Empire Builder: Chicago to Essex
This is Part 3 of my 6-part series covering my 11-day Amtrak trip around the western United States in May of 2006. Be sure to read about the planning and start of my journey from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles in Part 1 and the trip from Los Angeles to Chicago in Part 2.
Chicago to Essex
The Empire Builder pulled out of Union Station at 2:20 in the afternoon. I was surprised that, at a big terminal like Chicago, they didn’t assign seats like they did in Los Angeles. I don’t like it when they assign seats because I always want to try for a seat with an electric outlet. Superliner cars had (and maybe still have – I haven’t been on a train in over ten years) four seats with an electric outlet beside them. Sometimes the outlets are blocked by the seat so you can’t even reach them, so finding a seat with a clear 110 connection isn’t easy. There are other outlets scattered around the train – downstairs by the doors and in the lounge car – but those wouldn’t be as convenient as having my own plug. The outlet seats in all the coach cars were already taken when I boarded, so I sat in one of the seats behind and figured that I could ask the person with the outlet if I could plug in if I had to charge my batteries.
Once we were out of Chicago I left my coach seat and took a table in the lounge car. Not soon after I sat down I noticed a man in a blue denim jacket and who looked like he was fairly toasted walk over to a table that was occupied by three ladies who appeared to be Amish or Mennonites. He took a seat at their table, and it was not hard to tell that they most likely would have preferred that he hadn’t. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but it looked like he was the one doing all of the talking.
I had to take a photo of this unlikely group, and this photo is the only one you’ll find in my entire collection where a face is obscured. I wasn’t sure that they were Amish, but when I returned from the trip I did some research into the subject of photographing the Amish in case they were. There are many misconceptions about the Amish’s thoughts on photography and why they do not want their photos taken, all they way from that they that shun modern technology to that they will lose their souls. Actually, its really a matter of modesty (photos of oneself are seen as prideful,) wanting to put emphasis on a person’s achievements rather than their appearance. There are more details, but that’s the subject for another website to explain (this is a good one: amishamerica.com.) Since the photo itself doesn’t seem to be the issue, I decided to put it in my blog, but also decided to block out the face. If any Amish people want to correct me, you’re more than welcome to – but then I’d have to ask what you were doing browsing my Internet blog in the first place 🙂 . (Actually, some Amish people do use the Internet under certain circumstances, and you can learn about that here.)
Within a little while the attendant who was running the cafe came upstairs, went over to the group, and said something to the man. I couldn’t hear what she said, but he moved to another table. She then called for the conductor who came to the lounge and had a chat with her and one of the nearby passengers. The conductor and cafe attendant both left, and so I sat and waited to see if there would be any more drama.
There was a group of kids at the table across the aisle from me, and soon a lady came over and asked if she could sit at my table to watch whatever was about to unfold. She told me that the kids were a group from an itty-bitty high school in Minnesota somewhere that had about fifty students in the whole school. She was one of the chaperones on the group’s field trip to Chicago. They were traveling back to Minneapolis and we talked for a while about the trip. It sounded like a great field trip to me. Eventually more kids from the group came and sat down.
The train pulled into the next station, and soon after stopping two policemen came up the stairs and escorted our ambassador to the Amish off the train. I didn’t see what transpired outside, but I heard from sources that may or may not be totally reliable that they gave him a sobriety test, and when they went to haul him off there was a ruckus. One of the kids says he pulled a pocket knife, another guy said he reached in his back pocket for something. Either way, the cops took him down to the ground as the train rolled away.
At 8:08pm the sun set on Winona, Minnesota. That night I went to sleep at around midnight and slept through to 6am.
When I awoke the next morning we were near Churchs Ferry, North Dakota, and I had one of the best omelets ever for breakfast. I almost ordered a standard sausage omelet, but they had one on the menu made with mozzarella cheese, basil, oregano, and tomatoes. I am so glad I ordered it; it was really, really good. I ate breakfast with an old trucker and his wife. He told of how he used to drive everywhere, and we talked about our trips and of traveling here and there. We got to talking about some Midwest farms he used to visit that were way out in the middle of nowhere with no town for miles. He was saying that the nearest civilization was fifty or sixty miles away so they would send the kids off to school and had them stay at boarding houses for the week, and the kids would come home on weekends. He said that different people would take shifts with the kids. I’m not sure how that would work, though. He made it sound like they stay at each other’s farms, but that doesn’t go with the boarding house story. Maybe the parents also go to the boarding school in shifts?
The train did crew rotations at the stop in Minot, North Dakota, so we got to stay for about half an hour and spend some time off the train. This gave me plenty of time to take a walk and shoot some photos.
After we were on our way, I was joined in the lounge by a man named Neil who was traveling from his home in New York City to Seattle. We were talking for a while and at some point he asked me how old I was. So I told him and a few minutes later he says “You were born in 1967.” Then he asks what day and a while after I told him he said “You were born on a Monday.” I’ve since learned that there is a mathematical formula for calculating the day, but at the time it blew me away. I wouldn’t know what day of the week any given day was last month, let alone in ’67. He explained that 1967 has the same calendar as 2007, but even then how would you figure out what day of the week any given date was this year?
A trio of musicians set up in the downstairs area of the lounge car – a stand-up bass player and a banjo player who met at Chicago’s Union Station before boarding and a guitar player that they met on the train. I tried going downstairs to listen, but all of the tables were occupied so I didn’t get to stay and had to take a seat upstairs. After they jammed for a while one of them came upstairs, and the guy next to me and I asked him if his buddies would set up again upstairs. He said he’d check with them and continued on his way.
A lady with a tiny, tiny new baby came by with her little four or five year old girl and sat down in the pod of seats next to me. Mom asked me if they had lattes downstairs – I don’t think they did – and we started talking. This went on to a fun conversation with the little girl. She drove her mom nuts, asking my name over and over again and every time she spoke to me she’d call me by name. “Darin,” pause, then ask something. “Darin,” pause, then ask me something else. She was playing a game with her mom where they’d look for specific color cars driving down the highway and she asked me to help her, so we played that for a while. I can’t remember the girl’s name, which is too bad because was the most interesting name I had ever heard. Sometimes its hard making notes on these trips and it was such an unusual name that I thought I’d remember it. Oh well…
Soon we were in eastern Montana. Apparently the musician we met had talked the others into coming upstairs, and they played for a bit between Havre and Shelby. You can hear them play as the background music on my Chicago to Essex video. They played for about ten minutes until they had to stop because, according to the conductor, it was time to “start the movie.” A silly request in my opinion, but I guess rules are rules. Ironically, they didn’t start the movie for another hour or so, but the bass player had to get off in Shelby anyway so I guess it worked out OK. It got dark as we were going up the east side of the Montana Rockies, and at 7:48 I got off the train in Essex.
Essex Montana, and the Izaak Walton Inn
As I was getting off the train, I asked the conductor how many people usually disembark in Essex. He said the average is three per day. Sometimes more, sometimes the train doesn’t stop at all. Today the total was five, including myself. A red van was waiting for us. The driver asked if we were going to the Izaak Walton Inn. Of course we all said yes…where else would we go?
I discovered Essex several years earlier when a friend and I from the model railroad club wanted to take a train ride. We had six days for a trip, and the Amtrak agent he spoke to suggested Essex as the farthest we could go for a round trip. The train would arrive in the morning and leaving in the evening. We would just wander around town for the day, have something to eat, and watch trains go by at the depot as we awaited the return train.
The “depot” turned out to be a dirt and gravel platform. There were no benches, no structure, not even a town. Just mountains and trees everywhere. Essex is a place with just a few people, and most – if not all – must work for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad or the Izaak Walton Inn. Perhaps some work in Glacier National Park, which is just a stone’s throw away. There isn’t much else in Essex. Just down the tracks from the leveled off dirt that serves as the platform is the Izaak Walton Inn. Right by the tracks, it was originally lodging for the Great Northern Railway crews. Today it’s a destination for explorers, skiers, and train wackos. Just down the highway is Glacier National Park. In winter there are ski slopes all around the inn which turn into hiking trails when the snow melts. But I’m a train wacko, and for people like me the draw is the BNSF tracks. There are always “helpers” waiting in the yard which are extra locomotives that get attached to trains to help them over a steep grade. Twenty-four hours a day they idle outside, waiting to push the thirty to fifty trains that come through each day over the Rocky Mountains. Aside from the inn and some surrounding houses, there’s nothing in Essex besides the mountains and the trees. A big change from Chicago, and a welcome one. Years before when I got off a train a van driver asked if we were going to the inn. Back then I said yes because we didn’t have a choice. This time I said yes because I knew what would be waiting.
We loaded up our luggage and the van rolled over to the inn. It was exactly as I remembered it. The stone fireplace in the lobby and the wooden furniture were an inviting sight. After checking in I went up to my room on the second floor. It was paneled in beautiful wood and with etched glass around the top of the bathroom wall. The bedspread had a large Great Northern Railway logo on it, and there were photos of mountain goats and paintings of trains on the walls. There was no television or telephone. My room was on the railway side of the inn, overlooking the yards where the helpers would rumble as they idled through the night. It was perfect.
I had asked about laundry facilities when I made my reservation, and after settling into my room I went to wash my clothes. I learned on my last train trip that having laundry facilities en-route makes for a lighter backpack. It was closed for the night, but that would be no problem as I’d have time the next morning. I returned to the lobby and sat there for a while enjoying the fire and atmosphere. There was a sign on the wall asking people not to use their computers in the lobby, someone just had to be online anyway. I eventually went back up to my room. Leaving the blind open so I’d be awakened by the morning sun, I went to sleep at around eleven.
Water was falling out of the sky the next morning – It even snowed a bit. I guess I had my good weather luck in Chicago.
I had an eBay auction going that closed while I was on the train from Chicago and I planned on checking email and finishing up the auction in Essex. If you recall, my Personal Data Assistant had a memory failure on the Southwest Chief. That threw that plan out the window. Back in 2006, handheld devices were much more simple than they are now. No built in WiFi, no wireless phone connections for sure. Mine had a CF card slot on it where I plugged in a WiFi card, but when the PDA died I lost the drivers and that rendered the WiFi card useless. I carried a 56k modem that didn’t need drivers to use in places that didn’t have WiFi and tried to use it with the modem port on the payphone (I don’t know which needs more explanation in 2020, a payphone or a modem port.) The phone was broken and I finally had to ask the lady at the desk if I could use her computer to send an email. Of course, nothing is easy and it turned into a mess of rejected PayPal payments and I had to set up an email address for eBay that would forward emails to my brother so could retrieve them and complete the auction for me. Blast that infernal technology, anyway!
The weather cleared up at around 11am. It went from being rainy and snowy to bright and clear. I went for a walk down US Highway 2 to a find a place called “Walton Goat Lick” in Glacier National Park. This is a place where mountain goats come and lick the minerals that seep out of the exposed rock in a gorge. It’s about a three mile walk from the inn, and it’s the only time I’ve ever visited a National Park by walking there. As I got closer the sky started getting gray, but I’d walked too far to turn around now. Crossing a bridge right before the overlook I saw a group of four or five goats on up on a hill. They were too far away for photos, but I could see them through a pair of binoculars that I’d taken along. I think this was a better place to see goats than the “official” Goat Lick Overlook, but unless you’re walking you can’t really see it.
There actually was a goat at Goat Lick Overlook, and I took its photo. But even at maximum zoom it turned out to be a white point in the center of the frame. I cropped the photo for my blog so the goat would be visible.
There had been a light snow falling on and off ever since I got to Goat Lick so I sheltered under the roof in front of the pit toilets and waited about ten minutes for another goat to show up. None did, and the weather wasn’t getting any better, so I started back to the inn. It started snowing harder as I walked down the highway, and just as I was about to stick a thumb out a man stopped and offered me a lift to the inn. I don’t know where he was from – he said he was renting the car – but he didn’t have any problem driving though the snow at seventy miles per hour. I was glad when we stopped at my destination. When I got back to the inn, one of the employees commented that they had all four seasons in one day. Morning rain, then snow, then sunny, then snow again. I sat in the lobby relaxing for the next seven hours, with an occasional trip outside to watch trains and enough trips to the gift shop that I think I memorized their entire inventory.
If you’d like to learn more about the Izaak Walton Inn, drop by their website at http://www.izaakwaltoninn.com.
Six-thirty came, and we all piled back in the red van. Just as I checked my inventory I realized that I wasn’t wearing my jacket and had to run back inside for it. We got to the platform just as the train rolled in, right on schedule.