Trip 33 -- TTTTTITD
Message 4: A GOAT and a bear
Monday, August 22, 2022
Getting a ticket to Burning Man is an exasperating process.
The main sale of tickets happened online at the end of March, and "approximately 10,000" tickets were being vied for by perhaps five to 20 times that number of people. To attempt to get a ticket I had to register a few days in advance and then log in at the appointed time. I couldn't get into the site at all for about 15 minutes, and then I was able to join the queue, where for the rest of the hour I watched flashing messages about how great Burning Man was going to be and how I'd better not leave the page or breathe, lest I lose my place in line. I happened to be in a square in Vienna at the time, at night, and not only did the hour finish with an unfulfilling and unceremonious "The Main Sale has ended," but I had watched all the restaurants close and then had to scramble to find dinner.
There had been a previous sale, the "FOMO" or "fear of missing out" sale, a few weeks earlier. The base price of a Burning Man ticket is $575 (plus a cornucopia of ridiculous fees and taxes), but during the FOMO Sale, "approximately 4,000" tickets were available for about three to five times as much. I had ever so slightly considered it, and I probably would have more seriously if the upcharge had been a couple hundred rather than a thousand bucks. But back in February they weren't even completely sure Burning Man would happen, and the tickets came with a stipulation that if the event had to be canceled after early May because of a newly rampant spread of Covid-19, no money would be refunded. I'd rather take that $1500 gamble in Reno.
A surprise sale happened in May, one that I hadn't heard about, and it was just my kind of sale. The "Burner Express Bus" takes people to Burning Man from Reno and San Francisco (and presumably brings them back), and some tickets had been allotted to people who wanted to commit to riding the bus to the event. Most people arrive by car or RV, but I was planning to take that bus anyway. It involved similar frustration with the Web site, with Wabi trying to buy a ticket for me on her end and me doing the same on mine, and us both ending up with tickets in my name as a result of my confusion whether one person was allowed to buy for someone else through their own account. But the error was fixed, and in the end we both had tickets, for the bus and the event, in our respective names.
Getting a free ticket to a taping of "Jeopardy!" is not much easier.
I had seen that the show would be taped on exactly the days I would be in Los Angeles, but the tickets were unavailable on the Web site. At the end of July I looked again and found that I could join a waiting list. I was cleared off the waiting list a few days before the taping, and I was given instructions to print the ticket, call a phone number and confirm my attendance, and then wait for a call back with a confirmation code that had to be written on the ticket.
That call came as I was on the Texas Eagle just outside of Austin, and all I could think about was how dismayed I'd be if the call dropped. It was a fairly long conversation with David, the audience coordinator, in which we went over the Covid-19 vaccination requirements (one booster required for those under 50, two for those over), the dress code (business-casual preferred), the snacking guidelines (it was OK to bring small food and drink in reclosable bottles, but not in a backpack), and the need to leave plenty of time to arrive by subway, light rail, and bus, as was my plan.
The phone call came on a Saturday night and all I had to write on that was easily accessible was the white paper bag containing my Texas sheet cake from Smoke'n Ash. I wrote down the confirmation code and took a picture of it, and then I typed it into my phone and memorized it: 860997 would be the most important number of this trip. David would have to disburse this information for every party in the audience, about 110 of us, for each taping; I was cleared off the wait-list for three different tapings (they record three episodes before lunch and two after) but decided that seeing three episodes Tuesday morning, almost two weeks ago -- episodes 8711, 8712, and 8713, to air October 3-5 -- would be sufficient.
I splurged on a sleeper from Fort Worth to Los Angeles, a two-night journey. The Roomette is Amtrak's smallest sleeping accommodation on the Texas Eagle. It was comfortable for one, but it would have been tight and technologically challenging for two, with just one outlet. Joseph was my attendant for the first few hours, and he converted the two seats into a bed after I had my short-rib dinner. The meal arrived economy-airplane style, covered by a malleable metal with "Beef" hand-engraved on it. If I'd been traveling with someone, Joseph would have dropped the upper berth from the wall.
The Texas Eagle links up with the westbound Sunset Limited in San Antonio, where there's a scheduled stop of five hours and ten minutes. It was cut to four because of our late arrival, but there was still time for me to head to the Riverwalk for a couple of drinks at the Esquire Tavern Downstairs, which had been written up in a Texas-cocktail book found in my Fort Worth hotel. The drinks were served on a coaster that said, "If you are going to miss heaven, why miss it by an inch?"
Steve was my new attendant. The dining service (all meals are included for sleeping-car passengers) was more robust after the routes were coupled. There were proper plates and cutlery and real glasses, as opposed to the gin and tonic (dinner includes an alcoholic beverage and unlimited soft drinks) served in a plastic cup on the way to San Antonio. Eating steak on a train at sunset while the plains of Texas rolled by...that is the romance of this vast nation that I had been seeking.
The land was hot and dusty in western Texas. At Sanderson, no one was getting on or off the train, but they stopped "just for a few seconds, so we can say we did." At El Paso, the burritos sold on the platform by Juanita are legendary, and they were even touted by our train's announcer. There must have been 50 of our passengers who lined up during the brief stop, and one family chalked a tribute to Juanita on the asphalt. She even sold out, apologizing to the five or six people who went without.
Meals were at reserved times, and in different time zones. A dining attendant offered meal reservations while we were in the central time zone, for lunch in mountain time and dinner in Pacific time (or technically Mountain Standard Time in Arizona, which is effectively the same as Pacific time during the summer because the state doesn't observe daylight-saving time). I tried to go through the computations to determine the best option for sunset dining. I opted for the 7:15 dinner, which worked out well not because I could eat during the sunset but because the sun set just before, while I was in the observation car, whereas all the lights were on in the dining car and would have interfered with the sunset anyway.
"If you look outside the window, you will see absolutely nothing, and it's going to be like that for a couple of hours," the cafe attendant told us somewhere around Alpine, Texas. "That means that cell-phone service is not going to be reliable. That also means that our credit-card processors are not going to work. So if you want anything from the cafe car, I strongly suggest you come now."
It's a good thing my meals were included.
"A grand total of zero people have come to the cafe car. Maybe I'm losing my touch," he said a while later. "I have one lonely teardrop rolling down my cheek."
The train pulled into Los Angeles's Union Station 93 minutes late, which didn't bother me as the scheduled arrival time was 5:35 a.m. I walked over to the brand-new Conrad hotel, which was designed by Frank Gehry, as were the eagle-like flaps of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, across the street.
Conrads are weird to get into, in my experience. The one in Hong Kong is entered through the Pacific Place shopping mall and the subtly placed sign is easy to miss. The one in Tokyo manages to be on the opposite side of a busy road from wherever you're coming from and is impossible to find even when you're right in front of it.
The one in Los Angeles is accessed via an unfinished mall entrance, and it is only through sheer luck that I found the elevators up to the tenth-floor lobby. The guest rooms were above that, via another set of elevators. Getting between my room and the street always required two separate elevators, with no signage between the two -- I never figured out how to do it. This is impeachably horrible design.
But Conrads are very nice, once you get there, and the Conrad Los Angeles was a good place to use up two free-night certificates from my Hilton Aspire Card that I might otherwise find challenging to use before their expiration. Perhaps because of the status provided by that card, they upgraded me to a room with a lovely view and let me check in at 7:30 a.m.
Everything in the hotel smelled new; the hotel had opened in early July. The elevators, the hallways, the doors, the furniture -- everything exuded that just-finished industrial aroma. Opening the drawers unleashed a scent of chemically treated wood. The light switches were labeled in a cryptic manner that induced me to press all the buttons all the time and never figure out which did what, but I managed to get through my stay comfortably and without inadvertently putting in a room-service order for Veuve Cliquot. (The telephone at my Fort Worth hotel had a button for that.)
My Hilton status also awarded me a $25 daily food and beverage credit. I went down to the pool around sunset and examined the cocktail order, hoping the credit would cover one drink. The bar's version of a gin and tonic, at $19, seemed to do the trick, but when the attendant brought the bill, it was priced at $22 plus tax.
"Sorry, I thought the menu said the drink was nineteen," I told him.
"I'll go back and check."
He returned a few moments later. "They must have changed the prices and not updated the menu," he said.
The hotel opened a month ago, I thought. But they had adjusted the bill to $20.81 including tax, leaving me room to add a $4 tip. In retrospect, I should have made it $4.19.
I'd done my research and knew to be on the lookout for bogus or undisclosed restaurant charges in California: charges for water or employees' health care or even vague fees imposed without expansion. I didn't encounter any of these until I had a happy-hour drink and a salad at Misfit in Santa Monica.
The bill was soaked with enough scams to merit an "American Greed" episode. I calculated the tax and tip based on the menu pricing and said to the bartender, "My total is going to be twenty-eight ten regardless, but the salad is a dollar more than what's on the menu, and I never saw anything about a four-percent kitchen fee."
The bartender consulted with an associate and gave me an adjusted bill. "He took the dollar off, but I can't do anything about the kitchen fee."
The adjusted bill came to $22.20 plus tax, leaving a tip of $3.63 or 16.35% -- less than the 20%-plus I usually tip nowadays but within the realm of the acceptable. Harsh? I don't think so. We all need to protest these nonsense charges that the hospitality industry is trying to foist upon us. Much as I won't pay a resort fee in a hotel (unless the room is otherwise free), I won't pay an undisclosed charge in a restaurant. If a component of the cost is mandatory and isn't a bona fide regional tax, it needs to be part of the advertised rate. Anything else is a scam.
The creeping of fees isn't limited to food. Amoeba Records, a used-recording store I love browsing, now has tiny notices at the checkout area that mention a 35-cent charge added to all purchases that can be removed upon request. They can almost get away with it, since the prices are stickered onto items and to redo each one would be a major hassle, but I still don't like it.
I went to the back of the store to check the classical-music CDs, to see whether they had anything by Harry Partch. When I rode the Texas Eagle through Benson, Arizona, I looked up whether the town had been home to anyone interesting, and Partch's name came up. He broke away from traditional Western tonality and wrote music that divided the octave into 43 unequal tones, and he developed instruments to play it.
There was no Partch to be found at Amoeba Records, but they did have a section divider with his name on it. This implies that not only did someone sell the store some Partch music but also that someone subsequently bought it, and that says something. I did pick up a recording of one of my favorite pianists, Alfred Brendel, playing Beethoven's variations on the "Rule Britannia" theme, which I have played through from time to time.
Despite the Santa Monica creative math, my food experiences in Los Angeles were excellent: all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue at one of the few places that didn't require a minimum of two patrons together; making the rounds of Little Tokyo and finishing at Kura, where sushi is brought around by conveyor or whizzes along a track and drinks are delivered by robot; yakitori at an izakaya in a shopping mall near Little Tokyo; and a Cuban lunch at Versailles, where I reflected on what I'd just seen at Sony Pictures Studios.
Ken Jennings, who won the "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time" tournament in 2020, looks less imposing in person than he does on television, and he doesn't look very imposing on television. He is just as charming as he seems, however.
The set also looks less forbidding in person, though anyone who's been a contestant may feel differently. The game board wouldn't look out of place in an Atlantic City casino; it resembled an oversized video-poker machine. I was seated in the second row, stage left, on the aisle, so I had a good view of the game board but couldn't see the display of the contestants' scores directly under them. I could see the digital score display to the left of the game board, however -- the one seen by the contestants. Like most audience members at the studio, I was given a blue wristband; across the aisle were other contestants -- those awaiting their turn or who had been defeated already -- and contestants' companions.
The stage manager, Jimmy, has spent more than two decades with the show. While the contestants for the first game were brought onstage and photographed, he welcomed us. "How many of you are here just for the free air conditioning?" This was the second week of live audiences since the pandemic.
Then he made us swear: "I promise to have fun! I promise to be enthusiastic! I promise to keep my mask on at all times!"
"These seats are more comfortable than the ones for 'Wheel of Fortune,'" the woman next to me said to her companion.
The opening sequence was shot, minus Johnny Gilbert's naming the contestants: He now records it from home, with a stand-in cheering them on in the moment. The players' ring-in buzzers were tested.
No spoilers about the outcomes ahead: Eight thousand episodes ago, when I was in my teens, I thought I could prepare to be on the show. But there are far too many topics I simply have no interest in studying. A category of "When Polk Was President" corroborated that, though "Geography" and "Plane Talk" aroused my interest. A Scrabble-related clue about minerals confirmed that my sights are better set on the board game. (If you're into Scrabble and blind-guessing "Jeopardy!" responses based on the category, you can probably come up with this one already.)
It took about an hour to tape each episode. They took the same breaks as in the edited version, with Ken rerecording any clues he misread or misinflected: The emphasis on the word "this" was important. And a contestant who had misdirected her attention to the wrong camera was rephotographed during the first break. This seemed rough, I thought. Just when she needs to concentrate on the game, they're worrying about her pose.
When there was time, Ken came and talked to us. "How many of you have seen the show before?" he asked. We laughed.
One person asked whether he learned anything about the game that was surprising once he started hosting.
"When no one rings in and there's that 'buh-buh-buh,'" he said. "That's just Alex hitting a buzzer. He was a do-it-yourself kind of guy." Next year, Alex Trebek will be the first person inducted into the "Jeopardy!" Hall of Fame.
The origin of the "Jeopardy!" format, Jimmy told us, came from Merv Griffin's wife. Reeling from the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s -- game shows were caught boosting their ratings by giving contestants the answers in advance -- Merv was contemplating the next big game.
He was on a plane with his wife. "Give 'em the answers!" she said.
"We did that already!"
"No, I mean give 'em the answers," she repeated. "Fifty-two eighty."
"How many feet are in a mile?" he asked. And with that, the answer-and-question scheme was born. The original name of the show was going to be "What's the Question?" until someone suggested, "It needs more jeopardy."
The third game filmed two Tuesdays ago ended with a Final Jeopardy travel-related answer that was so pertinent to this trip that I almost wondered whether the "clue crew" had been following me around. If you've been paying attention, you'll get it right on October 5.
The Coast Starlight bound for Seattle left five minutes late, at 9:56 a.m. Seating is a mess in coach class on long-distance Amtrak trains. I went to Union Station -- Amtrak has people collect seat assignments for the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles starting a couple of hours in advance -- and asked for a window on the left, for purposes of viewing the ocean and the sunset. The representative showed me the seat map and offered seat 43, which seemed to satisfy that request.
I had an hour before the train's departure, so I walked back to Little Tokyo and bought food to get me through the day. When I boarded the train, not only was seat 43 on the right, but someone was sitting there. This passenger had 42, which was the aisle. They said they thought it was the window -- this isn't true, because they had been next in line and I'd heard the conversation with the agent -- but they offered to move over.
"It's all right," I said. "I'm going to the observation car anyway. If I need the seat, we'll figure it out."
The observation car is the best thing about Amtrak trains, hands down. The car doesn't appear on the Northeast Regional, but then again, attendants don't make seating assignments on those trains. The observation car's seats face out toward the windows, which allow wide views left, right, and up. I plunked myself down facing the left and stared agape as we glided along the Pacific Ocean between Oxnard and San Luis Obispo.
Miles of bowing oil derricks welcomed us to the Salinas River region. A man named Bobby was telling me about the area -- maybe more than I asked for, but I didn't mind. The Salinas River's flooding made the region so fertile, supporting strawberries, broccoli, and lettuce, among other produce. Gilroy, California, is the "Garlic Capital of the World" and held an annual garlic festival, now a casualty of Covid-19. After dark, we passed the salt flats near San Jose.
By now there were several open pairs of seats in my coach car. I wondered how long they'd been vacant, as I'd been in the observation car for about 12 hours. I asked the attendant about moving to one of them to sleep; I had pretty much abandoned my original seat. He said the train was going to fill up with a large group of Boy Scouts, though he didn't know at which station. He let me take one open pair and then assigned someone to it. I moved, and then a group came on; I don't know whether it was the Boy Scouts or others, but at that point I gave up and returned to the observation car. No one else wanted to sleep there, so I had it pretty much to myself for the night.
I dreamed that I got off the train and almost missed getting back on; I had to stick my phone in to stop the closing door. Amtrak schedules some longer breaks at stations, usually from five to 20 minutes, to let people get off the train and smoke. Sometimes the crew is also removing garbage or replenishing cafe supplies, and sometimes there's a change of personnel.
On my Coast Starlight, some people would try to do this at undesignated stations, adding to our already considerable delay. At one point the engineer halted the train. "You may notice that the train has come to a complete stop, and that is because I need your attention. You cannot get off the train at every station and have a cigarette. The next time to do that will be in Portland, if we can get there in time. I cannot round up ten of you at every station. From now on, if you get off at a stop, that is your stop."
I woke up to find the observation car almost full, just after sunrise. We crossed into Oregon. At 10:04 a.m. I went downstairs to the cafe for a pizza and a Coke, in my effort to buck the breakfast-food-for-breakfast mentality. The food and drinks were behind numbered doors opposite the attendant.
"I'd like a pizza," I said.
"That'll be behind door number seven!" he said cheerfully.
"I like this game show!" I said. "Is there just cheese pizza?"
"They gave me some pepperoni by mistake, on top."
I found them on the upper shelf. But why were they a mistake? I'd estimate, with absolutely no evidence to disprove or bolster my guess, that at least half the passengers purchasing personal pizzas would prefer the option of plain or pepperoni pizza. Why don't they regularly stock it?
Further announcements were made to keep our shoes on and to watch our language, after some observed violations. "I'll turn this train around now and go home!" I almost heard the engineer saying.
For two hours in Oregon we wound through forest, plodding along until finally we reached the little town of Oakridge, whose name -- along with nearby Westfir -- probably gave a clue as to what trees we'd been looking at. Both towns were in the lumber business until about 40 years ago.
Across from me was a Dutch woman who had hiked the California section of the Pacific Crest Trail. She was on day 89 of her 90-day allowable stay in the country, and she was taking the train to Seattle to catch a plane home. She was worried that with all of our delays, she might miss her flight the next day. That's right: Train service in this country is so unreliable that people wonder what day they're going to arrive. But we assured her that, though the lateness was normal, it wouldn't be so severe as to mean an overnight delay.
We crossed the bridge into Portland 100 minutes late. The Union Station tower admonished, "Go by train."
"I did!" I replied, and I headed downtown.
I'd been to Portland briefly, with the Harvard Glee Club in the mid-'90s, and I'd been housed with a family. The father had been the first person I'd met who'd been on "Jeopardy!" But the house had been out of town, and there was no time to explore. This was my first time in Portland as an adult with time to devote to the purpose.
I dined at one of the numerous breweries, saw a comedy show, drank at a coffin-and-skeleton-themed bar, and had my hair dyed blueish-green in preparation for Burning Man. I'd never done anything like that before, but Portland seemed the place to do it. I ambled through the aisles of Powell's Bookstore, which advertised titles such as "More Decorative Napkin Folding" and "The Duct Tape Book" and
"Pioneering Compassion: 150 Years at the Oregon Humane Society."
I made the effort to find the local news on television -- this is another thing that exercises me about modern hotels: They power on to a default hotel channel and give you all sorts of options about watching movies or connecting your own device or viewing your bill, and if you press the wrong button you might check out in the middle of your sleep. I just want it to come on to whatever channel I was watching last. (This particular hotel, the Hyatt Centric, provided a turntable and five records in the room. I enjoyed listening to Mustafa Özkent and his Turkish funk orchestra as I was packing up.)
Anyway, the news program informed me that the Portland Hot Sauce Expo was happening, so of course I had to check it out. There were probably about 50 vendors from around the country, plus competitions and wrestling matches. A guy in a light-blue T-shirt raised his arms victoriously after eating three spicy doughnuts in about two minutes. The two-day festival would have contests of increasing potency, including the Burning BBQ Pork Challenge, the Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity Boom Challenge, the Slaytanic Burrito Challenge, and the Guinness Book of World Records Reaper Eating Challenge, which awarded a $1000 prize.
Near the entrance I saw a couple selling something called Hot Sauce Holsters. Well, that makes sense, I thought. If you're buying hot sauce, of course you need a leather case to protect it and a hook to keep it secure. The couple is based in Tennessee and follows fairs all over the nation, among trucking responsibilities. I examined the designs and chose one that bore an autumn theme, with a pumpkin and garlic and a cornucopia.
Vendors had names such as Secret Aardvark, Murder Hornet, and Pucker Butt Pepper Company. They all offered tastings, some with as few as three or four kinds, some many more than that. At Lucky Dog someone briskly introduced us to 14 varieties, from the mildest to the hottest. My favorite was what I called the "power-clashing" hot sauce, made with Drake's imperial IPA beer, Szechuan peppercorns, dates, garlic, and blueberries.
"It shouldn't work, but it does!" he said as he dribbled a few drops on each of our cardboard spoons.
"It does!" I said.
At Mikey V's, I went through a similar flight. They ranged from fruity and innocent up to "E.A.F.O.," to which they had assigned a heat rating of 11 out of 10.
"Eat your face off," the guy said.
But I realized that the words didn't match the initialism. He must have been giving a family-friendly explanation.
"What does E.A.F.O. stand for?" I asked a while later.
"Eat a fat one," he said. "They said I couldn't make a hot sauce that knocks your socks off with heat but also has flavor. But this one does it. So I told them, 'Eat a fat one.'"
He was right; the spiciness was intense but the flavors ran deep. The Mikey V's flight pushed me to the brink of heat tolerance. I stepped away and hunched forward with my hands on my thighs and my tongue sticking out, like a dog, watching the wrestling. I panted. Saliva had never formed so prolifically in my mouth. I had to spit; for a few minutes it oozed out of my mouth, as if I were a rabid wolf.
E.A.F.O. left the festival with me. So did the power clash, an herbal flavor from Secret Aardvark, and honey-bourbon hot sauce from Murder Hornet.
"Gift people hot sauce at the burn!" Wabi said. Burning Man is a cashless event, except for ice. People gift things to each other. "Carry it around in your holster."
It seemed a fitting idea.
I had to fight for a window seat on the Empire Builder from Portland to West Glacier. The passenger in front of me had just been given the window, and the attendant didn't want to assign two single passengers separate window seats.
"I've got families and couples to seat," he said.
It's a conundrum. Parties should be able to sit together. On the other hand, I planned this trip months ago and I lined up early to have a shot at the better seats. The view is a major part of the attraction of rail travel for me. I shouldn't have to settle for an aisle seat just because I was an even-numbered single person in line.
"You don't have any aisles available?" I asked. I was maybe the 15th person to board.
"Gimme that," he said, grabbing back the ticket for seat number 2, ripping it up, and giving me seat 3 instead.
It's a good thing I pushed it, because the occupant of seat 1, who would have been my seat partner, promptly closed the curtain. That was a recurring issue with the coach cars. On previous trains I'd sometimes leave the observation car and think about returning to my assigned seat. But often most of the curtains were closed, and even if I opened mine, I wouldn't be able to see out the other side. Why didn't people want to enjoy the view? They should remove the curtains altogether. And the window shades on planes, while they're at it.
As soon as they checked my ticket and announced that the observation car was open, I hastened over there. So did my new seat partner, who was on her way to Fargo, which had a scheduled arrival time of 3:21 a.m.
We were immediately delayed leaving Portland because a grain car on a freight train had derailed earlier that day on the Steel Bridge just outside the station. We had to back up and go around, and just like that we were 45 minutes late. The train was sold out, and the crew implored people to keep to their assigned seats. It surprised me that so many people took such long train journeys.
The Fargo-bound woman and I sat on the right, enjoying the Columbia River'a flow in front of us. As dusk set in, we passed miles of windmills, their flashing red lights beating a steady rhythm. I had picked up food at Portland's Saturday market: a chicken wrap with Ethiopian spices and a pulled-chicken sandwich with macaroni and cheese on it.
Bit by bit, people returned to their seats to sleep. I stayed in the observation car and had it almost to myself. The seats weren't as comfortable as those in the regular coach cars, and the lights stayed on, but it was quiet and I had two seats to myself. I slept well and woke just before Whitefish. From there it was another half-hour to West Glacier.
I'd booked a tour in the afternoon to give me a chance to explore the park a bit on my own in the morning (and also in case the train was several hours late). The train route was built before the park was established, and it became the park's southern boundary. In the early years of the park, which was opened in 1910, a horse-drawn shuttle would have met the train to bring me to Lake McDonald, and then I'd have been ferried to my lodge. Further lodging locations in the park were separated by a day's horseback ride.
The westward expansion of the railroad here was envisioned and directed by James J. Hill, the "Empire Builder" -- the name given to Amtrak's route between Chicago and the western termini of Seattle and Portland. His son Louis Hill developed the early tourist infrastructure, getting Congress to establish the national park and buying land from the Blackfeet indigenous tribe in order to build the Glacier Park Lodge.
My lodge, the Glacier Highland Motel, was across the street from the train station. The room (understandably) wasn't ready at 8:30 in the morning, and I wasn't quite ready to hit the park, so I had breakfast in the motel's restaurant, which was attached to the gas station and convenience store.
I examined the store. Huckleberries were abundant in this area, and they worked their way into a plethora of products. Huckleberry honey, toffee, daiquiri and margarita mix, soap, lip balm -- if you can ingest it or rub it on your body, they'll make it with huckleberries. In keeping with the times, they even had something called Huckleberry Mimosa Hard Kombucha Seltzer.
I sat down to breakfast and had huckleberry pancakes with ham. Then I left my bag at the motel's reception and set out to explore the park.
It was about two and a half miles to the Apgar visitor's center. I had planned to follow the road in, but I soon saw a bike trail and veered off. It undulated a bit, cut through a cluster of cabins, and then became flat and straight. A sign warned of bears. I hadn't thought about that, and I hastened to keep a man and his dog, who were about 150 meters in front of me, in view.
I reached Apgar village. Now a tourist strip with ice cream, souvenirs, camping supplies, bear-spray rental (does the bear give it back?), and all the huckleberry infusions, it was once a residential village. The red schoolhouse, in use from 1915 to 1958, is now a gift shop.
I found the visitor's center. There wasn't much inside; outside, people were helping visitors plan their day. The free park shuttles ran from here, and I could have made a day of hopping on and off. But there was no guarantee that there would be space, and they wouldn't stop at the scenic overlooks. They also stopped running a couple hours before my tour would end. With only one day in the park, I didn't mind paying for the guided tour.
I walked past the campgrounds to Lake McDonald and then along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the main route that runs between the western and eastern edges of the park, up and over the Logan Pass and the continental divide. It was a bright, warm day. The lake was pristine and clear. People were kayaking on it. In the distance was lovely forest of western red cedar, Rocky Mountain maple, and paper birch, among other species.
A half-hour along the road was the start of the Snyder Ridge Fire Trail. Maybe I could walk a bit of the trail before heading back for my tour. But I had to worry about cars, because the traffic was fast and there was hardly a shoulder, not even on the stretch to get to the trail. There was no parking lot at the trailhead. How else were people to get there, if they didn't walk it?
There was even a sign prohibiting bicycles between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. This road would be lovely on a bike, with a gentle incline up to the pass and then an easy descent. But they chose to prioritize motor vehicles during the busiest times, relegating cyclists to the early or late-afternoon hours.
I descended to a beach and felt the water: too cold for swimming, but surprisingly clear: When a glacier disappears, the resulting water has few nutrients and therefore little plant life and organic matter, contributing to its clarity. I was out of earshot of traffic. Then I climbed up, crossed the road, walked about 50 paces of the Snyder Ridge Fire Trail, and headed back to the visitor's center.
Bill welcomed us into the elongated red car, whose body dated from 1937. It had an open top. Four of us sat in each of four rows. I shared the row behind the driver with David and Ping, a couple from Columbus, Ohio, and Maria, a ballroom dancer from Toronto.
Bill's commentary was engaging, but he was soft-spoken, with a calm, grandfatherly voice, and he had to keep turning up his microphone. We proceeded up the Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald and stopped at the Lake McDonald Lodge, which was built in 1913. The original main entrance faced the lakefront, to welcome those arriving by boat. The lobby smelled sweetly of a century of tobacco and sported antlers on the walls and an upright Hamilton piano from 1914. On the piano was a sign that said, "You may play if you are a skilled musician....You will be asked to leave if you play the following songs (they are forbidden): Heart and Soul; Fur Elise (Beethoven); Chopsticks."
I would have given them some other Beethoven, but I didn't think there was time for a "Waldstein" movement, and besides, another pianist was already there, regaling us with light jazz. A singer asked if the pianist could accompany "Fly Me to the Moon," but he didn't know it.
I could do it, I thought. With the little-heard "Poets often use many words" verse and in the original three-four time. But I let it go.
We proceeded up to Logan Pass, past avalanche chutes where cascading snow had brought down trees. Bears know to look for trapped animals at the bottom of these chutes. At Logan Pass, 6646 feet above sea level, we had the opportunity to walk the trails briefly: the cliff-hanging Highline Trail and the gentle nature trail on the other side, with purple fireweed.
Coming down the east side, we glimpsed from afar a few of the 25 glaciers that remain; there were 150 of them about 150 years ago. These are the true glaciers, those that are still moving; there are plenty of snow caps and other masses. By the side of the road there was still a "snow cave," even this late in the summer. There are also "weeping rocks," where water seeps through the porous rock from the other side.
Near the eastern end of the park, we had an early dinner break at Rising Sun. Not ready to eat at that hour, my row companions from the bus instead walked down to Saint Mary Lake, Lake McDonald's smaller counterpart. It was equally clear and shallow; the stony lakebed was visible a minute or two's walking distance toward the center, before it gave way to a bluish green.
I hadn't realized how far we'd come. I estimated an hour's drive back to the visitor's center; it took two. All day we had been hoping to see a mountain goat or a bighorn sheep or a black or grizzly bear. And then, interrupting Bill's explanation of Sperry Glacier, which was named after one of the prominent railroaders inviting people to ride the train to the park, a small black bear walked along the side of the road, coming toward us. The bear looked tired from the afternoon heat and didn't acknowledge the onlookers eager to observe and capture photos. It trudged past our bus, directly across the narrow mountain road, and then jumped up on a ledge and was out of sight.
David and Ping, and then Maria, separately offered me rides out of the park, but I was committed to walking. It was almost sunset, and I stayed on the road, which had considerable exit traffic, rather than take to the bike trail with its bear warnings. I checked into my rustic motel room and enjoyed a dinner of bison meatloaf from the lodge's restaurant. And, of course, a slice of huckleberry pie.
Thirteen of us boarded the eastbound Empire Builder at West Glacier last Monday morning. Over the next hour and a half, we trundled along the edge of the park to Essex and then East Glacier Park. That's how big the park is: It takes 90 minutes just to travel along the southern boundary by train.
In the afternoon I talked with Jeremiah, whose birthday was the next day, August 16. Like me, he was traveling on a USA Rail Pass, which provided ten train segments in coach class in 30 days for $499. When I booked my segments, I added up the coach fares at the time, and I determined that I saved about $200 by buying a pass versus purchasing each segment separately. The pass also has the benefit of free changes and fare immunity -- the price of a segment may be higher close to the booking date, but as long as a seat is available, it can be booked with the pass.
I had specific places I wanted to stop off, and as a result, I cared only about getting good value from my pass. But Jeremiah was looking to maximize his miles. He booked long segments and would be traveling 13,000 miles, spending about 300 hours on trains in a month.
Jeremiah would be celebrating his birthday; I would be looking for the moment between Wolf Point and Williston stations when we crossed into North Dakota, the only state I had never been to. This is something of a phenomenon -- so much so that the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center established the Best for Last Club for people who enter North Dakota as their 50th state. The train ran alongside a highway for this stretch, and when I saw the North Dakota welcome sign flash by, I poured myself a cup of Montana mead purchased from the convenience store in West Glacier.
A group of BNSF workers had boarded at Glasgow, Montana, bound for Minot, North Dakota. Jeremiah and I spoke with two of them, both named Josh. They shuttle between the two cities, each has a brother named Jake, and all four of them -- both Joshes and both Jakes -- work for the railroad.
Contrary to my belief, freight doesn't have priority over Amtrak all the time outside the Northeast Corridor. Only the "Z" trains -- diesel-electric bi-level containers transporting time-sensitive shipments -- have the right of way over Amtrak. These trains go up to 70 miles an hour. The maximum length of a freight train is about 10,000 feet or 140 railcars, unless there's supplemental power at the end.
Sun kinks -- "tighter than a witch's ass," according to one worker -- are a major cause of derailments in the summer. In extreme heat, a rail may buckle, and a train going too fast has a better chance of being thrown off the track. Fixing a sun kink is typically a quick process, but as global warming leads to sun kinks that are more numerous and severe, derailments have become more common. The Joshes pointed out the carnage from a recent derailment on the way to Minot.
The train had been running on time, and we pulled into Minot at 9:09 p.m. No one knew when the train would depart. We knew we had a lot of time, but just how much we had was anyone's guess. The online schedule said we would depart at 10:53; the display inside the station said 10:08. When I asked the attendant, he said to be back in 40 minutes.
How can there be such disagreement about a train's departure time?
I was sure I had time at least to walk a few blocks to Whiskey Nine and pick up dinner. While I waited for my armadillo eggs (bacon stuffed with sausage stuffed with jalapeño stuffed with cream cheese) and "beast burger" (ground elk, bison, wagyu beef, and wild boar), I had a Straight Outta Hopton IPA from the local Atypical Brewery. I returned to the observation car and waited.
Jeremiah came back with a box of wine. The Joshes had left, and we were now talking to a couple named Sapna and Shark Bait. They ordered from McDonald's, to be delivered to the platform. The 10:53 schedule turned out to be correct.
We counted down to midnight and sang to Jeremiah, and eventually Sapna and Shark Bait, and then Jeremiah, went back to their seats. I was alone in the observation car, waiting to disembark at Grand Forks.
When I'd booked the train, the scheduled arrival time was 1:02 a.m. A couple of weeks before my trip, they padded the schedule and presented me with a new arrival time of 2:10 a.m. Now the train got behind, and we arrived at 2:45 a.m. A few passengers got out with me, and they climbed into cars and were taken away. The train whistle blew, and the Empire Builder continued its eastward journey. I walked the 33 minutes to the Ramada in silence.
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