A View From The Train

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Half of North Dakota and all of Montana took up the next full day of my trip. I spent most of it in the lounge car, where huge dome windows offer the best possible view. I’d been warned of the flatness of this stretch of country. And so it was, except that the drama of changing shape and color kept it from being boring. At breakfast I spied a herd of buffalo, magical creatures from a Catlin painting. They’re being bred with cattle, said my tablemate, and raised for buffalo burger. As the morning progressed, the sky seemed to grow to occupy two-thirds of the panorama, the nearly treeless land a sliver of terra cotta baking in the sun.

When a new conductor came aboard in Minot, North Dakota, we were treated to a good spiel of local history over the PA system. A native of Havre, Montana, the conductor, Don Danell, pointed out Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains. There, in 1877, Nez Perce Chief Joseph made his poignant surrender speech, “I will fight no more forever.” Near Saco, Danell announced that we were in the artist Charlie Russell’s country. Later he told us about how Kid Curry robbed the Great Northern near Malta. After Danell disembarked in Shelby, I went back to consulting the informative route guide provided by Amtrak, looking up just in time to spot a herd of antelope scattering across the plains.

During breakfast I glimpsed a herd of buffalo, magical creatures from a George Catlin painting.

For many, the trip’s highlight comes when the Empire Builder skirts the southern border of Glacier National Park, a one-million-acre preserve in the Rockies of western Montana. A National Park since 1910, this has always drawn Great Northern passengers, and the road built many of the sprawling hotels that still stand in the park.

It was after Hill’s engineer, John Stevens, plotted a route through this mountain pass in 1889 that the railroad’s future was set. To find the Marias Pass, half-known through Indian lore, Stevens trekked through December temperatures of forty degrees below zero. We made it through just at sunset on a clear spring evening, somewhat behind schedule. To the joy of the passengers, there was still enough light to see by. The train moved very slowly and almost silently, its mournful whistle suspended in the air. Separate snow-covered mountain peaks, each with its own crown of feathery cloud, seemed to pause in the frame of my window. Time stopped. And then we moved on.

—Carla Davidson