Riding the Thunder Mountain Line
Around the rest of the world, trains are an everyday mode of transportation — whether it’s the high-speed bullets of Asia and Europe, or the achingly slow, rustic rides we’ve endured in Sri Lanka and Bolivia. But in the States, nobody takes the train anymore. In fact, American train rides are such a rarity that they’re now sold as touristic experiences.
The Thunder Mountain Line offers such an experience, billing itself as Idaho’s only scenic train ride. We joined a Sunday morning tour and rumbled along the edge of the Payette River, enjoying the scenery between Horseshoe Bend and Banks.
Before the train set off, we took a quick tour of the cars with Larry, who would be the official greeter/guide/storyteller during the ride. Most of the cars that make up the Thunder Mountain Line come from a rather unexpected source: Long Island. They’re decommissioned commuter rail trains which have been stripped and refurbished for comfort and charm. The attentive passenger might notice that the ceiling pattern still features New York’s state seal.
There were about five cars making the trip on our journey. First-class passengers got their own section with dining tables and a full-service bar. One car had been transformed into a souvenir shop, and another held the kitchen. The coolest car, though, was The Texan, which can be rented by private parties. It’s fully outfitted with a living room and bedrooms, and Larry told us that, for a baherlor party, they’ll often drive this car up to Banks, leave it for the night, and then pick it back up the next day.
The train lumbered slowly along the river for an hour and a half, each way. We disembarked for a short pause in Banks, where, to my confusion and terror, the crew tried to get us to participate in a Chicken Dance. I thought they were kidding at first, but nope — there were even costumes. We politely demurred. All good fun, I suppose, but a jarring interlude in what had been a morning marked by class.
Back on the train, we washed the memory of the Chicken Dance away with drinks from the bar, and settled down onto the outside benches to better enjoy the view. For train enthusiasts, or anyone looking for an enjoyable and unique way to admire some beautiful Idahoan nature, the Thunder Mountain Line offers a great day out.