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Route of the Hiawatha

Updated: Mar 17

The Hiawatha Trail and the Milwaukee Road are both routes that amble through the wilderness of the St. Joe Mountains and include looming, long, dark, crumbling railroad tunnels piercing through the earth in the middle of nowhere. Though it was now far past summertime with snow veiling the ground around me, I decided to take my 12,000-pound 4-wheel-drive studio apartment down the same trail, come hell or high winter.



This current leg of my border-to-border journey began when I left Wallace, Idaho, the day before, heading south on the same forest road that I had taken into town from the opposite direction. That route back east would take me far from civilization for a few days, through more of the bountiful Bitteroots, and back into the lands of Montana. I had passed the Pulaski Tunnel Trail not too far out of town the evening before and was tempted to go back for a morning hike and see how far I could make it in the snow. However, the parking situation was less than ideal for a 20-foot+ vehicle, and I had plenty of miles to go that day, so I managed to decide against it.


Further down the road, I encountered a short series of switchbacks topped with a thin layer of slush, with ice patches lurking here and there among the tan gravel poking through. Dark granite rock walls marked the sides of Flora gulch, with the occasional sign of plant life fighting its way through the snow. I was in the process of climbing from around 2000 feet to nearly a mile high before cresting Moon Pass. Soon I rolled along through a low spot that had opened up to my right that included a meadow of willow shoots all around forming bundles, bits of red and brown lingering among the yellow dormant tones of winter on the grasses that remained.


Others passed me on the road, some rolling with chains and all with four-wheel drive and a proper tire for the conditions, as that country was not the kind one ought to venture through unprepared. Someone was even hauling a camper with a full bed of supplies heading in the opposite direction, towards town. I wondered where he was coming from and where he'd been in those mountains. Either way, I considered it a good sign that he was headed out in good weather, and if he could drag a whole travel trailer back into those desolate alpine wilds, I figured I should be able to make it through in my truck camper. Some of the switchbacks up ahead curved deeply inwards towards the high side of the mountain; a few even included tiny streams bubbling forth from beneath the ground. As the morning sun continued to rise, I was bathed in its rays, winding in and out on the mountainside road, with my tires throwing slush down the slopes below.



As I cruised along and sucked the fresh Idaho alpine air into my lungs, a sense of anticipation was growing within me. I was all stocked up with supplies, and I was headed into the wilds, back towards my ancestral homeland of Montana. That made me happy and excited to see what lay on the road ahead, knowing that I was completely independent of the rest of the world for a short while. I had not seen much of the railroads, but I knew that I would see some along the way and hopefully even get to see some real signs of the infrastructure they brought to the west. The town of Avery, Idaho, was also part of my route, and there were a few old railcars there as well that were preserved, untouched among the mountains and nestled back in time, waiting for the few souls who cared enough to head down the seldom-beaten path and unlock their memories.



Image courtesy of Ralph Frederick


Back in the mid-1930s, the Milwaukee Road established its new Hiawatha Trains when it purchased new sleek high-speed locomotives and launched an all-new high-energy marketing campaign aimed at getting folks to travel the northern midwest between Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The trains had modern passenger cars built right in Milwaukee, and a few even set world records for the time, with their speeds eclipsing the hurdle of double digits into the triples. Their only problem was the timing; with it being the middle of the Great Depression and then World War 2, railroad traffic across the United States as an industry had begun its decline. The passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956 was the final nail in the coffin for many railroads. It wasn't just passenger services either; the freight business also began to shift since trucking goods long distances started to become much more efficient. This made many of the tiny, two-lane toll roads around the country obsolete in one sense since the interstates were faster in many instances and much cheaper in general.


There I was, atop Moon Pass, and a moment later I was over it, dropping down the other side of the mountain. The climb had been easier than expected, with the snow melting as I went in the heat of the sun. The land around me was a mix of willow scrub and plenty of alpine evergreen trees with only bits of snow here and there on their boughs, shrouding the life that roamed often among and below them. A good bit further down the road, as I came around a bend, I saw a steep switchback that had dropped down to more or less the elevation I was at, with a truck sitting there at that intersection of paths. Right beside it were a few folks kitted out for a hunting expedition into the mountains above us, so I pulled over to chat for a moment. It turned out that they were going after the big cats, mountain lions. They asked about my intended destination, and when I told them it was St. Regis all the way back over the border, they were surprised. They even cautiously informed me that if I were to get stuck in my six-ton behemoth, there was a good chance my rig wouldn't be recovered until the springtime, depending on how brutal the coming winter was. I thanked them for their advice, then continued on to Avery, Idaho, with their shared information weighing on my mind. I had some research to do.


Soon enough, I had rolled up on a tall tunnel, an old remnant of the Milwaukee Road. With its domed interior roof of cracking concrete and ice, I slowed and rolled through it, hearing the crunch of the ice get louder and louder the further in I got, as well as the depth of the darkness deepening. I could see light at the end, but it was definitely more than a few moments before I got there. I made sure to keep the camper slow and steady so I didn't scrape the corners on the curved sides of the tunnel. Soon enough, I popped out, pumped to see the sun but also thrilled to have been able to drive through a tunnel of such stature in the middle of nowhere.


I was on the railroad grade now; a big, wide shelf that had been hacked and formed out of the mountain itself to support the incredibly heavy, long iron snakes that moved almost everything everyone needed across the west back in the day. Soon enough, the grade turned into a narrow canyon before opening up to the spot known as Avery. I saw it was more or less a few homes and structures, with a tiny inn and general store combination near an old train depot that was originally built for the Milwaukee Road. There was also a bright pink-orange painted train car sitting beside the clap board depot, shining bright like a freshly washed peach. Stepping up to the door at its end, I tried the knob and was thrilled to find that it turned and allowed the door to creak open, so I strolled inside.



I quickly realized that I had stepped into a 1960s time capsule, with the lunar green interior crowned by a bar at the far end of the car and preceded by funky booths with triangular tables, zig-zagging seat-backs, and floral tropical carpet designed to make one kick back and relax on their train trip. With the time and means to travel this way back in that golden age of rail, I can see how it would be quite peaceful indeed to see the beautiful countryside pass slowly by with the slight rumble of the iron rails beneath one's seat. Enjoying a cocktail as well as a fresh hot meal cooked up right in that same car itself had to have been a nice way to cruise on a cold winter afternoon.


The train car still wore this interior from the past because, by the 1960s, nothing was helping the railroads. Milwaukee Road shut down its western routes for good in the mid-1970s. Thousands of miles of track now lay abandoned across the Pacific Northwest. Walking back past the bar, I found the kitchen right behind it, with its rugged steel interior barely showing the years of freezing rest that it had seen in that tiny, isolated valley in Idaho. The space included big ventilation hoods, fridges and freezers, an oven, and even more appliances that I could not discern through their fluid integration into the walls of the train car itself.



It was nice that the train car was preserved as well as it was and just open for the public like that to visit and enjoy. The more I see of these less-traveled routes and sites across the country, the more I am surprised by the ones left open and accessible for exploration in an age where people often lock so many things up because of the threats of the few bad people in society. It reminds me just how wild and spread-out this country still is. Many of these places are simply too wild and spread out to be enticing to criminals; they're just far too close to actual nowhere.



This world is filled with many more good people than bad, people doing their part day in and day out to help make the world a better place. I have met more than a few of them across these United States and am glad to have known them. I'm also happy to see that plenty of people across America still know about that goodness and trust people to explore, leave no trace, and appreciate the history around them.


Continuing on past Avery, I ambled southwest back into the dark pines and began to climb once again. I rolled right next to the St. Joe River the whole way, beneath the clouds, shrouded from the watchful eyes of the Sister Peaks. That part of my trek pretty much paralleled the Montana-Idaho border for a good while; I was only a few miles away. At times, the road grade climbed and sat above the river for a bit before dropping back down. It was at one of these low spots that I found a place to make camp for the night. I stepped onto the snow while getting out of my truck, and all I heard was the sound of rushing water with a faint wisp of wind dancing over my ears. It was nice to be back there, up in the high country with the notes of winter and snow all around, totally alone with my thoughts and the simple goal of making it back out of the wilds again.











Sources:


Schroeder, John H., and John Gruber. “Hiawatha.” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2 Dec. 2019, emke.uwm.edu/entry/university-of- wisconsin-milwaukee/.


Burns, Adam. “Rail Travel’s Decline (USA): 1950s-1970s.” American Rails, American-Rails, 7 May 2023, www.american-rails.com/decline.html.



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