Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Second Sunday Drive, Day One

"Whitefish Rising" by Cody Houston, 
with the Whitefish Montana Rail Station in the background
Whitefish, Montana, 8/2/2012

Starlight Express, Starlight Express
Are you real? Yes or no?
Starlight Express, Answer me yes!
I don't want you to go
 --Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Richard Stilgoe
 To hear the original cast singing Starlight Express at the Tony Awards, with some amazing footage from the stage play itself, check out this youtube video.

I've wanted a Saab 9-4x ever since Del McCormick, owner of Dana Motors in Billings, Montana, told me about the last model produced by the Swedish company.  Produced on GM's Theta Epsilon platform, the Swedish engineers created a fantastic car that GM then reverse engineered to come up with the Cadillac SRX.  Both cars were built on the same assembly line in Mexico (yes, a Swedish Mexican American car--sounds about right these days), until GM's reorganization killed off Saab.  Well, the time has come to replace my faithful 2001 Volvo V70, and the one car I wanted more than any other was the Saab.  With Kevin and me in the process of reinventing our lives, I bought me the Saab.  The downside was that the car was being sold by a dealer in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and I would have to get there somehow.  Kevin suggested that while I was at it, I should go on to West Virginia and visit my family there.  Sounds like the beginning of a great road trip, doesn't it.  The Second Sunday Drive (the first being my 6,000 Mile Sunday Drive back in 2007) was about to begin.

Kevin argued for a flight from Spokane to Milwaukee, but I like traveling by train and besides, it didn't feel right to start out a road trip with a flight.   I booked a ticket on Amtrak's Empire Builder, with the intent of riding the train in comfort from Whitefish, Montana to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where someone from Van Horn Chevrolet would pick me up and take me to my new car.  Sounds good in theory, right?

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Train 8/28, Arriving at Whitefish Montana
August 2, 2012

Amtrak originally ran trains across both the old Great Northern tracks along the Canadian border and also along the old Northern Pacific tracks through southern Montana.  Missoula had its own station which would have been very convenient.  These days, only the northern route survives, which meant driving to Whitefish.  For my readers who don't know Montana, Whitefish is 150 miles north of Missoula, which means that on a good day with no traffic you can get there in about 2 1/2 hours. As the train leaves Whitefish at 7:30 or so each morning, Kevin thought it best to drive up Tuesday evening and stay overnight.  Alas, this is tourist season; Whitefish is a resort in its own right and is next door to Glacier National Park, and just north of Flathead Lake, another popular destination.  We couldn't find a motel room in the region under $200, so gave up on that idea.  I set the alarm for 3:00 a.m., and woke Kevin after I had taken my shower.

The drive north was pleasant, and at 5 in the morning, there's little traffic, so we made good time.  Strangely enough, the only restaurant we could find open for breakfast at 6 was in the Whitefish bowling alley.  Arriving at the station at 7, we saw a sign stating that the train was delayed and its E.T.A. was now 1:10 p.m.  For this I got Kevin out of bed at 3:15?  Kissing my man good-bye, I settled in with a good book and let Kevin return home.  (I always carry a good book, as the Highland Scots say, "in case.")

Glacier National Park as seen through the train window
August 2, 2012

After sitting in the depot for four hours, I looked up to find that we had a new E.T.A.--2:40 p.m.  OK, it's time to think about lunch as we won't be getting it on the train.  A fellow traveler and I walked downtown, only to find that the tourists who had filled the motels were now filling the restaurants.  I can't remember the name of the place where we ended up, but I got a wrap and she ordered a sandwich and fries.  Her fries had to come from the restaurant next door, and ended up costing her $4.00--which worked out to about 25 cents per fry when she opened the box and saw how few were included in her order.  Did I mention that Whitefish is a resort town?  It's also one of three towns in Montana which charge a sales tax, so I try to avoid spending any money there if at all possible.

Back to the station in plenty of time for a 2:40 train, only to learn that there was a new E.T.A.  Amtrak was now expecting the train to arrive around 3:15.  A quick calculation told me that if the train was seven hours late getting to Whitefish, it would get to Milwaukee not at 2:00 p.m., but rather at 9:00--after the car dealership had closed for the evening.  Unable to get a good internet connection using my iPhone as a hotspot, I called Kevin and asked him to make me a hotel reservation in downtown Milwaukee.  I suggested the Ramada as it appeared to be close to the depot.  I next called Van Horn Chevrolet and suggested that they pick me up Saturday morning, instead of in the middle of the night on Friday.

Now I don't know about you, but I've never before bought a car on-line.  Throughout the whole process I had been asking myself if I was dealing with a legitimate business or would I get to Milwaukee and find that I had been scammed.  I got a great price on the car, sure, but what if the wire transfer went to some unscrupulous individual pretending to be a car dealer.  Stranger things have happened in the on-line world.  And the way the day has been going so far, can you blame me for being concerned?

East of the mountains, Glacier County, Montana
The Blackfeet Indian Reservation
August 2, 2012

There was a light at the end of the tunnel around 3:45, and sure enough, that light turned out to be an oncoming train--in this case Amtrak's number 8 and 28.  We pulled out of Whitefish around 4 p.m., only 8 1/2 hours behind schedule.  The depot crew assured us that Amtrak would be trying to make up time along the route, but I wasn't sure just where they could do that.

Lots of folk boarded the train in Whitefish, including a group of 10, mostly young men, from near Cincinnati.  Their adult male companions were wearing boy scout uniforms, so I assumed these were a group of scouts who had just been camping in Glacier.  Of course we know about assumptions, and I never asked the guys themselves what they had been doing in Montana.  The last time I rode Amtrak, there was a lot of space to spread out and relax.  This time the train was packed.  I grabbed a seat by the window, and soon was joined by an elderly man who had just been visiting his son in Lakeside, Montana.  He was now returning home to Havre.  Along the way, we had a delightful conversation, and I learned that he is the youngest of three brothers, all still alive.  He himself was only 94.  His brothers are 96 and 101 years young.  Looking at him, I would have guessed his age at 80 at the most.  We talked about everything under the sun, avoiding the two danger topics:  politics and religion.  I was sad to see him de-train (as they call it) at Havre, but now I had the seat to myself.

I never saw the dining car people come through taking names, so when I heard the announcement that the dining car was now open for those with a 5:30 reservation, I asked the conductor how to reserve a seat.  He told me that I would have to ask the dining car folk themselves, and that I'd better hurry.  Long story short, I did not get dinner on Amtrak that evening.  I was put on a waiting list, but my name was never called.  Dinner for me consisted of a hot dog and bag of chips from the lounge car.  OK, I'll not check my blood sugar in the morning.

Evening in Toole County, Montana, with the central peak of the Sweet Grass Hills in the distance
August 2, 2012

The sun set somewhere between Shelby and Havre, and once my seatmate had left the train, I stretched out to try and get some sleep.  I'd been up since 3 a.m. after all.  Two things kept me from sleeping.  With my knee still throbbing from a fall down the stairs over a month ago, it was hard to find a comfortable position.  That combined with the fact that I didn't have a blankie along.  I prepared for the weather to be hot and hotter.  I packed no jacket, no sweatshirt, no long pants, and certainly no blanket.  And even if I had, they would have been in my checked luggage, not my carry-on bags holding the essentials:  camera, computer, and books, books, books.  Amtrak had turned the air-conditioning on high, or even glacial, and I, dressed in shorts, sandals and a short-sleeved shirt, could not get warm.  I quickly noticed that I was the only one not in the know, as everyone else on board was wearing hoodies, jackets, heavy coats even, or was wrapped in a blanket.  Live and learn.

People kept boarding the train at every stop, usually more boarding than getting off, and at Glasgow, two stops east of Havre, the conductor told me that I would have to move because "families have to sit together."  I ended up sitting next to a man sleeping under his blanket, and this seems like a good place to leave things for day one.  Friday's adventures will appear in the next post.

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