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Beware Banana-Toting Bandits

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When our train pulled into the tiny whistle-stop station at Dalkena, Washington, I spotted some unsavory types milling around the tracks.

A pint-size pirate, wearing a bandana over her face, clutched her grandpa’s hand and boarded the car in front of us.

Then the door to our carriage slid open, and a mean-looking hombre swaggered down the aisle. Her black cowboy hat was a dead giveaway. Everyone knows only outlaws wear them. Sure enough, within minutes the desperado barked, “All right, hand it over – gimme yer money!”

She flourished her weapon wildly at men, women and even small children.

I’d never been “robbed” at banana-point before, but I hastily stuffed some cash into her bag, and tried not to make eye contact.

Thankfully, we’d been warned in advance that train robberies frequently occur on the Scenic Pend Oreille River Train. Even better, the cash collected goes to support the many community projects of the Newport/Priest River Rotary Club, which operates the ride.

The little girl in front of us wasn’t feeling quite as generous.

When she realized the robbery wasn’t real, she turned to her mom.

“I want my money back!”

But when the whistle blew and the train lurched forward, she pressed her nose to the window, captivated like the rest of us by the autumn beauty that shone brightly despite the rain.

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“I’m so glad we did this,” my husband said, as we settled back into our seats, watching the deep green of the forest, give way to golden fields surrounded by russet maples and amber birches.

We’d been so disappointed when in 2016, the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions Club had to end the excursion train ride between Ione and Metaline Falls that they’d operated for 35 years. The ride was an item on our bucket list that we’d never got around to.

In 2017, the Newport/Priest River Rotary Club partnered with the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad to operate a new excursion ride. This time we weren’t going to miss out.

Starting in Newport, Washington, the 9-mile, 90-minute ride, follows the Pend Oreille River to Dalkena (where train “robberies” occur) and back to Newport.

The train features three classic railroad coaches and three open-air cars. The excursion operates rain or shine, and there was plenty of rain Saturday. The drizzle didn’t daunt the 300-some hearty travelers who waited to board the 1 p.m. ride.

Seating is first come, first served, so Derek and I were glad we snagged seats in “The Logger,” an enclosed coach on loan from the Spokane Railroad Historical Society.

Many came prepared with blankets and quilts, and chose the chilly seats because they offer better views than peering at the scenery through rain-streaked windows.

But no matter where you sit, the views are still spectacular.

The train runs on a historic railroad that’s one of the last short lines still operating. The track was built between 1907 and 1910 by Frederick Blackwell to transport people, logs, lumber and cement.

As we chugged along the Pend Oreille River, we saw hundreds of pilings from the long-defunct Dalkena Mill sprouting from the water. The pilings once held acres of logs. Now they provide perches for ospreys and eagles.

We traveled away from the river and across Highway 20 through forests and pastures. Sharp eyes can spot a variety of wildlife including coyotes, moose, bears, deer and turkeys.

The beautiful scenery and fresh air made us hungry, so after the ride we drove to Priest River, Idaho, and enjoyed a delicious meal at The Settlement Kitchen and Craft Tavern.

Who knew I’d have to travel to Idaho to sample my first watermelon radish? The colorful and tasty veggie was part of an appetizer featuring pumpkin hummus.

There’s still time for you to catch the train. The Scenic Pend Oreille River Train’s final excursions of the season are this weekend.

Bundle up and enjoy the ride, but beware of black-hatted, banana-toting bandits.

For more information about SPORT (Scenic Pend Oreille River Train Rides), visit sporttrainrides.com, or call (877) 525-5226.

All Write

Overcoming Obstacles to Enjoy the View

Like a prehistoric behemoth reaching mud-stained claws to snatch errant hikers and shove them into its gaping maw, the uprooted tree made a menacing obstacle.

Who knew when it had toppled? Its exposed roots jutted toward the branch-strewn trail, and drying mud made the ground soft beneath our feet.

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“I think we can get around it, just watch your step,” my husband said.

Edging forward, I said, “I’m sure glad I took that selfie before we started this hike.”

Derek paused and dropped the branch he’d been holding out of my way.

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“You took a selfie? But I took a photo of you next to the sign at the trailhead.”

He’d told me to smile, but feeling contrary and eager to start the hike, I’d squinched my eyes shut and bared my teeth at him.

I shuddered.

“Just think if we don’t make it out, that would have been the last photo our kids would have of their mom!”

I was teasing. Mostly. Our situation wasn’t dire, just a bit more challenging than we’d anticipated.

After 24 hours of luxuriating in the pools at Quinn’s Hot Springs and eating sumptuous food at the resort’s restaurant, Harwood House, we were ready to burn some calories and take in some Montana scenery that didn’t involve questionable choices in swimwear.

The sprawling Lolo National Forest offers plenty of hiking opportunities, including Iron Mountain Trail No. 242, just a few miles from Quinn’s.

It’s deemed a moderate trail, and we’re moderate hikers. The initial grade proved a bit steep, and there wasn’t much of a view at first – just lots of greenery and pretty wildflowers neither of us could identify.

“Uh oh!” Derek muttered.

We’d turned a bend and found the trail littered with rocks. Carefully, we picked our way across the shifting stones.

Little rocks are more treacherous to footing than giant boulders. No one wants a romantic getaway to end with a sprained ankle or a trip to the emergency room.

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Some enterprising individual had taken creative license with nature and stacked a small cairn near the overlook.

Onward and upward we pressed, and now the fallen tree and its detritus offered another possible roadblock.

“We could go back,” I said, doubtfully.

Derek surveyed the carnage.

“Nah, let’s at least try to get to the first viewpoint.”

So I carefully picked a path and he followed.

Minutes later, we reached the viewpoint and gazed down at the churning brownish waters of the Clark Fork River. Surrounded by mountains and pines, we wondered how our intrepid forebears had traversed the “road” with loaded wagons drawn by teams of horses or mules, hauling silver ore from the mine to the river far below.

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Iron Mountain Road was in use until 1910, and must have originally been much wider than the trail we’d just traversed.

We could hear the distant hum of traffic on the highway hidden somewhere below us as we watched the river, swollen by recent rains, rolling in the distance. Pine branches danced in the slight breeze. A hawk wheeled silently in the sky above.

It felt good to take a break from watching our feet and watch Mother Nature instead.

The hike reminded me that it’s not always big obstacles that cause the most harm. Sometimes it’s the pesky little annoyances that trip me up and rob me of my equilibrium.

Because I work in a deadline-driven industry, I’m often guilty of keeping my head down, eyes on the project in front of me, only occasionally peering up to see what new task is around the bend.

That’s why it’s so important to sometimes simply stop. To rest. To take a deep breath, look up and enjoy the marvelous view.