The Weekend in Kalispell, Montana

… and an important afterword about Conrad and the Space Shuttle

Conrad and Dawn’s place.  We’re way up high.  Heading to the top, way up and toward the right, is just the suggestion of Conrad and Dawn’s home.  After our forty hour train trip, Lin and I finally arrived at their place well after 3:00 a.m., so none of this was clear to me until morning.

Lin made sure I woke up to this view …right from my bedroom window.

They’ve built this wonderful “All Montanan” home.

On a clear day, these spectacular mountains are visible to the north and east in the direction of Glacier National Park.

Conrad and Dawn’s driveway!   A great place for an afternoon walk to the mailbox, two and a half miles down!   With plenty of deer and elk tracks in sight – cougar, bear, and wolves are nearby. How close? Way too close for me: I’ve seen Dawn’s photo of the cougar lurking around the garage.

Conrad’s new requirement for clearing the road; do not let Bill see this machine!

Dawn’s searching for a recipe for gluten-free cinnamon bread. We all pitched in to cook some wonderful meals.  Every day she spoiled us with fresh-out-of-the-oven cinnamon bread.

Conrad’s cooking antelope. (More on that later.) Without question, Conrad’s grilled antelope tenderloin was the absolute best wild game dinner I’ve ever had. And his “man camp” hunting stories were especially flavorful.

The baby blanket is almost done. A good day’s project, Lin helped Dawn set up the baby’s room and get the gift registry stocked with all the “essentials”.  One evening we saw photo albums and videos from Conrad and Dawn’s wilderness adventures on their (how many inch?) new HD LCD (whatever) flat screen TV: fly in rafting in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with grizzly mama and her cubs tagging along, a way-primitive camping trip in Death Valley – where a Unimog guided them back out, and many rafting trips right near home at Glacier.

Remote wireless:  It could have been any of these things:  ordering Conrad’s Baby Bjorn in camo, googling the Mission Mountain Wood Band, adding The Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session to my IPod, blogging lesson number one, still searching for a gluten-free cinnamon bread recipe, checking if the Amtrak Empire Builder was back in service, or customizing Conrad’s dream Unimog.

My turn to cook. Hardly hungry, but does anyone want ziti with eggplant & sausage?

Ruthless Montana Settlers. Last night there, deep into the game of Settlers, Conrad and Dawn are shrewdly bargaining for wood, wheat, sheep, and ore, building roads and amassing all kinds of real estate.  Just as Lin and I were getting the hang of the game, dinner was ready, but not before we lost handily to these twenty-first-century Montana settlers. Dawn’s black bean soup and cornbread were delicious.

Does anyone need the bathtub tonight?  We had to leave early the next morning, and Conrad and Dawn were getting back to their January chores. They were set to process the six antelope (from man-camp) to sausage and burger with friends coming in from Eureka.  This image won’t make it past the lifestyle editors of HGTV, but trust me; their bathroom is a Design on a Dime showcase – that is, without an antelope carcass in the claw foot tub!

Cheers to Conrad and Dawn, and thanks for a great visit!   Is that a bowl of your homemade ice cream?   

An Afterword: Conrad and the Space Shuttle

In the month of November in 1984, Conrad was just five years old, and I was twenty-nine (he’s thirty now).  I had just retreated from my three-year venture to Montana, more or less surrendering to my failure, totally broke, and starting over back in New York.  Lin (his mom and my sister) was my anchor, and she provided me a home until I could get back on my feet. So Conrad and I hung out quite a bit back then.  I remember his endless energy, and I can see him how – in constant motion, always up, over, on top of, over the back of, or under any chair or table, never still. 

During that month the Space Shuttle Discovery was launched, completed its mission, returned to the earth’s orbit, and landed safely.  All of this was covered in great detail on TV.  One day, Conrad and I we were “hanging out” on the couch, and Conrad wondered: “Aunt ‘Chele, do you think you’ll ever go to the moon?” 

Even though I was thirteen years old when the first moon walk occurred and its images were broadcast into every home, the thought of traveling in space never ever crossed my mind.  So to Conrad’s question, I simply replied, “I don’t think so”.  But I didn’t want to discourage the limitless sense of possibility in a preschooler’s imagination, so I quickly followed up with a question: “Do you think you will?

Thoughtfully, he said: “I’d like to.” 

Now at age 30, Conrad has never lost that sense of possibility or boundless energy. During my visit with him in Montana, it was a joy to see how this has led him to so many accomplishments, whether it’s guiding and surviving in the wilderness, building a home on top of a mountain, teaching Shakespeare to troubled youth, or – as of today’s post – being a first-time father.    

I heard the stories of how he tackled home building on a mountain. After a day of hard work, he’d check his reference books and read up on the next steps, learning what he needed to know, sometimes – literally – one day at a time. On the last day of our visit, Conrad and Dawn were taking us to the train station at 6:00 a.m.  Just in time to climb into the truck with the rest of us, Dawn – fully seven months pregnant – had just rolled out of bed, dressed quickly, and slipped into her flip-flops. (She’s a Floridian, but, geez, it was January in Montana!)  Along the way, we were poking good-natured fun at her. Conrad mused about their new life, soon with a baby, and he said, “I think I’ll just have to be the logistics coordinator.”

Conrad is so well grounded right here on earth, but I know he’ll keep dreaming. Who knows? Someday, before it’s all over, he may get to drive his new (or used) Unimog on the moon.  


The Empire Builder Westbound – Part II

Chicago to Whitefish, January 6 & 7, 2010   

Dusk arrived early on this mid-winter afternoon. The sun was already low in the sky as we traveled through Milwaukee at 4:00 p.m.  The remaining daylight dimmed into the dark of night as we crossed the Wisconsin Dells and through St. Paul – Minneapolis.  We were settled for the evening, passing the time with easy conversation over a glass or two of wine. As night set in, Norah Jones piped through my IPOD, and I waited patiently through the night to see North Dakota emerge in the first signs of day light.    

I haven’t met many people who express any appreciation for long rides across America’s heartland. They dread the thought of enduring what they describe as monotonous stretches overland at 65 miles per hour. If they’ve done it once – it’s once too much, but not for me.   I made my first road trip cross country in 1978, seeing for the first time the wide open parts of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. The ecstasy created by that experience has never left me, even after many subsequent cross country treks. These are the places I love.   That’s why I jumped at the chance to tag along when Lin first mentioned her plan to go to Montana by train to see Conrad and Dawn before the baby was born. Surely I wanted to see Conrad and Dawn, but traveling by train across the northernmost plains of North Dakota and Montana, a part of the country I had never seen, was enticing.       

I was awake when the train pulled into Fargo at 3:00 am.  Passing through, like a slow-motion movie playing through my window; I strained to see as much as I could through the darkness.  Street lamps dimly illuminated the town through a veil of heavily falling snow. The neat grids of north-south and east-west avenues were edged with mountainous snow banks. In spite of the snow covering, or maybe because of it, the place seemed orderly and well-kept.  I imagined that the town square and main street would be thriving during business hours, but at this time of night, it was a sleepy town. Nonetheless, municipal workers were on the job. Snow plows were hard at work, in tandem with bucket loaders and dump trucks, clearing piles of snow from parking lots and city streets in a well-synchronized operation. Since living in Bozeman, Montana, years ago, I’ve come to believe that good housekeeping, including meticulous snow removal, is a hallmark of mid-Western communities. (Margaret, my elderly landlady who pioneered to Montana with her family from Illinois as a child and hired me for household chores, gave me plenty of evidence to support this claim.) Snow-shoveled and broom-swept public and private walkways, aside from necessity, is just one way that the adage about cleanliness and godliness plays out.  I concluded there must be something saintly about Fargo.    Nothing more to see in the darkness, the train ambled on quietly through the remainder of the night, slowly falling behind schedule by an hour and a half.   

As the sun rose and brightened the early morning views, Lin delivered a steaming cup of coffee from the lounge car as soon as it opened.  Our breakfast snacks from the cooler – juice, oranges, bagels, and protein bars – easily satisfied us. We were freshened up for the day and looking forward to arriving in Minot, North Dakota, the first extended stopover in ten hours, for a chance to get off the train and get some fresh air and exercise.  It was coming up shortly, so I tuned to IPOD FM to get a local weather report:  “eighteen degrees below zero”.  I did a double take, circling the IPOD tuner one more time just to be sure I wasn’t hearing the report from a remote outpost in Saskatchewan.  But the frigid temperature was confirmed.     

Looking at eighteen degrees below zero!


Like pursuing a rare bird on a life list, I was intent on setting foot in Minot, and I wasn’t going to let inhospitable weather steal the opportunity. I pulled layers of outerwear from my over-stuffed carry-on bags that I cursed on boarding but appreciated now more than ever, and off we went. The sub-zero conditions made the experience of North Dakota in January all the more vivid and authentic.  Minot was giving us a good show.  The frigid, crystalline air hardened in my nostrils with every breath. Even my teeth felt the cold as it settled in my throat and worked its way deep into my lungs. Every foot step crunched the dry, hard-packed ice and snow, which was totally immune to the effects of salting.  Far from monotonous, America’s heartland was showing raw and dangerous extremes.  Whether it’s the blistering heat that breeds tornados and deadly grass fires on a late summer day in Kansas or this frigid crystalline air that can freeze brake lines and shut down cross-country train service for days at a time in January in North Dakota, I relish the experiences.  However, it wasn’t long before I surrendered to the cold and retreated back to my seat on board.  It didn’t take long to notice that time was moving on, but the train was standing still. Over the next few hours, the conductor announced more and more delays as the hearty brake inspectors climbed beneath each car, one after another, to work on the frozen couplings.     

The noon hour came and went, and we were still stuck in Minot as if frozen to the tracks. The dining car steward announced last call for lunch reservations, and we decided to treat ourselves to our first meal in the comforts of the dining car. We were just seated and getting acquainted with our two dining companions, when the train lurched forward, probably breaking free from an icy grip, and we were moving.  “Perfect timing”, we all commented in unison. I was thrilled to be under way, enjoying a nice meal with scenes of North Dakota playing around me. The sky was crystal blue, and the miles of vast, open lands in every direction were veiled in pure white.   

A blanket of snow over North Dakota


At this point – just west of the geographic center of North America, it’s possible to sense the heave of the earth as it lifts gradually towards the Continental Divide. The horizon broadens in all directions revealing a bigger sky than can ever be seen in the east.  Although the Rocky Mountains and the divide are still hundreds of miles away, the landscape of eastern Dakota gives a preview.  The plains rise gradually, and the cut banks of river bends reveal the ruggedness that lies ahead.  Throughout much of the mid-western high plains states, small mountain ranges appear in the distance, here and there, north and south of the highways and railways. Further west, they increase in frequency, density, and drama, until the Rocky Mountains come into view as a solid mass of ragged peaks, seeming to block any passage, marking the end to the journey.   

These in-between places quicken my heart.  I love seeing wide open expanses, approaching the rising mountains.  As if it were yesterday, my mind revisited a scene from my first trip west. I stopped at a road side pull off, inhaled deeply and absorbed the phenomenal view.  In awe, I was spellbound by the dramatic landscape of Wyoming sprawled in front of me. The high-elevation plain was strewn with massive rock outcroppings as if they had just tumbled from the sky, colored in clay, sage, and jasper. I picked up an unusual rock that fit smoothly in the palm of my hand, and for thirty years since it’s held a prominent position on my desks on top of my most important papers.      

During the afternoon, the train continued west at a slow pace, behind schedule by five hours, crossing North Dakota before arriving at Williston, ND, a commercial hub of the northern plains.    

High rises in Williston, North Dakota


 A young lady boarded en route back to college in Portland, Oregon. Her sophisticated fashion sense was incongruous with my view of mid-western style. She wore the all latest: leggings and Uggs, long jet-black hair, jeweled sunglasses, plenty of makeup, and she carried two large, glittering sequined bags, one pink and one red.  As she settled into her seat for the long overnight ride ahead of her, she unpacked a laptop, iPod, cell phone, a novel, and a few text books.   We chatted across the aisle about the late arrival of the train. There was no question she was glad to be on board and finally getting out of town. So, apparently it’s not only my eastern friends who tire of these places; she was one of what may be many North Dakotans who’ve had enough.   

With no visible boundary or fanfare, we crossed into Montana with the late afternoon setting sun casting a beautiful light across the Fort Peck area. The sky gathered more color, layering pinks and oranges with white cirrus clouds on a background of the fading blue sky. New colors were revealed: yellow grasses sprouted above the snow cover and masses of orange-tinted willows and red dogwoods outlined meandering stream beds and fields. To me, the all-too-familiar complaints of sameness reveal an indiscriminate eye for detail. So much more than merely brown, there’s every shade of earth.  America’s open plains have inspired my favorite color combinations: the sage green and red clay palette of Wyoming, and now the soft, cool colors of an eastern Montana winter afternoon.      

Some of my favorite colors from a Montana afternoon


What should have been a late afternoon arrival in Havre, Montana, was 9:00 pm instead, and temperatures were twenty one degrees below zero. Once again, I wasn’t going to be deterred from setting foot on new ground. I wanted Havre on my life list, too. So we bundled up to venture off the train, stretch our legs, and breathe in some more lung-numbing air.    In the dark of night and with no suggestion of warming sunshine, Havre seemed more cruel than Minot.   

Here is where one journey was ending and another was beginning for a father and son, who had traveled with us since Chicago. We couldn’t help but overhear their story. They came to Havre to purchase a 1966 Chevy Impala in original condition, sight unseen, from a private seller found on-line, and then drive it back cross country to refurbish. The dad was on the quest of his life, buying and restoring his dream car. I got a kick out of their story. (You’re gonna do what?) I thought what he may have in mechanical skills he may lack in judgment, facing the cruel weather conditions they’ll undoubtedly encounter on the way back home.  I imagined the inevitable risks and hazards ahead of them on the miles of wintry and desolate roads in any direction out of Havre. There’s no escaping the blowing, drifting snow across icy, lonely roads with long distances between one tiny town and the next. I let my imagination wander to curious memories of road signs reading “Ranch Access” that pointed to one lane tire tracks veering off the highway, crossing a cattle-guard and disappearing into the distance with no buildings in sight. I remember passing the miles wondering who lives there, where’s their house, what’s their life like. Can you imagine trying to find the answers to these questions in the likely event of car troubles in such inhospitable conditions?        

We departed Havre at 9:12 p.m., now six hours and twenty three minutes behind schedule.  We phoned Conrad and Dawn to suggest they’d have time for a late evening nap before heading out to the station to meet us for our unfortunately late arrival in Whitefish at 3:00 am.  We’d call again when we were closer.   We were getting excited as we approached our final destination.   

On this final segment of the trip, the quiet of the night settled in among the passengers. I dosed on and off remembering long-ago road trips across Montana on hot, dry summer weekends, exploring forest service roads leading to remote campsites, with gravel kicking up underneath the truck and plumes of dust churning out from under the tires.  Now it’s the rail line on a frigid winter night, bringing me to a new Montana adventure with the long, mournful whistle of the Empire Builder warning empty cross roads of our passage and echoing through tunnels, chugging along the winding tracks and around every bend through Glacier National Park and over the Continental Divide.

The Empire Builder Westbound – Chicago to Fargo

All settled in!


The Empire Builder Westbound 

January 6, 2010 

Chicago to Whitefish 

Part I                                                   Staking our Claim 

Renewed, refreshed, and ready to go, we boarded on time at 2:00 p.m. Following Lin’s lead – given her experience and new status as a senior citizen, we were among the first to board The Empire Builder, ahead of many in the long line of passengers who were back-logged from the two-day weather related shut down.  Out on the platform, with a hoard of hurried passengers behind us, the conductor asked our destination and directed us to the third car. 

              The Empire Builder is a different breed than the Lake Shore Limited. Its two- tiered cars have elevated upper-level seating designed for comfort and relaxation on the long haul across America’s northern frontier.  However, beware; getting to the upper level coach-class seating is a struggle. Even with my lightened load – less one bottle of wine, ascending the narrow flight of stairs and navigating through its two right-angle turns up to coach seating was a test of strength, common sense packing, and a level of gracefulness that I was lacking.  Lin had to come back to my rescue when my collection of excessive luggage literally wedged me into a jam; I couldn’t move up or down.  I handed her a few of my bags, and I was able to resume my climb. 

At last on top, with the near empty car in front of us, our objective was to secure the perfect seats, and we believed we had done just that. We claimed the first double seat with a full, unobstructed window. In no time, we were relaxing and appreciating the elevated view, greater leg room and reclining seats, all better than the Lake Shore Limited.  Our bliss was short lived, however.  The seats behind us were claimed by two passengers:  a helpless, whiney, falsely sweet, and genuinely irritating twenty-something female and her spineless male companion.  

“Honey, can you put my bags up? Oh honey, I forget my book; can you get it for me?  Do you know where my pillow is?” 

“Yes dear.” 

“Honey, I’m getting hungry. Where are our snacks? If we lost them, I’m going to be really, really angry. You know how miserable I can be when I’m hungry.” 

“Yes dear.” 

“Honey, am I irritating you? Honey, I’m sorry.”  

Lin and I turned to each other, exhaled deeply, dropped our jaws, and rolled our eyes in unison: “Yes, you are irritating.”  We are two self-reliant women and proud of it. Even faced with relinquishing our prized seats, we couldn’t begin to tolerate the prospects of listening to this nonsense for the next thirty-six hours.    

In code, we both agreed that we needed a plug. Under the guise of searching for an electrical outlet to recharge our cell phones, Lin headed up the aisle to seek better arrangements. It didn’t take long. This time we deftly picked up our belongings and swiftly claimed another seat. Then, uh no!  My foot rest didn’t work. Once again, quickly and without missing a beat, we shuttled to the two empty seats across the aisle.  Finally we thought we were all set.     

However, for all our efforts, the good-seat gods frowned upon us.  Down the line, a young mom boarded with her eleven-month-old son and took the seat next to us. Soon after, the seat behind us was occupied with a mom with a two-year- old daughter.  Being grandmothers, we agreed the children were charming, and we commended the parenting skills of the moms.  Nonetheless the fussing followed us to Fargo, when at 3:00 a.m. they disembarked, leaving behind a car load of restless and sleepless passengers – including us.

Lake Shore Limited – Westbound to Chicago

Lake Shore Limited – Westbound to Chicago

January 5, 2010

Scheduled Rochester departure:   11:00 p.m. 

Actual Rochester departure: 11:50 p.m. (Not too bad.)  

A busy day led to the late night departure.  Bill and I worked through the final editing on his two articles under deadline for the Spring issue of Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine (wild turkey and opening day of trout fishing), passing drafts across the kitchen table, reading silently and aloud, changing sentences and words here and there, burning CDs, and printing contact sheets with the accompanying images.  After hasty showers and last minute packing, we headed over to Holly’s Red Rooster for an unhurried meal together before I departed on an eight-day adventure with Lin to visit Conrad and Dawn in Kalispell, Montana, via Amtrak.  During dinner, the snow was accumulating quickly on the cars parked across Maiden Lane. We knew we had a slow drive ahead over icy roads to pick up Lin in Naples and get to the train station in Rochester.

We arrived at the terminal before 10:00 p.m. Lin and I claimed our tickets and checked our bags through to Whitefish. The Lake Shore Limited has been jokingly, but aptly, nicknamed the Late Shore Limited, but we got a promising report that the train was en route, already in Syracuse, and only twenty minutes behind schedule.  We assured Bill it was okay to leave us behind and head back to Penn Yan.  

By 11:50 p.m., we were boarding. We each carried what we thought would be our essentials for what was supposed to be a 46-hour train ride ahead. Up the narrow steps to coach class, I wrestled a small, wheeled suitcase, a spacious canvas tote – holding a well-stocked cooler, my blanket and neck roll, and my “healthy back bag”- doubling as a purse, cosmetic case, and mobile office. Lin was much more streamlined with only one wheeled duffle and an inconspicuous purse over her shoulder.

All aboard and not particularly sleepy, Lin twisted the cap off our first split of wine for a toast to our trip. We settled in for the night. Over the next six hours, I drifted comfortably in and out of sleep whenever the train stopped to let passengers on and off or freight lines pass, catching glimpses of wintery night sights along the route.  

At Buffalo, I remember a mysterious ruin of a massive warehouse or factory at the edge of the track. The city’s night lights glowed through the falling snow, illuminating its eerie silhouette, outlined through broken window panes and crumbling walls.  Maybe it had been a public market or livestock exchange. My read for the trip was City of Light, by Lauren Belfer, which is steeped in Buffalo’s industrial and architectural history at the turn of the last century. I was well enough into it to feed my curiosity. When I discover the old building’s history, I’ll let you know.

About 4:00 a.m., the train pulled to a stop at the Cleveland station in the shadow of the Dawg Pound at Cleveland Browns Stadium. A wind generator was working overhead.  I pitied the passengers waiting to board in the bitter cold at this hour of the night. Cleveland city center, surrounding the Cuyahoga River and still in holiday lights, looked more inviting than I thought Cleveland could.  

By 5:00 a.m. in Sandusky, Ohio, I woke long enough to see the unmistakable constellation of brightly lit coasters at Cedar Point Amusement Park in the distance to the north.  That momentary image still strikes me ironic:  a classic symbol of summertime now glowing with frosty white lights and lake effect snow along the desolate, wintry shoreline of Lake Erie. 

People watching was a constant amusement. Boris and Natasha in the seats next to me, right out of the Orient Express, spoke broken English heavily accented with a Russian flair. She, dark-haired and fashionable, and he, foreign and well-dressed, passed the time reading a bi-lingual edition of a movie-star magazine headlining Marilyn Monroe. What’s that about? Were they typecasting Americans as much I was typecasting them?  I imagined stories of their identity, but was left only with my unasked, unanswered questions. Further along in the trip, I concluded many bolder Amtrak passengers could easily strike up a conversation with a stranger to satisfy any curiosity; however, in the end, I suspected they were more motivated to paint their own colorful self-portraits than to understand another’s.  

We slept well enough. Lin delivered hot coffee from the lounge car as soon as it opened, which I savored.  I managed a serial breakfast, one course at a time – unwrapping a juice box, squeezing cream cheese from a foil pouch onto my bagel, peeling an orange. We had a clumsy time with meal preparations, splattering portions of yogurt, half & half, and juice, joking we’d be smelling like the baby by the time we arrived in Montana.   With enough time for an adequate camp-style grooming in the car’s lavatory, the Lake Shore Limited delivered us into Chicago’s Union Station on schedule at 10:00 a.m. 

The four-hour layover before boarding the westbound Empire Builder was easy going. We snapped shots of the station’s great room, surprisingly vacant except for its grand holiday décor.  I expected a bustling retail haven like the stations in New York and Washington, DC. Lin was a good guide, leading us expertly to the one-and-only pub-style dining establishment at the station. We had a salad, a bowl of chili, and a bottle of wine for lunch. The departures board directed us to Gate 19. The Empire Builder was on schedule, but we learned it hadn’t run in two days. (We assumed winter weather was to blame.) Among the first to board the train by taking full advantage of Lin’s new senior citizen status, we were in much better spirits than the crowds of weary passengers, back-logged and perhaps two or three days behind schedule