over 31 million passengers annually.
Certainly, we have choices when we want to go somewhere within the contiguous 48 states. The Interstate highway enables us to have full control of our luggage, friends, pets, and so forth. It may also be less expensive than flying to taking the train.
Flying is a major part of our travel strategy. You can get there quicker, but you also spend extra time in security lines and through boarding procedures. Not to mention that the lowest fares may get you the least comfortable seats.
Shall I mention intercity buses? We do travel by them to get to smaller towns or for a less expensive, budget-conscious experience going to another city.
Amtrak offers a mixed bag of service and convenience for the travel. While you do get great service on the trains, you will hear complaints about food quality and the train itself. If you live near a hub where you can go in multiple directions, you’re luckier than those who live near a single route with limited options for travel.
I fall onto the latter category of train traveler. St. Paul’s refurbished and delightful Union Depot is the home to a single route – the Empire Builder. This long-distance train runs from Chicago to either Seattle or Portland, depending on which car you sit in when it splits off in Spokane, Washington. You do get an eye full when you are in Montana – thanks to large windows and superb vistas.
Therefore, we are limited to two trains coming through St. Paul. The eastbound train heads to Chicago in the morning, while the westbound train arrives late at night heading west. They are normally on-time during the summer. In the wintertime, if a snow storm hits west of the Twin Cities – expect delays.
For years, I have been pondering getting back on this train. It has been 15 years since I last rode the Empire Builder. So, I asked myself, “what if you wanted to do a day trip somewhere along this route?”
The answer lies in whether the destination is worth visiting. In this case, La Crosse, Wisconsin became my answer. It is lovely place to go along the Mississippi River – except, perhaps, in the winter.
You know, I always liked La Crosse. It is a quaint city that has a few things to offer. It also serves as a hub for year-round activity nearby.
Getting there was just fine. I had a couple of stops in-between St. Paul’s Union Depot and La Crosse’s station north of downtown. I had breakfast in the Dining Car, which was substitance to say the least. As a solo traveler, you will be sitting with strangers. A good conversation ensured over a quickly made omelet with a solo young traveler heading back to Tomah, Wisconsin and a retired couple from Washington state.
My gaydar was not blipping at all. It will be quite muted all the way to La Crosse.
The Empire Builder offers a lot to the short-haul traveler. Aside from the Dining Car, there is a Lounge Car with an Observation area on the upper level. You can grab a snack, sit down and relax. First Class passengers get their own Sleeper room, which travelers have a choice of three types. The rest of us sit in Coach.
Compared to the airlines, Amtrak’s Coach has wider seats with extraordinary leg room. It reclines enough to catch some shut-eye, even though the seat is not all that comfortable for some bodies. A footrest can be deployed, along with a cushion extender.
Since there is a destination to go to, we should talk about it for a moment. La Crosse is nice, especially the downtown area with its mix of bars, restaurants, shops, and hotels. To find our tribe, The Center: 7 Rivers LGBTQ Connection (230 6th St. S) is a good place to start for resources and a very warm welcome.
In my meanderings, I did find a friendly coffeehouse. Jules Coffee House (327 Pearl St.) offers an airy space with wooden booths and massive charm. There are several places we go across town. There is genuine hospitality, where you will find people who may not like us but will welcome you warmly regardless.
There are two bars that we frequent: Players (300 4th St. S) and Chances R (417 Jay St.). When you head to Players, make sure you enter to the left from the main entrance. Otherwise, you will be throwing axes instead.
For a faith-based connection, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (401 West Ave. S) was suggested as a good stop to find a warm welcome from everyone in the congregation.
La Crosse showed off a very warm winter welcome where they needed to – right in the heart of town. There is something to consider when traveling to La Crosse by Amtrak. The train station is not easily accessible by the city’s public transit system, so consider taking a taxi or one of the ride-hailing app services to get to where you need to go.
Also, consider a downtown hotel for your stay, Since everything that is friendly to us happens to in the city’s core, you have easy walking access to restaurants, bars, distilleries, and some shopping. Again, taxis and ride-hailing app services are a better bet if you need an extra added sense of security.
One last thing to note regarding traveling by Amtrak. As I was traveling while the U.S. Government was shut down, there was no need for the Transportation Security Administration to check you through at either end. It was not only refreshing, but stress-free.
La Crosse comes alive during the summer as a hub of outdoor activities within and beyond the city’s boundaries. Their Pride celebration is in September, right downtown at Riverside Park. If you must go in the winter, you can find room for activities as the temperatures are colder. Better still, you can do all of this by getting there by train.
All aboard for La Crosse?