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Timeless Inspiration: Glacier National Park And The Art Of The Empire Builder


Editor's note: J. Craig Thorpe is an acclaimed artist and illustrator, with a particular interest in painting railroads and landscapes. In the following guest column he connects the two in Glacier National Park.

“There would be no plein aire sketching today,” I told myself.

Glacier National Park in the sunshine is glorious, but during a day-long, toad-drowning downpour it is flat out miserable; particularly if your goal is to draw, and that was, after all, my assignment. I was commissioned by Amtrak to produce a painting for the 2010 centennial of the park and this was my research trip. My wife Cathy and I had taken Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Seattle the previous day and we were now driving along U.S. 2 from Belton towards East Glacier.

While I had painted the Builder in numerous settings toward the east end of the park, I welcomed an opportunity to explore a setting further west along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Here, with the river forming the southern boundary of the park, the mountains tumble into John Stevens Canyon and the railroad hugs the bank. Though the highway offers an impressive view, the train trumps it by ten-fold, curving along class 3 rapids only to poke through short tunnels that open beside pools of deep green. All of that is set against the backdrop of the park and the Matterhorn-esque spire of Mount Saint Nicholas.

This scene was one of several locations I was considering. But today the on-site research would be with a camera. I jumped in and out of the car countless times, getting wetter by the minute, as we worked our way east from the historic Belton station. The pencil and paper would have to wait. Hours later, with sketch book in hand, I sat in front of the fire at the Izaak Walton Inn and began to draw, but my mind quickly wandered to the larger issue.

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"Wilderness Threshold" by J. Craig Thorpe, shows Amtrak's eastbound Empire Builder slowing for the stop at East Glacier Park. The historic rail station, lodge and Red buses all invite the travelers to extend the experience of community begun on the train as they visit the park. 18”x24” oil on canvas, commissioned by Amtrak in 2000, used with permission of the artist.



In The Brushstrokes Of Others

Here I was, a landscape artist retained by a major railroad to commemorate the centennial of this storied national park. I was only the latest in a long string of such artists who had painted America’s railroad landscapes. They had done so for decades and their works graced countless offices, depots, calendars, timetables, magazines and books. It was an honor to follow in their stead.

The history of those who painted Glacier is linked to the history of the Great Northern Railway. That tale of transportation and economic expansion has been well-chronicled; still, a brief review is fitting here. The Great Northern was the fourth U.S. transcontinental railroad. Its 1,816-mile main line from St. Paul to Seattle was completed in 1893 under the guiding hand of James J. Hill. By then, preservationists such as George Bird Grinnell and Lyman Sperry had been working to get the Glacier area of Montana declared a national park. After all, that was the era of “scenic nationalism” and Americans were encouraged to visit the natural monuments at home rather than tour Europe.

While Hill cared little about passengers, his son Louis, who took over as company president in 1907, personally embraced the Glacier cause. The railway actively supported the campaign for national park status by inviting travelers to join a packhorse train over Logan Pass, hike to a chalet, fish the depths of Lake McDonald, ride an open touring car, or simply relax on a hotel veranda.

The area was dubbed the “Swiss Alps of America” and the campaign became epitomized by the phrase “See America First.” Glacier became a national park in 1910 and, with Hill’s support, the National Park Service was established in 1916. The novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, writing that year for Collier’s magazine, noted that, “…‘Louie’ Hill has had an ideal and followed it –followed it with an enthusiasm that is contagious.”

Hill’s ideal and enthusiasm were reflected in the art that set a tone for 50 years of park promotion. While photography was used, particularly as the 20th century progressed, it was original art that the Great Northern, and all the railroads, returned to again and again. The posters, luggage tags, timetable covers, and magazine ads featuring the mountains as viewed from a Pullman, splashed the land and people of Glacier before the country.

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“The Highway Near Many Glacier Hotel,” from an original painting by Adolph Heinze was used in the Great Northern Railways 1927 guidebook, The Call of the Mountains. From the collection of Alfred Runte.

Behind the obvious goal of marketing was the recognition that art touched the emotions and opened the door of possibilities. Believe it or not, there were sincere values at hand that transcended even the romantic ideals of the day. Art presented the timeless Glacier landscape as worthy of exploring, knowing and respecting.

Countless artists were employed by the Great Northern and, interestingly, few trains appeared in their works. After all, until 1916 rail mileage was increasing and since everyone knew that mode of transportation, there was little need to show how the railroad fit the landscape. The destination was the goal and at Glacier it was presented in all its glory.

Several of those artists deserve mention. Two who focused on landscapes were Adolph Heinze and John Fery, whose landscapes still grace park lodges. Two others, who specialized in portraits of the Blackfeet, were Joseph Scheuerle and later, Winold Reiss, who alone produced over 200 portraits for Great Northern calendars, menus, and other printed materials. For several summers in the 1930s, Reiss established an art school in the park under the auspices of the Great Northern and New York University. While some artists and railway ad personnel elsewhere in the country saw native Americans as a vanishing breed, Reiss developed many relationships with the local Blackfeet. He saw them, as he no doubt saw the land, as worthy of exploring, knowing and respecting.

Changing Landscapes On Canvas 

Throughout the Depression the railway continued marketing, albeit on a shoestring. During World War II the hotels and chalets were closed and Glacier ads featured a lonely Rocky the Goat (the logo mascot of the Great Northern and the park) anticipating a return to normalcy after the conflict.

When the war was over, railway-sponsored art took an interesting turn. Previously, most of the Great Northern images featured park vistas, the Blackfeet and few trains. Then the age of the diesel streamliner emerged, as railroads rushed to put faster, more comfortable and attractive trains in front of the American public. Gone were the somber tones of previous generations. Great Northern’s ads boldly combined the sleek orange, green and gold streamliners with Glacier’s stunning scenery.

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After World War II, the Great Northern introduced streamliners to its long-distance routes.  Here an artist depicts the Empire Builder’s new equipment along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River that forms the southern border of Glacier National Park.  From the collection of Alfred Runte.

The travel experience was taken to new heights - quite literally - with the introduction of dome cars that seated passengers above the roof line of the Empire Builder and the Western Star. One can accept the exaggerated heights of the peaks in these paintings because they really felt that way as you wound along the Flathead.

Through the 1950s, the Great Northern, and all railroads, had to trumpet their new equipment as well as the landscapes they served. They were fighting for survival against the onslaught of the auto and airliner, and their response was to present the majesty and diversity of the American landscape to the passenger through the speed, comfort and community of rail travel. By the late 60s, passenger rail travel was essentially over. Instead, Americans opted to “see the USA in your Chevrolet” or, better still, just fly over it.

As a nation, we lost our awe of the majesty that is our land. As the values of speed and consumption increased, the railroads merged to maintain a commercial presence and they let go of most passenger trains as burdensome relics.

Great Northern joined with the Northern Pacific and Burlington in 1970. That company, the Burlington Northern, later merged with the Santa Fe to form BNSF Railway, the current operator. When the trains disappeared, so did the art. Amtrak was formed in 1971 to provide a modicum of national rail passenger service. The Empire Builder continued to serve Glacier, and became its first western train to receive the new superliner equipment in 1979. But with little budget for promotion, Amtrak did only the minimum to encourage patronage to Glacier.

Reconnecting Trains And Parks

I moved to Seattle by train in 1977 and rode the Builder again a couple of years later. Even with my minimal knowledge of the park, I drank in Glacier’s majesty from my compartment and fleetingly wished I could somehow get more connected with this train and this land. But I had another job and priorities. Little did I know what would transpire over the next few years.

As a freelance artist, I specialized in architectural concept drawings. One of those pieces -- a painting of a proposed rail station for Olympia, Washington -- had been featured by Amtrak on its 1993 national corporate calendar. I was hungry for more such commissions. One afternoon as I glanced over magazines and books in a client’s office, I saw Trains of Discovery: Western Railroads and the National Parks. With piqued interest, I flipped through the piece. Clearly, the author was neither a run of the mill rail fan nor a stuffy academician. Not only did he present stunning railroad art, but Alfred Runte set it in context. He then went on to interpret the relationship of railroads to the national landscape and showed what the art meant to that relationship. I had never read anything like it. Realizing the author resided right there in Seattle, I phoned him as soon as I got home.

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The "Call of the Mountains," a simple yet powerful approach to promoting Glacier. From the collection of Alfred Runte.

Over lunch a week later, I heard the story of his personal epiphany of these classic themes and their relevance to the postmodern world. In that conversation – and many to follow – Al articulated this unique relationship between passenger trains, art, and the national landscape. I had been toying with these same related ideas for years and he provided the connections. Drawing from his personal history as well as his collection of historic images, Al gave me plenty of material to review.

One of the most poignant examples was the cover art of a 1927 Great Northern brochure, The Call of the Mountains: Vacations in Glacier National Park. While railroad art to be sure, there was no train in sight. Rather, the artist presented a Blackfeet brave, arms raised in a salute to the mountain in front of him. We, as onlookers, view him from behind; we do not see his face, only what he sees.

I was struck by the simplicity and power of the piece. This was not just a marketing device to get people on a train to see the vanishing native Blackfeet. Far from it. Rather, the viewers (and that includes us) are being invited to figuratively stand behind this fellow and learn to see the land as he sees it: bearing the thumbprint of the Divine and worthy of our respect. And when we do, our arms will go up as do his.

Would railway publicists actually endorse this broader perspective? One only need read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s introduction to that brochure to see that they did. While the prose of that era might sound over the top for our ears, the message within echoed that of the art. It expressed exploring, knowing, and respecting Glacier, to say nothing of all our national landscapes whether or not they are formally protected, and the paradoxical role of the railroad in that quest.

These elements helped shape the theme of my rail art and it held my thoughts that rainy afternoon as I began the Glacier commission for Amtrak. A lot had happened with my work since that first meeting with Al. Indeed, Amtrak had commissioned several works and also paid a use fee for others I had painted for friends.

The paintings were used on posters, cards and menu covers, which strangely started disappearing from the dining cars.

I marveled at Amtrak’s enthusiasm for these paintings, drawings and graphic pieces because a lot had also happened culturally since Great Northern days. This was most certainly not 1910 or 1930 or even 1955. While Glacier Park and its great lodges looked essentially the same, the culture and values that surrounded them had changed dramatically. Even the railroad culture had shifted. (“We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto!”) Not that our predecessors exuded unending altruism and good will. Far from it (!) but the message of The Call of the Mountains was generally understood and embraced. That’s why Theodore Roosevelt was bully for the land and why Glacier and the Park Service existed. It’s why, in part, the Great Northern hired artists to celebrate that land and its people. Business was business, but that didn’t rule out corporate responsibility.

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“Partners in Preservation” by J. Craig Thorpe shows Amtrak’s Empire Builder slowing for a stop at Essex, MT. To the right is the Izaak Walton Inn, built in the 1930s as a hotel and eatery for Great Northern helper crews, now a popular resort destination.  18”x24” oil on canvas, commissioned in 2005 by Larry and Lynda Vielleux, former owners of the Inn, used by permission of the artist.

American Consumerism

With the post World War II boom, America spiraled into consumerism. Restrictions were lifted, money flowed and there were no boundaries. We consumed our goods, our land and even our parks as we demanded urban trappings pander to us everywhere, even in the wilderness. While there is certainly no one force behind complex cultural patterns, I like to say that – painting in large strokes, as it were – consumerism has blinded us. We no longer see beyond our special interests; we no longer see the effects of our behaviors; we no longer see our role as stewards; we no longer see possibilities…even of the visual. The pace, volume and fragmented imagery of the digital age overwhelm us. There is no aesthetic of possibility. As Al and I agree, we have gone over an “aesthetic cliff.”

So that’s where we are and I can’t wish it away or even paint it away. All I can do is marvel with gratitude at the irony that some people really do see the issues and that these commissions are here at all! My responsibility is to bring my perspectives and skills to the table where possible. So there I was, sketching a train along the Middle Fork of the Flathead to help celebrate the centennial of Glacier Park. By the time Cathy and I boarded the Empire Builder that night for the return to Seattle, I had several compositions to consider, the rain and the culture notwithstanding.

When the design team next met with Emmett Fremaux, Amtrak’s marketing vice president, we quickly settled on a scene looking east a mile or so beyond the Belton station where the railroad curves along the south bank of the river and pokes through a series of short tunnels. While the train was vital, the engines were not. Indeed, had I featured them in the foreground they would have become the focal point. What was important was the train itself; particularly the sightseer lounge car, which was highlighted by the morning sun. Central to Amtrak’s marketing, this is the mobile platform from which passengers would best view the grandeur of Glacier. Indeed, they view it together, not in isolation.

This community element of rail travel, taken for granted and even celebrated in past generations, is lost on today’s passengers and must be interpreted as an asset. With all these elements taken into consideration the art was an invitation to see the train as a worthy 21st century conveyance to and through this land. Further, because the railway followed the land forms and encouraged responsible visitation, the train also served as a protector of the land.

To meet these artistic ends I picked a station point from which to view this scene that was slightly above the train: not so high as to be disconnected yet not so close as to have the coaches overwhelm the landscape. The gorge, the tumbling river and the train followed a reverse curve back into the painting. The focal point would be the spire of Mount Saint Nicholas, though not literally visible from this vantage point. (My dog-eared artistic license has enabled a few geologic shifts over the years to meet compositional needs and this was no exception.)

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The cover of “Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks,” 5th Edition, by Alfred Runte, published by Roberts Rinehart, features J. Craig Thorpe’s “Guardians of the Legacy.”

However the art needed a human touch. I first tried the ubiquitous hikers waving at passengers aboard the Empire Builder. It worked, but it didn’t go far enough. I still remember Al’s enthusiastic suggestion of a park ranger on a horse or mule. That was it. Who knows whether or not a patrol ranger ever rode along that ridge in reality; he now did in my painting and the message of the art became unmistakable. Not only was the National Park Service the agency that protected this land, so did the railroad and the passenger train.

With the addition of the ranger, the title quickly fell into place: Guardians of the Legacy. A federal land agency and industrial transportation technology not only can function in harmony to guard the legacy that is our national landscapes, but they already do that. Far from being a nostalgic piece of art, Guardians is prophetic because it states what is true and then offers a window on the future…should anyone care to notice.

So for the centennial year of the park, 2010, Amtrak presented framed, full-sized giclee copies of the art to the National Park Service and the folks at Glacier. They produced key chains, magnets, coffee mugs, note cards, posters and menus for the Empire Builder’s dining cars. Whenever I rode the trains that year it was inevitable that passengers and crew alike would queue up with a stack of menus for me to sign. I loved those informal and spontaneous conversations and they gave me great opportunities to underscore the meaning of the painting and its implications. And people got it. They understood and even asked for more such art.

Amtrak also enabled Guardians to be featured as the cover art for the 5th edition of Al’s Trains of Discovery now with the subtitle Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks.

Interestingly, the production of that cover provided a vignette of what I am saying in this article. When the cover proofs came back, the designers had actually placed graphic elements over key parts of the painting and that included obscuring Mount Saint Nicholas with the title. This happened twice! The young designers could not read the art for what it was and could not see that the train led the eye back to the mountain just as in reality the train led visitors to the park.

Mere ignorance? Perhaps, but more likely it was a micro result of macro trends. Fortunately the publisher himself intervened. That was Rick Rinehart, the great-grandson of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Rick, who specializes in publishing for the national parks, immediately saw and corrected the errors. The final cover works as a captivating invitation to the book and the issues it addresses.

What of the other Glacier paintings?

The themes articulated here percolate through them all in one way or another and while each has its own story, the artistic decision making process is not all that different from what I just described. Several of these commissions deserve mention. The first of this informal series and the most popular, Glacier Morning shows the Empire Builder on Sheep Creek trestle across from the Goat Lick along the southern border of the park. The project was initiated by Gary Erford, then Amtrak’s product line manager for the train, and was commissioned and owned by Dr. A Louis Steplock. Lou and Chuck Mott, another friend interested in my work, were gracious enough to commission several originals used with permission by Amtrak for a variety of promotional pieces such as posters and menus. Even Larry and Lynda Vielleux, former owners of the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex commissioned a painting featuring the Builder.

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“Glacier Morning” by J. Craig Thorpe, catches Amtrak’s Empire Builder  on Sheep Creek Trestle, just east of Essex, MT.  Across the canyon is the “Goat Lick” where mountain goats are often seen licking salt from the rocks. The goat in the lower left harkens back to the days of “Rocky,” the logo mascot of the Great Northern and the park. 16”x20” oil on canvas, commissioned by Dr. A. Louis Steplock in 1996, used with permission of the artist.

Glacier Morning, along with a painting of the Pioneer at Multnomah Falls, Oregon, (which is no longer operating) was released in poster form as well as in a set of note cards given to sleeping car patrons. One key to its popularity is the presence of the mountain goat, a harkening back to the days of the Great Northern’s “Rocky” mascot logo.

The second most popular painting is Wilderness Threshold (main illustration above), which depicts the Builder arriving at East Glacier Park station on a brilliant summer morning. Commissioned and owned by Amtrak, this is the most inclusive of my Glacier paintings because all of the themes are depicted. The station, literally the threshold through which patrons enter the park, the Red bus and the Lodge invite the visitor off the train but still in the community of others who are there to experience the wonder of the park itself represented by the mountains catching the morning sun.

Amtrak then asked me to design a logo specifically for the Empire Builder (and a corresponding one for the Pioneer). To fulfill this commission I reprised the colors, circular logo, and font of the Great Northern and returned Rocky the Goat to prominence. Since we wanted to highlight Amtrak’s train and Glacier, Rocky was moved to the side to gaze down approvingly on a stylized Builder and the park.

This logo was used lavishly on mugs, wine glasses and labels, patches, shirts, jackets, caps, and combined with “Wilderness Threshold” on a menu cover. (They even made an illuminated drum-head sign, although I don’t believe it was ever used on the rear car of the train!) Once again art tied the train and the park together.


When it came time for the 70th and 75th anniversary of the Empire Builder, Chuck Mott graciously again commissioned paintings. The 75th anniversary of the train in 2004 was a major event, and the 18”x24” poster had the full train highlighted by the morning sun on Two Medicine trestle just east of the park, whose jagged peaks formed the background. The art was featured on the cover and inside the national timetable as well as on a booklet written for the celebration by noted passenger train historian Joe Welsh.

Empire Builder Logo
The Empire Builder logo created by J. Craig Thorpe, used with permission.

For the run from Chicago to Seattle on the actual anniversary, Amtrak added a former Great Northern full dome as well as its business car “Beech Grove” to the consist. Joe and I were invited to give informal talks during the journey and my son Dave joined me to help sell posters. I marveled again and again that here, in the early 21st century, a major railroad was seriously using art. That the relationship with me as the artist was appreciated by Gary Erford, Dan Engstrom, and others at Amtrak was underscored by the hand lettered sign posted on my compartment door: Empire Builder Art Department.

I was then, and still am, most grateful.

I must mention that the 75 years of the train’s history, and its connection to Glacier, was commemorated in a way unexpected by any of us on that notable journey.  We were running a bit late as we approached East Glacier Park that evening. While then-president David Gunn had given words of thanks to crowds at many stations along the line, no formal event was anticipated at Glacier and we planned only to exchange passengers. But as we slowed for the station stop we were greeted with a jaw-dropping sight.  Beside an unusually large crowd of well-wishers, there, facing the train, were parked row upon row of the historic Red buses, their uniformed drivers standing in salute to the Empire Builder.  David Gunn immediately saw the significance and rushed to the platform to give spontaneous and appropriate words of thanks.  

The train and the park have this historic bond that is epitomized by the Red buses, which connect all the hotels with major sites as well as meet all the trains. They enhance the park experience for anyone, but especially the train visitors.  The community experience established on the train is extended by riding the Reds through the park. 

Built by the White Motor Company in the late 1930s, they are unlike any other vehicle.  With the canvas roofs rolled back on a brilliant day, the crisp mountain air, the full-width seating, and even the drivers’ perpetually corny jokes, no passenger can fail to be caught up in the event.  It is simply the only way to see Glacier. When there was talk of taking the buses out of service due to structural issues, a great hue and cry went out.  The Ford Motor Company rose to the occasion and footed the bill for the restoration work on all 33 buses. And here they were, visual reminders of the historic and yet very present relationship between the park and the train.

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“Empire Builder 75th Anniversary Poster” by J. Craig Thorpe depicts the Empire Builder on Two Medicine trestle east of Glacier National Park.  24”x24” oil on canvas, commissioned by Charles Mott in 2004, used with permission of the artist.


However, this relationship between landscapes and trains is often overlooked in our digital haste and specialization.  It is so easy to label the connection as nostalgic and then dismiss it as irrelevant.  Rather, it speaks to, and actually models, exploring, knowing and respecting that unmatched resource that is our land. I mean all our land not just the so-called protected wilderness of our national parks, monuments and public lands.  How typically American it is to jettison the past as we careen our way into the future with little regard for seeing what actually worked and why.  Without presuming to be a panacea, here is a proven technology that by its very nature really addresses the complicated issues of preservation, community, mobility and a host of related matters.  In a “forest-and-trees” sort of thing, it’s so obvious that we miss it.  How simple and, one would think, how appealing to both sides of the political aisle. (But I digress…!)  

I paint the beauty of the land and the passenger train as two elements inextricably linked by their nature and their joint history, which is exemplified at Glacier. I am grateful that for over a decade Amtrak used my paintings, drawings and graphics to visualize the story for this age.

To my knowledge the Empire Builder is the only mainline passenger train that has been so wedded by art to the landscape in the last 60 years. The train takes you to and through the land like no other conveyance.  Art captures and commemorates that experience and sets it before the viewer as an invitation.  Yes it is an invitation to travel, but it is also an invitation to see. As long as these commissions keep coming, I will paint passenger trains in the national landscapes and all the more so now for this is a generation that has yet to truly understand the importance of that connection.

J. Craig Thorpe is a nationally recognized artist specializing in conceptual renderings and landscape paintings. He has been commissioned time and again by Amtrak to produce a variety of paintings, including the commemorative centennial paintings of Washington D.C. Union Station (2008) and Glacier National Park (2010). You can find more of his work on his website.

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Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this with us. One more example of the tremendous variety of subjects that can be inspired by our parks.

I was especially struck by this paragraph, though. It sums up an idea we may be in danger of losing in America -- one that goes far beyond trains.

However, this relationship between landscapes and trains is often overlooked in our digital haste and specialization. It is so easy to label the connection as nostalgic and then dismiss it as irrelevant. Rather, it speaks to, and actually models, exploring, knowing and respecting that unmatched resource that is our land. I mean all our land not just the so-called protected wilderness of our national parks, monuments and public lands. How typically American it is to jettison the past as we careen our way into the future with little regard for seeing what actually worked and why. Without presuming to be a panacea, here is a proven technology that by its very nature really addresses the complicated issues of preservation, community, mobility and a host of related matters. In a “forest-and-trees” sort of thing, it’s so obvious that we miss it. How simple and, one would think, how appealing to both sides of the political aisle.

An excellent article that blends two very appealing subjects: the great western national parks and scenic travel by train. Thanks for sharing the background information about some of your wonderful paintings!

Several years ago we took the Empire Builder from Seattle across to Chicago in the depth of December weather. Thanks to a fool, we were able to stop and see a bit of Glacier. The unscheduled stop came when he got drunk and punched out a conductor, and we stopped to turn him over at midnight, freezing weather, to local law enforcement officials. A stupid way to get banned from Amtrak for life for him, but for us the scenery was beautiful.

I second Jim's comment! A great piece to view and read (including Rick's coda).

This is my favorite Traveler article of all time. Thank you J. Craig Thorpe -- you write as sublimely as you paint!

Can we all just move to Glacier permantly??? Please?

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