It is 12:26 A.M. and the oak benches in the depot at Whitefish are hard. Our 9:15 P.M. overnight train to Portland – with its cozy bunks and tiny bathroom – is delayed. The ETA keeps creeping later, and we hope the current projection – 2:38 A.M. – sticks.
While on the Red Bus tour, our stopover at Glacier’s Lake Macdonald Lodge had been tantalizing, but brief. Given our naively anticipated departure time today, we had, even then, plenty of time to kill, so we returned to the rustic, 1913 lodge for a tasty lunch and lengthy stroll along the lake before heading for Whitefish.
With its shops featuring an eclectic mix of antlers, stuffed heads, swinging-door saloons, and a nuance of nautical, the town has a “come ski and sail in the wild west!” appeal. We had dinner at a restaurant called “Casey’s”, and of course, took a picture of the logo to send to our daughter. It was still early, so we drove into Lee Mason State Park for a quick look, and when we needed a bathroom, stopped at the luxury lodge on Whitefish Lake. With the confident air of paying guests, we strutted to the poolside facilities. Then, brazenly, we walked the lodge beach, our bravado rewarded when a staff member smiled and asked if we were enjoying our stay. Oh yes, thank you!
Lulled by the memory of our prompt departure and entrancing train ride three days ago from Portland, we returned our rental and headed for the depot with a half hour to spare. Four hours later, we are surrounded by our future fellow passengers, many of them striving to snooze despite the oaken seats.
The Hertz office is open, so Dave and I bide time chatting with Mr. Duff whose family has run this franchise for over 70 years. His grandfather’s massive Victorian roll-top desk – with two secret drawers – dominates the small office.
Hours pass. I should read or write in my journal, but I’m mesmerized by the bizarre programs on the big-screen TV. “Ring of Honor” wrestling? It has to be a parody. Oh lord, I hope so. Such posturing, leaping, and flailing! Wild, swinging punches, tumultous falls, swirling capes, and threatening growls! Totally ridiculous, but a glance around the waiting room reveals that, like me, those not sleeping are riveted.
A kind young woman offers food from the vending machine to an elderly couple sitting nearby. A mother strolls round and round, crooning and cradling her adorable chick-fuzzed baby who makes not a sound, but gazes wide-eyed and quiet at each of us in turn. The child’s father snoozes with his head resting on a backpack while his tiny daughter sits next to him playing on a phone. Wizened and bearded, an ancient gentleman sits alone. If it were possible, I would’ve guessed him to be a Civil War veteran, although Viet Nam is more likely.
Did I mention the full-grown stuffed mountain goat encased in glass in the middle of the depot? No?
Around 2:00 A.M., a youthful couple stumbles in; clearly they’ve passed the time at a local bar. The boy’s round face is good-natured and cherubic, with coppery curls tumbling from beneath his brimmed, leather hat. The girl is pretty, with long blond hair. To our surprise, they greet Dave and me as dear friends, and we realize we met them while waiting for a shuttle in Glacier. At the time, we were heading up to Logan Pass, and they were off to the wilderness to camp. When you’re traveling, even a brief conversation qualifies as a connection, and when gritty-eyed, tired, and stranded in the wee hours, a familiar face is a welcome sight.
The minutes crawl by and just as we reach the point of dismissing any announcements related to our train’s status as cruel fabrication, it pulls in at 3:10 A.M. Our weary crew stands and stretches, gathers up pocketbooks, empty candy wrappers, water bottles, and suitcases, then trudges out to the platform to board.
Once ensconced in our unit, Dave climbs into his bunk and immediately falls asleep. I squeeze into our diminutive bathroom to brush my teeth, and am dismayed by the smears and splatters on every stainless steel and porcelain surface. Oh AMTRAK! I love thee, but you betray me with this dark-of-night, mandatory floor-sink-and-toilet swab.
The rail line is somewhat redeemed when daylight brings tasty boxed breakfasts, although our “vegetarian” offerings, so marked in bold black Sharpie letters, include thick chunks of ham. After we eat around the misplaced meat, we search out our bleary young friends from Whitefish who have spent their slice-of-night sitting up in coach recliners in a separate car. They’re happy to have a ham-and-bread snack.
As our train snakes along the Columbia River Gorge, Dave and I snag seats in the observation car and marvel at the stunning variations in landscape. We lurch from one side of the car to the other, cameras ready, striving to capture it all; the sunset-amber hues of the ragged and rounded cliffs of the gorge; the vast blue sweep of the river; the thunderous thrill of passing trains; battalions of white-winged windmills; bustling logging yards; distant wildfires blowing billows of smoke, ominous as nuclear clouds; and open expanses of water with para-sailers drifting above like dragonflies.
So, yes, we arrived in Portland five hours late, a nightmare for those meeting friends or making flights. But without that delay, those river views would have passed unseen in darkness. I stand by my mantra: have faith in the unfolding.