When we left our house last Saturday our only stop on the way to Portland’s Union Station was the Thai Laundromat (er, Monsoon Thai Cuisine on N. Mississippi and N. Skidmore). Strapped into our backpacks, we aroused only a mild interest from our server/hostess. “Are you doing laundry,” she asked sweetly as she sat us, “or going on a trip?”
A trip, we replied, two weeks, all over. When she returned with our food and our eyes got big she said, smiling and nodding in understanding and empathy, “Last Thai food in a long time.” It was delicious as always, a great way to see ourselves off.
Crocin’ (so titled because all we have in the way of footwear are two new pairs of Crocs shoes) is meant to be an Epic Adventure, full of surprises, narrowly averted disasters, and stories to take back home and retell, convincing our friends that we are roughened, capable travelers. We bought fifteen-day Rail Passes from Amtrak, naively supposing that we would be able to wake up every morning in a new state and decide where we’d like to go next: I imagined a trip marked by nothing so much as spontaneity, romance, and adventure. That little fantasy was swiftly crushed on our first visit to Union Station to book the first couple of legs. Getting tickets from Portland to West Glacier, West Glacier to Chicago, and Chicago to Boston was so much of a hassle that we decided to book the entire trip and be done with it. Three hours later, we had nearly all of our tickets and two fantastic headaches. Surprise Number One.
Surprise Number Two came for me the day before we left when the Squeeze politely informed me that I would have to shed 50 percent of my backpack’s contents or risk killing myself trying to schlepp it all over our great nation. After I watched him pack two pairs of pants, three shirts, and his cell phone charger, he patted me on the head and suggested I go back upstairs and do a beta-pack. I tossed most of the clothes I thought I needed, but argued with great passion and conviction for my Nectar bars and bag of trail mix. So what if the train has a snack bar, I might have said. Some women can’t handle traveling without their makeup cases. Well, I can’t leave the house without my emergency meal replacement bar.
Number Three: The train that took us out of Portland departed sans dining car. The dining car, we learned soon after crossing the Broadway Bridge, swinging out along Highway 30 and crossing the Columbia into Vancouver, Washington, would meet up with us in the middle of the night in Spokane. It was attached to a train coming from Seattle, and just after one am, the two trains would meet and join. The dinner that I had counted on eating in our absent dining coach, would turn out to be a microwaved plain bagel and packet of mixed fruit jelly. I got off easy, though: The Squeeze somehow ended up with a hot dog and bag of “nacho cheese” Doritos. The chips, he said, was the only item available in the snack bar that could overpower the flavor of the hot dog. I resisted breaking into my emergency rations on the very first day. It was, however, a great many hours until breakfast.
Now we’ve been off the train and back on again and had one real, surprisingly delicious and pleasant meal (that must have been Number Seven or Eight, though I seem already to have lost track) and a handful of completely passable, non-disastrous meals in between.
In West Glacier, Montana, we breakfasted in Glacier Village Restaurant straight away after detraining, trying to regain our land legs over fruit and yogurt and scrambled eggs. Lunch followed our three-mile hike into Apgar Village, at Eddie’s. Eddie’s is the sort of place that knows it has you, due to its location and yours, captive. But after three miles under my pack, worrying about being mauled by one of the Grizzly bears we hear hang around these parts and misplacing our motel reservation, I was perfectly willing to pay eight dollars for a totally acceptable turkey sandwich with cucumbers and sprouts on hazelnut bread. And the chicken noodle soup was indeed as delicious as our sixteen-year-old Canadian waiter said it would be – the noodles were even homemade, tender: maybe the best chicken soup I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Way to go, Eddie’s.
Having learned the very important Don’t Count on Amtrak to Feed You lesson, we voted unanimously to hike back to the Village grocery store for fruit and bagels in the afternoon, and then stay on for dinner before reentering the Park, catching the sunset over at Lake MacDonald, and falling into a deep, heavy sleep.
Moods greatly bolstered by our sackful of apples, crackers, and peanut butter, we decided on the Belton Chalet for dinner. Quite distinct from its neighbors along the highway and across from the West Glacier train platform , the Chalet looks like the sort of place you’d want to eat at, rather than the sort of place that you could eat at if you had really had to. We sat under a wide, green umbrella at a table on the deck, looking out over the highway, the mountains, the falling sun.
When we were done with our salads and our sourdough rosemary bread with olive oil, with my grilled halibut and mango-ginger coulis, roasted red potatoes, and chargrilled broccolini, with his bacon-wrapped “Montana Meatloaf,” upscale creamed corn and mashed potatoes, with a brownie sundae and a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie, the Squeeze and I both pushed back from the table, sighed, and agreed that we’d just eaten one of the tastiest and most pleasant meals we’ve had in a long, long time.
As we hiked back to Apgar, we rehashed the meal, my fear of bears supplanted with wanting to recall the lightness of the fish, the tender grilled broccolini, the first meatloaf I’ve ever seen that actually looked appetizing, if you’re into the bacon-swaddled beef thing. The brownie, the Squeeze noted as we ambled down the path past a pair of white-tailed deer, was soft all the way through without being undercooked at all. “That’s nuthin’,” I said, “my pie was so real that it fell completely apart on my plate! Not a whisper of artificial thickeners!”
The next morning, we stirred just before six am and made the hike back to the train station, catching breakfast at Glacier Village again. By the time we were back on the Empire Builder, Chicago-bound, I was ready for another sleep. Even roughened, capable travelers need their rest.