The Great Northwest, Face to Face

by Brian Jewell 15. May 2009 18:28

WASHINGTON-OREGON BORDER – The light comes streaming through the gaps in the curtains early this morning, and out the window of my sleeper car I can see clear blue skies and the beautiful Columbia River flowing alongside the tracks.

In the wee hours of last night, the train arrived in Spokane, where it was broken up into two sections. The front half of the train is making its way through Washington to Seattle, its final destination. The back half, which I’m riding on, takes a turn to the South, and has spent much of the night and the morning following the Columbia River, which marks the border between Washington and Oregon.  In a few hours, we’ll arrive in Portland.

Looking across the river to the Oregon side, I see the small, craggy buttes slowly give way to large rolling hills, covered in vegetation. Soon, Mount Hood emerges in the distance. Tall, powerful and snow-covered, this peak dominates the landscape. The train moves slowly by, and we all get a good look.

Soon, my leisurely journey through the West will be ending: Upon arrival in Portland, I’ll grab a taxi at the depot and head straight to the airport, making my way back East by plane. Late tonight, I’ll arrive in Lexington, covering in about 5 hours of air travel what has taken nearly two days by train.

It will be good to be home tonight, but I think I will miss the train. I’ll miss the great food, the attentive staff, and the slower pace of travel. But more than anything else, I think I’ll miss the scenery. This is an intimate way to travel, a long study of the nuances of our countryside. Taking it in is like studying the lines and curves of a loved one’s face, at once familiar and surprising.

We’ve always known that the Northwest was here, and heard that it was beautiful. But now I know for myself, because I have seen it face to face.

Making the Most of a Rainy Day

by Brian Jewell 14. May 2009 18:25

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Sooner or later, we all have rainy days, even at times when we are really hoping to see the sun.

Today I was scheduled to take a four-mile hike around a lake in Glacier National Park with Jan Metzmaker, Director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. The only problem is the weather – there’s a relentless rain outside, from the moment I woke up until we reach the trailhead in the park, and then some. Rain is to be expected around here in mid-May.  But the chilly temperatures, around 44 degrees, make the idea of a wet hike pretty unattractive.

Fortunately, Jan is as resourceful as she is experienced. Originally from Connecticut, by way of Missouri, Jan has spent decades of her life in Montana, and most of them inside Glacier National Park. She’s had countless jobs there – cleaning hotel rooms, repairing park equipment, guiding hikes, and fundraising for the park’s future. So she knows Glacier inside and out, and she’s prepared for a rainy day.

We began our day with a stop at a local rafting outfitter, owned by a friend of Jan’s, where we borrow rain gear for the day. Then we spent some time driving through the small towns on the outskirts of the park. Glacier celebrates its centennial next year, and a number of towns, hotels and rail depots in the area are nearly 100 years old as well.  Short stops in these places give a bit of a feel for what the area was like in the historic days of rail travel.

Inside the park, the rain continues to fall. But there’s still plenty to see – we drive along the 10-mile shore of Lake McDonald, a beautiful scenic lake that was carved out by the movement of the park’s glaciers. We then visit several sites around the park, such as the visitors center at Apgar, as well as some of Jan’s favorite spots throughout. Along the way, she tells stories about local residents, visitors, park employees and the amazing things she has seen during her years here.

In the end, we decide to make a short hike on a boardwalk that cuts through a densely wooded area of the park, alongside some magnificent trees and a great, rushing waterfall. The waterfall has the deep, crystalline blue glow that is the hallmark of glacial runoff, and it cuts through grand, deep red boulders on either side. It’s as scenic a spot as you’ll find anywhere, and one of the hidden jewels of the park.

The rain is still falling overhead, but I realize that I’m enjoying myself anyway. After all, this is nature at its most natural. And I can’t argue with that.

Honey and Cream

by Brian Jewell 13. May 2009 18:22

WHITEFISH, Mont. – A gooey mixture of cream and honey is causing flower petals to stick to the hair on my legs, and every few minutes the girl rubbing my feet stops to peel the petals off of my skin.

It’s not a treatment that I’m at all used to, but my friends at the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau have arranged for me to have a hot-stone foot massage at Remedies Day Spa, a company with spa locations throughout the Glacier Region of Montana. The company prides itself on using natural food products in all of its treatments, which is why my feet and lower legs have been glazed in a cream and honey mixture, and rubbed down for a good half hour. Maria, the lovely young lady who has been so kindly massaging my feet, says that the flower petals in the foot bath are mainly put there for decoration. At this point, though, they’re sticking awkwardly to my legs, and we both have a good laugh about it.

The treatment is quite pleasant, although not the sort of thing I would have ever thought to have signed up for myself. Still, it’s part of the story of the great variety of attractions here in Whitefish, a town of about 7,000 residents that’s about a half-hour’s drive outside of Glacier National Park. During the summer, some 10 million visitors will come to see the million-acre park, and a good number of them will use Whitefish as their home base. As a result, the town has an eclectic mix of shops and services, from antique stores to outdoor outfitters, t-shirt shops, saloons, and a wide variety of restaurants serving great and diverse food.

For breakfast, I had a bocadillo at Montana Coffee Traders, a coffee shop downtown that is a favorite among Whitefish locals. The bocadillo is a Mexican-inspired dish, comprising breakfast meats, cheeses and peppers stuffed inside a tortilla wrapper, which is then grilled on a Panini press. It comes served with the restaurant’s homemade salsa, and the meal is all-around delicious. Lunch was a salmon burger at a local French bistro, where everything came in large portions with a delicious creamy sauce.

As Maria finishes with the hot stones on my feet, I realize that I’ll soon need to hurry off to the next stop on my itinerary, which is a horseback trail ride and Bar W Guest Ranch outside of town. It will be a quick trip from the effete spa to the rugged ranch ride. But the contrast is one of the great things about Whitefish, and probably one of the characteristics that makes it a favorite return destination for visitors. Whitefish is one of the most popular stopping points along the Empire Builder route… and I’m beginning to understand why.

Moving through the mountains

by Brian Jewell 12. May 2009 18:19

Near GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -- The Rocky Mountains come bursting out on to the planes, without warning, and almost out of nowhere.

We've been riding through the planes for most of the day -- all the way through North Dakota, and most of Montana, the landscape is flat, with only short moments of relief. But now, as we begin to approach Glacier National Park, the Rockies appear, dominant on the skyline. And they are spectacular.

Now that we're in range, though, I can tell that the landscape is changing. A few miles out, foothills start to take shape. And though it's mid-May, there are patches if snow all along the side of the
hills. In this part of the country, everything begins to change: the once-barren landscape is now abundant with cedar, birch, maple and pine. Streams run alongside the tracks. There are signs of life.

One of the great benefits of traveling the Northwest by rail is the unshakable sense of grandeur that you get along the way. The Empire Builder cuts through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Oregon. All together, it stretches nearly 2,000 miles.

If you really want to, you can look out the window and see every one of them go by.

The Train Life

by Brian Jewell 12. May 2009 18:15

SOMEWHERE IN MONTANA – Everything is more interesting on a train: sleeping, showering, eating, and even just getting from one place to another all feel different as you move down the railroad.

Some people traveling on AMTRAK spend their entire trip in the Coach cabins, which are large, spacious and well lit, with wide, plush seats and abundant legroom. It takes nearly 48 hours to make the journey all the way from Chicago to Portland; from Minneapolis, where I joined the Empire Builder; it’s about 24 hours to Whitefish, where I’ll get off tonight.

The folks at AMTRAK were kind enough to book me into one of the sleeper cars, where I can stretch out, take a shower, and enjoy free meal service in the adjacent diner car. I’m in what the company calls a “Roomette” – a cabin about six-and-a-half feet long and three-and-a-half feet wide. During the daytime, these small cabins are surprisingly roomy, with two large facing seats and a work table in between. At night, the two seats fold down to form a bed, and a second one can be lowered from the ceiling.


Sleeping on a moving train, just like taking a shower or getting dressed on the train, takes some getting used to. As it rolls down the tracks, the train sways gently back and forth, hitting some small bumpy patches along the way. At first, these unexpected movements can make simple tasks difficult; once you get used to it though, sleeping, eating, showering and other activities start to come more naturally.

The most surprising element so far has been the food. Unlike airline food, which is seldom fit to eat, the meals served aboard AMTRAK are hot, delicious and generously portioned. In the dining car, we eat at proper booths and tables, and order drinks, entrees and desserts off an a la carte menu. Today for lunch I chose Chile Verde, a spicy roasted pork dish served with green salsa over a bed of rice. A nicely chilled chocolate-raspberry tort finished the meal off right.

Airlines, take note: when it comes to food service, AMTRAK has you beat, hands down.

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Rails and trails: Amtrak and Big Sky Country

All Aboard!

by Brian Jewell 11. May 2009 18:02


ST. PAUL, Minn. --  It’s 10:30 p.m., and the First Class Lounge at the AMTRAK depot here in St. Paul is starting to fill up. Outside, a few dozen coach passengers sit in the waiting area; there are maybe a dozen more of us in the First Class Lounge. We’re there because we’ve booked sleeper cars for our trip West. And when the train arrives in about a half hour, we’ll be ready to call it a night.

I’m at the beginning of a five-day journey West aboard the Empire Builder, one of AMTRAK’s premier lines that connects Chicago with Seattle and Portland, Oregon. I will spend tonight and all of tomorrow on the train, stepping off in Whitefish, Montana late tomorrow night. The plan is to spend a couple of days exploring Whitefish and nearby Glacier National Park before rejoining the Empire Builder and continuing to its terminus in Portland.

It’s been a long day already, but a good one: after leaving Lexington this morning, I took advantage of the few hours of free time I had in the Twin Cities to visit my old friends Audra and JP, who live just outside of Minneapolis with their two young daughters. I don’t get to see them nearly often enough these days, but whenever my travel plans bring me through Minneapolis, we always make an effort to get together.

Today’s visit was simple: We had dinner at their place, and then spent an hour or so driving around the countryside in an RV that JP just picked up for a song yesterday. It was great to catch up, to get to know their awesome little girls, and to get a home-cooked meal before hitting the rails.

This time tomorrow night, I’ll be at a hotel in Whitefish. But what awaits in the next 24 hours – life on the train – is anyone’s guess.

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