Sunday, December 12, 2010

Trains, Planes, Boats and Buses

For this year's writing retreat, Mary booked me onto the Carnival Paradise for a four-night Mexican excursion. We had previously done this exact cruise, tacked on to a trip to Disneyland, so I had no interest in actually getting off the ship.

Thinking that was a bit short for my needs, Mary started adding stuff on. The Carnival line docks at Long Beach, and adjacent to their facility is the Queen Mary hotel. Mary booked me for a two night stay, partly to ensure I didn't have to worry about missing connections (which sometimes be a bit tricky in December from Alberta) partly to gear up for the writing cruise, but mostly because the Queen Mary is way cool. Then, as the trip approached, and the weather deteriorated, Mary started having second thoughts about my making the five hour drive to Missoula on icy roads. The flight from Missoula to Long Beech was a fraction of the cost from Lethbridge or Calgary, and only twice the drive to Calgary, so that's how she'd booked it. Coming back from a Banff conference in late November, however, we encountered ice fog for much of the trip, and after two hours of white knuckle driving, Mary went on line to see what alternatives there were to my driving to Missoula.

Thus, I found myself booked on Amtrak from Shelby to Whitefish, and by bus from Whitefish to Missoula, turning my four day cruise into a ten day round trip.

The drive from Lethbridge to Shelby was only a couple of hours on a good divided highway, so no worse than driving to the Calgary airport. I had the GPS with me, and Mary's detailed directions, but they were hardly necessary, the road going straight from the Lethbridge Canadian Tire to the Shelby Wal-Mart without so much as a single turn.

On the other hand, I am an idiot, so still managed to get bit lost in Shelby on the way to the train station. I must have missed a turn, because I found myself driving along a highway with no sign of the street Mary's directions told me to turn on. So I pulled over at a service station and asked for directions, rather than fiddle with the GPS. "Oh" said the woman, "just turn left at the lights." Not convinced that this was sufficiently detailed, I pressed for more information. She starred at me for a moment, then gently reached over and turned me around so I was facing the other way -- and looking at an immense rail yard, filled with mile after mile of boxcars. "Train station," she said very slowly, "where they keep -- the trains-- has to be somewhere next to the train tracks, right? So if that's the track, all you really need to know is, should you follow to your left, or to your right. I'm telling you, to your left."

Okay, maybe looking for street signs hadn't been the best approach given I must have driven passed four straight miles of freight trains to arrive at the service station. Retracing my steps did make me wonder if I should be allowed out on my own, Mary usually managing the logistics on our family trips; but once I was paying proper attention I found the Amtrak office no problem.

And was amazed. The train station was tiny, just a single room in a wooden structure I'm guessing was first built in 1880s, but my god, do American's get trains. Lethbridge may boast the longest and highest railway bridge of it's kind, but seeing a train actually crossing the bridge is an occasion for pointing out the car window and saying, "Hey kids, look, a train!" Sitting in the waiting room in Shelby, trains were constantly roaring past. And they were huge -- when Mary phoned to check in with me, I told her a couple of times I was having a little trouble hearing her over the passing train, and she said, "what still? We've been talking for like 10 minutes!" Yes, still. I could not get over how much freight passed through in the few hours I was there. Mind boggling.

The (easy to miss) Shelby train station, and 2 story Amtrak train.
The Amtrak was a couple of hours late due to weather further up the tracks, but that's no different than air travel, and like modern air travel, their computer phoned me to keep me posted on the delay. The train, when it arrived, took me aback. I've been on trains in Canada and Europe, but this was a completely new style of car to me: two stories tall, it loomed above us in the dark. Mary had booked me onto the lower level, which I discovered held the washrooms and wheelchair access. I'll opt for upstairs in future. I headed off at once to the dining car where I had a decent enough meal at a reasonable price; something no longer available with air travel. The paper plates looked like railway china, but I take it from the waiter's comments that they normally do still use china in the dining car, and had just run out on this occasion. [There were china plates and real flatware on the return journey.] After supper, I made my way back to my seat, made myself comfortable, took out my book and read. [On the return journey I discovered that all but the seat I happened to take on the trip out had tray tables and electrical outlets suitable for laptop use. If anything, the problem was there was so much leg room, it was hard to reach the tray table, though I assume that was because I was in the handicap section.]

The most amazing thing about the train was the price -- a mere $20, to avoid white knuckle driving over snow covered roads. Considering the same trip by car would have easily cost me $20 in gas, and that I got to read instead of having to drive, it's a pretty sweet!

Arriving at Whitefish, Mary had arranged for a driving service to pick me up and deliver me to my bread and breakfast, the Garden Wall Inn. Considering the train was three hours late, it was after midnight, and the cab fare to the Inn was only $5.50, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality afforded me by both the driver and the B&B manager. The room was charming, though I worried that the creaking floor would drive whomever was below me crazy, as I unpacked and got ready for bed. In the event, I needn't have worried, as I turned out to be the only guest for the evening.

Breakfast the next morning was delightful; freshly squeezed orange juice (a variety unavailable in Lethbridge, apparently -- particularly good!), a fresh fruit bowl, scrambled eggs (with mushrooms and peppers) in a pastry shell, and a huckleberry muffin. Quite wonderful.

The hostess, learning I was on writing retreat, regaled me with stories of her various writer acquaintances and writer guests; the general gist of these stories seemed to be in each case that their overnight success had been achieved as the result of twenty years of previous dues paying. I took my leave in time to have a brief look through town on my way back to the train station, where I was to catch my bus to Missoula. Whitefish is very similar to Banff, the most obvious differences being the presence of several microbreweries, and murals of American flags alternating with murals of bible quotations.

The train station at Whitefish was considerably larger than the one at Shelby, and had an attached museum.

One delightful feature was a self-serve bookrack of $1 books, donated or discarded by passing travelers. I purchased a Roc fantasy, which looked promising but turned out to be appallingly, unreadably, dreadful. (Basil Brokentail by Christopher Rowley) I found the novel highly inspiring, because so much worse in every respect than my own beginner efforts. That such a badly written novel -- the viewpoint character routinely changes every few paragraphs, for example, an astonishing lack of control and/or editing -- could have been published as recently as a decade ago, just goes to show how radically publishing has changed. (On my return trip, I left my copy of Shards of Honour.)

The bus trip to Missoula was uneventful; the cab ride from the bus station to the airport costing as much as the train trip. The Missoula airport was a bit of a revelation: Missoula is roughly the same population as Lethbridge, yet the airport is three times the size and boasts a proper restaurant, large gift shop, and interesting museum display cases. Why is Lethbridge served by dinky little 12 seat propeller planes, and Missoula gets 280 passenger jets?

On the other hand, only in American airports could you see signs reminding you to be sure that your firearms were in you checked luggage.

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