A Fine Ride on the Highline

This is the story of a train trip I took with my father in July, 2006. We took a trip that originated somewhere near the Flathead Valley in Northwestern Montana, and went due east about 250 miles, and then back. We did the entire trip in about 30 hours, with the longest wait about 10 hours, trying to catch a ride going back. I basically had two and a half days to enjoy this adventure and be back in time to catch my plane going home to Michigan. Amtrak was always an option in the event that we are not able to get a ride back, but luck was on our side, and we had a great time! This trip was actually not even planned. It was a kind of spur of the moment thing. I was out visiting my parents in Montana, and we did the 4 wheeler riding, fossil hunting, camping, fishing, etc. and my vacation was winding down to the last couple days there. We were sitting in the living room one morning, thinking about what to do for the day, when I looked over to the Old Man, and asked him if he thought we could do a train ride and be back in time for my return flight.

Instantly, I could see this sparkle in my Dad's eyes as he disappeared to his happy place for a brief moment - that place in his head, filled with the past memories of riding the great steel beasts, the beautiful scenery, and that adrenaline rush, that must happen while constantly trying to avoid being seen; because every tramp knows that the game is over once you see old Ernest Borgnine climbing down into your car, waving his sledge hammer, and grinning that horrible grin. As soon as my Dad realized that my question was not in jest, he got up, and an instant later, he was barking out orders to Mom and me to get "this" together and to pack "that," and make sure we had everything we needed. Within a half-hour, the truck was loaded up with our supplies, and off we went to the yard, where we would catch our ride.

As we did a casual cruise around the yard, we stopped at Dad's special hiding spot, and dumped our equipment. We parked the truck and hiked back to our gear and waited, passing the time doing what else, but whittling. In our case, however, neither of us are bonafide woodsmiths, so we settled for debarking a bunch of sticks and sharpening the ends to an arrow point. All in all, we did pretty well.

Our eastbound stacker came rolling in about an hour and a half later and Dad, with his faithful radio, learned that the train had only stopped for a crew change, so we had to hustle. Off we went, trying to find our stacker - the one that passed by us about 20 cars ago - doing the double-time shuffle, through the ballast and across the tar-covered bridges. Finally we got to our car, and scrambled up and over the sides, and hunkered down. Within a few minutes, we heard the airbrakes release, the horn sound, and off we went. I had accompanied Dad on a short trip a couple summers before this one, but we went westbound, and while the scenery was nice, there is no comparison going east.

What better way to see Montana than standing in a train car, cruising down the tracks, inches from a mountain on one side, and a complete unobstructed view of the awesome wilderness that comprises all of this great state on the other. As we wound our way along the mountains, with the Flathead River right below us, I couldn't help but yell out at the people on rafts, canoes, kayaks, etc. and watch as the befuddled people looked around trying to figure out who was hollering such nonsense. Occasionally someone would look up, see us grinning and waving, and they would point us out to their companions.

In Essex, Montana, we stopped and took on 2 helper engines, which took position at the rear of the train and pushed us over Marias Pass. It was interesting to hear the chatter over the radio. Right before we started moving, we heard the engineer of the lead engines announce "I'm a'pulling!" and the engineer of the helper engines responded with "I'm a'pushing," and off we went.

A little later, we came to Horseshoe Bend where the tracks curved around an extremely long and tight curve which followed the mountain terrain, and at one point our engines were right along side of us, albeit on the other side of the curve and many hundred of yards away. Boy, the wheels were sure making a terrible squealing sound as they went around that curve, and it is just amazing to realize those cars don't just break free of the tracks and try to follow the engines in a straight line.

We were always very careful to stay out of sight when going through crossings or by buildings. But I screwed up at one point. As I was sitting up on top of one of the steel platforms that provide a walkway between the stacker cars, we went sailing through a busy rail station, with dozens of people standing around. There I was, like some retarded King on his throne, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. By the time I realized what I had just done, I jumped down and peered back, only to realize that we went through so fast that nobody even noticed me, but I certainly learned a good lesson. We made our way onto the Indian reservations, and got sighted a handful of times, but never for very long.

Onward we went. We came to a little town called Cut Bank. I got some pictures of a very interesting area. As we crossed a bridge, down below was a huge depression that looked as if mining activity could have carved out this area, but the geography looked pretty natural. I wonder if that is what gave the town its name. In this depression, there were a bunch of houses, stables, ponds and a river running through it. It is one of those sights that would make a beautiful picture, suitable for framing.

Our final destination was Havre, Montana, and there we would change trains and, hopefully, get me back in time for my plane. We came rolling into Havre, long after the sun went down, and while it was dark enough to give us good cover, it could never get dark enough for our tastes. The train stopped, and immediately Dad had his earpiece in, tuning into the proper frequencies to see if he could get any inside information as to what trains were coming in, and if and when they were leaving.

It got a little hairy a couple times - there were all kinds of activities going on around us. At one point, a couple of little tractors came crawling by, one on each side, scanning, or x-raying the wheels for excessive heat or cracks in the wheels. I told Dad, "How funny would it be if they came by with their scanners, and on their screen was a train car axle and wheels, with a couple of grown up men, balled up in the fetal position behind the sides, eyes darting back and forth, and trying to stay as still as possible?"

When the coast was clear, we got on another stacker that was going to be heading westbound and sat out most of the night hunkered down. At one point there was an awful racket and we could listen to the engineer on a train engine talk to the dispatcher, informing him that they ran over a derailer, and guess what? It really works!! I fell back asleep, but Dad told me later that they got a crane over to it, and set it back on the tracks.

Early the next morning, just as the sky was turning orange indicating the impending sunrise, we decided to jump over to a train next to us that seemed to be getting ready to leave. We climbed onto a grain car. There was really no place to hide, with the exception of a hole that kind of went back into the car a little, but with both of us pushing three bill each, and 6 feet, 5 inches tall, it was hardly an option, so I laid down, as flat as possible, while people and work cars moved all around us. It was just a matter of time before somebody looked up and saw us, so I convinced Dad to go back to our original choice of stacker car, and wait it out. Picturing us being escorted off the premises into the custody of the local authorities was not particularly appealing.

After some time we finally heard the air brakes release and slowly the train picked up some speed. I was really glad we ended up getting into our stacker car because as we left, you could see at least one person watching the train as it rolled out, probably making sure that nobody was on the thing.

Back we went across the plains and into the mountains. The weather changes were just amazing - we went from a hot blazing sun in the lower elevations to a freezing, wet rain in the mountains. We made our way back to our point of origin in Whitefish, Montana, and while I was practically ready to bail out 2 miles from the station, Dad just told me to shut up and hang tight. We came pulling into the yard, with trains and people everywhere. As the train stopped, with our car about 10 back from the station proper, we casually dropped our gear over the side, hopped down, and made our way out to the main road, waving at some amazed onlookers on the way. The truck was an easy 2 blocks away, and away we went, with 18 hours before I had to be to the airport and catch my ride home.

What a great end to a summer vacation, doing something that only a few will ever experience, and those that have, will cherish forever.