Whitefish, Montana

© Julie Boyd


It was really all Eric’s fault. He was the one who started it. Eric was a guy we met at Portland railway station. He was a baggage handler who was just filling in at the sales counter. When we cruised in to organise our tickets for Vancouver, he changed our plans and set the tone for the whole trip.

‘Why do you want to go to Vancouver?’

‘That would be because I have a friend there I haven’t seen in a long time and we’re going up to spend the weekend.’

‘Weeel, the problem is you can’t leave till Saturday night, (it was Friday morning), and because of the war at the moment the trains are being held up at the border for hours. You might not get much time up there. They might even have to strip search you on account of their worry about bad people.’

‘You mean we look like bad people?’

‘No, but there might be people who look like bad people on planes, so they have to search everything, just in case.’

‘So because there might be bad people on planes, people on trains need to be searched. That makes sense.’

‘Well, this is America, land of the free.’

‘So if you were going to head off for a weekend where would you go?’

‘Oh that’s easy. I’d head for Whitefish.’

‘Where the hell is Whitefish’?

‘Montana. You can take the overnight tonight, get in early Saturday, spend the day on the mountain skiing, have a great night then take the overnight back Sunday night and be back in time to catch your train to LA on Monday’.


‘Sounds good, we’ll take it’.

‘You have six hours before the train leaves, so if you want to go off shopping for some snow clothes, make sure you’re back on time. The first class passenger lounge is just through the doorway on the right.’


Robyn piped up. ‘There’s a really good op shop just down the road. Why don’t we go there and see what they have. We’ll only need snow gear for the weekend so it doesn’t really matter what we look like.’


Two hours later I was elegant in purple parka, pink pants and matching boots. Bob was resplendent in cream and white, and Rob had gone dark, to match her hair. A grand total of twenty bucks each had fitted us out completely, right down to ski boots.


Back at the station we checked in with Eric who was still behind the counter. He was most impressed with our purchases, and suggested that in view of the number of margaritas we’d imbibed on the way back, we might want to check out the coffee in the quaintly Victorian passenger lounge. He also told us to be careful in loading our cases into the baggage car. As there were no security checks, we put each other through the equivalent of airport-type questioning, and, each satisfied that none of us had terrorist tendencies, we loaded up. We weren’t too sure about some of the others we saw loading their bags and climbing aboard, so thought that, in the interests of safety, we should stay as far from the baggage car as possible, i.e in the bar car.


Finally, we headed off. Because of Eric, instead of spending the weekend talking to Daph and Marie in Vancouver, we climbed mountains and fell into metre high snow drifts. We had tea in one of the cutest shops you can imagine, and spent hours in professional arguments, tempered by eating and drinking. And that was just Saturday morning.


Saturday afternoon bought with it dog sledding with the Jim the Montana mountain man. The flyer Bob picked up from a seat at the train station had sold us.

‘Come join us for a dogsled adventure. You’ll be cozy, wrapped in our warm, comfortable elk furs as you glide through the wilderness, pulled by man’s best friend. Together we’ll travel a 12 mile loop through the Stillwater State Forest at the speed of a dog then exchange tall ‘tail’s’ over hot chocolate and cookies.’


It was the dogs that sold us. Arriving at the farm they were everywhere. All tied up thank goodness as some of them really looked like they meant business. They were rescue dogs, a combination of Husky, Wolf, Greyhound and Shepherd, who were now earning their keep. While Jim selected the team for our trip, we took the opportunity to look around his log cabin, which looked as if it had been constructed especially for a movie. I kept looking for hidden cameras, while Bob found her way into the kitchen for a pre-emptive cookie strike.


As we piled into the sled, I generously let Bob sit in front – I’m not dumb. Jim tucked the silky elk furs around us, and off we slid. Warm, yes, comfortable – well not really, there are no shock absorbers on a sled – and the snow was melting so we hit a lot of rocks.


The calendar says it’s the last day before the ‘baars’ came out – Jim informed us. ‘But what happens if they wake up a day early?’ asked Bob in her inimitable manner. I don’t think he’d ever been asked that question before, but to his credit he looked her straight in the eye and said ‘start runnin’.


‘Good grrrr Einie, good grr Plato’ was the song that accompanied us the whole trip. Einstein, Plato – girls…and it got better.


It was a hot day by their standards. The sun was shining and the snow was only about a metre high – a poor year apparently, so every few steps the dogs would stop and nose dive into the powder snow to cool themselves. The only male in the pack- a lazy bugger called Tim(berrrrrr) had special treatment for us. He was the biggest of them all, but obviously the mummy’s boy of the family. We didn’t once see him with his lead taut, he let the girls do all the work. Every time we stopped, he would pee on the snow and then to kick it back in Bob’s face. As I said, I’m not dumb! We’re told that the Inuit people have about 20 different words to describe snow. I wondered what the word for ‘yellow from dog pee snow’ is? They were all pups in training with Mum proudly leading the pack. They were brilliant. Bob and I mused that our pups, Jorge and Trev weren’t even housetrained at the same age as these guys were out earning their living. The Montana Mountain man just laughed and told us how he once housetrained a horse.

One highlight of the trip was when Jim announced we’d crossed the border and were now in Canada. We checked to see if he could take us to Vancouver, but he thought that was a little far for the dogs in one day, and besides the cookies were waiting. I asked Bob to remind Robyn when we got back to her, that we’d found an escape route for her son, in case he got called up for National Service during the war.


We’d both been a bit apprehensive about how we’d handle it if we had to deal with a guy who mistreated his dogs, as apparently some are wont to do. But this guy treated the dogs like his kids, which made him an instant soulmate. At the end of the trip Mum was released first so that she could go around and give everyone a lick for doing such a good job, including us, even Tim. Since we arrived home, all attempts to get Trev and Jorge to travel in tandem while pulling a sled have failed, but they are pretty good at parallel walking these days.


Back to Portland we had a brief respite to donate our snow clothes back to the op shop before hopping onto the Starlight Express headed for LA. We’d been halfway across the top of America. Now we were heading down the length of the West Coast, then across Highway 66 to Flagstaff Arizona, and on to Utah and New Mexico.


‘Upstairs for wine tasting girls’ was becoming a pleasingly familiar refrain on the trains. The next bit ‘my name is Cruise and I’ll be your attendant tonight’ really tested our ability to maintain any kind of straight face. Everyone else in the bar car got a small taste. We got the rest of the bottles. Harry the barman figured that as Aussies we’d appreciate it. Cruise left it precisely 15 minutes to make his move. ‘Would you like to look at an upgrade, girls? I can offer you a much better room upstairs.’ I took one look at Bob and thought ‘Oh you poor bugger, you have no idea what you’ve just unleashed.’

‘Sure’ she said ‘show us’. With dollar signs flashing before his eyes, and god knows what else, Cruise preceded us up the stairs. He opened the door to what was obviously his room. with a flourish worthy of Clark Gable, and proceeded to demonstrate the virtues of the ensuite bathroom with a fervour that should have sent him to Hollywood. ‘I’ll just leave you to think about it and it will only cost you $100’. Gee thanks. You’re so kind’. I could see Bob building up a head of steam.


Having decided that we were perfectly happy where we were, and that in fact the original room suited us better, we headed off happily back to Harry and the bar.


Well primed on good Californian wine, the call of ‘dinner is served’ came, and we moved into the restaurant car where Andrew, the maitre d’ in all his glory, seated us as if we were royalty, then proceeded to tell us stories in an accent that was totally unintelligible. We did get used to it over the next two days, and he ended up giving us his card when we reached LA in case we needed someone to come and bail us out from jail.


That first night though, the cabin boys were all sitting at their table just opposite when Cruise made his fatal mistake. With a smirk on his face he said ‘so what did you think ladies. Want to take me up on my offer?’ Nudges and winks from his co-workers. ‘Which one?’ asked Bob. ‘The room, did you want to upgrade?’ he said thinking it was a shoe-in. At Bob’s most saccharine, she smiled and said ‘oh we’ve already moved in thanks. It’s great.’ That was obviously the very last thing our smooth operator was expecting. His mouth dropped open and a ‘whaaaaaaat’ roared out as he rose to his feet ready to dive out the door. One of his mates started to grin. ‘Oh yes. We’ve moved in, and if you want us to move out again it’ll cost you $100,’ she said without batting an eyelash. I’ve never seen someone move so fast. He flew out the door with the echo of his mates all killing themselves laughing.