I am driving our little Mustang hard up the switchbacks, loops, blind curves, tunnels, and decreasing radius turns that define the Road to the Sun, and she’s willingly asking for more in spite of the rare air she finds herself in.
The sun is out, it’s 75 degrees, the top is down, and we have “Born in the USA” hammering in our ears, and Springsteen would be jealous if he could see what he’s missing up here, because it’s so beautiful you gasp as you round each new cliff face way too close to the log guardrails, but you don’t care because this is about pure driving bliss, and I’ve got high octane Southern blood that’s genetically engineered for just this purpose, and this trip gives me a visceral thrill like (almost) no other. I look up at the sky for a moment, glance at the sun drenched snow on the mountaintops and the green hills below covered in Western hemlocks, and laugh like a fool. I’m singing along with Bruce, and it feels like freedom, and if you can fall in love with a road I’m head over heels for this beauty, and if you can’t understand that feeling then your either not a man or you’re a city dweller in need of a recharge which you can’t find short of 300 horsepower and a twisty high altitude blacktop.
We hit Logan’s Pass and start our descent toward St Mary’s Trailhead and we’re reaching the limit of adhesion for the tires. The suspension has a nice forgiving understeer so it’s easy to push to the limit without fear of breaking the back end loose or plowing too hard on the front, but still I’m working the brakes hard and there’s a little bit of pedal fade by the time I reach our destination. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a manual gearbox!
We gear up for our hike and begin a sharp descent on a well-marked and tended trail to a Y. Yesterday, Jonathan took the southeast fork of this path and saw two waterfalls, so today for something new we’re heading in a different direction to Barring Falls. There are lots of people on the trail, but even so, I try to make as much noise as possible, having just read about not one, but two incidents where people were mauled by grizzlies, and I don’t want to be an ursine treat for Yogi, so I’m trying to talk to my son, but it’s like conversing with a deaf mute, which is normal for him, and I just hope that the grizzly recognizes that the babbling older human is not as tasty or dangerous as the brooding and silent younger one. My son reminds me that he doesn’t have to be faster than a bear, just faster than me, to which I respond “I have a knife for protection”, which is technically true, but I have a feeling that a set of six inch bear claws and fangs trumps a 3 ½ inch folding Buck knife handled by an old Boy Scout with a gimpy leg. In the event, we don’t see anything more dangerous than a chipmunk, and soon we are at the falls.
Barring is a pretty, thirty-something foot waterfall that cascades into a kind of grotto-like area very close to the shore of St. Mary Lake, which we’ve been skirting for some time now. It’s nice and cool here, and I enjoy the misty spray for a moment before I snap a picture of Jonathan near the base of the fall. I opt to walk out on a ledge that skirts a huge boulder on the opposite side for my picture, and then can’t figure out how I actually got in this tight spot upright, so I must crawl back down in the most undignified way, and I’m pretty sure the only shots Jonathan took of me on that set of falls was of me groveling on my hands and knees.
We decide to continue on to Sun Point, which is 1.7 miles away, so we cross the log bridge at Barring and head northwest along the lakeshore. It’s hot now, but bearable, and we can see the lake’s shimmering surface through the branches of the red cedars as we progress. Sun Point itself is a rocky peninsula with a bronze plaque at the summit that points to the various peaks in the area. We mount it and take a few pictures, and the view is impressive. We have the long view of the lake in two opposite directions, and of course the mountains loom all around. The water varies from olive green to a deep royal blue but is clear as glass and I would not hesitate to drink from it. The rock we’re standing on is bare save for a few dry bushes and three forlorn dead trees, their white branches twisted into skeletal fingers reaching to the sky. We take a few minutes for a water break and then decide that we must christen Sun Point in manly fashion, so we stand near the edge and urinate in unison, and it’s not until I’m nearly done that I notice a couple on the trail below us, and I hope they didn’t look up.
We start back and some idiot decided it would be a great idea to see if we can make it back in 30 minutes. Now, it’s 1.7 miles back, so that may not sound very fast to you, but we’re trying to cover pretty rough terrain and 700 vertical feet on bad knees, and I’m not exactly Mr. Universe to begin with, so to call this ambitious would be a gross understatement, but Jonathan thinks I have a great idea, and soon we’re off, literally running back down the trail. Pretty soon the running stops, partly because now the trail is going uphill, and partly because I’m about to vomit, but I can see we’re already behind schedule when we reach the falls.
We keep trudging on as fast as we can, and of course people are looking at us like we’re fools or lunatics or both, and the Japanese tourists actually clear the path in dismay when they see us approaching, huffing and puffing like freight trains, but we don’t care, because we have something to prove, or maybe I should say I have something to prove, which is to beat my son to the top, even though I’m giving up 33 years to him and have enough metal in my knee to build a shop vise. But I know two things: one, he has also had recent knee surgery, and two, he is currently twenty paces behind me, bent over gasping for air, with his hands on his knees and begging for mercy.
OK, maybe that last part isn’t true, but he IS behind, and I ask him repeatedly if he’s OK, and he croaks out an affirmative, but everyone knows that sun stroke can make you hallucinate, and apparently Jonathan is deluded enough to think he can beat his old man, but he doesn’t, because with an incredible burst of power and sprinting ability, I dashed to the trailhead sign for the last three feet of the race and laid my hands on it in front of him. Now, keep in mind that he’s reading this, so in advance I want to say that whatever he says in rebuttal is completely false, but I can’t blame him for defending himself, because I too would feel completely emasculated and humiliated if the same thing had happened to me, even if I WERE carrying a backpack full of water.
Now we head back toward our hotel du jour, which is the Super 8 in Whitefish, but on the way down the mountain we stop for a picture from an arched opening in the side of a tunnel, and on returning to our parked car, a damsel in distress asks me for help. OK, it’s actually an old lady in distress, but she says her brakes have failed, which isn’t good going down a mountain, unless I’m badly mistaken, so I look at her car and it seems they’ve cooled off and are OK for now, though still I’m amazed she could have possibly ever had any trouble because she’s driving a Toyota and everyone knows that Japanese cars never break for any reason, right? Still, she seems stressed, so I drive her car down the mountain for her, and on the way, she tells me proudly that she has only replaced the brakes on her car twice, which is proof enough for me that women should not be issued Driver’s Licenses but rather Permits which only give them the privilege when accompanied by a manly man or a Southern gentleman, but then I repeat myself.
Anyway, we get to a safe place and she offers me a bottle of wine which at first I refuse, but when she tells me she’s carrying cases in the trunk for her friends and I realize I have nothing to drink tonight I accept, and to my surprise she produces a pretty nice bottle of Chianti, and thank you very much, Peggy…now go buy American next time, and find a husband!
We’re almost to our inn, but Jonathan has decided that maybe his car needs a bath, since the front of the car is now a mass of brownish-yellow insect extract, and we proceed to wash it, and get almost all of it of when my son decides he’s done. I point out to him that in reality there are still traces of bog goo on the car, but when I tell him this I can tell from his eyes that he’s not listening to me, but is living on a river called “De Nile” where acid doesn’t eat through paint and your Dad’s 25 years of automotive experience are trumped by his stubborn impudence.
Now, I can understand why he didn’t want to finish the job, because after all it was costing him fully 6 quarters every time we needed to feed the Car Wash machine, and he was already in it for maybe 6 bucks, but a new paint job costs about 500 times that, and when it’s done two weeks after you dropped the car off you won’t be satisfied with the result, and then you’ll have to call your Dad, who will have no mercy and say simply, “I told you so”, and will not try to pull any strings at Ford to get him any help, partly because he simply has no pull at Ford, really, having invested only 25 years of his life in it and having achieved the grade level of “bum”, but partly because there are some life’s lessons that you simply have to learn the hard way when you won’t listen to your elders, and some people won’t take care of things they are given anywhere near as well as things they must buy for themselves, and I’m afraid this is one of those times. Now, I feel much better having gotten that off of my chest, and will finish by saying, “enjoy the car, Jonathan, because the next one you must buy yourself, and I hope you take better care of it.”
Now, as I was saying, we arrive at our Luxury Super 8 hotel in our still bug-streaked car and check in with an enormous woman sporting a pierced lip and a frown, and order up a clam and bacon pizza from Second Street Pizza, and it was a darn good pie, probably the best available on a Sunday night between Flathead Lake and British Columbia, $25 delivered including tip, and it went very well with a nice red wine courtesy of my dear friend Peggy. For the first time on our trip, we enjoy the hot tub, and it’s good for my weary bones, as even the process of getting in and out of the car now makes me bray like a wounded donkey, much to the delight of Jonathan, who I suspect also laughs through the part in Old Yeller when the dog bites the dust.
Our room A/C is ineffectual yet noisy, but when I wake up in the morning it seems to have cooled the room down quite a bit, which surprises me a bit until Jonathan points out it’s 40 degrees outside. I go downstairs for a breakfast of stale muffins and nasty coffee, which you must balance on a tray and bring back to your room, since the hotel hasn’t bothered with such luxuries as chairs and tables, or a dining room, for that matter, and I check out with the huge but surly clerk, who’s still there, and that may explain a lot about her attitude all by itself.
Tomorrow, we drive 12 hours…again. See ya’!