Amtrak Ode– The Train to Haven


Haven Writing Retreats 2016

June 22-26 (full)
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

Now Booking 2017

February 22-26
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

Every-so-often, there is a perfect confluence in life—even in the life of a writer. When childhood romanticism meets adult sentimentalism, when whimsy and bravery stand side-by-side, when the world of possibility opens and you can see clearly through a widened “peephole,” as Vonnegut calls our limited perception of the world. That happened this weekend when I learned that Amtrak is offering free “residencies” aboard their trains for writers. Woah. Instant tears flowed fast.

You see, I come from Chicago train people. And I live in a small mountain train town where the train is the one solid thing that connects my life here to whence I came. I’ve been here for twenty years, have built my home and raised children and written and basked in the beauty of all that northwest Montana gifts us season after season…but Chicago will always be my starting point.

When I told my father I was moving to Whitefish, Montana, he got tears in his eyes (it runs in the family). “What a beautiful part of the world. I used to take the Empire Builder there when I was a young man in the 1940s, calling on railroad customers. I loved watching the city turn to farmland, and the Great Plains, and then the Badlands, and then the Rockies. I used to look out the window and just dream.”
Whenever I’m having a hard day, I go to the Whitefish Depot, like a Chicagoan goes to Lake Michigan, and watch the freight trains change tracks with names I grew up knowing thanks to my father: GATX, Santa Fe, Burlington Northern. From my childhood bedroom in suburban Chicago, I used to listen to the gentle chugging of the Milwaukee Railroad, comforted that there was someone else awake in the middle of the night. Sometimes when I see the gleaming silver Amtrak waiting at the station, I think: “I could hop on and go home.” It brings me that same comfort to know that I am still connected to “home” in this small town in the shadow of the great peaks of Glacier National Park.images

The last time I took my kids back to Chicago, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. “I want to show you something,” I told them, ushering them to one of my childhood treasures. “It’s the train room! It’s a model of the route of the Empire Builder from here all the way to the west coast. My dad used to take me here. It’s the coolest model train ever built!” I said, remembering how I’d hold his hand as he traced the lights of Chicago across the country all the way to the ports of Seattle, marveling at all his days riding those rails as a businessman and journeyer.

“Mom, why are you crying?” they both said.

“It’s all just so beautiful. Taking your time. Going slow. Watching our wonderful world go by from the safety and comfort of a train car. Meeting people in the dining car, chatting about life, comparing notes about places to see. I love trains. This used to be the way everybody travelled. They would dress up for meals. They would socialize and revel in the landscape. I trust trains much more than I do airplanes. I always feel so grounded and happy when I pull into a train station after a long ride. When I land at airports, I feel disoriented. Sometimes speed and convenience are way over-rated!”

“Look, Mom,” my twelve year old squealed. “It’s our train station!”amtrak

And sure enough, there was a little model of the Whitefish depot. I’d spent hours in this room, gazing at the Empire Builder line with my father, but I didn’t remember that building. Surely I’d watched my father point his way through the Rocky Mountains to this tiny depot, built in the design of the great lodges of Glacier National Park by the visionary train baron, Louis W. Hill who brought the east to the Rockies in comfort and style. Surely I’d looked at that little depot and wondered what the wilds of a place like Montana would be like. Talk about full circle, watching my son stand there with his eyes blazing, feeling so proud of his home. Like a game of tag from my original home to his…all connected by the Empire Builder.
A few years ago, I started leading retreats in our stunning part of the world. I realized that after leading the writing life with all my heart for almost three decades, my muse basking in the mountains of Montana, that it made good sense to share it with other kindred seekers. So I founded Haven Retreats. Hundreds of people have come to Montana to dig deeper into their creative self-expression on the page, in search of greater self-awareness, whether or not they call themselves “writers.” Some do. Some don’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that opened “peephole,” and Montana knows how to inspire that in spades.

Yes, people come to Haven by plane, car, bus. But they also come by Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Louis W. Hill would be proud of these stalwart travelers who have been known to ride thirty hours here and thirty hours back post-retreat. And every time, those who ride the train rave about how the rhythm of the tracks and the views from the window put them in the perfect mind-frame to engage fully in our intensive four days together, tucked into the woods of Montana, and process their experience as they make their way back into their lives, re-fueled, inspired, empowered.

I can think of no better way to come to a Haven Retreat than through that little Whitefish train depot. With this new amazing offer from Amtrak for writers to ride for FREE, it truly is the perfect confluence: experience a personal writing “residency” on the train, enjoy a Haven Retreat in our beautiful part of the world just a matter of miles from the train station, and write your way back home!
I hope that if you are considering a Montana Haven Retreat, that you will also consider this golden offer from Amtrak!

A special thanks to Alexander Chee for stating his love for writing on trains and inspiring this incredible offer! And to Jessica Gross for making a “trial run!”

From my father’s obit in the Chicago Tribune: 260060_10150205192746266_3265283_n

John C. Munson made a run at retiring when he turned 65. It lasted three days.

“He hated retirement,” said his wife of 48 years, Virginia. “His great passion was work, and ever since he was a little boy playing with his trains he has loved the railroad industry.”


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8 Responses to Amtrak Ode– The Train to Haven

  1. Jan Myhre

    I grew up one block off old highway 10 in Belgrade, MT. I took my first train ride on a troop train headed to North Dakota, (mother was going home to mother). It was 1945 and I was four years old. Seeing all those sailors on board was for me probably my first memory of childhood. They sang, joked, sang some more. Those nearby remarked on my “cuteness.” My dad chased all over that small Montana town borrowing gas ration cards for a enough to make the trip to Gramma and Grampa’s to fetch us home. Our proximity to the tracks served as a way of grounding my psyche and still does to this day. The bell, chug and smoke are gone. But the rumble that seems to last far into the night, the coupling of the cars as they make their way onto another train still give solace.

  2. What a lovely ode to the train! I thought I was the only one who had to take to the rails to find inspiration and the ability to write. There is something so powerful about stepping back in time onto a solid block of iron that carries us and rocks us through the hills and valleys of our country. Thank you for writing about it. Thank you for inspiring us to all take to the rails again.

  3. I remember that last picture without the rainbow because we waited for our train on to Seattle there. Bruce and I rode the Empire Builder to Seattle to visit a friend and then went down the Coast Starlight to San Francisco to visit another friend and sight see. We spent a few days in Glacier exploring. Bruce and I have ridden Amtrak to Albany and we’ve ridden the Cal Zephyr several times.

    I have loved trains ever since I was a little girl. My grandfather worked in the round house in Albany, New York repairing engines and I have an uncle and cousin who worked at the Barstow train yards (or ones nearby.) I still have the Lionel Santa Fe engine and hopper my folks gave me when I was five.

    Love this well written post. Thank you for writing it.

  4. Debra Skodack

    I, too, grew up traveling by train as a child from our home in Colorado Springs to Chicago, my grandparents’ home. And then as an adult, I traveled several times from KC to Chicago with my two oldest children. It was easier than planes in the post-9/11 days. But clearly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to make a multi-year commitment to my daughter to show her this country by train. Our first trip was from KC to Chicago, Washington DC, and then to Florida. Our second trip took us from KC to Los Angeles. Our third trip (to secure a north-south passage) we traveled from KC to Chicago and then to New Orleans. (These were all round-trip voyages by train) I am saddened by how many people feel this type of an adventure is too hard to do. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “I’ve always wanted to take a train.” Do it. You will be awoken up in the morning by the gentle descent in altitude in Pennsylvania. Your reading before bedtime will be disturbed at 10:30 p.m. by the energetic passengers boarding at the station closest to the Grand Canyon. You will learn how to play cards again. You will meet a gentleman from Hong Kong who will try to enjoy his dinner but is distracted by his amazement of a New Mexico sunset. You will see the part of America who lives daily near railroad easements. Hardworking people. People of little means. If you travel in the summer, you will have the chance to exchange glances with these hardworking souls as you sit near the window and they sit on their front steps. You can exchange smiles, too. I did all of that and more.

  5. Carolyn Hopper

    I love this! I rode the vista dome out here to Montana with Mom and Dad in ’67- either the last or near the end of passenger trains to Bozeman. Dan’s Dad was a brakeman on the Milwaukee out of Three Forks,MT. During train rides from Boston or New York to visit my grandmothers in Chicago when I was a girl, I loved to open the curtain at night and stare out at the passing scenery.

  6. Tim

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. I’m a train lover too (I feel like we should have a secret codeword to identify each other when we pass on the street). I’m not certain where my attraction comes from, but maybe it’s from a story my father told: he was a sick, wounded soldier being transported home to Brooklyn in 1945, and he laid on the train and watched the country roll by. He thought about getting off the train and becoming a cowboy.

    He didn’t do that, of course; he went home to Brooklyn, recovered, and became our dad. But when I ride the rails I always think of that boy, dreaming of a different life.

  7. Laura Munson, you definitely deserve a writer-in residence trip on Amtrak. I love how the idea is catching on and bringing back memories for those who remember train travel (I do, too), but your story (with your great photos) is one of the best. It was a great idea for you to link your blog post on the place trains had in your father’s and your life to your Twitter #AmtrakResidency tweet. Those who come by train to your Haven Retreats will be richly rewarded.

  8. You always make me cry, Laura. In a good way. Happy tears. I didn’t even know I loved or missed trains as much as I do until I read this. Thank you for always helping me to slow down. xo

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