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March 1998 - Page 54


W

hen I started reading railroad p ublicatio n s years ago, certain subjects sparked my imagi nation every t i m e t hey were featured, and Montana was certainly among them. And what wasn't to like? Retrospectives of the Milwaukee's electrification, the occasional panorama of a Pullman green-and-orange Empire Builder k irting Glacier Park, or an up-to-the minute report on the dynamic new Montana Rail Link. So stirring was the impression I received that [ knew, while I might not get to enjoy all the highlights of the West, I must experience Montana in person. As a break from my college studies, [ spent many hours watching Burlington Northern trains make their way through Northtown Yard. Part of the lure of watch ing those countless stack trains was imagining all the places each train had passed through as it crossed the continent: Had it followed the curves of Puget Sound; growled through Cascade Tunnel; skirted the wooded shores of Whitefish Lake; O\ e specially, rolled through the curves, tunnels, and wooden snowsheds of Marias Pass and crossed over its towering trestles? I knew many of the trains heading west from Minneapolis were des tined for the West Coast. I also knew they wouldn't get there until they had met the challenge of that fabled proving ground in western Montana. I got my first chance to see Montana in 1 99 3 . I ar ranged to t a ke several days off; board t h e Empire Builder at Minneapolis/St. Paul ; ride to Seattle; look around there for part of a day; board the eastbound Empire Builder; a nd, after two more nights, arrive back in Minneapolis. M uc h as I expected, I was impressed with Mon tana from one end of the state to the other. When I rode the train at the end of July, every seat was full; the temperature outside reached 1 00 F, and the air conditioners on the Superliners struggled to keep the heat at bay. Nonetheless, I had anticipated seeing M o n t a n a for a long t i m e , a n d I m a r v e l e d at t h e rugged high plains landscape. The genius of the Highline's topographic layout may disappoint those passengers eager to see the mountains. In fact , Marias Pass is the westernmost rail crossing of the Continental D ivide in the U n ited S tates. Major mountain ranges are avoided for several hundred miles as the train rolls west through central Montana toward an inevitable rendezvous with the Rocky Mountains. At the time I rode the train, it consistently ran three hours late because of an ongoing Canadian Pacific strike and the subsequent alternate routing of the Builder via BN between Chicago and the Twin Cities. The three-hour delay meant we arrived at East Glacier at sundown and ascended the pass at twilight. Much as I had envisioned, the grand scale of Glacier Park and bordering National Forest was impossible to overstate. Watching an east bound stack train cling to the outside track miles dis tant; then thread its way through large hewn tim ber snowsheds; ghoulishly illuminate pine trees, concrete ties, and a wayside signal; pop around a tight curve; and thunder by the window defied description. I t was the majestic punctuation to all the photos and anecdotes that told the story of t h i s place where a continen t 's

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