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Home » Adventures » Glacier » Day 1

Friday, August 19 — Traveling

I slept soundly through the night and awoke to a rainy morning halfway to the middle of nowhere. After confirming the train was indeed crossing eastern North Dakota, I also noticed it did not recover any time as I slumbered, leaving it still a couple hours behind schedule. If running punctually, the train was supposed to arrive at West Glacier at almost dusk. With it late I was a little concerned how easily I could walk from my train station to Apgar Campground lacking daylight. I was powerless to change anything so I just hoped we could make up a little time (although doubtful) and remembered the fresh batteries in my headlamp.

The Amtrak train waiting for passengers to board

On the plus side, traveling by rail was definitely the right decision. It was much easier than driving and cost about the same (especially going solo). A journey with Amtrak removed most of the stress from traveling (assuming you are not in a hurry). No long invasive security searches before boarding; passengers relaxed in spacious seats, usually two, and meandered around the cars throughout the journey; the soothing rhythm of the rails — all summed to a great transportation choice. The lounge car was extremely pleasant, with floor to ceiling windows and outward facing seats to watch the open country slide by (even if it was just North Dakota farms). If Amtrak had more stations and routes it would be convenient, but since they are already bleeding more red ink than Enron, and Americans have mostly decided they prefer dealing with a stressful airport or their precious automobiles to save a little time rather than enjoy the clickity-clack of the train, that does not seem likely. I still must investigate if I can embark on other expeditions from one of their other limited number of routes.


Most of the countryside predictably consisted of farm fields, with random abandoned buildings and rusting vehicles dispersed throughout for added effect. The equipment was mostly old, hard used trucks or tractors, which appeared to lie where it finally broke down and could no longer be repaired. Small groups of buildings, which some would consider towns, occasionally interrupted the oxidizing metal and endless crops. These bastions of civilization contained at most a couple of houses and shops that supported the surrounding farmers. Invariably, a local watering hole would be situated on Main Street, whose parking lots became filled with many, many pickup trucks as evening arrived.

Several of the towns were in even worse shape, having been abandoned long ago, leaving behind an old boarded up wasteland. It provided the perfect backdrop for Mystery Inc. (a.k.a. Scooby-Doo and friends) to discover this ghost town was not haunted, but the creepy old inn keeper, Mr. Jones, had disgusted himself as a monster to scare away the last remaining residents so he could steal a newly discovered gold deposit in the closed mine.


Even the cities with stations were much smaller than a guy who grew up in Chicago’s suburbia would expect. I had to wonder how these towns ever got Amtrak service. It hardly seemed there would be much population to utilize the train, even incorporating the surrounding area (which might contribute to Amtrak not making any money). Then again, North Dakota was not exactly what many call densely populated so a surveyor would be hard pressed to find major metropolitan areas through which to lay track. Conspicuously absent from the towns with stops though were endless big box retail stores sporting large neon signs with animated marquees advertising their wares. These stores instead merely painted their names on their nondescript exteriors. I bet at night it actually got dark, rather than sickly orange barf glow radiating from the car dealers and parking lots where I reside. That says a lot more about what most cities have become rather than those rural towns.

NPS rangers from Trail & Rails rode onboard the lounge car describing various interesting and historical places the train passed. They discussed the landscape, battles, and personal struggles that had occurred across these plains. Probably the most interesting item (although not very visually stunning) was a decommissioned ICBM silo from the Cold War. It resembled a gravel parking lot enclosed by a barbwire fence with large “No Trespassing” signs, but the horrific potential that once hid under that unassuming landscape was daunting.


The train was far from crowded, but enough people rode for ample company. Perhaps it was rail travelers’ nature or being stuck together for an extended time, but the passengers actually conversed amicably amongst each other. Becoming acquainted with people sitting nearby or in the lounge car made the trip more enjoyable and helped the time pass. Quite a few Amish families traveled by rail too. I assume the train was an acceptable form of transportation since they have a long history, despite this one being a modern diesel.

I also spotted several other backpackers heading towards Glacier: a woman volunteering with a Sierra Club activity, a couple of English girls day hiking as part of an escapade exploring the USA by rail after a summer internship, a guy (Bill) who would day hike, a group of guys with which I did not have a chance to speak, and probably other groups I did not even see. And I was so naive to have thought I would be the lone crazy person stepping from a train into Glacier’s wilderness.

I talked at length with Bill and learned he would be staying at a youth hostel in East Glacier. This revelation captivated me because when originally planning my trip I had wanted to stay on the communist side of the Wall, but could not locate any campgrounds and was unaware of the hostels. It would actually be easier for me to stay there instead of West Glacier. My shuttle ride in the morning would be much shorter (and cheaper), and I would avoid having to make my way to Apgar Campground in the dark. I would not cross the Going to the Sun Road but would instead have a real bed and a roof over my head the first night. This tradeoff seemed acceptable and sounded more appealing than an initial night in my tent, of which plenty lay ahead of me anyway. Having never stayed in a youth hostel (and not really knowing they existed in the US, having only learned of them in my high school’s German class) I was unsure of what to expect. I threw worry to the wind though and altered my carefully laid plans to include staying in an East Glacier hostel.

Welcome to God’s Country1

East Glacier Train Station

East Glacier Train Station

Over twenty hours after departing Minneapolis I arrived around 8 p.m. East Glacier Station was a picturesque image of a bygone era, constructed from gigantic timbers, resembling an oversized log cabin. The large rustic masterpiece Glacier Park Lodge (originally built by the railroad) stood gracefully across the street. In the sea of passengers disembarking the train I found Bill who would (hopefully) lead me to the hostel. The two English girls were staying there as well and accompanied us. After a short stroll down the sole street by the station we arrived at Brownies, our hostel. I purchased a rudimentary bed in the dorm for shelter. It contained eight total, but only one other cot was occupied that night.

The whole hostel experience did not freak me out too bad either. It was situated in the upstairs of a general store, and the bare bones accommodations provided adequate shelter. The bed was not super cheap ($15), but significantly less than anything else with a solid roof. I failed to encounter any crazy vagabonds, but perhaps I just needed to stay longer. I never strayed very far from my belongings, but I am usually pretty paranoid regardless. I will need to keep hostels in mind as they afford a decent place for miser like me to stay outside a campground.

Glacier Park Lodge

Glacier Park Lodge

After getting a place to rest my weary head, Bill and I returned to explore Glacier Park Lodge. Its inside was an idyllic creation of what an outpost on the edge of great mountains should be. The lobby was composed of beautifully crafted logs and lumber forming a warm, natural environment (although I deduced it was probably reinforced steel surrounded by a wood covering, but who cares about details anyway). Old black and white photos exhibited throughout depicted the lodge’s history, noteworthy events, and extraordinary weather. Bill and I talked for a while over soup in the lounge (my last hot meal). We returned to our hostel with a very bright moon lighting our path. I fell asleep eager to begin my journey.

1 Although I guess technically all country belongs to God, regardless of its perceived beauty.