WAITING FOR THE FEBRUARY SUNRISE to light the skies of Western Montana is an exercise in patience, even when you’re sitting in the dome car of an Amtrak train hurtling toward dawn at speeds designed to raise whitecaps on your coffee. I’d been here since 5am, when I’d staggered out of my family’s sleeper car, sweating and sleepless and addled with claustrophobia, craving wide-open spaces. Was it my imagination, or were the people sprawled sideways in coach—legs up on the window, arms dangling into the aisle—manifestly more comfortable than I had been in the posh privacy of my “sleeper”? Out here in the Wild West, didn’t the sleeper cars represent the isolated worst of urban self-sufficiency?
It seemed like such a great idea—bookish Mom, outdoorsman Dad, and eager nine-year-old Samantha traveling by sleeper car on the Empire Builder to Montana! Destination: the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, a flag stop just off the tracks with some of the best groomed cross-country ski trails in the Rockies.
We’d boarded the train in the gathering twilight at King Street Station and made compartment C-830 our home for the next 16 hours. “Mom! Dad!—this wall turns into a bed!” squealed Samantha as she flipped down the loft bunk. We all had fun discovering the ingenious space savers—the foldout dining table, the bathroom that turned into a shower by flipping down the toilet-paper cover—not yet aware that in just a few hours the adults among us would feel as if we were traveling to Montana in an airplane bathroom.
“You know,” I remarked too cheerfully, “I just discovered that when I scratch my knee, it sets off a chain reaction that snaps open the bathroom door, switches on the sink light, and turns on the air-conditioning!” We all chuckled. A few hours later, tucked into the sweet little bunks, I made the further discovery that microclimates can exist in the tiniest spaces. All night I could hear Samantha’s teeth chattering in the upper bunk, her head up against the air conditioner—whereas I, lying below nearest the heater, was sweating like a boxer. That’s it! I thought, clambering over the outdoorsman. I was off to the dome car to stare down the rest of the night.
The Izaak Walton Inn, just off the train tracks, boasts some of the best groomed cross-country ski trails in the Rockies.
The sun finally came up and gave way to white mist against foothills, which gave way to the massive snow-frosted Rockies of Glacier National Park, whose southern border the Empire Builder line hugs on its journey to Chicago. The Izaak Walton Inn stood out against the snow-dusted wilderness, a big yellow Tudor just feet from the tracks against a forest of lodgepole pine and Western larch.
The structure was built in 1939 to house railroad workers. But when the promised Glacier National Park entrance was relocated, the former dorm was suddenly adrift in the wilderness. A succession of owners secured National Historic Landmark status and turned the surrounding grounds into 33 kilometers of pristine cross-country ski trails, and, in a few years, the inn had earned the coveted reputation of a true Northwest getaway, easily gotten to.
Just walking in the lobby instantly satisfied so many of my winter-weekend fantasies. I wondered how unseemly it would be to curl up in here for three days. A fire spat and crackled in the huge rock fireplace, which presided over a knotty-pine log cabin of a lobby filled with oversize peeled-log chairs and plenty of Times and Newsweeks and pillows and afghans. Off one side, a gift shop displayed Izaak Walton sweatshirts and huckleberry jam and train memorabilia; off another, aromas of bacon and good coffee and freshly baked apple bread wafted out of the Dining Car, the Izaak Walton’s country dining room.