Thursday, November 20, 2008

Choo-choo to the boonies

Ah, that was a lovely trip to the middle of nowhere earlier this week. And it may at long last have restarted the writing of my fourth novel, Hang Fire, after way too many months of writer's block, or maybe that was just sheer laziness.

Yesterday afternoon I spent three hours writing a new chapter at white heat – a term I use advisedly, for the passage is based on the actual conflagration that consumed a goodly portion of downtown Ontonagon, Michigan, last Labor Day. No one was killed in that blaze, but in the novel (of course!) a well-roasted body is found in the ruins – and the medical examiner fixes the time of death as 24 to 48 hours before the fire began. Is there a connection? I don't know yet, but I'm having a grand old time helping Sheriff Steve Martinez find out.

And, of course, the “middle of nowhere” – with apologies to those who live in rural northeast Missouri – is a small Plains town called La Plata, population just under 1,500, lying on the old Santa Fe main line (now Burlington Northern Santa Fe) from Los Angeles to Chicago. I arrived here Tuesday evening after a 5-hour trip aboard Amtrak No. 3, the Southwest Chief, from Chicago. The big attraction was a hotel near the station called the Depot Inn and Suites, a two-year-old establishment devoted to the memorabilia of railroading, and since I am an unreconstructed rail buff . . .

The hotel is everything it is advertised to be. It teems with choo-choo objects both inside and out: handcars, freight wagons, tools, documents, photographs, models, books, magazines. It has more railroad stuff than the storied Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana. The Depot Inn's luxury suites (I stayed in the Pullman Suite) are splendidly appointed. The staff is warm and friendly. The Amtrak memorabilia in the old express freight cars parked on rails in the back took me back to the 1970s, when the new national passenger railroad was formed from the ragtag remnants of the old luxury limiteds.

I had a good time photographing the activity at the La Plata station Wednesday morning as No. 4 came in, bound for Chicago. Even though it needs a coat of paint inside and out, the place retains the Art Deco ambience of the Santa Fe Ry. depot it once was, and yesterday it hosted some 35 or 40 passengers waiting to board the eastbound Chief. About half were boisterous Truman College students, and a few were quiet Amish.

Near the station lies the building hosting, the Internet's most popular railfan site, and, a remarkably large and busy mail-order operation devoted to children's party supplies with a railroad theme. I enjoyed a tour through the cavernous warehouse full of items from railroady pinatas to Thomas the Tank Engine wares. There's a lot of Amtrak-oriented stuff, too – the national railroad is generous with licensing its images, unlike some of the greedier freight lines.

Right across the tracks, on a low bluff, sits the Chris Guenzler Million Mile Lookout. It's a heated cabin only about a quarter of a mile along a graveled path from the hotel, and there are his-and-hers outhouses, complete with funky odor, for those who want to tarry a while and watch trains. Visitors autograph the interior planking of the lookout (one sign warns: “FEEL FREE TO SIGN YOUR NAME, BUT GRAPHITE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED”). Guenzler, by the way, is perhaps the nation's most ambitious rail rider, having racked up well over a million official miles on the high iron.

I was mildly disappointed only by the lack of freight trains roaring by the lookout. Just one train went by during the 2 ½ hours I spent there, not very conducive to railroad photography. The desk clerk at the hotel thought construction along the line might have interrupted the day's flow of freights. Perhaps I just had the bad luck to visit the lookout during a dry spell – but possibly the advertised 70 trains per day have diminished because of the nation's economic woes. In any case, a TV camera on the lookout shack feeds a live, if a bit grainy, 24-hour view of the tracks to all the rooms in the hotel for hopeless foamers.

The hotel, the lookout, the train party emporium and a big new railroad-themed events center for weddings and conventions in town are the seeds of what its promoters hope will be a huge new $250 million “Silver Rails Resort,” a kind of Disneyland of railroading boasting an upscale hotel with fine dining, a water park for families, museums devoted to local arts and culture as well as railroading, a wind farm, a spa and spa gardens, and a string of Pullman sleepers converted into premium lodging suites.

Its construction probably will have to wait for better economic times. Right now, however, this lonely little place in the middle of a not very scenic nowhere is well worth a couple of nights' visit for:

  • Rail buffs, railfans, foamers and all those who like to travel by train – La Plata is a short ride from Chicago or Kansas City on one of Amtrak's better long-distance trains.
  • Families. The hotel pool will keep kids happy, and during the summer the hotel mounts a variety of outside activities.
  • Senior citizens seeking to recapture fond memories of the heyday of train travel, or just wanting a nice quiet place to visit for a couple of nights.
  • Couples looking for a romantic weekend's bed-and-breakfast ambience in one of the hotel's theme suites, complete with jacuzzi. (The prices are low compared to those of B&Bs close to Chicago.)
I would not, however, recommend La Plata as a destination for young singles seeking to meet members of the opposite sex as well as to experience exciting night life. Nor would I recommend the place for serious culinary adventurers. There is just one restaurant near the hotel, the Red Rooster, and it specializes in what might be called simple and honest American road food.

I'm planning to go back soon, with the Lady Friend in tow this time.

Tomorrow I’ll post a variety of photos.


  1. Welcome home, Henry! Keep writing - all these hints you drop about "Hang Fire" make me more eager then ever to dive into the UP and find out what is happening with our favorite law enforement guy, his friends, and county.

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