Road Trip! Friday evening, August 26 and Saturday, August 27, 2011-Glacier National Park

I’m hurrying to put up a tent before the sun sets beneath the Rocky Mountains because I know nighttime means I will be required to donate blood to the local Mosquito Bank and my core temperature will go down faster than a J Street hooker, but I’m having a little argument with my son about the formless, yet somehow…complex network of poles, loops and straps that my home for tonight is at the moment, and I know I’m losing the race against time.  So we scurry to and fro like a couple of squirrels, or idiots, trying to fit pole A into Loop B while running hook C through ringlet D, and I’m pretty sure it’s wrong, because the tent is still lying lifeless on the ground with a big bow in it like some kind of dead hunchback, and it refuses to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of our efforts, so we start over again, only this time with renewed ferocity and anger, but with no more adult leadership or direction than Congress.

After only 20 minutes of this, the mosquitoes are out.  I can tell that because Jonathan is like the canary in the coal mine and has a complaint (“I’m losing blood…fast”), and because I can see them, and they’re the B52s of their breed, big bad ass suckers with wingspans like a dragonfly and noses like a hypodermic needle, and they are in a dive bomber’s flight formation and are barrel rolling into Jonathan’s arms and legs with a ferocity that takes us by surprise, but I’m just glad they’re going after him and not me for the moment.  I can see my breath and I can’t feel my toes, and I’m amazed that my shorts, T shirt, and flip flops are inappropriate gear for a night outdoors a mile up in the mountains.  Finally the tent is up and we throw our contents into it and decide our best option is to retreat into town for a little sustenance like the defeated wusses we are, but before we do we stop at the KOA Kampground registration desk, which is manned by an unpleasant, yet somehow grotesque caricature of a woman, who is sporting a scowl, and “No” is already forming on her lips before I ask my first question.

“Can we buy some firewood?”

“NO.  Normally that’s $6.50, but we are not allowing fires today.”

Now, I can understand why wood costs so much up here, since it has to be imported from a forest a full stone’s throw away, but I can’t understand why KOA has decided that there can’t be any fires, since the National Forest Service has no such restriction and I can’t remember the last time I read a headline that said “Huge Wildfire Sweeps Montana From Its Weenie Roast Source”, which is probably why everyone else just ignored the rule, bought their firewood in town, and were merrily igniting marshmallows all over the Koncentration Kamp.  I point this out to her, and she immediately calls Security (yes, you need that in a playground like this) to have the offending bonfires extinguished, and happily tells me that they’ll be pouring water over them in minutes.  Now I feel bad, because I’m like the Grinch who Stole the Kampfires, but I still have to deal with her, so I bite my tongue.

“Well, how about the WiFi? What’s the password?”

She seems happy to answer.  “NO WiFi, it hasn’t worked since the storm.”

OK, I can see why the WifI didn’t work, but doesn’t a “storm” include water, which would make combustibles damp, which would mean fires aren’t likely to spread…oh, never mind!

“We’d like to enjoy the hot tub.  How about that?”

“Yes, you can, but it closes in 15 minutes., so may I suggest a BBQ dinner at poolside for only $12 a plate?”

NO you can’t.  So now we try to use the facilities, which are full, and I’m amazed by this, since after all they’ve installed 6 toilets for what is no more than 500 families, tops, so we have to wait, writhing in intestinal agony, for a stall to open.

After a dinner in town, we decide that the malfunctioning WiFi, closed pool, and non-existent rec room facilities give us no reason to remain conscious here, so we try to go to sleep, which is hard for me to do, since we have only one air mattress for two people, and I get the short end of the stick tonight.  Finally I writhe around enough to get into a quasi comfortable fetal position when, around midnight, a band starts up, which is a little surprising, since we’re near a town of about 12 souls on the edge of a national forest and 100 miles from the town of Lame Deer (look it up), but I guess bad groups play to small crowds, and these guys were very, very bad indeed.  But I’m lucky because this disjointed cacophony, which has no discernible rhythm, harmony, beat, or soul, only continues until 3 AM, at which point I can concentrate on staying warm, because it’s now in the 40’s.  So the next morning, after one or two good hours of sleep, we leave as fast as we can and head into Glacier National Park.

We stop at the main gate and pay $25 to enter (which I can understand since we need to supervise the bears properly, and everyone knows that takes money), and I ask where I can get some coffee and breakfast.  I think I need this because my head is throbbing like a bass drum and I’ve gone almost 24 hours without caffeine.  The Ranger, who seems to have the situational awareness of a dimwitted sloth, tells me there’s a restaurant 6 miles up the road, but fails to mention it is a stealth restaurant with no sign on the road, which is what you do when you’re not really there to feed people and make money but rather just to provide employment for vagrants and imbeciles, so I drive right by it without a clue.

I’m driving along, and other than my splitting headache, thinning wallet, growling stomach, and lack of sleep, I’m enjoying the scenery, so I decide I’ll listen to some tunes.  I can’t find what I want on the Sirius radio, which has only about 1000 channels, and that reminds me that my son never did make me that CD he promised for my birthday since he said two months wasn’t enough time to do it, which is hard for me to understand, since I managed to arrange for the purchase of a car from 6,000 miles away and am paying for this trip as his graduation present, and pretty soon I’m pissed at him because I’m tired and stressed, and after he criticizes my driving we have some words.

The words are bad enough that I won’t repeat them here, because his Mom is reading this, but suffice it to say that the conversation ended with my son saying he wanted out of the car and I obliged him, right there on the side of the road next to the St. Mary’s Falls Trailhead.  I continue on up the mountain to Logan’s Pass and, finding out they have no food or coffee, decide maybe it’s best that I find my son, who left the car and headed into the forest with nothing more than a T shirt and some shorts, though I’m hoping that his Day Glow orange Gator cap will scare off even the most color blind dangerous critters in addition to its traditional role as an insult to graduates of quality universities everywhere.  After about an hour of searching up and down the road I can’t find him, so I head to the Ranger Station and they’re trying to understand how I could have left my son on the side of the road with no water, food, map, or whatever else a good Boy Scout should have, and finally they say they’ll put out an APB for him.  I promise them I’ll stay put at the St Mary’s Falls Trailhead, and they believe me, which they shouldn’t have, because by now I’m panicking and I’m sure my son’s last thoughts before he’s eaten by a cougar are that he hates his Dad, so I drive up and down looking for him until I find him hiking up the road, sweating profusely, but not dismembered as I feared, and I casually ask where he’s been, as if I hadn’t been worried at all.  He’s tells me without any sign of rancor (much to his credit) that he’s been enjoying the trip without me, thank you very much, and completed about a 5-mile hike that included two waterfalls and an 1,800 foot vertical descent.

Now I’m pissed at him again, because I missed out on that, but, by the time we get to Logan’s Pass, I’ve forgotten it, because we are driving on the Road to the Sun, and it is arguably the most spectacular stretch of driving in the world, up there in my opinion with such legends as the Pacific Coast Highway, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, or the Highway to Hana.  We have the top down, and we’re motoring up switchbacks and loops, a thousand foot drop to one side, a steep glaciated mountain to the other, and the wide valley and purple mountain ranges beyond infinity and all sense of space, because the distances are so vast they’re unimaginable, and soon I’ve got a smile on my face.  We drive past splashing cascades of crystal pure ice water, bighorn sheep and Mountain Goats grazing in pastoral splendor on high alpine slopes, and towering jagged crags and spires of massive granite, a dizzying ascent that crests at Logan’s Pass, where we dismount.  The view from here is stunning.  It’s inspired.  It makes me want to kiss the ground and thank God for it.  There is an enormous empty void between us and the next white-capped mountain range miles away, and you can see glaciers snaking down the passes between the peaks.  From the Welcome Center at 7600 feet you are still looking way up at mountains two miles high, and the scudding shadows of clouds passing across the variegated faces of the steep slopes creates a moving tableau of color and light.  The distance and vastness of this place is simply breathtaking.

We take the Hidden Lake Trail past the Center, which is 1.5 miles of the best hiking in the world, past the fields full of wildflowers bursting with an artist’s palette of colors, transitioning into grassy green slopes sparsely forested with tall conifers, and always the huge sharp towers of rock looking down at us mere mortals, as we make our way first over a series of paved, then planked, then dirt trails to a high alpine meadow, which ends at the edge of a fractured shelf of metamorphic rock, and the space empties out from under you to a green valley 1000 feet below and an infinite cornflower blue sky above, and you think you’ve seen heaven on earth, because there in the shadow of the icy mountains wraps the Hidden Lake, its surface glimmering in the afternoon sun, and it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.

We lay down on a shelf of rock well past the “Do Not Enter” signs that mark the end of the trail, and soon the warm sun lulls us to sleep.  I wake up to Jonathan whispering to me, “Dad, one of them is behind us,” and as I rouse myself I can see he is talking about a snow white Mountain Goat that is casually munching on the bushes just a few feet over my head and right behind me.  We get up, and to our amazement the animal allows us a few pictures before slowly ambling off to less populated feeding grounds, and it’s one of those moments that you know is a once in a lifetime experience.

We make our way back, hopping from stone to stone across a gurgling stream fed by the dying glaciers (there are only 25 left and the estimates are there will be none in just 8 years), across a small ice field, and descend a further 500 vertical feet to our car.  I feel exhilarated, and I can’t wait to see more.

We are on the sharp edge of the Continental Divide, and the road down to West Glacier is not quite as scenic as the road up, but it’s just as dangerous and fun to drive.  It reminds me of some European mountain drives, in that it has cut stone abutments instead of guardrails on the vertical cliff side, only it has no cities or towns to mark the progress of man, and my thoughts soon turn to what it must have been like 200 years ago when the Mountain Men first trapped and travelled through here, and what a wild and woolly and lonesome and wonderful experience that must have been.  Even now, it is a remote place, and its ethereal beauty belies a cold and foreboding danger, which is why the park is closed most of the year.  Then, they would have contended with hostile men and wild animals as well, but to have been a part of that history!  The freedom of it!  To ride alone through these high mountains and witness what no one else on earth could even dream of, to look up into the night sky as I did at KOA and be able to clearly see the Milky Way and even make out the elusive and faint fourth star in the cup of the Little Dipper against a deep purple night sky and wake up in the morning to a mist creeping across MacDonald Lake against the backdrop of those jagged peaks…it seems like an incredibly romantic, yet uncomfortable and lonely existence, and somehow it oddly appeals to me.

Soon enough, too soon really, we’re down the mountain, but not before we spy a pair of bighorn sheep standing like sentinels on the very edge of a cliff face 100 feet over our car.  By the time we get to West Glacier, a small village at the edge of the park, we’ve had sensory and physical overload and are exhausted.

We spend the night at the Glacier Highlands Resort, which is a little bit of a misnomer, since it has no air conditioning or Internet, although it does charge resort like prices (actually $133/night), which is customary up here, where even our rather ordinary dinner at the West Glacier restaurant cost over $30, and like a fool I ordered fried shrimp which of course were all fried breading and my son got a pasta dish with stale toast.  Not good, even though, once again, recommended by trip Advisor.

So Jonathan has found us some other accommodations and I hope they’re better.  We have a trip back to the park tomorrow, though…see you then!

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