Friday, July 21, 2017 is the happily anticipated day for the beginning of our trip to Whitefish, Montana. Whitefish is the chosen destination for my annual anesthesia conference this year. The plan is to combine my husband’s love of trains with our need to travel there by boarding the only long-distance passenger train service left in the US, Amtrak. Since Amtrak goes right through Whitefish, this will work splendidly for us.
Hubby and I arrive at our daughter’s house in Chatfield by 5:45pm. She will deliver us to the depot so that our car does not sit there unattended for nine days. We are on the road and headed towards Winona by 6pm. The heavy rain from the day has stopped and the sun is peaking out. The train is to arrive by 7:47pm. We hear the whistle in the distance and it comes chugging around the corner right on time. Hugs are shared and we turn to search for our assigned train car. Car number 730 is midway along the towering berths awaiting us. We board and trudge up the narrow staircase to the upper floor of a sleeper car. In the small space, two seats face each other. It is a very compact space with little extra room for storage. One suitcase fits nicely under the seat but our big suitcase begs to be stored downstairs in the main luggage area.
We are told that our supper is at 8:30pm and will be announced when they are ready to seat us. An announcement is made around that time but the speaker does not seem to work in our room and we cannot understand what is being said. By 8:40, we decide to check out the dining car which conveniently is located right next to our sleeping berth. We have almost missed supper as we are the last ones to be seated. I am not very hungry anyway as I was not expecting to get food this late on the train. Because of this, we ate before we left home. It is just as well as it takes forever to have our order taken and then another forever until the food comes. I look at my order of tortillas and say, “That is not what I ordered.”
“I’m sorry,” the waitress responds, “I will get you the right order.” By now it is 9:30pm and I am not much interested in food any more. I am more concerned about the effect of trying to sleep with a full stomach. Just to be polite, we wait until the food comes, take a few bites, and head back to our small home. While we wait for our car attendant to come and make up our beds, our attention is drawn towards the fireworks exploding above the skyline just outside our window at our St. Paul stop.
Making up our beds involves pulling down the upper bunk which is two feet wide and six feet long. Hubby gets the bottom bunk which is just a little longer and three feet wide. There is little room for anything once this is done except going to sleep. I climb the little steps to the top bunk and shimmy onto the bunk. There is no room for sitting up and I am cold. Thankfully, we have both been provided with two pillows and two blankets. This is not like my bed at home but is quite comfortable compared to the sleeping in the seat option. We have been told to sleep with our heads toward the back of the train in case of an emergency stop so our feet take the brunt and not our all-important heads. It is a little like trying to sleep in a hammock – gentle swaying and rocking. If I was a child, it would rock me to sleep but I am an old woman who needs everything quiet and still to sleep. At one point, I hear rain pounding against the side of the train as we travel through MN and I wonder if we are in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. We both get up to the bathroom around 2 am and then I lose some time in my brain so I must sleep some. This is the ideal way to travel. It is quite relaxing – no paying attention to driving- eating in a restaurant, sleeping in a bed, and reading while all the while hurtling towards our destination.
Grain Elevator in Montana
The sun is shining when I open my eyes again. I peer at my watch and conclude that it is 7:30 am. As we both are getting our shoes on, the 6:30am announcement for breakfast comes over the intercom. Oh dear, I guess I looked at my watch wrong. Well, we are up so we might as well head for breakfast. I pull the call button before we head for the dining room to have the car attendant take down our bunks. My order of hot chocolate turns out to be orange juice but once that is straightened out, the French toast is quite tasty. This waitress needs a different system for keeping track of orders but overall the food is scrumptious.
We return to our room an hour later to find our bunks still not taken care of. “Would you mind doing ours next?” I ask the attendant.
“I turned off the call button because you said you were not ready to have me do it yet,” is her response.
That’s strange. I don’t remember even seeing the attendant this morning. “We never talked to you this morning,” we respond.
“I thought sure it was you. You must think I am terribly confused,” is her comeback.
Confused yes, but not a big deal. After all, this is an adventure.
Our next trek is back through the dining car and three more coaches to the observation car while our room is being prepared for the day. The North Dakota landscape speckled with herds of beef cattle flashes by. When we return, our room is ready for us to spend a relaxing morning reading and watching the landscape streak by, with occasionally interspersed walks through the train and outside at the 30-minute stop at Minot, ND.
Before we know it, lunch is being served. We are paired with a couple from Iowa who is taking 21 young people on a mission trip to an Indian reservation near Glacier National Park. One meets lots of people with interesting lives at meal time. And this time, lunch orders go off without a hitch.
The rest of the afternoon drags as miles and miles of flat Big Sky Montana wheat fields and barren lands fly by. I take a nap which kills a little time. Soon it is time for supper. We choose the 5:30 pm time slot due to fear of not getting done in time to get off the train at 8:47pm when we are due in. This meal, we are paired with another couple from our sleeper car who reside in Florida. They have many travel adventures to share.
Piled wheat at an elevator
Before long, we start to notice the mountains rising on the horizon to the west. Then there are stops at East Glacier, Essex, and West Glacier. The sun is casting long shadows over the mountains as we crawl along the mountain side. At times, one can look out and straight down into the valley and the river below. We finally approach Whitefish and grind to a halt. “We are waiting for a train that is in the way to pass through before we can pull into the station,” the train engineer informs us. We have collected our baggage and impatiently wait by the door as the opposing train clatters by going the opposite direction. And then we slowly roll into the station. My body moves in rhythmic swaying as I stand on the curb waiting for the hotel van to pick us up. 26 hours of swaying back and forth has left its mark and that sweet soft bed in the hotel room looks so inviting.
Our week in Montana exploring Glacier passes far too quickly and before I know it, it is time to think about heading home. I keep waking up during the night because I am afraid the alarm won’t go off. I finally roll out of bed at 5:50 am. The air is crisply cool as we walk to our rental car. The valet man tells us that the train is only five minutes late. The first order of business is to top off our rental car gas tank and drop off the car at the train station.
We settle in the waiting room but soon notice a long BSNF train is parked on the main track at the Whitefish station. He, obviously, needs to move before we can board a passenger train. Restlessness sets in as the minutes stretch endlessly into time and we move outdoors to the platform. Maybe, we think that standing outside will make the situation unfold faster. It is a beautiful, though cool morning to stand on the platform and wait. The posted arrival time comes and goes and still the freight train does not move. Eventually, a train employee walks back along the train and jumps up between each car to adjust something. Finally, forty minutes late, the freight train releases the brakes and slowly pulls away. I hear my cell phone chime. Who would be texting me? Ah, it is Amtrak letting us know the train is behind schedule and will be arriving at 8:03. I think I already figured out it is late and it had better hurry if it is going to be here in three minutes as it is already 8 am. Pretty soon, we see the headlight come around the curve. Maybe there is still hope.
Figuring out which car is ours becomes the problem. We finally find a conductor who says,” Car 830 is the last one on the train.” We trudge through the mass of humanity going in the opposite direction. No one is at the door. Do we enter? Do we not? We finally get on. “Go immediately to the dining car if you would like breakfast.” We walk and we walk. Since we truly are in the last car of the train, it is quite a long journey to the dining car. Time to walk off some calories.
After breakfast, it is time to go back to our sleeper car. No one has scanned our ticket. We could be getting a free ride for all they know or so I think. They never do scan our ticket but when we mention this to the car attendant, he says, “You are in the system so I know you are here.” Ah, big brother is always watching.
We continue to be an hour behind throughout the day. We spend the day enjoying the scenery. There are endless fields of wheat being harvested. I read until I finish my book, then catch up on my writing, and finally, I go searching for my computer cord in the suitcase downstairs so that I can read a kindle book from the computer. Of course, the computer locks up for a couple of hours as it thinks it needs to download and update systems which it cannot do without an internet access. In frustration, I finally am able to break its cycle by turning it off several times in a row.
The track behind us
Out the back of the train
We do not cross the border into North Dakota until supper time. This creates a quandary as the time zone also changes at the border. Do we go to supper on Mountain Time or Central time? We have a 6:45 pm supper reservation. Finally, we ask the car attendant. “Go to supper on Mountain Time,” he says. That means we are really eating at 7:45 pm central time. That is a little later than I would like but there is not much we can do about it. Both of us decide to have the steak topped off with a desert.
Sunset in ND
I know that this is a mistake as soon as we get back to our car. I am hoping for a few hours after supper before bedding down for the night but it is already going towards 9 pm and the attendant has a goal of all the beds being made up by ten. I have delusions that I can sit and read in the top bunk but there is no space for such an endeavor. Getting into the bunk almost causes me to have a panic attack as the car is reversed from the trip out. This means I need to try to slide my feet in from the head end and scoot down. That wouldn’t be so bad except that there is no head room. I finally master this feat of gymnastics and decide now that I am in, I should just stay put. I wonder how the really old people manage on a top bunk. I am slightly nauseated from needing to lay down so soon after eating, but I do drift into a lullaby sleep, being rocked back and forth by the motion of the train. I had decided that I would not even try to get up during the night to go to the bathroom but by 3 am, that resolution needs to go out the window. I have realized that if I take down the strapping that keeps one from rolling out, I can actually get my legs out. The trick is to hit the steps without crashing first as there are no grab bars or any surfaces to grab onto for support. Considering the circumstances, the sleeper at night does offer better sleep than a coach seat would have.
Lake Pepin – along the Mississippi
Sunday morning greets us with bright sun at 6 am. We decide to roll out at 7. The thought of traipsing the length of the train to the dining car to make reservations, then traipsing back to wait for our call (which we can’t hear in our car anyway), then making a third trip to actually get our breakfast is overwhelming this morning. Instead, we opt to go downstairs in the dome car for some yogurt, donut holes, and orange juice. We have some nuts and a granola bar in our sleeper. That will have to do until we get off. The train pulls into St Paul right on time so it looks like we will make our 10:11 scheduled arrival time in Winona in spite of being an hour late all day yesterday. We are more than ready to step onto the little step that leads to the sidewalk to be greeted by our daughter. Ah, there is no place like home.