May 11th was National Train Day* so it only makes sense that we’d spend Mother’s Day on a train. Personally, I already feel trained-out after living in NYC for six years and spending one summer with a Eurail pass, but on Mother’s Day my vote counts even less than it does on a normal day–which isn’t much. So begrudgingly I boarded the Charlie Russell Chew Choo Dinner Train with my family yesterday afternoon. Established in 1994, the Charlie Russell Chew Choo is “Montana’s Premier Dinner Train” and it operates from May until October. Just before Christmas the train moonlights as the Polar Express, and if you need to get your community service hours in, you can volunteer as an elf who hands out hot chocolate and sings Christmas carols.
The last time I had ridden the train as Katie Jackson, not an elf, was when my great aunt turned 80, and we had a semi-family reunion all aboard the Charlie Russell Chew Choo. My only memory of that is of my dad’s cousins tucking money in their bras so the bandits would have to work for it. Yes, that’s right–the highlight of this dinner train is not the prime rib or Huckleberry wine, but the bandits on horseback who “hold up” the train. I put “hold up” in quotes because the train’s engineer actually stops the train so really all the bandits have to do is walk on. I doubt it was that easy in the old days so maybe that’s why my dad’s cousins were so keen on making them work for the money they rob from the passengers.
After paying $90 a ticket to ride the train, one might balk at the idea of having more money taken from them, but when you realize that’s what the fake $7 bill on your table is for, you get over it. The bullets that the bandits shoot are just as fake, but there is an EMT on board just in case anyone gets hurt. Like my grandpa who almost choked on a piece of prime rib. But he was okay after my dad slapped him on the back a few times.
If my grandpa had timed it better, he could have gotten the heimlich from one of the floozies who come on board the train with the bandits. These “floozies” are harmless unless you’re a man and you have a cheek. I can’t think of a worse gig than being a floozie. Feather boas and matching red lipstick are enough to suck the life out of me. There is enough loss of life during this ride because at one point you witness a shootout in front of an old saloon. I won’t tell you who survives because I think it changes on every ride.
In terms of the food served on the train, I like to use a line from Liar, Liar: I’ve had better. But if you’re craving a huge cut of prime rib (albeit a bit overcooked), baked potatoes, soggy caesar salad, and a candied spiced apple slice, you’re in for a good time. The dessert options are far better (I had chocolate peanut butter fudge), and the service is excellent. Our waiter looked like Thor and put up with our teasing for a $10 tip. The whole journey takes about 3.5 hours and it includes a tunnel and a couple of trestle crossings. There is also a gift shop on board, decent restrooms, and plenty of photo opps. Wildlife-wise, we saw sandhill cranes and a golden eagle, but my parents were far more interested in pointing out the various ranches we rode by and getting a peek at their fields.
For more info on the train, visit www.MontanaDinnerTrain.com or read this article which does a better job of romanticizing the experience. At the moment, I’m terribly jaded after just finishing Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer so I’m not game for making anything sound more glamourous than it may be. But the Charlie Russell Chew Choo was overall a good time, and by the looks on my family’s faces (except cousin Matt who had stayed out too late the night before), well worth the expense.
*As I said, May 11th was National Train Day marking the 144th anniversary of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.