My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Christmas on the Mountaintop

This story was written in 1997, published in the November-December 1997 issue of The Montana Journal. Lookout Pass, on the Montana-Idaho border, was an isolated place at Christmas time.


Railroading in the 1920's was not for the weak or fainthearted. "Working the extra board" meant filling in for some of the regulars who were on vacation or sick leave—until you gained enough seniority to hold down a permanent job. My husband was a track foreman who was called upon to fill these vacancies that might last from a few days to a few months. Our small kids and I tried to follow him if he could find a roof to keep the weather off our heads, a phrase which sometimes described the accommodations to a T. At one stage of the game, I moved three times in three weeks and landed on top the Montana-Idaho line to spend two winters at Lookout Pass, with snow eleven feet deep, which was not a record for that area. In those days, the Highway Department had no equipment able to handle that kind of snowfall, so the road was closed from mid-October until the white stuff melted in late May.

There were no trains on Sundays or holidays, and by Thanksgiving, we had been snowed in for six weeks or more with no one but two bachelor laborers and the bums who rode the local freight trains.

A young couple six miles down the line at Dorsey, Idaho, were in the same boat, or rather, the same track, and had to stay at their station to see that the bridge was clear. They had no children whereas we did, and we were all scarcely more than kids ourselves. Now, Thanksgiving—and more importantly, Christmas—was upon us, and we had never been without family at holiday time. The two laborers caught the last Coeur d'Alene stub to Wallace to do their own celebrating. But there was one means of travel—the railroad's motor car or speeder. We had a hand-cranked telephone, and the men got their heads together. Did we dare? We dared. They reasoned that the roadmaster wouldn't say too much under the circumstances—if he found out. The couple from Dorsey came pop-pop-popping up to our house atop the pass on Thanksgiving Day, and we bundled our two tiny tots in layers of blankets and returned their visit on Christmas Day. I had a guilty feeling. The popping of the gasoline-powered speeder seemed extra loud in the cold, white stillness, and I kept wanting to look back to see if we were being chased, but the holiday was ours. Folks down in Saltese—or Mullan and Wallace—had no inkling that Christmas was being observed high on the mountain above them. And if the roadmaster had any such inkling, he didn't make it known.

I suffered mild frostbite on my heels. So what? We had contrived a celebration—a satisfactory end to the holiday season.

Several years after we moved off the mountain, the highway was improved and kept open all year round. The railroad buildings have long since disappeared, and a ski run has taken their place. I wonder—does anyone journey up there these days to keep Christmas on the mountaintop?