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Whitefish to Chicago by Amtrak

Whitefish to Chicago by Amtrak

Miles travelled on trip so far: 10,186. Planes: 3. Trains: 11. Buses: 14. Taxis: 7. Car trips: 6.

A train ride of 32 hours, not far from much of the USA to Canada border, brings me to Chicago. Montana is one of the most scenic places I’ve stayed in. The nickname “Big Sky Country” fits the state perfectly as the horizons seem to fall away, leaving a huge expanse of blue. Always blue. The last time I experienced rain was in early October in the Outer Hebrides. Montana is also big. It’s five times the size of Scotland, but has less than a million residents. And it shows, as river gorges and forests eventually give way to open praire, with a few horses and cattle here and there but little sign of habitation. Occasionally, we’d pass an abandoned wooden dwelling, or a small trailer park (grim), or the odd Swedish-style farmhouse (an indication of the ancestry). Which is not such a coincidence; the plain of central and eastern Montana kinda resembles a more arid and treeless version of southern Sweden.

It took most of the day to cross just this one state; it’s even got it’s own time zone called MT (Mountain Time!). Turn your watches forward an hour when entering Montana from the west, and an hour forward again when leaving through the east. The train stopped at numerous small places (not all of them timetabled), including Shelby. Oddly, I got a Wifi signal and was able to very quickly check email and tweet. It’s here that it felt like real ranch country and I noticed a few such folk get on the train at this point.

Lunch saw me slotted in with Mr Rancher, and a couple from London. Mr Rancher didn’t say anything. Mr and Mrs Tourist were enjoying the scenery, until possibly the moment Mrs Tourist said to her husband “Ooooooh, look, it’s so like Brokeback Mountain.”

This didn’t make Mr Rancher happy.

“That God Damned movie. Hollywood. Think they know us.”

He stopped eating, and slowly put his cutlery back, neatly, on either side of his plate. It was one of those moments you had to be there, almost like something from a Coen Brothers movie.

“Hoe Moe Sex Ewe All cowboys.” He shook his head, slowly. I quietly marvelled at how he’d made one word sound like five distinct words in his accent.

Mr and Mrs tourist, possibly very unused to this level of non-PC talk, suddenly studied the scenery with incredible intensity.

Mr Rancher turned to me. “Have you seen that God Damned movie too?” I truthfully replied that I hadn’t, and thought it best not to tell him the three word review printed by one British downmarket newspaper (“Gay cowboy romp.”).

Mr Rancher was in his element. “Thur ain’t no fah-guts here.” (Very long pause) “Ne-vur have been.” (Very long pause to drink most of his coffee) “Ne-vur will be.”

I winced. Mr and Mrs tourist went pale. Both, in a very English way, suddenly remembered it was time to do some unspecified task and left.

The train rolled on. Neither of us spoke. There didn’t seem much point, this time, in asking my fellow diner who he was going to vote for. And I guessed he wouldn’t be impressed at the reason I was attending Chicago. The thought of him probably saying “God Damned Vee Dee Oh Games” meant we ate in silence. About ten minutes later, out of the blue Mr Rancher uttered: “They all live in San Fran Sis Cow.”

I finished my lunch. Mr Rancher didn’t say another word. I saw him a few times later in the trip, once questioning a couple over breakfast, with thinly veiled disappointment, about their church attendance record.

At three o’clock, wine and cheese tasting took place. Unlike on the Los Angeles to Seattle train, this one was free, so it was even more baffling that more people didn’t turn up. Not that we were complaining, as the large surplus of wine meant that most tables were slipped a mostly full bonus bottle, after their four full glasses. By four PM, some people were seriously wondering if they would make dinner.

In between glasses three (nice Merlot) and four (a Californian red), the train slowed and pulled into a station. I glanced at the name. Glasgow. I glanced again, and bolted for the door with camera. One of my more realistic ambitions on this trip (as opposed to “Kill a grizzly with my bear hands” [I had a great uncle who apparently did this, though in Canada] or “Discuss the national energy policy with Paris Hilton”) was to get some kind of picture of the namesake of Scotland’s largest city. Just as the train started to pull out of the station, I managed to get a distant shot of the sign on its roof. Result.

Glasgow station

I got back to the wine tasting, which was jolly, but still civilised. There’s a thought. Can you imagine the outcome if First Great Western announced over the tannoy one evening “A free cheese and wine tasting will now take place. Any interested participants, please make your way to the buffet car. First come, first served.” How many people would die in the stampede? At what point would the train stop and vanloads of police have to charge through it to restore order?

Here, someone dropped a napkin but that’s as rowdy as it got. A classical music quartet, playing Strauss, in the corner of the carriage would not have been out of place.

At four o’clock, wine tasting ended. The last possible booking for dinner was 6pm (Too early! I’m British!), and the onslaught of unhealthy Amtrak meals continued. At this point I noted we were *still* in Montana, not being long out of Wolf Point. There was still North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and some of Illinois to cross before reaching Chicago.

We finally left Montana. Sadly. It’s possibly the friendliest region I’ve visited anywhere. People are unprovokingly and genuinely pleasant i.e. they aren’t doing it out of self-interest, or to glean money or tips. In 5 days I’d had conversations with around 40 residents, all of them interesting and friendly. And with the awesome scenery, which frankly bats Scotland and Scandinavia out of the park, broadband everywhere, friendly and genuine (and genuinely friendly) locals, glaciers, mountain ranges, forests, cheap petrol and food (a sandwich containing “A pound of meat in weight or your money back” for 4 dollars), it’s an attractive place to live… …but unfortunately that’s created a problem, in that over the last few years “City Flight” has taken place and many, mostly rich, people have moved there. To the extent that the house prices in Whitefish, even post-crash, are insanely high. As is renting. Houses are springing up all over the place, many of them preposterously large and as ugly/fake as hell. Look at the displays in real estate windows and there’s lots available – but most of it being several hundreds of thousands, and often millions, of dollars.

At dinner, we manoeuvered it so the same group of four from the wine tasting could dine together. This also meant that we have a supply of red wine, from the excess we were given at the end of the tasting. I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening, except waking up the next morning as the train pulled in to Minneapolis. I’d managed to sleep through much of North Dakota.

In carriages with roomettes (the cheapest form of overnight where you have your own bed and privacy) there’s one shower room for each set of roomettes. From the noises eminating from the shower in my carriage it became obvious that there was more than one person in there, and they were going to be a while, so I snucked into an unused larger room (more expensive but with own shower) to clean up.

Breakfast was a sedate affair, watching the dawn break over the river as we trundled out of the twin cities and headed east. Well, sedate until stereotypical trailer park trash family turned up and tested the patience of the Amtrak staff. They were tolerant with the two year old boy throwing food around (unbelievably, he was called “Bubba”! – I was half-expecting his dad to be called Cletus if he turned up) until the kid made the mortal mistake of running down the diner car grabbing the tips people had left.

If there’s one thing you don’t do in America, it’s interfere with tips left for staff (wasn’t there a Seinfeld episode about this?). The mood turned a little nasty, the conductor appeared and even Mother-of-Bubba realised that her demonic son was out of control. He was made to hand back the money, and she left a tip of her own. A quarter. When I get back home I’m renaming the cats Cletus (formerly Jura) and Bubba (appropriate, and formerly Islay).

Minnesota and Wisconsin were “tree worthy”. It’s odd that New England is associated with the colours of leaves during the fall, when the display in this part of the USA is pretty spectacular. Somewhere in Minnesota the crew changed to a Chicago team for the final leg, and the efficiency stepped up. The conductor made it clear that people not back on the train when told to get back on would be left behind, and they were going to try and make Chicago early.

We sped on, past tall corn fields. Last orders for lunch were called at the annoyingly early time of 11:43am. At the dining car, I was slotted together with a retired librarian, schoolteacher and an economist. The conversation was sharp, informative and rapid, hopefully switching on those parts of my brain required for GLLS2008 over the next four days. Now I understand “No Child Left Behind”, which is the kind of wacky policy that would be popular amongst some theorists (who don’t have to actually teach it) in the UK education sector. The librarian came out with some interesting stuff, comparing the different costs of having a public library card in different parts of the US. This ranged from free to a few dollars, but a few places (such as one in Illinois that charged residents 70 dollars a year) were just way extreme. 70 dollars a year? WTF?! That’s NOT a public library – it’s a private book club.

As per usual they asked and I told them my plans; as per usual there was a “Wow!” reaction to being in Chicago on election day. But then the dining car staff, keen to end up and get off the train quickly at Chicago, cleared the car.

Speeding through Wisconsin at too fast a pace to take pictures was interesting. The landscape was, largely, Swedish and indistinguishable from Skane apart from the huge US flags everywhere. This part of the US, from Minnesota down to Chicago, was heavily populated by Scandinavians; over a million Swedish people emigrated here during their years of famine. And it shows. On gentle hills, red-painted barns and farmhouses stood in isolation. The villages consisted of painted wooden houses, often surrounding a white-painted wooden church with a steep bell tower. The white-picket fence image of rural American communities seems to be a recurring theme of these parts.

My last wander through the train encountered a group of Amish people travelling to Chicago. They have a quietly understated sense of humour, and seem to like talking to Brits (well, to me at least). I’ve yet to see an Amish person speak to anyone else, apart from the lift attendant in the Sears Tower, and wonder why this is. Milwaukee was the last major stop for a walk or cigarette break. The conductor warned people not to stray too far from the train, as they’d get left behind if they didn’t make it back on time. Which nearly happened to me, as within a minute of getting off, the train blasted two hoots and we were bundled back on. The train left; looking back we saw two smokers run, belatedly, for the train and get left behind in the distance in that way you normally only see in the movies.

And that was it. 1,620 miles out of Whitefish, we pulled in to Union Station. One taxi trip later and it’s time for GLLS2008.

Do bears…?

Do bears…?


Yes they do. Because I nearly trod in it. In an attempt to shed some of my “Amtrak pounds” (I swear I will take my own healthier foods on their trains from now on), decided today to climb a significant mountain. By far the most convenient is Big Mountain, which is a few miles north of Whitefish. I hired a taxi to take me to the touristy resort from where the “Danny Oh” trail winds up the mountain, ending at an altitude of 6,817 feet. Sounded good. The taxi driver, a friendly Montanan turned up, on time to the minute.

“Where you going?”
“Big Mountain. Going to hike the Danny On trail to the top.”
(Long pause) “You packing a gurn?”
[Eh?] “Oh, gun. No.”
“You doing this on your own?”
[Well, there’s only me in your taxi] “Yep.”
“There’s bears in them woods. People die in bear attacks. They get messed up real bad.”
“The people in the Chamber of Commerce never mentioned this when they gave me the info on the trail yesterday. How common are these bears?”
“I had one of those bears in my backyard on Tuesday.”

Hmmm; an interesting variation on the usual taxi driver comment of “I had that Robert De Niro in the back of my cab on Tuesday.” The taxi driver went on about graphic incidents involving bears and tourists. She dropped me off at the resort with a friendly “Well, I hope you don’t become bear poo.” I had a look around and saw this sign:

This is Bear Country

I popped into the only place, it being out of season, open. The three people busying around gave varying opinions on the bear situation. The upshot was:

  • Sing and make lots of noise, and they won’t be startled by your presence.
  • Try not to smell bad e.g. of food.
  • Carry bear repellant. Bears have very sensitive noses and it makes them back off.

One of them disappeared, reappearing with a cannister of bear repellant called Counter Assault. I practised flipping the safety off and pretending to stun Winnie The Pooh with a well-aimed blast.

Grizzly bear repellant

And with that I started up the mountain. Being weighed down by the cannister, in addition to a (healthy) packed lunch, three litres of water, my laptop (hey, a man’s gotta blog), camera and some other junk, it didn’t take long in the surprisingly intense October heat to perspire somewhat. This was partially negated by the views unfolding around every corner. After about an hour, a sudden stench of something rotting really badly assaulted the nasal passages. Next to the trail, a pile of poo. Correction: a massive pile of poo, the size of which Armitage Shanks would never have planned for.

I’ll save you the details, and the photo (which is too gross to put online), but whatever did the dump was obviously a meat eater with a fast-working digestive system. I walked on a bit quicker, and started making lots of noise. Between the poo mountain and the top of the mountain I saw eight deer, many squirrel-like creatures (which were very noisy) and I think a bobcat. Alas, no mountain lions, which according to a more reliable source than the “Bears swarming the mountainside” taxi driver, were in the area. The summit was spectacular. My camera can’t do justice to this, but from the top the views extended over to the Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies. Oh, Canada: one day I’ll visit you.

Track down

Thankfully, despite the warnings on the park limit, no effects whatsoever of altitude sickness. The trek down the mountain was, not surprisingly, much quicker, stopping only to take in the view across the valley floor several thousand feet below:

To the valley floor

At the resort I got chatting to the staff. I described the poo to one and showed her the picture. She identified it as “probably bear”. So the nearest I’ve got to a bear, apart from the tinned one I bought in Finland last year, is by nearly treading in it’s bowel movement. Rather than take the taxi back down, they advised that Montana was one of the few places in the US where it was totally safe to hitch. After handing back the bear repellant, that’s what I did. Within 30 seconds, the first vehicle pulled over.

He was heading past my hotel (bonus!) and was called Ray. Lived in El Paso, then Chicago where he’d been an electrician for 23 years. Had enough of city living, visited his daughter in Montana three years ago, never left; now worked on the mountain. Hoped to see McCain win next week, but would just be glad when it’s all over. With friendly goodbyes, he dropped me off at my hotel. Aching from several hours of trail, I made a bee line for the hot tub round the back of the hotel and had an utterly blissful 30 minutes of deep heat aqua treatment. Every hotel should have a hot tub and pool.

Checking email and seeing messages from delegates starting to pick their route to the midwest, thoughts are turning now to GLLS2008 – the ALA TechSource Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium. This being a work trip, am presenting there on election day in Obama’s home city, on the subject of Nintendo.  Methinks with the political events, it’ll be a long day…

Whitefish, Montana

Whitefish, Montana

Standard mode of Montana transport

First full day here. Due to catching up on sleep, I missed breakfast in the hotel so sauntered along the sidewalk to check out the diners. Whitefish is a clash-culture town. Parts of it are obviously set up for the tourist season; the strip running south on I-93 is an endless reel of motels, fast food places, gas stations and malls. In the centre of town, about half the businesses are aimed at visitors who apparently pack the place in summer. So you see signs like this hyping up the western aspect:

Jewellery shop notice

But, there’s also quite a few genuine places for locals. Casinos, bars, hang-outs, diners; there’s enough to choose from. And there’s an easy rule of thumb here. Instead of a “genuinly local” star rating, just count the number of pick-up trucks with a dog in the back outside a particular place…

That seems to correlate to how “local” the place is, which is confirmed by looking at the prices. In a 4-pickup truck place, where I appeared to be the only person not wearing a check shirt, faded hat or moustache, I picked up breakfast for 8 dollars:

Diner breakfast

Underneath the poached eggs and layer of onions, I discovered a very thick slice of ham. Couldn’t finish it. Right, apart from the Buffalo steak I’m having one evening, it’s healthy food from now on in Montana, plus plenty of exercise. Of which, it’s time to do a little mountain exploration.

Montana at dawn

Montana at dawn

Miles travelled on trip so far: 8,492.
Planes: 3. Trains: 10. Buses: 14. Taxis: 5. Car trips: 4.

The Amtrak arrived in Whitefish, Montana just before dawn. Departing the train, I was greeted by the coldest weather yet. No snow, but apparently it’s the right temperature for it.

Amtrak in Whitefish

The hotel has two outside hot tubs, from which the steam is billowing off in the cold morning air. Am imagining getting scalded on the parts below the water, and frostbitten on the parts above (yes, Finnish colleagues, I know you will snort in derision at this). Time to explore Montana for a bit.