The whistle blew, the tracks shook and the earth rumbled. Steel wheels rolled out their hypnotic percussion -- ca-chunka, ca-chunka, ca-chunka.
In the murk of half-sleep, I had the sensation of traveling on a train, but I couldn't remember where I was going. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I saw in front of my bed a long, narrow room, with moonlight glowing through the parallel rows of windows. A porcelain water pitcher and wash basin stood next to the bed, and in the distance I could see a dining booth and a fainting couch. The room looked like Robert Conrad's locomotive bachelor pad from the TV show "Wild, Wild West."
Then I remembered. I was in a train car, but one that wasn't moving. My opulent bed resided in a turn-of-the-last-century Pullman car permanently parked in the back yard of a bed-and-breakfast in New York Mills, Minn.
The sound and fury outside the windows came from a freight train roaring by not 50 feet away, bound for the switching yards in St. Paul or the coal mines of Wyoming.
It wasn't the first freight train to roar through my dreams that night, nor would it be the last. As many as 50 locomotives a day pass by the Whistle Stop Bed & Breakfast, which was my base for a weekend of autumn wandering in Otter Tail County, about three hours northwest of the Twin Cities.
I think of fall as a traveler's season: As the sun moves toward its winter home in the south, the leaves change, the scenery changes, the light itself changes. So it seemed fitting that whether I was in my car immersed in the fall landscape or in my sumptuous, train-shaken digs at the Whistle Stop, everything seemed to be in motion.
A loud surprise
In the morning, proprietor Jann Lee appeared with a basket loaded with breakfast: hot coffee, fresh fruit, blueberry waffle and an egg casserole, which I enjoyed with a newspaper at my booth. Before I left for the day, I found Lee in the kitchen of the Victorian mansion she owns with her husband, Roger, preparing finger sandwiches for a high tea she was hosting that afternoon.
She met Roger in Southern California, she told me. Roger grew up in New York Mills, but left as a teenager and spent 41 years working for McDonnell Douglas. When he retired in 1992, he and Jann bought the mansion and moved back to New York Mills, hoping to lead a quiet life running a B&B.
"When Roger was growing up here, there were five or six trains a day," she said. "But the first day we spent here there were 50, and they all have to blow the whistle as they come through. We thought 'Oh no, what have we done?'
"Then we decided to make the best of it, a lemonade-out-of-lemons situation," she said.
They named the rooms after train lines, and over the course of a few years moved a caboose and two vintage Pullman cars onto the property, renovating them to their original, luxurious standards and adding some extra amenities, such as whirlpool baths and cable TV.
The strategy worked, and the Whistle Stop Bed & Breakfast has thrived, with the novelty of a train soundtrack making it popular with rail fans.
"Some of them will take their lawn chairs and cameras down to the crossing and spend the afternoon there," Jann Lee said. "Roger calls them 'trainiacs.'"
Falling for autumn
Otter Tail County has long been my favorite part of the state for purposeless driving. So when I wasn't playing James West in my regally appointed Pullman car, I explored the two-lanes that rise and fall over rolling glacial hills and curve around sky-mirroring lakes.
It was the second weekend in September, a little early for peak foliage, but the range of color was amazing just the same. The sumac in full glory painted entire hillsides fire-engine red. Some trees were still green, but on the north sides of the hills, where the sun could no longer keep the ground warm, the maples glowed a radioactive shade of orange more frequently seen on traffic safety cones and hunters' vests.
I took a hike in Maplewood State Park, where asters were blooming along the trails and the prairie grasses were tall and tawny. In Perham, I checked out the antique shops and ate a magnificent burrito at the Cactus, a sprawling roadside restaurant with multiple bars and dining rooms.
As evening came on, I headed south to Inspiration Peak. "Peak" is a stretch, but at 1,750 feet, it's the highest hill for miles around.
The stair-step trail rises through a thick stand of maples. The dense canopy filtered the evening light into a dim glow on the forest floor. Halfway up, my footsteps scattered three does, who fled with a series of balletic leaps.
Finally, the maples gave way to open prairie and open sky. From the top, Inspiration Peak lives up to its name.
The view was limited only by the faint haze of the atmosphere. In blood-red dusk, the landscape of hills and lakes was endless and timeless.
It made me forget for a second that winter was coming.