Sunday, June 21, 2009

June 21, Sunday, Issac Walton Inn, Essex Mountain

A restful interlude, a soft note more appropriate to the harp than to the accordion. We arrived Saturday, after a long pull up from West Glacier following the middle fork of the Flathead River - Glacier Park to our left, Bob Marshall Wilderness on our right. Busy highway, narrow shoulder, steep climbs, hurried motorists with little time nor patience - most - for cyclists. They hustled by us: 4,000 to 50,000 pounds of vehicle, reluctantly sparing us four to five feet of asphalt. It was a trip of the better-to-miss kind, a frequently repeated rush of sound, not unlike the train through the tent in Whitefish, that would culminate in a blast of wind and noise just feet away. We trusted they would miss us. We hoped we would not wobble wrong and meet their wrong wobble and have a real unpleasant and unscheduled end to our forward progress among other things. They didn’t hit us, and we are here now, all scars internal. We caught glimpses of the beautiful raging river and snow-covered mountains between flinches and deep breaths. Arriving at this inn for a day of recovery must be akin to rolling into the oasis for a night from the bareness of a desert. Cool springs, shade, food, rest. All the good stuff.

This inn was built in 1939 for train crews on the Empire Builder route - Chicago to Seattle. Later it became a guest inn and now serves as such for train aficionados and winter sports buffs. It sits in the old railroad town of Essex - being essentially all that remains - it, plus a few houses of what was 400 people in 1900. It is “frozen in time” as they advertise. The decor is railroad redux. Signal lights, spikes, bedding, train pictures, the china all reflect this theme. The guests come to be near this and the 30 trains that come by 100 feet from the building. They talk of trains, take pictures of the building, the trains and the pictures on the walls of the trains. We all eat on Great Northern china and buy and mail train postcards. It’s immersion in train and better than immersion in the rain we have suffered through in recent days. After a day and a half here, I think I will recognize a train fan when I see one just as I can a smoker - or often a birdwatcher. It’s a curiosity how we organize ourselves around things like this and draw something back from it. Our room cleaner was a young man from L.A. who came to work here because, “It’s the last flag stop there is in the Amtrak system.” Asked to explain his interest, he just shook his head saying, “I dunno, maybe it’s the sound or the way they look.” I was reminded of the study with young toy and doll na├»ve monkeys who were given a choice of trucks, trains, dolls in which the monkey sexes desegregated in their interest with the boy monkeys clearly preferring the truck and train. The women seemed to be here in support. As the receptionist told me, “Some of these guys will go out back by the tracks at 25 degrees below zero and when it is snowing to take a picture.”

The guests and staff go out - it’s a tradition - morning and evening to wave at the passing Amtrak, which toots back in greeting.

We’ve had good food here, three meals a day. Soup, cold wine, salads, big breakfast, lingering evening meals, the dinner humming with train talk - “will it be late, remember the old helper trains - the 2-10-2’s?” We also had a sauna yesterday, our first of the trip. Gave all our beat up muscles a heat treat. Turned us from limp to flaccid and immobile. Today - later, a massage. Why not, tomorrow the road again, all those car encounters of the close kind and a 17 mile climb over Maria’s Pass which as it turns out is the lowest crossing over the Continental Divide. We will consider it a deed well done to cross into the Atlantic Watershed from that of the Pacific. Our front wheel strains for that far shore.

Both doing a lot of reading. Dave finished “The English Patient” - I, William Trevor’s short stories “After the Rain” - we’ve now swapped and recommend each of these to you with a little time and consciousness to spare.

Only sour note: It is June 21, Father’s Day, and there is no call coverage. I look forward to the voice mail retrievable over the pass.

A soft and restful interlude with much introspection here. Time plenty for such. It’s so easy to be in a stream, steering around obstacles, anticipating currents, fighting haystacks; and lose sight of the river’s bank and beyond and appetites attenuated by these distractions. It is possible to even be blindsided by emergent thoughts and feelings - like a man who gets off the mat after being knocked down whose eyes are dazzled by the lights as he comes to himself again and the screams beyond the ring call him to a larger world.

This place and this bike trip would, to continue the stream metaphor, be an eddy. A calm collecting place of that which floats free and disorganized in the belly of the stream that we are a part of, that we are actually. While there are sweet and sour currents from day to day, the same can be said of the landscape within. It’s a good ride so far within both dimensions.


Pat Sewell

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