A ride dubbed “the train to Paradise” has a lot to live up to. After spending almost nine hours going from Missoula to Paradise and back, it makes sense that the destination was originally called Pair o’ Dice after a notorious gambling house known for luring passing railroad laborers. Because, after all, aren’t most things in life a gamble?
Taking the Montana Daylight, a restored 1940s-era train, on its first-ever day-long Christmas excursion sounded like a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season. Sit back, relax to the chug-a-chug of old cars over railroad ties and watch the postcard-perfect Montana wilderness roll by. Enjoy a meal on china and linen in the dining car, or opt for a box lunch at your seat. Have a chat with Santa and his beaming bride as they tour the train, or simply rest your head against a snow-white antimacassar while listening to the holiday-inspired voices of an a cappella quartet. Nice, right?
The Montana Rockies Rail Tours, which has offered three- to eight-day itineraries through the Montana Rockies for several years, has started to expand its pickings to special off-season trips like the Bobcat/Grizzly Football Train, fall foliage rides, and this holiday trip. My mother taught me never to be ungrateful, so I’ll do my best to heed her advice. The train trip was lovely. As the old-fashioned train meandered through the cleavages of the land, we saw hawks and herons, a bald eagle soaring above the Clark Fork, deer bounding with their white tails high in the air like exclamation points, and swatches of geese on fields of cold, winter grass. We pressed our noses against the glass and watched the roar of the Alberton Gorge, a view accessible only to those on trains or in rafts or canoes. We watched the clouds roil above us through the rooftop windows of five dome cars. All of this was a treat. Truly.
However, maybe our trip needed to start with more of a bang and less of a whimper. The train, scheduled to depart promptly at 8:30 a.m., did not actually leave Missoula until 10:30am. “You’re going to see parts of Missoula you wanted to forget about,” the conductor announced lightheartedly as we backed up, twisting and turning for the third time through the maze of tracks. As one dairy farmer and his wife joked behind us, “It’s like the airlines: Hurry up and wait.”
At 11-ish we stopped along the way to pick up the “jolly old gentleman” and his wife. Jolly seemed to be something this not-so-old gentleman was not. A rather anemic Santa roamed the cars, then sat for photo ops as instructed, but seemed to do so begrudgingly. Maybe Santas are supposed to be mute and unsmiling these days. But the kids seemed happy enough to climb on his lap and smile for the Polaroid.
Though the beginning of the trip was less than auspicious, we did enjoy rare views of Missoula back alleys, and learned a great deal about how to tenderize meat from a group of outgoing and vivacious dairy farmers who shared our car.
Like other trips the Montana Daylight makes—be they day-long journeys or overnighters—there are three levels of service: Discovery, Big Sky, and Montana Gold. For those who want to spend more for the highest level of pampering, the Montana Gold option is tantalizing. The sleeper cars have been restored and renovated with elegant wood paneling, lush carpeting, and deco detailing. The caboose is swanky enough for the most demanding of passengers. Soft, swiveling armchairs offer panoramic views, and stomachs do not have a chance to rumble as homemade cookies, wine-soaked brie, and finger-food galore are proffered throughout the day. In the caboose, there were fewer grandkids and more travel agents and reps from the train’s PR department—at least on this kick-off excursion. Travel book writers compared notes and schmoozed, fiddling with the folds on their turtleneck sweaters over highballs of Maker’s Mark after hearing too many stories of publishing success. Though there’s a lot to be said for sitting in total luxury, I found myself missing the more real and candid talk back in the dome car with the families and farmers and old newspapermen, one of whom had spent his college summers some 35 years ago working as a telegraph officer on this very same route.
In fairness, the Montana Daylight crew had been expecting some 175 passengers until a week before when the count ballooned to 350. Staff who were meant to spend the day talking with passengers and sharing local history found themselves busing tables and pouring drinks. There were several lunch seatings in the dining car—much talked about and so frequently marketed that other eating choices seemed almost shameful—which were clearly more work to pull off than anticipated. Cashing in on a fuller train might not have been the wisest choice for this maiden voyage.
But with rocky beginnings comes character. At one point, a conductor asked over the loudspeaker if anyone had a spare Dramamine for a nauseated passenger. On the way back from Paradise, we stopped by an old farmhouse, two hound dogs barking in their pen, to drop off a family of four. Good door-to-door service, we all agreed.
The train to Paradise gave its passengers a great deal of pleasure. For many, young and old, it was their first experience on a train. For others, it was the first time back on a train from Missoula in more than 40 years. After all, there is nothing like riding an old-fashioned steam engine through gorgeous countryside, a drink and a meal in your belly, a book on your lap, a friend in the seat next to you—even if there are a few kinks to sit through. As one passenger said, a smile crooked and sweet across his face: “This is Montana. Come on out and take life slowly. Sit back and re-lax.”