Famous In Whitefish or “How Dumb Am I?”


Once upon a time, a long, long time ago I did something super stupid.  I went back years later for pictures because, like, at the time I didn’t have a camera and quite frankly even if I had a camera I wouldn’t have used it.  I just wanted to get the heck back to the barn.

I bet I don’t need to go on any further.  You already know don’t you?

Oh, you don’t think I’m that dumb huh?  Ok, I’ll tell you what my best friend and I did one time.  Better yet, I wrote a narrative essay about it for a college English course a few years back and I’ll just paste it in right here.  Enjoy my stupidity!

*The names have been changed to protect the innocent/dumb – well all except mine.


Dianna Radermacher

Shawn Salisbury

English 111

October 17, 2007

                                                    Burlington Northern

If your friend jumped off a cliff would you jump too? We all know this familiar refrain; we’ve heard it from our parents a thousand times before. You know you wouldn’t actually jump off a cliff, or would you? Have you ever had a friend or family member that was always getting you into situations that you later thought, “Why the hell do I keep listening to you?” Well, my best friend had a way of getting us into trouble and one such episode occurred in Whitefish, Montana the summer of 1986.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at her but my best friend Jessie was trouble with a capital T. Standing all of 5’1”, she packed a lot of attitude into such a small body. To those who didn’t know her, she was charming, witty and cute as could be. However, she was feisty, fearless and sassy as the day was long.

Jessie and I had been out of high school for two weeks when we found out a friend of the family was going to let us use a truck and horse trailer for the summer. The truck was a grand old 1972 blue and white Ford sporting a gleaming interior with “genuine-simulated-wood grain-finish” accents. However, the trailer was a work in progress. The 1970 two-horse bumper pull had giant primer spots everywhere, no hubcaps and rusting chrome trim. Maybe it wasn’t show worthy but it was road worthy. To us it was like being handed the world on a platter – we had wheels!

As a result of having this new found freedom we did what any normal 18 year old girls would do…we immediately started plotting a road trip. We made a call to some friends in Whitefish, Montana and persuaded them to invite us over. So, on a late Saturday afternoon in June, we threw together a few days worth of clothes in the truck, our two horses and saddles into the trailer and headed east to the Lawson ranch.

After a three hour drive we arrived at the ranch just before sunset and were at once reminded how fantastic that place was. Perfectly situated on the north end of Lake Whitefish the Lawson ranch was surrounded by the Kootenai National Forest on three sides with the lake to the south. As with most national forests, old logging roads were abundant and if a person was so inclined, could ride all the way into British Columbia, Canada from there. On the ranch was a little guest cabin, complete with an old wood burning potbelly stove and extra corrals for the horses. It couldn’t have been more perfect for our first adventure.

The light was fading fast, so we hastily unloaded the horses and put them in corrals next to the barn. We tossed them some hay and made sure they had water. We then hucked our stuff in the cabin and ran the short distance to the house. Our hosts, Mark and Melissa, weren’t home but they left a note saying they’d gone into town and would be back late. They included some brief directions to the trailhead and said to ride careful. It was just as well because we had decided to head out exploring first thing in the morning and needed to get our butts in bed.

We woke at five thirty to a glorious morning of meadowlarks singing and a hurt-your-eyes-blue Montana sky. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep and eager to start investigating our new terrain, we were saddled up and down the road by six.

After a quick half a mile trot down a gravel road, we came upon a set of railroad tracks. It wasn’t much of a crossing, just a narrow path that looked like it saw more four-wheeler traffic than anything else. Across the tracks we immediately found the trailhead and broke into a nice easy lope. With no particular direction in mind we headed northwest. Mutually, and without words, planning a loop that would bring us back to the ranch from the north east. To go back the same way we went in would be against tradition you see; it’s just not done. So, a loop it was without discussion.

We’d been riding for the better part of the day when we noticed huge black thunderheads were brewing. Summer storms in the Rocky Mountains not only happen in the blink of an eye, they can also be brutal. Being from just over the border in Idaho, we knew the dangers of storms in the high country but still weren’t smart enough to tie our rain gear on our saddles. We thought it a darn good idea to bust a move back to the ranch.

So, there we were, riding like our hair was on fire, storm bearing down on us, when we came upon a set of railroad tracks. We knew they had to be the same ones we had crossed that morning and following them would put us back at that original crossing. It sounded simple enough.

Now, simple it was not to be for there in the distance was an enormous gapping black hole in the side of the mountain. “Oh nice, a train tunnel” I said. Going around it was out of the question and neither one of us could fathom going back the way we’d come (remember, it’s against the rules). Jessie was pretty sure we could crawl over the top but it was too steep and rocky even for her. She then said, “Let’s get up closer and if we can see light at the end then we should just go.”

Getting a closer look, however, didn’t help much. The tunnel was either super long or curved because we weren’t able to see the end of it. Feeling apprehensive and not totally convinced I saw any light, she swore she did and that I was being a baby. Standing there debating it wasn’t getting us anywhere. The wind was really starting to pick up and we were now hearing thunder. It was either go through the tunnel or go back the way we’d come. She started forward and stupidly I followed.

Neither she nor I were prepared for the utter blackness that would soon engulf us as we trotted deeper and deeper into the narrow black void. The further in we went the less we talked and the darker it got until we could see no more. The only sound that was heard was the echoing thud of our horses’ shoes on railroad ties. It was cool in there and the smell was unmistakably musty and damp. What started out as an easy jog turned into an all out break-neck pounding trot and I began to wonder if we would ever reach the end of that hell hole. Over the slamming heart beat in my ears, I remember thinking, “this was so frickin stupid” and “we’re gonna die in here” but we were too far in to turn back.

Furthermore, I found myself trying not to panic by mentally preparing myself for what would happen if we heard a train coming. I remembered there wasn’t much room off to the side to wait and let a train go by, providing my horse would even stand for it without crushing me. The thought, “Should I get off and let my horse go to save myself?” ran through my head. The fear of dying made it hard to breathe. The whole thing was like a car wreck in slow motion.

It seemed like we were in the tunnel for hours when finally we saw some faint light on the far left wall. You can’t imagine how wonderful it was to see again! We blew out the south end of the tunnel like two bats out of hell right into a downpour.

As we cleared the tunnel, we heard the sound of a train whistle and then coming at us was a Burlington Northern freight train. We had made it out with only minutes to spare. We moved off to the side onto safer ground and waved to the engineer as he rushed by. As we rode back to the ranch we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Mark met us at the barn and asked about our ride. We told him what we’d done and he stood there speechless, clearly stunned that we could be so incredibly stupid. He told us that Burlington Northern track was the busiest rail line in North America. We thought he was making it up at first, but we soon realized he was very serious.

To this day, the thought of what could have happened to us makes me nauseous. Had we waited and debated much longer I would never have learned what my parents were trying to teach me: Cliff jumping is safer than riding through train tunnels.

Apparently, this made such a great story that Mark proceeded to tell all his clients and anyone who’d listen, what two stupid girls from Idaho had done. I bet he’s still re-telling this story.

Hold my head up high in Whitefish? Sure, want a dumb girls autograph?


Picture note:  When I rode back in about ten years later to show a friend the “famous tunnel” I found that they had condemned it; filled it in and put iron bars across – on both ends.  Mark teasingly said it was because of Jessie and I.  I quipped back at him, “If you’da not told every living soul in Montana what we’d done, Burlington Northern wouldn’t have felt compelled to go to such measures!” 

(An extra side note to this display of ultra stupid-ness is that it lead to an almost day of jet-skiing on Lake Whitefish with Emilio Estevez – I think he wanted to gaze upon Ms. Moronic.  I declined.)


10 thoughts on “Famous In Whitefish or “How Dumb Am I?”

  1. your “cohort in crime” version of the story was more of a ho-hum normal situation, but we all knew who was the instigator in the wild adventures you two had. Now that we are older the proper way to describe these times are “a learning experience”. Do enjoy your post


  2. I remember seeing that picture of you, but I don’t remember if I knew the story that went with it. That’s why you are always award that if you think your kids would know better not to do something, you also know that they also might made a different call when they are with someone else. Someone was really watching over you.


  3. I’m with KMR on seeing that picture before, but never knowing the story behind it. I guess it’s easier to tell it in writing years later. You are one lucky girl and no answer to the question is needed!


    1. Yes I know, “dumb” is too generous of a word. I guess it’s one of those stories that gets easier to tell with the passing of many years because I’m soooo much smarter now. HA!
      God kept me safe for a reason…his name is Jake.
      Everyone, please pray Jake doesn’t ever do anything near as suicidal.


  4. We all do stupid things in our lives, it is a part of learning. If we are lucky enough to survive our lessons, then we become wiser and stronger and more compassionate. I can’t pray that Jake does not take chances, only that he survives them and learns from them.


  5. Girl! I was sitting on the edge of my chair through that story. And I absolutely love your reply to jan’s comment.
    So glad the two of you made it through safely; it’s amazing how irresponsible we can be as children/teenagers, isn’t it?


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