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Friday, August 19, 2022


Part 2 of a series
To accommodate motorcycle enthusiasts on the East Coast planning to take part in the annual Sturgis Bike Week gathering in South Dakota, Charlie St. Clair of Laconia Motorcycle Week worked with Amtrak to organize a train trip from Boston to Minot, S.D., for both riders and their bikes. It was something that had never been done before. (See earlier story, RIDING THE RAILS TO GET TO THE MOTORCYCLE MEET.)
Compared to four days on the road adding lots of wear and tear to both bike and rider, the idea of a two-day train trip with fellow bikers sounded like fun, plus we'd save time and be fresh and ready to ride. So my son Brendan and I signed on.
It sounded like a good deal: $250 for the bike round-trip and $279 for the rider in coach. Sleeping rooms were about triple that, but none were available; the train was actually oversold.
Biking to Sturgis is an annual event for St. Clair, so he did not take the train. As his representative on board, he recruited Dan Barnhart. An Army sergeant major in training and operations and the father of three kids in their 20s, Barnhart was a good choice; his leadership skills and diplomacy assured an efficient, smooth trip. A rider for 32 years, he currently has a '97 Harley Heritage Softail. He has been at the last nine Laconia meets and the last three Sturgis events.
Like most of us, he made the 3,600-mile round trip on the road the first time, trailered his bike the second and was delighted to take the train now.
Hurry up and wait
We were told to have our bikes at Boston's South Station at 7 p.m. last Thursday to load them into the baggage car; were were to board the train the next day at 1:30 p.m. for the first leg, to Chicago via Albany.
As this kind of operation had never been undertaken before, everyone was playing it by ear. Amtrak personnel were on hand to handle paperwork and load the bikes. The plan was to strap the bikes to Harley pallets, which are used to ship them from the factory to the dealer, then fork lift them into position in the baggage cars. There were 26 bikes. It took four and a half hours and a lot of muscle!
We had no hotel reservations for the night in Boston. I assumed there would be an inexpensive hotel near the station. We finally found one for $150, a $10 cab ride away.
After a good night's rest we returned to the station, had lunch and boarded the train. There were 28 riders with 25 bikes, most of us complete strangers. Between lunch in the station and the first hour on the train, we became fast friends, thanks to the common bond: Harley Davidson!
The club car had limited, expensive, tasteless selections, but the train personnel, except for one grumpy conductor who disapproved of our smoking between cars, were great. Darrell Felker, our coach attendant, completing his first trip as such, assured us we'd be in Albany in a few hours and we could do some provisioning during the 45-minute layover. He also told us they would be adding a dining car.
Unfortunately, we were behind a freight train moving at only about 30 mph. We were continually assured that the freight would pull onto a siding to let us pass. It never did, and we got into Albany about two hours late.
The conductor announced a 15-minute layover and pointed us to the Eckard drugstore and a pizza parlor. About 20 of us stormed the pizza joint, turned the place into total turmoil and managed to get back to the train in time, only to wait an hour while cars were added and deleted. So we had a pizza party on the platform. When the train finally boarded, we were told the dining car was closed. By then, we were three hours behind schedule.
Oh, well — a couple of beers in the lounge, a pick-up poker game and off to sleep. Now, a train is a lot more comfortable than an airplane. The seats with leg rests recline quite a ways without bothering the person in front or back. But it's still a seat, not a bed, so you end up with a series of cat naps rather than a good night's sleep. Brendan at 6'4" finally crawled onto an empty baggage rack to sack out.
Amtrak even shows movies, but they don't provide headsets (you're supposed to know to bring your own) and they show the same two or three films over and over. By the time we got to Chicago, we knew the flicks by heart, even without sound!
It helps to have connections
There was a lot of concern about not reaching Chicago on time. We had to change trains, which meant switching the baggage cars carrying our bikes to the westbound train. If there wasn't time to make the switch, we would have to lay over in Chicago and miss a day of riding.
The head conductor phoned ahead about the concern. Amtrak president George Warrington happens to be a Harley rider. He reportedly gave the word: "Do what it takes, but get those guys and their bikes on that outbound western train."
In Chicago we were escorted from the Lake Shore Limited to the Empire Builder by Camille Thomas, who had worked with St. Clair to arrange the trip. She explained to the dining car manager that we had been denied dinner privileges on the train out of Albany, and voila! Dinner that night was on Amtrak, and it was well-prepared and presented.
Whereas the Lake Shore Limited is a bit dowdy and runs a hodgepodge of older equipment because of the low bridges in the east, the Empire Builder is a sleek, homogenous train with all the proper parts making for a comfortable journey. Its bi-level cars have the coach seats on top, affording a clear view. The club car is modern and comfortable, while the dining car is at least pleasant. The "smoking" room looks and feels like a prisoner holding cell, but at least it's there, open day and night. (There is no smoking in the club car and no drinking in the smoking car, so therefore no major partying!)
Aboard the Empire Builder, we got a good night's sleep and we arrived in Minot right on time! We unloaded the bikes within an hour and a half and hit the road for the seven-hour ride to Sturgis.
Next: a look at American Iron Magazine's FLASH drag races and Main Street attractions such as the famed Broken Spoke Saloon, a visit to several of the hundreds of vendors offering everything from bikes to bikinis, and a review of our favorite places to eat (some could not be called restaurants!).
Frank McLaughlin studied for a career in broadcast journalism. On St. Thomas, he worked at WSTA Radio and WBNB-TV before getting into real estate in the '70s. Between them, he and his son Brendan, owner of Appraisal Associates and Mad Dog Cycles, an importer of custom after-market cycle equipment on St. Thomas, own four Harley Davidsons and five other bikes.

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