It was cold this morning in the camper, the trusty thermometer read 40 degrees and I could feel condensation had built up from my breathing. Mabel slept in a tight ball, gone was her stretched frame from our time in the Southwest. I put on my hat and we went for a walk around the campground loop even venturing into the neighboring campsite which was closed. Bear warnings are posted but I think the closest I will get was last night’s quick flash of the bear’s tushie as it lumbered into the forest. Either way, I stay prepared and vigilante. Amazing the courage that a small can of pepper spray provides, foolish courage as I have yet to come across a bear Revenant style. Who knows if I would remember the steps to stop a charging bear.
The walk brings heat and I see the familiar blue of a Minnesota plate parked in front of a tent camping site. I stop and find a young couple from Golden Valley, a week into their own cross-country trip. Her brother goes to Hopkins High School and is on the Nordic ski team, but I don’t know the name. Its times like these I could use my wife’s help. She knows names and faces like I never can and when necessary, goes full Ellie-Mae to get the personal info on who we are talking with. The resulting spider web of connectedness provides color and clarity to future conversations requiring similar information.
We talk of my travels and their plans which prompt a small tinge of jealousy as they have a grand adventure in front of them while mine comes to a close. But I have so much to come home to and there is still excitement at what I might see. I wish them good luck and we share contact information as Mabel pulls to continue her walk.
Mabel goes back in the camper and I wander across the road to see Lake McDonald in the morning light. The fog, low, and close to the lake, hides the ripples and the surrounding mountains lack their crispness. I am alone, a small cabin claiming to be private property watches my progression along the rocky shore. As I move around a jetty I spy a couple in the distance, their curiosity at the morning lake the same as mine. They planned for the photo op as one of them sports a bright red jacket providing contrast to the grey lake, the grey morning, and the dark mountain backdrop. I retreat to the sparse pines and head back to camp.
Since the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed, Mabel and I get the opportunity to travel around the southern outskirts of the park to get to our east side campground. I’m not a fan of heights and I wonder what this mountainous route will provide in terms of scenery and elevation but am thinking it is probably mellower than the road through the park.
We set a course to Essex, at Glaciers southern tip, the snow-covered peaks providing intermittent views of what lies beyond. The countryside is beautiful, and we stop at a small creek by the side of the road. A freight train lumbers high above us and I wonder who laid the tracks and why they put them so high above the road. In the classic question of the chicken or the egg, what came first here, the tracks or the road? We wander the stream’s shoreline and I keep Mabel on a leash, no time to chase if she gets a wild idea or hears a critter scurrying through the woods. The rocks provide speed bumps for the passing stream, the incessant crash of water on stone is nature’s symphony, played for those with the time to stop. I have been lucky on this trip to take pictures that I am proud of but lament the ones I missed either from not knowing or not slowing to a stop.
Fall’s yellow, golden and playful in the morning sun, reminds me that this is the last hurrah before winter’s cold forces leaf to ground. Do the trees know what is ahead? Does their brightly colored plumage stir thoughts of dread like it does for us? Do the evergreens take pleasure that their dark contrast will remain in spite of winter’s icy breath? There is still time to enjoy the view, no use rushing the solitude of winter snow just yet.
The road climbs and descends in no rhythm and my ears fill and empty accordingly. There are spots where the road is precariously close to the edge and I keep my eyes forward hoping for relief after each bend. It doesn’t seem to come as this road was carved out of the mountainside by those unafraid of heights. We travel through moments of warm and cold depending upon our relation to the sun.
I pull off at a small rest stop which marks the Continental Divide and think of how Steinbeck straddled the imaginary marking that determines which ocean a river drains into. No celebration for us and the occasion which I thought would be more momentous passes without fanfare. A Washington Monument type obelisk showing the demarcation line stands near a statue at the Marias Pass that honors the accomplishments of John Frank Stevens. It was he that determined and convinced railroad leadership that a train could travel through the pass. An engineering marvel for the time I think.
We start climbing at the town of East Glacier and the road seems to narrow; maybe it’s my paranoia. It is warmer on the east side of the park, but the mountains are not so lush, the living trees, huddled in patches struggle to hold on. Dead trees stand tall, their sticklike appearance the remnants of a past forest fire. The craggy rock is dark and grey, more foreboding than the tree-lined cliffs I passed earlier in the day. Their boldface, whipped by wind and covered in snow, a prevention to natural life.
But there is beauty in Big Sky Country, evident as the eye travels east from the mountains. The “lower” trees are in different stages of sporadic fall color. Yellows mix with browns and greens pop from the mix. Normally the combination would be ugly, and the roughness reminds me of the latch hook rugs we worked on as kids or a bad sweater worn on The Cosby Show. But here, as they reach out to far-stretching plains that touch the sky, these colors look beautiful.
The few businesses that hug the road are closed for the season and I get a Walking Dead feel to the desolation. St Mary is at the head of the park’s east entrance and I spy an open grocery store as we pass through town. The selection was limited, and the employees seemed disenchanted as I perused the few aisles looking at $9 boxes of cereal and $6 pop tarts. I did pony up the asking price for a six pack of beer but decided to make do with the provisions in the cooler. Dinner wouldn’t be too exciting tonight.
After gassing up we passed through the park gates on a lowland road that approached the mountains. The visitor center could be seen in the distance and I pulled into the parking lot after traveling through the ranger gate. The St Mary’s campground was open, and we traveled up the road in search of it.
The standard campground welcome board greeted us but this one warned of a bear in the area. Written in red grease pencil were the days a bear had been spotted in the campground, maybe 10 in all and today is one of them. There was a prohibition of tent camping and canvas sided vehicles which made me happy I didn’t have one. I am not sure how much safety Arabella’s thin walls would provide in the event of a bear attack, but it had to be more peace of mind than a tent. We do the predatory circle loop looking for the right campsite and settle on one that provides a view of the sister campground that is closed for the season. It is primitive camping and I am happy with the $10 price, even if there is no water and a pit toilet is the only bathroom facilities.
It feels like I am back in the desert with the small scrubby trees and open spaces providing for long views of nothingness if not pointed in the direction of the mountains. There are only three other campers spread around the campground and none seemed to be outside. I set up camp mostly to make room for Mabel as I am heading out to explore. Dogs are not allowed on the trails at the National Parks, even when leashed, and I don’t want to hinder my exploration opportunities. The ranger tells me that Many Glacier, north of the visitor center, offers some beautiful scenery so I head to Babb and re-enter the park.
A steep hike takes me up to the Apikuni Falls, the path feeling very barren. Rock and struggle seem to be all around, and there isn’t much vegetation. I get winded although not as bad as I would have at the beginning of the trip. The daily Mabel walks, hikes and absence from cube life have gotten me in better shape. Weird to think when most of my day is spent sitting behind a steering wheel. The waterfall has carved out portions of the rock outcropping and I stop at a safe spot for the obligatory picture. A steeper more precarious hike would end at the waterfall base, but I decide I have seen enough and head back to the car.
Swiftcurrent Lake is beautiful, it's blue water a contrast to the surrounding mountains. I feel like I am standing in Switzerland or Germany especially when facing the Many Glacier Hotel. There doesn’t look to be much activity at the hotel and I wonder if it is closing for the season. Will Jack Torrance and family keep watch over the grounds this winter? If so, I hope Jack doesn’t become a dull boy.
The hotel seems stately as it watches from the lake’s base which stretches far from the shore. I wonder what lies beneath, what secrets this mountain oasis of blue holds in strict secrecy. The lake is surrounded by green evergreens providing an ill-defined shoreline and the late afternoon quiet mixed with the promise of a setting sun fills me with a calm that only nature can provide. I have said “this is paradise” many times on the trip and meant it at each mumble but there is something special about this place. What wonder was felt by those seeing the lake in its unadulterated state?
A hiking trail leads through the woods and around the lake’s western shore eventually stopping at Lake Josephine. It is similar to Swiftcurrent, maybe a little larger and minus the hotel but the same in feeling and natural abundance. I stumble across the couple from Golden Valley, not recognizing them at first as they take photographs. We talk as the quiet is disturbed by an outboard engine apparently being winterized by park workers. A small dock takes you onto the lake allowing for an intimate feel as you hover over its waves. There is a vulnerability walking over the lake even with no apparent danger. If one was to fall would the lake swallow you up?
If it was earlier and I was in a more ambitious state, I would have continued down the trail another two-plus miles to the Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint. I wanted to see the glaciers the park is named after, especially with the predictions of their demise but today wouldn’t be the day. I needed to get to the car and make sure Mabel was doing well in the camper at our campsite.
Mabel greeted me at the camper with enthusiasm and I walked her around the campground as the sun showed its intention on setting. It turns out that the couple from Dickey Lake were in the site next to ours. They had a neat retro style camper and by the looks of their site were experienced campers even remembering to bring a board game. It turns out the man was in the Navy as a signalman on a combat destroyer. He would use flags to signal the other ships, a position no longer filled. In his opinion, it would have prevented the recent Navy ship collision. His ship had 50 caliber machine guns, but they weren’t the best marksmen and he felt sorry for the pilots pulling the targets. Apparently, it was a risk of life and limb each time they took off.
I noticed the campground filling and could sense the apprehension with the board’s bear notice. Most of the campers were lacking a hard-shelled unit and I wondered their plans. Would they disregard the notice and tent camp, or would it be a night cramped in their cars? Dinner was beer and pretzel rods and I finished the night talking to Sheri while watching the mountains darken from the passing light.
Thankful tonight for East Glacier’s beauty and Arabella’s hardened exterior.