Rocky Mountain Express

Wake up to Nordic skiing and trainspotting in Essex, Montana, after a sleeper car slumber party.

By Kathryn Robinson December 15, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

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.

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Image: Tom Braman

I was just sizing up a particularly cushy looking chair when a person materialized before me whose energy field appeared to be the magnetic opposite of my own. “Hi—I’m Mark Ambre! I’ll be taking you skiing today!” He was without a doubt the most sinewy human I had ever encountered: his fortysomething face a sculpture of whiskers and tanned leather stretched tight over high Estonian cheekbones; his arms laced with popping blue veins as if hard muscle gave them nowhere to go but out. As he described our ski outing to the Continental Divide, I concluded that this Ambre was a backcountry skier’s Lance Armstrong, only with a better body-fat ratio. “Yeah, it’s beautiful out there—I’ve already skied 10,000 vertical feet today,” he trilled. I was waking up just standing next to him.

As soon as we got settled into our quarters—a charming room with its own bath and a big armoire and nice solid knotty-pine walls—we cruised out with Ambre in our newly fitted rental gear to get our snow legs. As we hefted our skis across the railroad tracks, the February sun making a million prisms of the snow beside us, we passed people in engineer caps, staring fixedly up the tracks into the distance.

“Trainspotters,” whispered Ambre after we passed. For folks like these a weekend at the Izaak Walton Inn, where some 30 trains rumble past daily, is what springtime in Paris might be for a more conventional vacationer. “They ask me to drive them to every snow shed and trestle around here,” Ambre said, chuckling indulgently.

Amid postcard views of snow-covered tree boughs beneath blue skies we skied breezily all morning, practicing our turns and our glides and our falls on the trails closest to the inn. From the Starlight Trail, where folks can ski at night, the intermittent, breathy shrieks of train whistles formed the soundtrack to our motion.

Later, Ambre drove us to Marias Pass, the point a few miles east where the Continental Divide snakes through, and there the raw terrain left our egos somewhat less deluded. Like some kind of manic mountain hare Ambre leapt ahead, his skis flinging powder, while we sucked lungfuls of the crisp, clean air and labored to stay within gasping distance. When at last we arrived at the great white expanse of Three Bears Lake, sky suddenly Montana-big and brazen with sunshine, we downed water and cracked off shards of frozen chocolate and watched Samantha practice her jumps off a mini cornice. Those wide-open spaces I’d been craving? Seems the train brought me to just the right place.

That night we sat in the Dining Car chewing spicy elk sausage and carbo-loading on enormous bacon-cheddar burgers with snowshoe fries and platters of fried Montana trout with buttered red potatoes and steamed broccoli. Across tables guests exchanged tales—of the moose that, with its calf, proudly obstructed the River Trail for most of the afternoon; of the four adult sisters who came this time every year with their fiddles and guitars and tenor husbands to jam with all comers in the wood-paneled pub downstairs; of the total eclipse that would darken the moon in the eastern sky later tonight.

Across the dining room I spied a middle-aged guy I remembered from that morning near the train tracks—head tucked into a green and white polka-dot engineer’s cap, body the precise endomorphic opposite of Mark Ambre’s. A body built for watching trains. “Haven’t missed one yet today,” he reported stoutly. Jim was a retired pipe-fitter from New Brunswick, New Jersey, who grew up on the tracks and now reads every train magazine he can get his hands on. “This is my first time West,” he reported. “The wife authorized the funds…. I was always at the tracks when I was a kid. Are they stopping for a crew change? Are they on time? Oh,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning in, “everyone’s waiting for a derailment, of course. Better not write that. Write, ‘Everyone’s waiting for something unusual.’”

Just then a commotion flustered the dining room. “It’s time everyone, it’s time!” someone shouted from the lobby. It was tonight’s run of the train we’d be leaving on two nights from now, after more Nordic skiing and huckleberry pancakes and Moose Drool beer and pub jamming and lobby dozing had left us even more contentedly fatigued than we were right now. It was an Izaak Walton tradition, guests filing out to the porch to greet each night’s passing train. I waved at the faces in the yellow windows as the train chugged past under the darkening moon and the cold clear stars.

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