I’m finding out that travel bloggers live in the past. Especially on a trip like mine, where destinations roll by like cherries in a slot machine, experiences from days ago linger until I can get them down, post them to the blog.
When I set out I figured I’d write about each city on the train ride out of town and be ready to focus on the next. But as I mentioned, the internet tethering on my phone has been spotty at best, and anyway I meet the most fascinating people on the train. We talk and then I run to my notebook to jot down what they said. Sometimes I even sleep.
Even now, as I sit in a Seattle Starbucks, comments on Chicago, adventures in Glacier National, and characters from the Amtrak juggle through my mind. The memories accompanied me while I found my hostel, toured the market, wandered the harbor. In each moment I look around me and behind.
Because of this temporal phenomenon of the travel blogger’s outlook, let me work my way backward to catch everybody up.
I boarded the Empire Builder in East Glacier last night around 9pm mountain time (only two-and-a-half hours late) and took a seat among a group of passengers familiarly stir crazy and senseless. Just two nights earlier my 35-hour ride from Chicago (six hours late because of a heap of ticky-tack delays)ended at that station, also ending a slew of unsober conversations by people feeling powerless to shorten the length and spare themselves from the various discomforts of train travel.
Amtrak’s not known for its promptness or efficiency. However, to be sure, it is much more comfortable than an airplane and way better than a bus. Its charm comes from the passengers aboard who are usually up for some chit-chat. I also think there’s an adolescent joy in moving around the train. Electric doors open at a button’s push with the thwoosh of air and rumble of the tracks. To use the bathroom, you climb down the narrow, angling staircase, bumping against the walls as you go. The lounge car presents passengers with hidden nooks to laze in or look out of. There are corridors and passageways, forbidden places (first-class sleeper cars), and your choice of open, cushioned seats. Sometimes you must duck. Sitting down to dine feels absurd and out of place. The waitresses still expect 20%. The Amtrak recalls a pillow fort built in a long, narrow home staffed with chaperoning maids, butlers, and cooks, and the home experiences intermittent jostles. The passengers onboard develop a playground commoraderie. Let’s make this difficult stage in our lives as fun as it can be, they seem to say, using the equipment the grownups have given us.
I found this fever of inaneness and futility in a blonde mother of four stretched out across two seats in front of me, a married couple resigned to their late arrival behind me, and a 70-something Minnesotan man across the aisle from me providing comic relief for the group. We got to talking right away and I told them my story: my rail pass, my blog, the six-hour delay of two nights earlier. I told them I’d splurged for the eight-hour, most-comprehensive bus tour offered in the park. In a retrofitted red bus with a pull-back roof cover, the tour guide, a droll, nervous retired police officer, drove us along Going-to-the-Sun Road where we saw an unforgettable view of high mountains and river valleys carved out by glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. The tour delivered us to crystal mountain lakes, rushing glacial rapids, countless mountains each with its own monolithic grandeur, and over to Logan’s Pass on the Continental Divide where we saw goats and black-horned sheep.
“Did you snap any photos of the marmots?” the Minnesotan asked me.
“You mean the prarie dogs? Yeah, I did.”
Oh that made him laugh. “Hee hee!” His grey mustache shook on his lip.
With the train rolling slowly through the park–mountains becoming silouettes in the encroaching darkness–I told them about the hike I’d done the day before with a guy from the train. We met in the lounge car, stayed in the same hostel, ate breakfast in the same diner the next morning and figured we might as well hike together too. Looking for the trailhead, we met a year-round native of East Glacier who insisted we take her bear spray, and we hiked 12 miles over rocks and streams, fields of wildflowers and mountain-side switchbacks. Around each corner we clapped and yelled “lookie lookie lookie” as instructed to alert any black bears of our presence. Either we didn’t need to yell so much or we did a fine job doing it because we didn’t encounter any on our hike.
My legs burned and my steps turned to shuffles as we approached the summit. Because of the increasing wind, I stuffed my visor into my backpack, and 200 feet after we turned onto the path that said “Scenic Point,” the wind blew so hard I feared a rogue gust might blow me off the mountain.
To catch the view, I got down on my knees and peaked over the wind-swept rocks. Amazingly, grass and wildflowers still grew from the rock. We were 7,500 feet high. Several mountains owned the horizon while white caps speckled the water below, and behind us nothing but the flat plains leading up to the Rockies.
My companion and I befriended a solo hiker at the top of the peak who hiked down with us and gave us a ride back to town. After all that hiking, I owed myself a mongo nap.
I told the train passengers that the coincidences between me and my hiking companion were even more uncanny: we both spent four nights in Chicago, attended the same Cubs game, both went on the architectural boat tour, and he also bought a rail pass, though 15 days instead of 45. To top it off, we were both avid golf fans feeling ambivalent that we couldn’t watch the British Open. We talked golf nearly the whole way up the mountain.
“It was amazing how much we had in common.”
“Too bad he wasn’t a she!” exclaimed the Minnesotan. The seats around me giggled for some time.
“That was a good one!” yelled the mother of four.
Soon they got off and I contorted myself into a sleeping position, waking up in Washington the next morning. And for now, let me wander off into the Seattle night and revisit this maelstrom of time tomorrow….