Is it Still Possible to Have That Classic Train-Travel Experience?
One writer attempts to find out, looking for that special moment in the train’s bar car, and trying to channel a little Bing Crosby along the way.
Stepping into the passenger waiting area at Seattle’s King Street Station feels a little like walking into a cathedral. Forty-five-foot ceilings, marble columns and terrazzo floors give the room a vast, airy solemnity. Everything is light and echoes. A dozen scattered passengers sit on those classic (and classically uncomfortable) wooden pew benches, reading newspapers and pecking smart phones under giant, ponderous clocks. Mecca! I hadn’t expected this kind of grandeur.
Built in 1906 and restored for its 100th anniversary, King Street is a throwback to the glory days of rail. That made it a perfect kickoff to an attempt at yuletide rail-borne time travel. I wasn’t after the Orient Express. No, I wanted the lounge-car scene from White Christmas: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and pals singing about snow, sipping snowy-white cocktails and modelling the snowed ski hills of Vermont with a white napkin and bits of centrepiece. Remember that one? I see it yearly and it always evokes a kind of ersatz nostalgia for train travel. The click-and-sway of the tracks, the white-tablecloth dining as the landscape blurs past, and, not least, the childhood sensation of falling asleep as someone else does the driving.
My version was taking the Amtrak Empire Builder train to Montana’s Glacier National Park. I saw myself sipping a rye Old-Fashioned and chatting with a bartender in a black silk vest. He would tell me stories about travelling vice-presidents and airplane-phobic celebrities. I’d stay up till midnight reading my book, eating pretzels. And when I woke up at the Izaak Walton Inn—located smack in the middle of the park—I would strap on cross-country skis and head into the wilds of the last best place to savour some winter quiet. That, at least, was the dream.
First, a cautionary tale. You can’t go back in time without a time machine. This means you have to be punctual. Travel Tip from Hard Experience #1: Remember all your bags so you don’t have to race back home in a taxi to retrieve one of them. Tip #2: The days of loping after and hopping onto a departing train, bag in hand, are over. Once boarding has closed, you can stand there with your bags and valid ticket, staring at a stationary train from 35 feet away, and you won’t be allowed on. So I had to take a bus from Vancouver to Seattle to catch my connecting train to Montana.
We lurched out of the station just before 5 p.m. After sidling along the coastline in the late afternoon light—watching crab boats pull traps and spotting a dozen species of seabirds—we shunted inland. Heading east, white-peaked Cascades in the distance, I saw a family of deer grazing on a soggy hayfield in the dusk. Ninety minutes later we were into the mountains, near the gables and stucco of the faux-German town of Leavenworth. It’s not all pretty: rotting couches dumped in dead-end ditches, tire piles, rusting hulks of old cranes and hay balers. But in the mellow light of a winter sunset, even the backsides of industrial towns have a certain elegiac beauty to them.
After dark, I settled in to read. The book was a condensed history of the Great Northern Railway, the private company that built the route I was now racing across. Along with pictures of vintage advertising and 1940s breakfast menus—fried cornmeal mush, stewed prunes and something called “G.N. health cakes” in there with the eggs and toast—the book told the story of James Jerome Hill, CEO of the Great Northern. Hill was the archetypal American rail baron, except that he happened to be Canadian. Born to Irish immigrants in the Ontario bush in 1838, he was blind in one eye from a childhood accident and not much over five feet tall. In his twenties he was a barrel-chested bar brawler, and by his fifties, following a series of shrewd and ruthless career moves, one of the most powerful men on the continent.
My Empire Builder train was named for Mr. Hill. It was all I’d hoped for, minus the vested bartender and premium cocktails. There are no bartenders on the Seattle–Montana leg. And there are no cocktails. There is only a snack bar operator who can offer you airline-sized plastic bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Dewar’s, among other standards, with your choice of canned soda. (Amtrak, take note: a cohort of aging hipsters is heading your way, and you have to be prepared.) I’d gotten my pretzels and my long fetch of late-night reading. But I wasn’t going to have my Bing moment that easily. The quest was on.
I was not optimistic. My destination, the Izaak Walton Inn, was built in 1939 for railroad service personnel and is a venerable hotel equipped with a well-appointed downstairs lounge. But it is not a train. Or that, at least, is what I assumed. So I slept the rhythmic, clickety-clacked sleep of the rail passenger who has remembered his earplugs. (Tip #3: Trains lay on their horns at all road crossings, so you will dearly regret not having them.)
The inn, surrounded by forested mountains, is a tiny whistle stop on the Empire Builder route that cuts through the park. As I carried in my bags I saw several marooned, freshly painted train cars in the trees around the hotel. These are “luxury railcar” lodgings, the front desk attendant told me. Then she told me I’d been upgraded to one of them: the J.J. Caboose, named for James Jerome Hill himself. It was a King Street moment of rail-fan bliss.
The J.J. Caboose is the kind of car a railroad baron should have used to tour his empire. Two beds, Pendleton blankets, hickory-and-granite kitchenette, leather armchairs, a travertine-walled bathroom with radiant floor heat. I’m not cut from the same cloth as men like J.J. Hill, but I enjoy living like they do, occasionally.
The only thing missing was the vintage cocktail. Scouting revealed that the Izaak Walton bar stocked that oddity, St-Germain elderflower liqueur. Further research turned up a recipe for what seemed a fitting rail-baron cocktail, a Le Roi Robert, made with single-malt scotch. I asked the bartender to halve the vermouth and renamed it the Royal Caboose. After I got my snowshoes—and before strapping them on and heading out for what turned out to be a laid-back and delightful late-afternoon forest walk—I brought the cocktail back to my private winter train. I took a sip and lifted my glass to Rosemary and Bing. It was delicious.
Round trip from Vancouver to Essex, MT (home of the Izaak Walton Inn) is about $700 CAD, depending on exchange rates. Check out Amtrak for specials, tickets and reservations (and how soon to arrive before departure). amtrak.com
Winter rooms at the Izaak Walton Inn range from $150 to $250 CAD. izaakwaltoninn.com
For things to do in Glacier National Park in winter, check out the park’s special winter activities pages. nps.gov/glac