Monday, February 27, 2017

Cross Country Skiing 101

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Day 1:

I hadn't been on cross country skis for 25 years.  The equipment, I was told, had vastly improved.  Yeah, right.  I felt awkward.  Clumsy.  Way out of my comfort zone.  But I persevered (in order to save my marriage.)  I promised my travel buddy I would give it a try.  Snow-shoeing was too boring for him.  Downhill was way way way too scary for me.  Cross Country was our compromise.

I got the kick and glide down that first day, but it was the uphill climbs that did me in.  No matter how much I dug those metal edges into the snow on those herringbone steps, I ended up going backwards and falling.

So I took the damn skis off and walked up.

Day 2:

We realized that we had gone on an intermediate trail the first day.  I felt a little better.  No wonder I was having such a hard time.  So the second day we made sure we were on an easy beginner trail.  The climb was not steep, but it was steady.  Up, up, up, we went.  Which meant, down, down, down, on the way back.  Gulp.
I started out okay.  A nice and easy snow plow, but then my speed started to increase.  My skis went all cattywampus and down I went.

"But you fell in snow," my travel buddy said.  "It doesn't hurt.  Just keep trying.  You can do it."

Yeah, right.  I took off my skis and walked down.

Day 3:

My travel buddy did some scouting and returned to the lodge to tell me he had found the perfect trail.  A nice level loop with amazing scenery.

Finally!  Yeah, I can do this!  I was skiing.  Going up.  Going down.  And no falling.  The only thing was, this trail was so BEAUTIFUL I kept stopping to take pictures.  I went around once.  My buddy kept going.  Literally skiing circles around me.
"Come on," he urged.  "Let's go around again.  You're doing great!"

"You go," I said.  "I'll catch up."

When he was out of sight, I took the damn skis off and walked.

Day 4:

We rented snow shoes.

And I had the BEST day ever.

So the moral of this story is:  Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks.  Only the "old dog" wasn't me; it was him. I taught my husband patience.  And acceptance. (He even laughed about it, imagine that!)

From now on, he'll go downhill skiing and I'll go snow shoeing.  We will meet for drinks at the end of the day.

 We will live happily ever after.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Snowbound Cabooses

Cabooses.  These end-of-train headquarters now belong to the realm of nostalgia and romance, but happily many of them have been reborn as lodging for train aficionados (like me).

At the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana, several of these charming cabooses can be rented.  There is a two-night minimum.  Each caboose has a kitchen and bathroom and outside deck--perfect for families with small children who can drive here with groceries and gear.
We had several lengthy conversations with fellow guests during our stay at the inn.  "Whatever happened to the caboose?" was the start of these discussions.

For a hundred years these cars have housed conductors and brakemen on their cross-country journeys.  They served as rolling offices.  Each caboose had a desk, bed and stove.  Oil cans and red flags were stored with water and food.  Things started to change in the 60's with the onset of computers and electronic communication.  By 1984, almost all railroads had replaced the cabooses with EOTs (End of Train devices).  These EOTs could monitor the brakes and display the results to the engineer in the locomotive.

It was an end of an era.  No more whistle-stops for presidential candidates.  No more happy waves from the brakemen at the back. No more overnight accommodations for the crew.  Indeed, dozens of crew were replaced by computers.  Today, only an engineer and conductor are on board.  (And in the near future, I expect there will be no humans at all.)

Of course, I'm talking about the freight trains.  Amtrak has more operating crew on board, as well as service crew.  There's still no caboose but my travel buddy and I were in the last sleeping car on the Empire Builder and we could see out the back window to the tracks behind us.  It's as close as you can get to a caboose these days.

Unless you stay at the Izaak Walton!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Days at the Izaak Walton Inn

The Izaak Walton Inn is a flag stop along Amtrak's Empire Builder route, meaning the train will roll past if no one on board is staying there.  Ever since I read about this place, I have wanted to check it out.  Turns out, this little escapade was one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever taken.  My travel buddy now wants to make it an annual event.

The inn was named after Izaak Walton, the 17th century English author of The Complete Angler.  There is a copy of this classic fishing guide in the hotel lobby, but I never did pick it up.  I came here to ski, to watch the trains and to eat fabulous meals in the dining room (which reviewers have raved about and rightly so).

We started our days with a big breakfast:  The classic bacon and eggs or French toast Bananas Foster or yogurt parfaits.  Then we'd ski or snowshoe all morning and then have tall cold beers by the crackling fire in the lobby, skipping lunch so we'd be super hungry for dinner.  Then we'd nap and go out for another run.

Dinners were indeed a highlight.  One night we had juicy, tender filet mignons; another, a grilled portobello mushroom stuffed with butternut squash and risotto.

Oh, and the huckleberry cobbler is out of this world!

Although the architecture is Tudor-style, the interior is warm and rustic.  The inn was a WPA project intended to house the Great Northern Railroad workers who kept the lines cleared and open during the long snowy winters.  It is filled with railroad memorabilia--old calendars, maps and photographs.  Of course today, it houses vacationers who have made their way here from all over the world.  We met people from Germany, France and Canada as well as several states.

  It is located at the southern end of Glacier National Park and is surrounded by over a million acres of wilderness.  There are no t.v.'s, and no cell phone service.  If you want to get away from it all, the Izaak Walton Inn is the perfect destination.
You don't have to bring gear with you.  There is Nordic ski equipment available to rent on site.  Lessons are also available.  The well-groomed trails are a short walk away from the inn.  They are all mapped and designated either easy, intermediate or difficult so all levels of skiers can have fun.

We meant to sign up for a winter ski tour of Glacier National Park, but got into such an enjoyable routine that we felt no real need to do so.

Maybe next year.

When we return. 

And return, we will!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Riding the Empire Builder

from Bingen, Washington
to Essex, Montana

I'm starting to question my sanity.  Why would I want to leave a cold snow-covered Oregon for even a colder more snow-covered Montana?

Blue Skies--that's why.

Montana is often called Big Sky Country, but for me it will always be Blue Sky Country.  We have had snow and gray skies for months now in the Columbia River Gorge.  I needed some color!  I didn't care if I was heading into 12 feet snow drifts and avalanches, it was that Big Blue Sky I was craving.

The truth is an avalanche almost derailed us.  Only four days before our departure all railroad traffic was stopped between Whitefish and Cut Bank, Montana, due to an avalanche that caused ten feet of snow to drift on to the tracks.  I got a text on my phone from Amtrak to make alternative travel plans.

Man, was I bummed.

But the track was cleared by the time we were to leave and even though the train was late, we were two happy campers.  We boarded the Empire Builder on Friday evening with a bottle of wine and a massive submarine sandwich.  We ate our dinner by the light of a full moon before stretching out in our bunk beds for a good night's sleep.

In the morning when I opened the curtains, I was in Montana.  And there was sun!

We were actually happy the train had been late the night before because that meant we could see more of Montana in the daylight as the train rolled through Libby, Whitefish and West Glacier National Park.

The Empire Builder is the name of the Amtrak train that goes from Seattle to Chicago.  There is a spur line from Portland which we caught in Bingen, Washington that hooks to the Seattle section in Spokane.  When I discovered this line stops at a ski resort just south of Glacier National Park, I was on board.  
  We had coffee in our sleeper car the next morning and my travel buddy finally understood why I love train travel so much.  Slow travel is relaxing travel.  There is something so magical about sitting back and watching the world go by.  We were glued to our seats all morning.
We arrived in Essex just before noon and a shuttle from the Izaak Walton Inn was waiting for us.  For the next four days we would be living in this beautiful old hotel, tucked between mountains and surrounded by 30 miles of Nordic ski trails.

So, yes, we left snow for even more snow and yes, it sounds crazy.  But this trip turned out to be very enjoyable.  There was definitely a method to our madness.  Several days without cell phone reception, news or t.v. for one thing.  Plus, our skiing improved.

  But best of all, I got my travel buddy hooked on trains!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Seattle Harbor Cruise

On my last day in Seattle, I bought a ticket for the one-hour narrated cruise aboard the Spirit of Seattle.  In other waterfront cities like Hong Kong, San Francisco and Sydney, I took these harbor cruises on the first day, rather than the last, in order to get myself oriented.  I think I'm going to change my tune from now on.  I loved seeing where I have been from the vantage point of the sea.

When touring a new city, everything is so new and exciting that your own adrenaline keeps you going at an accelerated pace.  Sitting on the upper deck of the boat while watching the world float by, forces you to stop, to catch your breath, to dream and to weigh the varied reasons that brought you here in the first place.

I entered a sort of dreamscape.  Although the narration was entertaining, I found myself drifting in and out, more entranced by the green and blue colors of the bay and the mist that was slowly enveloping the city in a veil of tulle.

   While the city faded, other destinations popped into my mind.  For me, this is always a good thing.  I love trips that spur the desire for more.

  As our boat entered the busy port area, I reminisced about our 2013 Panama Canal trip.  After watching freighter after freighter transit the narrow locks, I remember wanting to cross the Pacific on one of them.  I hadn't thought about that for awhile, but once that aspiration resurfaced in Seattle, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. 
I left the Argosy cruise with a sense of happiness and contentment.  I had come here for two reasons.  To explore a new city, but also to escape a debilitating depression.  Seattle helped me to understand that as upsetting as current events are, there is still beauty in the world and hope for the future.  She's not that far away that I can't hop on that train and return again and again and again.  Whenever the need arises.  

Good-Bye Seattle.

Until we meet again.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Folks at Miners Landing

Exploring Seattle

Bathroom anxiety.  This isn't a topic for a blog about magical moments but let's face it, every traveler in a strange land has experienced it.  I've known a few who have stopped traveling altogether because of it.  I once took a bus from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende with my elderly aunt who screamed at the driver, "If you don't stop at a bathroom within ten minutes you better have a mop on board because there's gonna be a big old puddle on your floor."

He did.
And so I found myself running down halls and up and down stairs at a place called "Miners Landing" in search of a public restroom.  I figured there had to be one somewhere.  This looked like one of those tourist enclaves.  You know the type.  Junk shops.  Fudge.  Cotton Candy.  Fish and chips. Even a carousel.  It was early enough in the morning that the Ladies Room was freshly sanitized.  Ah, relief!

  I swear the old guy above winked at me as I walked past him.  (These old men do that to me, you know.)  He could tell I was a different person now.  More relaxed.  Eager to look around.  Look at him.

Then a chorus of voices sprung up from every corner of the place.

"Hey, lady, what's your hurry?"

"Hey, cutie, wanna take my picture?"

They were everywhere.  In front of every shop.  Unloading merchandise from the rafters.  Singing.  Hawking their wares.  Life size wooden creatures with big grins and happy dispositions.  Begging.  Extolling their charms.  Besieging me to hang out for awhile.

I snapped away, happy as a clam.  I had found my people.
I even started to laugh at myself, realizing I was becoming as crazy as my dearly departed aunt.  But you know what?  She was out there traveling the world in her eighties.  With obstinacy and a raunchy sense of humor.

I want to keep traveling, too, even when I'm white-haired, wrinkled and walking with a cane.  I'm not letting any anxiety stop this old gal.  No way! 

"Oh, for crying out loud," this wise one advised, "Just buy some Depends and be done with it!"